26 October 2023
‘What was your first ever music concert or gig?’
It’s a common icebreaker whenever there is a lull in conversation with someone new. University of South Australia popular music scholar Dr Sam Whiting believes there’s a much better question that might reveal more about a person and evoke specific memories – ‘what was your favourite gig?’.
“When most music lovers are asked that question, they will describe a festival or large stadium concert and they will talk about the multi-sensory extravaganza of light and sound, the set list, the spectacle. But the local gig or the more intimate performance in a small bar often brings about a different experience,” he says.
“People often recount the space itself, how they moved through it, the volume of the crowd, the energy of the performance, the banter, the sweat, the booze, the sensation, the atmosphere – the vibe. These experiences are the everyday interactions with live music that build connection, contribution and belonging.”
Dr Whiting has explored the vibrancy and precarity of small live music venues in his new book Small Venues. Throughout the history of popular music, the careers of many culturally significant musicians began on the small stages of local bars, clubs, pubs and discotheques.
The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the New York punk, hardcore and post punk scenes were born in iconic venues: The Cavern in England, New York City’s the Marquee and CBGB respectively. Each place has become a pivotal landmark in the narrative of popular music.
But, as Dr Whiting explains, very few small live music venues survive.
“Small live music venues are essential to maintaining a vibrant live music culture and we know from cities around the world – including here in Adelaide – that small venues facilitate social connection and grassroots culture,” he says.
“Because these cultural spaces are so niche, they are also precarious business operations that must achieve a balance between financial viability and leading-edge creativity.”
Researched and written over 10 years and taking in Dr Whiting’s first-hand experience in the music scenes of Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, Small Venues expands on these to explore the struggles of live music venues due to the financial and social disruptors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Australia’s peak recording industry group, Australasian Performing Right Association and Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (APRA/AMCOS), recently released a national report which shows one-third of the country’s licensed live music venues or stages have closed since the start of 2020.
“Digital disruption, the advent of the streaming era, gentrification, a cost-of-living crisis, expensive public liability insurance and generational shifts in cultural consumption habits have all changed the way audiences engage with live music and also increased the risks associated with running venues,” Dr Whiting says.
“Despite the hardships of the industry, Australian cities are still full of culturally vibrant and rich live music venues that provide connection and contributions to both patrons and musicians. Live music contributes to greater social cohesion and grassroots music venues are also community wealth builders, operating as cornerstones of our cultural economy.”
Small Venues singles out a few iconic live music venues in Australia including The Grace Emily Hotel in Adelaide as well as The Old Bar and The Tote in Melbourne’s inner north. Well known acts including Paul Kelly, Cold Chisel, Courtney Barnett and The White Stripes have all graced at least one of their stages.
An institution in the narrative of Melbourne’s live music scene, The Tote, faced uncertainty earlier this year when the historic venue was put up for sale. Following a fierce community campaign, its future was secured after new owners agreed to put the building in a trust – a first for live music in Australia.
“The success of the campaign to save The Tote Hotel, which resulted in $3 million raised by the public, may be a major victory for Melbourne’s grassroots music community, but depending on who you ask, it is also both a policy failure and a strange perversion of charity,” Dr Whiting says.
“While it is excellent to see such a landmark saved by the community, is it fair that they were asked to bail out the former owners to the tune of $3 million? What precedent does it set? Certainly, the concept of placing The Tote in a charitable trust is a ground-breaking move that could lead to more successful campaigns.”
Dr Whiting will launch Small Venues in conversation with Dr Ian Rogers from RMIT University at The Old Bar in Fitzroy, Victoria, on Saturday 18 November. More information.
Melissa Keogh, UniSA Media Team M: +61 403 659 154 E: [email protected]
Researcher: Dr Sam Whiting M: +61 422 746 340 E: [email protected]