On a chilly Sunday last April, former Victorian premier John Brumby stood in the gutted Tote front bar to announce the re-opening of the hallowed rock palace, which had been forced to close its doors three months earlier.

The stilted occasion was the culmination of delicate negotiations between local Labor MP Dick Wynne, new Tote owners Jon Perring and Andrew Portokallis and the leaseholder to safeguard the venue’s future, the demise of which sparked a large protest.

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The former government, realising the potency of the issue (and its potential to cruel Wynne’s electoral hopes), had pulled out all stops, signing a live music accord, commissioning a $130,000 report by Deloitte Access Economics and later that year committing a hefty $24.7 million for the sector under its Victoria Rocks program.

The report, measuring the real economic and cultural benefits to Victoria, was finally released this morning. But this time it was Ted Baillieu draping himself in the Tote’s mythical sticky carpet to ram home his message that Liberals “love live music”.

A besuited Baillieu, serenaded by folky rootster Jordie Lane (Baillieu’s office had requested a rendition of  Dig Straight Through), trundled through the usual gags about his misspent youth, claiming to have once been a Moving Pictures fan and revealing he had rocked out to Men at Work before they conquered America.

Claiming to have once attended the venue late at night, Big Ted whimsically recalled last year’s protests, where 20,000 punters were greeted by members of the then-opposition on the steps of state Parliament. The convergence, Baillieu said, had ensured “there was a vote attached to the Tote”.

“Live music is here to stay in Victoria and we’re going to make it so,” Baillieu reckoned, in a speech laden with awkward generalities.

As jugs of orange juice sat in for Carlton Draught, and MC and Cherry Bar proprietor James Young revved up a phalanx of close-cropped Liberal advisers, it was left it to consumer affairs minister Michael O’Brien to announce that he would proceed — finally — with promised reforms to the Liquor Licensing Act and reinstate Brumby’s Live Music Roundtable, as demanded by industry lobbyists Music Victoria.

But sadly there was no time for questions as youngsters Stonefield, in exactly the same manner as Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge, counted in one of their Led Zeppelin-aping tracks that apparently went off at Glastonbury. (A doorstop out the back was confined mostly to questions about job losses at SPC).

Among the highlights in the Deloitte report, written in the dry language beloved of bean counters, is the $501 million in gross state product injected into the Victorian economy last year through live music alongside 17,200 full-time jobs.

A massive 5.4 million people attended gigs — way more than the 4.3 million that attended AFL games.

But perhaps the most telling indicator comes from the pittance artists earn each year — just $19,500 — with 70% of this grafted from live gigs at the state’s 600 venues, 370 of which are in Melbourne — the most concentrated amount in the country. The fact that you’d be better off on the dole raised nary an eyebrow as Baillieu trundled through the numbers.

The executive summary concludes blandly:

“Live music makes an important economic, social and cultural contribution to Victoria. Furthermore, as with any industry, the conditions affecting the ongoing commercial viability of live music are subject to a range of influences, particularly in relation to regulatory and policy developments.

“Careful consideration should be given to any government interventions that might directly or indirectly restrict or indeed promote the provision of live music.”

Music Victoria CEO and former Age scribe Patrick Donovan welcomed the report this morning:

“Music Victoria commends the state government for recognising the lack of quantitative data which has hampered our sector.

“We are pleased that social and cultural contributions of live music are now supported by genuine economic data. Now we have to look at strategies and solutions to assist the sector in living up to its potential as one of the live music capitals of the world.”

But veteran rocker Kim Salmon, who has penned a swingeing call-to-arms to be published in tomorrow’s Age, sounded a more cautious note, calling for the report to become a springboard for reform: “Let’s change our attitude to benefit the people without whom there would be no music industry — the musicians.”

The report comes after a long period of soul searching among the Melbourne live music scene that started with the Tote’s closure, followed by the SLAM rally and then the change of government.

As Crikey reported in May, compared to the record $24.7 million package announced by Brumby in the lead-up to last year’s election, the Coalition has reduced funding by 87% and axed the popular seven-year-old $2.4 million FReeZACentral mentoring program. More than 3500 participants had gone through the program, which is currently being wound up.

And the significance attached to the Tote is probably also misplaced.

Recent Tote documentary Persecution Blues has annoyed some punters because it failed to properly emphasise previous proprietor Bruce Milne’s cash flow problems, including a famously botched $75,000 beer deal with the collapsed Blueprint festival. Instead, the documentary laid the blame firmly at the feet of an aggressive Liquor Licensing Commission.

While extra security costs mandated by the commission’s heavy-handed enforcement regime played a part, the Tote was of course re-opened without any substantial changes to legislation after Liquor Licensing director Sue Maclellan fell on her sword. Changes to the policing of the Act provided some breathing space, but significant hurdles remained.

Dick Wynne told Crikey this morning that “Ted Baillieu had finally discovered the live music industry to launch a report commissioned by the previous government. There is nothing in today’s visit to the Tote that can give any joy to live music fans.”

No doubt Baillieu — as a champion of the scene — will hope rock fans stay deaf to that message.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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