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Oct 8, 2010

Don't stop the music in an election year

Reforms to Victoria's music venue regulations shows that contemporary music is finding its political voice. Other sections of the arts community would do well to take note, says Ben Eltham.

This column is not meant to be about politics. But art has a way of becoming political when you least expect it.

Who would have thought that rock music could become an election issue? But it has in Victoria this year, after the extraordinary public protests after the closure of iconic Collingwood venue The Tote. Yesterday, the Brumby government responded, agreeing to sweeping reforms in the way it regulates pubs, cafes and other licensed premises that promote music.

After eight months of “intense” negotiations, Victorian consumer affairs minister Tony Robinson finally conceded the key sticking point: the Victorian liquor licensing act itself, which will be rewritten to specifically take music and culture into account. “We have listened to the industry’s legitimate concerns and agree that live music in no way causes violence,” Robinson writes in his presser. With the Liberal Party’s Ted Baillieu expected to get on board, the changes are likely to stick.

It all began when The Tote was forced to shut its doors after new security and liquor licensing regulations imposed by the Brumby Government made it unprofitable. Brumby was responding to community and media concern over alcohol-fuelled violence, but the result was heavy-handed regulation in which small pubs and bars — and even restaurants and cafes — were being issued with huge new fees and conditions, including being forced to hire two security guards whenever live music was being played.

But the Labor Government was stunned by the political backlash, particularly in inner-city Melbourne seats vulnerable to the Greens in this November’s election. More than 20,000 people turned out for a public protest over the issue in February. A liquor licensing accord was hastily cobbled together, and music industry representatives were invited to discuss regulatory reform. Unpopular Victorian liquor licensing regulator Sue McClellan eventually departed in May, a victim of the backlash.

Music campaigners, which include industry body Music Victoria and lobby groups Fair Go for Live Music and Save Live Australian Music or SLAM, are understandably delighted. SLAM’s Quincy McLean argues that “the threat to the viability of our small venues has been stopped”. Fair Go for Live Music’s Jon Perring, who recently helped put a consortium together to reopen The Tote, claimed the decision “will create a business environment where venues can put live music on, even take risks on edgy genres”.

According to Sydney musician and live music music campaigner John Wardle, “the wins are many”. Wardle, who was instrumental in the campaign that led to NSW adopting small bar licenses argues that “fundamentally changing the objects of the liquor act to ensure the interest of the music industry are considered — that’s important”.

Monash University’s Shane Homan is an expert in government regulation of live venues. He observes that the issue is common to cities around Australia, which are competing to promote themselves as vibrant, exciting places while trying to manage the amenity of their entertainment districts. “It’s something all cities have to confront: how do you manage a 24-hour city?” he asks. “It’s pleasing to have those serious results after the rally, which certainly focused the government’s attention.”

The backlash from Melbourne’s live music scene is the start of an interesting trend. For industries such as mining, public campaigns in an election year are nothing new. But for rock musicians in skinny black jeans, it’s something of a first. For perhaps the first time, an arts and cultural industry flexed its political muscles, and the result was reform to regulations that threatened to strangle the small music venues Melbourne has become famous for.

Other sections of the arts community would do well to take note.

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