It’s clear, the government doesn’t understand the plight of Melbourne’s live music venues

It’s clear, the government doesn’t understand the plight of Melbourne’s live music venues

Photo by Ian Laidlaw
Words by Tom Parker

We dive deep into this mounting issue.

I recently spoke to the owner of The Bendigo Hotel, Guy Palermo, about the status of Melbourne’s live music venues and, to put it honestly, it didn’t make for kind reading.

To that point, there had been no initiative announced by the government to specifically aid Melbourne’s live music venues. To this point, there still has been nothing put in place.

While the recent $40 million announcement initially had us excited that there would be some relief, after spending the better part of a day understanding it, it appeared there were a few issues.

First off, the statement came across as a bit confusing. Whether it was unintentional or as a result of a misunderstanding of what our “pubs, clubs and restaurants” are going through, to cushion the announcement with the words “much-loved” in the headline says a lot about where the government is at at the moment.

It’s the eligibility of this support fund that doesn’t sit right. To quote the press release, “the Victorian Government has today announced that $40 million from the Business Support Fund (being the $500 million fund that supports small businesses) will be available to licenced venues with an individual annual turnover of up to $50 million, but who are not covered by the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme, for rent relief”.

It took a bit to decipher this statement, and even after contacting a source from the State Government to help me understand, they admitted it could have been worded better.

So who is eligible then? Well, theoretically, smaller venues who are part of a larger conglomerate (i.e. an overarching company that owns a number of venues) may be applicable, as long as they have under $50 million in individual annual turnover. Independent venues who fall under $50 million in annual turnover may not be applicable as they instead fall under the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme, which has its own eligibility criteria.

ALH Group could be one example – a large national corporation that, quote-unquote, specialises in “electronic gaming, sports bars, bistros, restaurants, cafes, retail liquor, accommodation, nightclubs and wagering”. Local venues below this umbrella include the Albion Charles Hotel in Northcote, Doncaster’s Shoppingtown Hotel as well as the Moreland Hotel.

To label the announcement as one that will support “much-loved” venues and then potentially exclude a proportion of them in favour of venues swimming in gold, came across as a bit misleading.

Speaking to Lucie Ribush, a spokesperson for Revolver Upstairs, a venue severely impacted by the current crisis, the government has to understand the financial scale behind running these venues.

“Venues pay more taxes either directly or indirectly than any other sector of the economy,” Ribush says. “These taxes include the wine equalisation tax, alcohol excise, liquor license fees, land tax, payroll tax, fire levies as well as company tax. Venues are also responsible for paying OneMusic music copyright licenses – nightclub venues particularly face copyright licence fees amongst the highest in the world which, even prior to the pandemic, were putting a strain on their ability to remain open.”

That on top of the rent, insurance, utilities and staff wages, among other intricacies, and you have one of the most expensive practices in business – it’s not done for the money, it’s done for the love.

“Due to ever-increasing compliance requirements and costs, most venues operate on razor-thin margins and most only have a couple of weeks latitude to survive a crisis. Whilst some measures such as the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme, liquor licence refund, payroll tax refund and JobKeeper go some way to assisting, the industry needs a much larger bailout package or many, many venues will go bankrupt and close either during this shutdown or in the immediate months after,” Ribush continues.

“Australian entertainment venues, be they concert halls, large live music venues, bars and clubs or your local pub contribute immeasurably to Australia’s culture and unity. Venues are the heartbeat of our incredible music industry. Melbourne venues contribute huge figures to our night-time economy employing tens of thousands of staff as well as countless contractors including musicians, DJs and sound techs.”

Ribush is talking about a $1.7 billion contribution to the economy, and that’s just the tangibilities. More importantly, music is an emotional, physical and psychological engine that provides people pleasure and an escape.

For longtime Melbourne venue booker and promoter, Paris Martine, the $40 million announcement fails to understand that live music venues don’t just operate for themselves, but for a larger portion of people who call the music industry their home.

“One of the fundamental things being left out of these conversations is that live bands and promoters operate their businesses within our businesses. We provide the space, the production, marketing and ticketing support for the vast number of bands in this country, if we collapse that whole economy collapses from artist development to the great pool of live performance royalties and all the jobs along the way. Many do not understand this.”

While it all seems doom and gloom, Martine informs us that there are a few proposals that have been put before the government.

“I don’t want to say the situation is hopeless, there is a couple of great proposals currently under consideration at State and Federal level,” Martine says. “There’s a package that will help music venues survive and will also help us climb back during the recovery period. Let’s hope live music and this city’s amazing nightlife is given equal priority.”

But for Ribush, things have reached desperation point.

“The idea of a Melbourne without our iconic music venues is incomprehensible to many who love our music and arts culture, but without an urgent government bailout and stimulus, it’s a very real prospect,” she says.

“People come together at Revolver Upstairs over a meal, an exhibition, a drink on the couches, in front of a live band or DJ, or on the dance floor and have done so for 23 years but that may not be our future unless the government acts now.”

What’s next, Mr Andrews? I think the formula is pretty clear.

You can play your part in saving live music venues by signing Guy Palermo’s petition here. Follow Revolver Upstairs on Instagram and Facebook to find out more about how you can support their efforts to stay alive.

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