The Changing State of Music Venues In Australia

The Hi-fi as we know it is dead, but not buried.

Since being placed into administration in February, the venues in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne have all been sold and are now named aptly after their new owner/salvation: Max Watt’s Operating Pty Ltd.

The Chief Executive Greg Bourke told “We’ve been able to save these venues from certain closure and believe there is a bright future given a professional management regime, recent failures of venues across Australia are evidence of the poor returns for venues — now is the time for a new business model.”

This of course opens up a wider question facing the Australian music industry; how to better implement cohesion between venues, the public and musicians in a way that still provides great live shows, while avoiding having any more venues closing.

To understand the method to the madness of basic book keeping for a venue, let’s have a glimpse at how they operate and have a basic look at a typical venue’s financials. For a small boutique bar the typical guide given to new start up venues is as follows:

  • 37-42% on cost of goods (alcohol, food etc.)
  • 35% to wages
  • 7-10% rent
  • 4-13% earned before interest and taxes.

Various forms of administrative licensing including APRA & PPCA fees on top of RSA compliance fees and insurance also make up a pretty hefty chunk of running expenses.  With only an estimated 4-13% intake it’s pretty easy to see why venues can be a bit picky with their bands or entertainment costs. Venues also have other outside factors that contribute to lost income and time like noise complaints, fire regulations/OHS licensing issues and endless damage/maintenance repairs. There are certain entertainment precincts that help venues on a day-to-day basis, which include the Fortitude Valley here in Brisbane who, in 2004 introduced the ‘Valley Music Harmony Plan’.

One of the first steps taken by Council in implementing the Valley Music Harmony Plan has been the creation of the Valley Special Entertainment Precinct, which places the onus on new development to incorporate a high standard of noise insulation and enables uniform noise emission levels for music venues.

The Plan also identifies the need for a communication strategy to make potential residents aware of the Valley’s entertainment values, before they move to the Valley. This has resulted in the creation of the Valley Sound Machine, which enables potential residents to hear what it may sound like living in the Valley. – Taken From the Brisbane City Council website.

While this has helped the Fortitude Valley, many other states are yet to incorporate similar plans to aid venues. A fairly stunning example of the need for similar handling can be seen at the Darwin Railway Club- in 2009 the hapless victim of an arson attack that left the club badly damaged by fire, following noise complaints from surrounding residents. The club went on to face a noise-related campaign from the Licensing Commission, the licence nominee Kane Stewart commenting to NTNews, “Everybody needs a lot more tolerance in the neighbourhood.”

Adelaide has been making decent strides with their music licensing however, as new laws make it easier to launch new small venues, according to Ryan Winter from By Popular Demand Music Agency. The Small Venue Licensing Amendment means venues with a capacity of less than 120 don’t require entertainment consent.

While discussing the future of Music Venues, Mr Winter believes the industry is changing fast and venues need to keep up with demand. “Sticky floors are no longer wanted… I’m not sure if old venues can be versatile enough… Many venues in Adelaide have a mosh pit some nights then bring out chairs for some jazz on others.”

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Luckily, advocating the maintenance of Australia’s live music scene is the Live Music Office, whose mantra involves the reformation of repressive policies for cultural venues.

Former Co-Director Ianto Ware  spent many years experiencing first hand the difficulties of meeting the regulations of councils and governments that base their licensing terms on vague assumption. “I once worked with a small bar who were told they could have bands, but they couldn’t advertise them or charge a door fee to pay them.  There was no real logic to that decision. It was purely the result of a disjointed regulatory system with a non-evidence based perception of risk. For some reason, the regulators thought musicians being paid created a higher level of danger than musicians who weren’t being paid. So our long term mission is to prevent things like that from happening, and look at alternate systems that provide a fairer playing field.”

The Live Music Office aim to impart a ‘best practice’ system over the coming years to actively encourage live music through policy reform, as well as building a resource that maps data associated with this reform, for a more evidence based approach. John Wardle (Co-Director at The Live Music Office) said that “our main goal is to increase opportunities for people to engage with live music by removing the regulatory barriers confronted by venues. Over the past twenty years, the regulatory environment in Australia has got pretty convoluted and its impact on music venues and related business, including performing artists, has been pretty bad.”

There’s some evidence that the live music industry is looking up, a Live Performance Australia report detailing the optimistic swing of music attendance in 2013, documenting and increase in total attendance figures by 14.3 per cent, while gross revenue jumped by 30.3 per cent from $482.18 million to $628.13 million over a 12 month period. A surge in the average ticket price from $100.27 to $110.50 was apparently the main driver behind revenue growth.

This isn’t bad at all from a country that places 6th in the world’s biggest music markets, according to a 2014 report from the IFPI: Recording Industry in Numbers.

Damien Cunningham, also from the Live Music Office also described a buoyant market for Australian live music, but expressed in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article that the game has changed for venue marketing and advertising.

“Street press, pole posters and street teams have made way for digital marketing, venue websites, Facebook, Twitter, artist blogs, digital ticketing platforms, mobile apps and VIP fan experiences,” he says.

“Having and developing a digital database for venues is essential to keeping the communication going with their patrons and being able to directly have a conversation on upcoming shows and deliver the ability to click-through to buy tickets is a positive move.”

With the changing venue environment, some pubs are experimenting with new local acts as well as putting on swing/dancing nights, the Darwin Railway Club numbering among them. Booking Manager Anna Stewart commented that “Being a community bar comes with certain rules about appeasing to a wider demographic, however experimenting with themed nights and activities sometimes pays off, especially in areas of mixed demographics.”

Among a number of venues interviewed for this report, all establishments spoken to had different ideas when it came to experimentation. However all believed that local band nights were imperative to keep the music scene alive. “The Zoo has always been an incubator of Brisbane music, from the very early days when we had bands like Regurgitator, Powderfinger and so on playing to crowds of 50 people or less. We still strongly maintain that incubator ethos because bands need time to grow, and that kind of shared experience naturally evokes a powerful mutual loyalty” said The Zoo‘s owner/manager Joc Curran.

“During the week we try out local bands, Thursdays at Trainspotters is a night where we try out local acts who may be playing their first gig or have just started up” said Patrick Balfe, Booker for Trainspotters and The Foundry. Mr Balfe also described how exciting it was to see local bands grow their customer base over time and start headlining Saturday nights.

Jesse Barbera of the Fans Group has a similar weeknight setup at The Brightside, that gives bands opportunities to open for the bigger acts on the weekend. The Brightside has also introduced Trivia Thursdays along with other themed nights which Mr Barbera said is important when keeping ahead of the curve and keeping punters coming back.

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As well as local band nights, some venues also help venue/musician relationships with guarantees. “Guarantees are trying to be a relationship that’s beneficial,” says Mr. Winter. Trainspotters as well as The Brightside usually have guarantees which provide bands with a set payment for the show, however it’s important for bands to still work hard in the lead-up to the gig to ensure a fair go for the venue. “Venues are trying their hardest to help bands… however I don’t think Adelaide bands are as prepared for the business side of things” says Mr Winter. While other venues offer incentives to sell more tickets for a paycheque, bands need to remember that having a guarantee doesn’t mean you can refrain from putting in the promotion required for a show. Many venues will only offer bands door deals because they’ve been burnt offering guarantees to lazy bands.

When you’re playing gigs there a number of things you have to consider before and during the lead-up to a show. While talking to Mr Balfe, he had a few handy suggestions for bands interested in playing a show:

You can also check out our printable gig checklist here.

  • Why are you trying to book a show? Are you trying to launch a single or an album?
  • Where are you trying to play and why? Is the venue suitable for your style? “Bands that ask for Friday shows at Trainspotters straight away tell me they haven’t done their research… we only have shows on Thursday and Saturday nights.”
  • Have a look at the venues previous events to see their general style?
  • Include as much information as possible. Pitch possible dates (remembering when the venue/event puts on shows).

When you do get a gig there are more things to remember:

  • You’ll be sent a worksheet. This has important information so read it.
  • Most of the time you’ll have to sort out backline between the bands on the night so be in communication with the other bands.
  • Promote the show widely through social media. This should be a priority whether or not you have a guarantee or have to sell tickets yourself.

Promoting a show is getting more and more difficult with street press and newspaper’s shrinking reader base. But there are ways to stay ahead and flourish in a digital world, as described by Ryan Winter.

“It’s about your direct marketing, your email and public profiles. It’s about the content you’re putting up. You need to be putting up engaging material that people want to keep coming back to. You need to always be building up on it. I think that branding for artists as well as venues is incredibly visual… it’s about being a brand manager more than just advertising individual gigs now.”

Last But Not Least: 

To summarise, it’s important to be constantly updating your social media platforms to create a cohesive brand aesthetic, and continue that on a day-to-day basis so people are constantly checking your page frequently. When gigs do happen, the fans and public will be there to see it. This can relate easily to both bands and venues, marketing for a gig more often than not being a collaborative effort.

Post Script:

As a band, it’s important to see both sides of the coin. You need to show the venue how you can be profitable for them, as well as how they can help you with your album cycle or advertising plan; both essential needs for a group or solo act that hopes to at least gain a good standing in their immediate community, and an important point to remember when venturing interstate, and with any luck international.

You can hear about more Contemporary Industry Issues in our premium video content from our experienced mentors.

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