|State of the Art: The long and painful coma of the Sydney music scene|
By Hugh Nicholas
Music Forum Vol 13 No 3
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Recently, at the urging of their manager, I went to see a young band play in a little-known pub that has recently agreed to try its hand at being a venue. It was fun. I've been involved in music for quite a few years now, in various capacities, and I am always keen to get along and see (a) new bands and (b) new venues. Sometimes it's a great band in a terrible room, sometimes a terrible band in a great room, and often it's a terrible band in a terrible room. In which case it's doubly terrible and I'm mildly annoyed that I didn't take up my flatmate's standing offer of a cold beer in the back yard. But sometimes - just sometimes - it's a great new band that rocks the walls out of a great little room that no one even knows exists.
And there's no one there but me; and the band, of course. Oh, and the promoter. Maybe a couple of random family members, dutifully and loyally screaming at inappropriate volumes, given that there are, as I said, about six people in the room. But, basically, there's no one there.
Why not? I'm constantly being backed into a corner by smug Victorians (or even smugger ex-Sydney Victorians) and ear-bashed about how much better the Melbourne music scene is, and how you can just go out on any given night and see scores of super-rad ultra-trendy next-big-unknowns. The same can be said for Perthians, thanks largely to the recent A&R gold rush in Western Australia. I even get this from South Australians, who assure me that, although small, Adelaide's scene is "chockers with grouse talent".
Now don't get me wrong. I've been to Melbourne and Perth and Adelaide, and while I won't bore you with long lists of bands that we both know no one's ever heard of (an increasingly tedious pastime of insecure wannabes and armchair critics), I will admit that there is a lot of great music being played. And, to an extent, it's true; in Melbourne you really can just pop out to the well-known strips and catch a variety of acts, all playing their little hearts out in chic little spots that make Sydney feel like a musical desert. So what's the story, Sydneysiders? What the hell went wrong?
It didn't use to be this way. For a long time, Sydney was where you went both to be and to see live music. Clubs like the ol' Springfield up the Cross, The Annandale (pre-litigation), The Vic On The Park, The Cat & Fiddle, The Bridge, The Gaelic Club, The Sando, The Harp, The Globe... And that's just a handful of well-knowns. I admit: I'm not that cool. I can't list for you probably hundreds of super-hot venues, large and small, that used to dot the landscape. I, like much of Sydney, probably spend too much time with my ear on the radio and not enough with my ear to the ground. But the question is the same: Where have all the flowers gone?
Now we all know answer number one - the f*#@ing pokies. So let's not go there. For one, it's been debated to death. Secondly, while I wish it were otherwise, it is simply a stone cold fact that with the current gaming laws in NSW, it is just not going to change back. We can bitch and moan all we like, but it's not going to change unless the money dries up, which it won't.
I'm more concerned with answer number two. And brace yourselves, because this one hurts. It's us. Plain and simple. And not just some of us. All of us. The punters. The musos. The promoters. The venues. The soundies. The journos. The record-company dudes. All of us. And we let this happen to us, by us. Why? Because, at some point, we decided it was a whole lotta fun to talk the talk, but a little bit frustrating to walk the walk. Sydney musos and aficionados talk a fantastic game. But they bomb out when it comes to backing it up with action.
The band I saw illustrates my point on several levels. In a conversation with the manager, as he looked out over the crowd of sixteen (five family members and friends, one promoter, one sound engineer, three locals escaping trivia in the main bar, one barman, the second - but not headline - act, and me, he said: ‘This is shit. Where is everyone? I think the boys are a bit upset at the turnout.' I replied by pointing out that it was, after all, a Thursday night in Lilyfield, and asked: ‘Did you guys plug this much?' He didn't really answer me. But his glance at the promoter said it all. Well, no. Not really. I mean, isn't that the promoter's job?
So let's break this down. Where were the punters? They were clearly not in Lilyfield. They were at home, watching Lost or something. They were watching a movie. They were surfing the ‘net. They were in pubs. Pubs not in Lilyfield, that is. Because live music is something you do in Sydney when there is absolutely nothing else to do and you know someone who can get you in for free to a band a mate plays in. It's not cool, and no one admits it, but that's the general vibe.
For a start, a lot of Sydney's venues aren't just around the corner for a lot of people. Or near other venues. This particular venue, for instance, has only had music on for a few weeks (bless them) and no one knows where it is. It's not near other venues that people know and it doesn't have a rep'. To drink there, one would have to catch a cab. But you're already paying between five and twenty-five bucks to get in (not so much, but add the cab and a few beers...) and die-hard music-lovers, in my experience, often aren't the most cashed-up people around. Lastly, the venue itself often does next to nothing to push the bands. Last night, for example, even the sign outside said: ‘Thursday Night: Trivia. $7 Jugs'. But the band was not called Trivia and was not selling beer. To get people through your doors, you will have to try harder. You will have to work with the promoters. You will have to get your bar staff to be pushing to locals and randoms alike. You will have to put up the odd flashing light. You provide a top service by providing a stage, but to sell the beer required to stave off the pokie juggernaut, you need more punters. Punters love free stuff. So maybe get together with the bands and decide on a free night. Or at least one so cheap the punter cannot complain. Enough to pay the soundie, that's all you need.
Then there're the musicians: bands, DJs and assorted acts. There seems to be an unhealthy ‘I'm a rock star; it's someone else's job to get people out' attitude going around. A lot of (though not all) bands tend to expect that the venue's promoter will look after posters and flyers etc., but that's not enough. They, more often than not, are shelling out for a quarter-page ad in Brag or Drum already. They may even print off some flyers and posters for internal use. But smaller venues (pubs, as opposed to places like Gaelic Club) are NOT likely to let radio stations and minor press know about shows. They do NOT know your personal network and they do NOT have any special love for you over anyone else playing that week. So if you want to get people to shows, get off your arse and get out there with bios, CDs, posters etc. Get on the phone to press. Make your own stickers. Get a website - your MySpace is not enough. Chances are, the people reading it are from Norway, or Shitsville, Ohio, and are not, much to everyone's dismay, going to get to your show at the Excelsior in Surry Hills.
As well, like I said, consider the odd free show. You get paid next to nothing anyway, if there's no one there. Sometimes you even have to pay, if the soundie's not covered by the door. And there will be more people there if it's free. That's a fact. People can be tight, so don't give them an excuse. Also think about giving away your CD instead of selling it. At least then the people that were there go home with your music. At least then they feel that their efforts to get there have been rewarded. Who knows, they may put your music on at a party and get more people interested. And all you had to do was give them a burnt CD...
The other thing about musos is that often we are pretty self-obsessed. I could go on about the psychological implications of public performance, but would end up boring even myself. The point is, however, that we need to have a little more respect for our fellow battlers. How many of us actually get to the venue in time to see the support acts? How many of us are dicking around at home while the first two acts are playing to an empty house? Then we turn up, all flowing entrances and piles of equipment and can't understand why we, then, play to a less than packed house. The other bands have gone home.
It's because everyone's so obsessed with numero uno that they forget that they're numeros uno through quattro to them. If musicians aren't supporting musicians, this scene will stay dead.
So go and see the other bands at shows before your night, if you can. Then you can tell people how good the whole night will be, not just your set. I'm guilty of it and you probably are too; the message that reads: ‘Hey everyone. The Whoevers playing the Wherever tonight. Doors open 8pm. We're on from 10.' We don't even try to get people along for the night. We just want them there for us. And then wonder why, when it's us in support, there's no one there. I mean, we love live music, don't we? Or do we just love being on stage ourselves?
Now the next one's a bit tricky. I may end up pissing a few people off, but I think it needs to be said: promoters, you are not doing nearly enough. Not even close. Please bear in mind that I have just had a go at both venues and the musicians, who, I agree, are not doing their bit either. But you must share some of the blame.
It is, after all, your title, your role, your (apparent) raison d'être. If we are to get people to shows, so that we can get seen, so that you can get paid, so that the venue keeps bands and not pokies, then you guys really need to work those phone lines. You need to be calling radio stations and record stores. You need to be emailing every minor music chat-room and gig-guide administrator. You need to be lining up a once-a-week ‘What's on at the ________ Hotel/Club/Whatever' in the street press, mainstream press and university campus rags. You need to be chatting with the bands about what they're doing and getting them to do more. They are musicians and are quite often useless when it comes to, you know, like, um, doing, you know, like, stuff.
If they get the sense from you that they are working with people that actually give a shit, then their egos will kick in. When the egos kick in, they won't be able to stand another twenty-person audience. Use your wiles to get under their skins. Tell them that the other bands are hot. Tell them that you're trying to get industry people along and that nothing kills hype and buzz like an empty pub. And actually do those things. You will get a much better name as a promoter if people know that when they see your show, they are seeing an industry presence, that those paid vast sums to know what's new are asking you first.
Bands blame promoters. Promoters blame bands. So let's not bicker anymore. Let's play together.
My final gripe is, perhaps, ambitious. But I'm on a roll now, so I'll have a shot. Industry professionals, WHERE ARE YOU?! Record company dudes and dudettes, radio DJs, music TV presenters, music journalists, audio engineers, music retailers, producers... Are you out there? It is your job, almost more than anyone else's, to know, love and push grass-roots music. Your very livelihood relies on it. At the end of the day, if there were no music, you would have no job. And if you're not a musician as well, even if just a hobby, then you should be particularly ashamed, because you are NOT doing enough to support the people that provide you with your profession.
You, more than anyone else, have the power to lift the Sydney scene out of its rut. Punters look to you for advice. Musicians listen to you to guide their art, to know their enemy, to recognise their allies. Venues listen to you to know what's hot and the "angle" they should adopt. Promoters listen to you because they want to know how they can put on what you and the punters want to see.
The circle of music goes a bit wobbly when it gets to industry professionals, because we, as musicians, never know what you want, or how to be it. (Admittedly, some bands aren't going for that, but I maintain that most are lying when they say they don't want the money or the fame or the airplay or to play to larger audiences than their mum, dad and little sister.) Come down and see more bands at local level, not just Wolfmother at The Enmore or The Grates at The Metro. Go and see some randoms down the Shire. Go and see the band that some promoter told you about via one of the emails I just asked them to write you. Go and see your mate's little brother's band. As I said, they may suck. But they just might be awesome. They just might be the next big thing. They just might be a great night out. And you will have been there when they needed you most.
Sydney, the power is yours. There's a lot of great stuff out there, if you dig a little. And I guarantee you, more often than not, it's a helluva lot more original and entertaining than Grey's Anatomy or YouTube.
We're all busy. We like to know things will be good before we try them out ourselves. But if we take more of a chance on the little guys, then the demand will get bigger, the choice will vary and the standard will rise. I'm no economist, but I'm pretty sure that's how it works.
So they may be a terrible band in a terrible room. They may be a great band in a great room. And, at first, you may be the only person in that room. But if we all get out there and do our damnedest, then you may not be. And that will be a triumph for us all.