Pub owners sound alarm on live music death

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It's a Wednesday night and one of Australia's iconic live music pubs in Melbourne's north is empty.


Trade at The Tote Hotel at Collingwood should be bustling but the doors are closed.

Just two years ago, mere conversations between strangers in bathrooms were sometimes enough to prompt passers-by to tread the venue's beer-soaked floors in search of its band room.

But not now.

Owner Jon Perring says word of mouth is no longer enough to make it worth opening on weekdays.

On weekends things maybe come close to resembling what they used to be but that's all.

"Without pub gigs, you just wouldn't have a music scene," Perring says of the Tote's now limited offerings.

"All venues are important because that's essentially our culture. These are the places where our culture is practised."

In Sydney's inner-west, where The Bridge Hotel is one of a few venues left with a 24-hour licence, owner Richard Keogh laments similar woes.

Fifteen-hour raves still help keep his Balmain establishment alive but things aren't quite what they used to be.

He remembers a time when patrons could enjoy a full meal at 3am.

"Now there's only McDonald's," Keogh says.

Some worthy names have performed at the Tote over its four decades of operating: Midnight Oil, Men at Work, Archie Roach, Paul Kelly, The White Stripes, Courtney Barnett.

Highlights of the The Bridge's bill are equally impressive: Neil Finn, Mark Seymour, Melissa Etheridge, Tex Perkins, Dragon, Alex Lloyd, Christine Anu.

Twelve months after COVID-19 lockdowns ended in Sydney and Melbourne, though, pub owners like Perring and Keough are worried they'll never see the old nightlife again.

Sydney was also subject to strict lockout laws for a period from 2014 and although they've since been lifted, they've left a legacy alongside the impact of the pandemic.

Broadway's Lansdowne Hotel and band Venue 505 at Surry Hills recently announced they were ceasing live music performances. Although the former was saved, Venue 505 went ahead and closed.

Keogh worries other pubs and venues won't be as lucky as the Lansdowne.

"People have great memories in places like music venues because they've had some wonderful experiences there," he tells AAP.

"When pubs close down, memories close down with them.

"Live music has been ignored by governments over the years but it represents such a big part of the economy. It brings so many people."

He says a city like Sydney should have a 24-hour economy because a lot of people don't work nine to five.

The NSW government introduced reforms in 2020 to promote live pub music. They included licence extensions and the removal of several regulations.

The following year, it ushered in a 24-hour Economy Strategy for the future of nightlife.

The City of Melbourne's Night-Time Economy Advisory Committee oversees a similar initiative.

The Victorian government has been a major investor in the city's cultural and fiscal infrastructure but acknowledges the boundaries that councils have, says chair of the committee Penny Miles.

The City of Melbourne covers the CBD and suburbs like Kensington, Carlton and South Yarra.

The Tote sits just outside its border at Collingwood, in the City of Yarra, whose council did have a night-time economy strategy but only between 2014 and 2018.

Miles hopes more can be done for communities outside Melbourne city, especially live music venues.

"We're not just talking about our residents," she says.

"We've been a cultivator for many years, different bands and groups. It's a real jewel in the crown of culture for this country."

Perring agrees there needs to be real action at state level to promote live venues across Victoria but reckons he has yet to see the committee influence councils.

"There used to be the Live Music Roundtable," he says, referring to another, bygone body established to support the industry.

"For whatever reason, it ceased to exist at the beginning of the pandemic and it's gone now.

"There's no real forum, no long-term thinking or long-term strategy about how live music infrastructure is maintained or really any sort of cultural space."

Keogh has seen Sydney change from life before the lockouts to the state government and councils developing long-term strategies like allowing outdoor seating post-COVID.

The effect of the 24-hour Economy Strategy has been tangible for him - something Perring is also hoping to see.

"It's great that live music is back," Keogh says.

"That can only be good for everyone."

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