It’s Good Friday in Brisbane and most of the city is dead quiet, with pubs and clubs not opening until midnight due to Easter trading laws. In the inner suburb of West End, however, something very noisy is stirring.
On a makeshift stage in a large room, a three-piece band called Hexmere is playing a raucous, raw brand of grindcore punk to a small crowd. There’s another gig planned for the following night, with many more people expected.
These all-ages shows are being sporadically staged by the Outer Space art collective, which won the Brisbane city council’s tender to operate this 300-capacity venue for two years, rent-free. The space needs work. But it represents an experiment, a gamble and a new hope for the city’s youth culture.
The fact that the city council chose to make the space available is important. Despite a rich history, live music in Brisbane, as in so many other cities around the world, struggles to survive against the pressures of gentrification, regulation and competition.
The music industry’s inextricable links to alcohol and bars has left a dearth of venues accessible to under-18s, raising concerns about how the complex ecosystem that sustains a vibrant local music scene – comprising everything from record shops to independent labels to public radio – will reproduce itself without engaging audiences from a young age.
Live from Outer Space is an attempt to buck that trend in Brisbane. Coordinator Alex Campbell watches Hexmere as sound technician Hannah buzzes around the room, checking noise levels and sonic balance. Campbell says she has encouraged women and non-binary people to get involved in the male-dominated space of sound engineering especially.
In the crowd tonight are the three members of the Goon Sax, back home in Brisbane after seven months in Berlin. Their 19-year-old frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the Go-Betweens’ Robert – less than half a mile from the venue, the Go Between Bridge spans the Brisbane river. But surfing the city’s next wave hasn’t been easy, even for a band with such pedigree.
While the Goon Sax’s members were under 18, the venues they played required them to be accompanied by a parent and to leave immediately after their set, while their friends were unable to attend.
“It’s cool something like this has opened up,” says Forster. “I know my sister’s psyched about it – she’s 16 and she’s coming tomorrow night. I was pretty frustrated by it when I was a kid growing up. I remember going to soundchecks and standing outside venues and listening, stuff like that.”
“There were all these shows, and you could never go to them,” says Riley Jones, the band’s drummer. “You could go to the [radio station] Triple Zed car park shows sometimes, and that was a nice treat, but it was very frustrating.”
Brisbane takes some pride in its musical past – another international export, the Saints, are the subject of a mural celebrating their achievements on the other side of the river, and the band’s guitarist Ed Kuepper has a local park named after him. But the council’s decision to back Outer Space represents a recognition of the need to invest in the city’s cultural future.
“There’s all these young kids who don’t have any places to go,” says Louis Whelan, who is director of Outer Space’s all-ages live-music programme and also plays in his own band, the Mouldy Lovers. “Most events are really alcohol-focused. Playing somewhere where people are just going to get wasted, it’s not the same thing as playing where people want to see music.
“If there’s a whole new generation of people who are much more engaged with the arts and music, then when they get out and they have disposable incomes, they’re going to go to galleries, to venues, to buy local bands’ music and start their own labels. I think there’s a lot of value in it.”
It’s not just kids who are struggling to find places to play. In Sydney – once a live-music Mecca to rival London or New York – bands now struggle to play at all, with venues under pressure from soaring real estate prices, noise complaints, punitive regulations and a cosy relationship between government and developers. The city’s longest-serving live venue, The Basement – which, over 45 years, has hosted artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Prince – closed last week, though its owners are hopeful of finding other premises.
The situation has become so difficult that the state of New South Wales is now holding a parliamentary inquiry. Dave Faulkner, singer and songwriter of enduring Australian garage band the Hoodoo Gurus, told the inquiry that live music was treated like the sex industry, “as something to be shunned. We employ so many people, we generate incredible amounts of money throughout the economy – and yet we’re treated so badly.”
Faced with similar issues, music scenes around the world have been forced underground, into house parties or often illegal warehouse gigs, accessible only to those in the know. “It starts to get a bit worrying when kids are in those scenes,” says Emily Collins, managing director of the government-funded advocacy body MusicNSW.
“We’d much rather them be in venues where we can make sure it’s safe and they can learn to love music in a safe and supporting environment. At warehouse parties there are no security guards, there’s no regulation, no one monitoring alcohol consumption. And they’re more focused on over-18 activities anyway – not that anyone is checking ID.”
All-ages shows have a twofold benefit, says Collins: they foster a self-sustaining community of audiences and performers that in turn helps nurture a creative city. The sticking point, particularly in Australia, is breaking the nexus between music and alcohol.
Venues, already under severe financial duress, are reluctant to put on events where no money is coming over the bar and the regulatory environment is forbidding. “There are multiple bodies that need to be satisfied, so there is considerable complexity, high costs and red tape in running a compliant venue,” says Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW and a professor of music at Macquarie University.
“There is no agent of change law in New South Wales that puts the responsibility on developers to soundproof new developments near music venues. If new residents make noise complaints, the venue is held accountable and must meet acoustic treatment costs, so it’s very risky for venue operators. At best, it erodes business confidence and at worst it can shut down venues entirely.”
The introduction of controversial lockout laws in 2014, imposing curfews on venues in a bid to curb alcohol-related violence more associated with nightclubs than live music events, have been relaxed to some degree, but otherwise only worsened the operating environment.
Against this backdrop, MusicNSW offers funding to promoters and venues to stage all-ages shows, but Collins says applications are few. “People say it’s too hard as a venue – $15,000 won’t cut it.”
Often bands are paid literally out of beer takings. “They’re basically saying: the more heavy drinkers attend your gig, the better you’ll get paid,” says Ray Ahn, bass player of another longstanding punk band, the Hard-Ons. “With that kind of a working model, it’s harder to organise all-ages shows. Where’s the money going to come from?”
The parliamentary inquiry underlines what a cautionary tale Sydney has become. Dave Faulkner said the city’s culture was dying. “When people come to Sydney they don’t just come to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, they also go to have a night out and to see music – it’s what I do when I go to London or New York. But Sydney has been doing everything it can to destroy those places of entertainment and turn them into apartment buildings.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of pubs and clubs throughout the city and suburbs kept artists busy, with major Australian bands such as Midnight Oil honing their live skills by playing upwards of 200 shows a year.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Ahn says, the Hard-Ons would often play an all-ages show in the afternoon and another for over-18s in the evening. Now, they might have played one all-ages show in Australia in the last 10 years. When the band tour Europe or Japan, though, it’s a different story.
“A lot of the shows we do in Europe are in purpose-built halls that have the bar on the outside,” Ahn says. “Inside, there is no bar – it’s like a flat-ceilinged room with a massive PA and volunteers running around everywhere. So where are they getting the money from? They’re getting it from the city council.”
The environment in Germany was more easygoing, says Louis Forster, even when he was younger. “I spent a lot of time there growing up, and I could always get into venues – it was never a problem. Parents would bring their kids to shows, which was really fantastic.”
In Australia, Melbourne actively promotes itself as the live-music capital, and with good reason. A Deloitte study in 2011 valued the sector’s economic contribution at over half a billion dollars, with small venues providing the bulk of revenue and employment. Though many venues have closed in recent years, the value of investing in the live-music sector at grassroots level has long been recognised.
The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation, has been operating in Victoria since 1986, providing a launch platform for countless bands. As well as all-ages shows, it puts on mentoring programmes and skills workshops.
Shaad D’Souza, a music journalist who used to coordinate all-ages events for the organisation, notes that it is a cultural investment as well as a financial one. “Lots of kids, when they grow up they’ll only really go to big festivals or big arena shows because that’s all they’ve had access to,” he says.
“Whereas if you’re investing in all-ages shows, they develop a relationship with venues, they develop a relationship with artists, and then they know: ‘I want to support my local scene.’ They want to go to smaller venues; they don’t just want to go to arena shows or festivals.”
At the end of the night, Alex Campbell’s band, Bad Bangers, will launch their EP. The band are in their 20s now. “But that’s kind of why we started this – because there weren’t many all-ages spaces when we were younger.”
First published in The Guardian (UK), 10 April 2018