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Jan 18, 2010

White knights circling to save The Tote

A trio of white knights look set to assume control of iconic Melbourne rock pub The Tote, which was scheduled to close its doors for the last time today due to a combination of liquor licensing requirements and fees.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

A trio of white knights look set to assume control of iconic Melbourne rock pub The Tote, which was scheduled to close its doors for the last time today.

In a prima facie offer posted late this morning on music website Mess and Noise, the current proprietors of The Old Bar, and the former managers of After Dark in High Street Thornbury, wrote of their willingness to assume the licence, following a public plea from current proprietor Bruce Milne.

“Joel [Morrison], Singa [Unlayiti] and myself would dearly love to sit down with you at some point and talk about this further. As you know we are running a very similar venue (although on a smaller scale) with very similar licensing.

“I think that if there is a baton to be passed along that the three of us would consider ourselves a sincere and reasonable group of guys to accept responsibility of The Tote,” wrote Liam Matthews on the online forum.

Milne responded minutes later:

You guys would run it with the love and respect it deserves. If you can find a way, I’m there for you.

Milne, a stalwart of the Melbourne music scene, had previously spruiked for a new licensee to keep the venue open:

If someone can work out a way to keep the place open and deal with liquor licensing, I will work with them to make it happen. But it needs to be the Tote, not some lame-o version.

Milne told Crikey that he would be “happy” if the trio took over the venue but that it would need to be removed from the “high-risk” category that has led to  liquor licensing fees and compliance costs skyrocketing.

In an article in this morning’s Australian Financial Review, The Tote’s millionaire landlord, Computershare mogul Chris Morris, said he was happy to keep the venue running under a new licensee. Matthews told Crikey he had contacted Morris but was yet to receive a response and a jump in running costs could still see the doors closed for some time yet.

An increase in liquor licensing fees of about $1600 was dwarfed by a requirement in Milne’s licence to have two security guards stationed at the Tote’s doors at all times — a near-doubling of his current annual expenses of $60,000. This came on top of the installation of “quality” CCTV cameras. Attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to revert the licence away from the high-risk category would slug Milne with about $15,000 in lawyers’ fees.

The “high-risk” ruling puts the venue in the same category as several King Street nightclubs, leading to calls for a more nuanced approach from Liquor Licensing Commissioner Sue McLennan. McLennan used the Herald Sun yesterday to defend her organisation against allegations of inflexibility.

And to add the burden on the much loved venue, which is believed to have been skirting close to the red for years, Crikey can reveal that Milne was also the victim of booze deal gone wrong at the hands of the Blueprint music festival.

Last year The Tote sold about $75,000 worth of beer  to the festival, which later collapsed owing creditors hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite performance agreements with high-profile artists including Tim Rogers and Bertie Blackman.

Under a deal struck with Carlton and United Breweries, Milne told Crikey he is required to pay $500 a week to the brewery, and that while it wasn’t the main reason for shutting up shop, didn’t help the venue’s bottom line as he battled to keep it afloat.

It was contributing factor, especially  in terms of fighting against liquor licensing. $500 a week is not insubstantial to a business the size of the Tote.

According to Ararat farmer David Powne, who hosted the festival, about 50 slabs of beer were stolen from a paddock at the festival site, with the Tote denied any of the proceeds from festival sales. Some of the beer made it back to Melbourne, while other slabs were allegedly sold by the festival’s organisers to a local supermarket to recoup costs.

Blueprint organisers Tristan and Aaron Grey went to ground after the festival’s demise in October, leaving a trail of angry creditors. Cheques issued by the brothers bounced despite claims that the festival was underwritten by their mother.

Yesterday, about 2000 Tote defenders protested in support of the beleaguered venue, which has launched the career of countless up-and-coming bands. City of Yarra councillor Steve Jolly and comedian Rod Quantock addressed the crowd, which was overseen by a police special response unit.

Curiously, no appearances were made by local Greens representatives, who are believed to be backing McLennan in her ruling on the Tote’s future. Greens Victorian upper house member Colleen Hartland has been vocal in her support for the commission’s crackdown on late-night venues in state parliament.

Today, in a last hurrah for Milne, 25 bands will perform across the pub in a 12-hour rock marathon, simulcast live on community radio.

26 comments

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26 thoughts on “White knights circling to save The Tote

  1. Most Peculiar Mama

    “…comedian Rod Quantock…”

    Nope, not possible. Mutually exclusive.

    “…25 bands will perform across the pub in a 12-hour rock marathon…”

    12 hours of shite from 25 shite bands is the reason why (sadly) the Tote is closing.

    The pub’s best years were well and truly behind it, dragged to the bottom by the overwhelming dearth of decent quality bands in Melbourne.

    Once upon a time you had to have talent to be called a musician.

    Now you just need a MySpace page and your sister’s emo mates as ‘groupies’.

  2. James Turnbull

    @Most Peculiar Mama – Bitter failed ex-muso or bitter failed would-be comedian?

    Those “shite” bands are:

    Hoss, Legends Of Motorsport, The Drones (pictured), Dave Graney & The Lurid Yellow Mist, Dynamo, Deaf Wish, Guttersnipes, Kamikaze Trio, Dan Kelly’s Dream Band, The Nation Blue, The Onyas, The Breadmakers, Spencer P Jones & The Escape Committee, Cosmic Psychos, The Meanies, The Dacios, The Exotics, Precious Of Jules, Beaches, Town Bikes, The Stabs, Johnny Casino, Bombshells, Digger And The Pussycats.

    Which basically is a roll call of some of the best pub rock in Australia. Which indicates to me that your comment is both ignorant and incorrect.

    So when was the last time you went to the Tote eh?

  3. Johnfromplanetearth

    Putting the Tote in the same category as King street is insane thinking, the venue has been there for 30 years with little or no trouble in all that time, compared to the casino precinct and King street the location of the Tote and who attends is light years apart. How do people like Mclennan get a job?

  4. Most Peculiar Mama

    “…Which basically is a roll call of some of the best pub rock in Australia…”

    Your list reads more like a copy of Beat Magazine circa September 1988.

    Thanks for confirming that the Tote’s best years were 20+ years ago.

  5. Craig Anderson

    Sure there’s a lot of old bands — they’re celebrating their history.

    Instead of being cynical, go and see Deaf Wish. Go and see The Bombshells. They’re both awesome, current bands. Maybe then you’ll see there’s still a lot of good music coming out of this town.

  6. James Turnbull

    @Craig – doubt it’s cynicism so much as ignorance. Especially making claims about the quality of Melbourne’s music scene when it appears the last time they went to a gig was in 1988. Some people can’t help an innate desire to attack when their ignorance is exposed.

  7. danny oh

    @most perculiar mama

    Obviously hasnt even seen The Stabs or The Drones and has no respect for music history – Cosmic Psychos, Dave Graney, Spencer P Jones.

    and doesnt understand that when music venues vanish – the soul of the city vanishes aka Sydney and the advent of poker machines.

    This person is a write off.

  8. Ben Fishlock

    It saddens me a great deal to see the Tote close and I hope some sort of an agreement can be reached to keep it open.

    I am, however, pleased to see Tim Rogers and his cohorts loose some cash from a failed festival they played. A couple of years ago, the drummer from You Am I ran a distribution company called Reverberation. This fell over due to mis-management which led to many small independent bands and labels in this country not seeing a cent from record sales. He walked away from it as a bad idea and assumed no responsibility. A class act.

  9. Greg Angelo

    Commissioner Sue MacLennan is a friend of the big end of town, preferring to turn a blind eye to licensing breaches by big corporates whilst screwing the small end of town to make it look as though she is doing something. Any defence mounted by the Department of Justice which includes a Liquor Licensing will be heavily influenced by the cosy allegiances of their political masters with the powerful corporate who can buy and sell politicians.

  10. nico

    You’re showing, Most Peculiar Mama. WHen was the last time you went to the Tote?

    Putting the Tote in the same category as King St nightclubs – and then permitting owners of the nightclubs to buy exemptions – is rubbish.