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Music

Aug 10, 2011

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Organisers of the axed FreezaCentral rock mentoring program are confident of a reprieve in next year’s Victorian budget as Premier Ted Baillieu moves to bed down its credentials as a live music saviour.

At the launch of the group’s annual “mixtape” compilation last week, Push CEO Peter Chellew, who oversees FreezaCentral, revealed he would tap funds from the business community to keep the project running “on the smell of an oily rag” while the government ruled on its future.

The program was previously thought to have been lost for good after its half-a-million dollars in annual funding ran dry at the end of June.

But Chellew confirmed to Crikey this morning he will meet with youth minister Ryan Smith on Friday hopeful a fresh deal can be struck. Smith did not return calls and emails requesting comment.

“Obviously we’ve missed out this year but we’re pretty hopeful that the government will take another look,” Chellew said.

FreezaCentral lets youngsters receive hands-on tuition and support from stars like You Am I’s Davey Lane and Angie Hart (who performed at last week’s launch) and has hosted 3500 participants over its seven-year life span. Five-hundred under-26ers have receiving accredited formal training, with many starting successful bands or snagging paid work behind the scenes.

The breakthrough comes in the wake of yesterday’s fanfare at Melbourne’s Tote Hotel — which served up the humorous sight of Baillieu getting blasted by a double guitar attack from 70s-inspired rockers Stonefield — and reviving hopes Liberal ears can be permanently bent in support of the scene.

The Deloitte report launched by Baillieu and consumer affairs minister Michael O’Brien (but commissioned by the previous Labor government) revealed the industry is worth more than $500 million to the Victorian economy and that 1.1 million more people a year attend rock gigs (5.4 million) than AFL games (4.3 million). The cultural benefits, while difficult to quantify, are “significant”, according to the report.

Chellew, who was forced to lay off an employee as a result of the cuts, says the release of the report is proof programs like FreezaCentral could reap huge dividends.

Music industry insiders say the colour and light yesterday came as a shock after little or no action by the Liberals in the nine months since the government has taken office.

May’s budget revealed that funding for contemporary music had been slashed by 56% (or 87% compared with Labor’s pre-election promises), with a $1.3 million music equipment grant scheme ditched alongside FreezaCentral, sparking significant unrest.

O’Brien finally agreed yesterday to reform the Liquor Control Act to ensure live music is taken into consideration in licensing decisions, and to reinstate an industry round table to thrash out the sector’s deep-seated problems.

But according to industry activists SLAM — organisers of last February’s unprecedented protest that drew 20,000 rock pigs to the steps of state parliament — there’s still at least a triple LP’s worth of reforms to get through.

While welcoming the tentative action, lobbyists Fair Go 4 Live Music have called for a new regulatory accord, including concrete legislation enshrining “agent of change” principles to stop yuppies moving next door to venues and then arcing up about the noise.

It has also demanded immediate changes to the  Building Code of Australia’s “Place of Public Entertainment” provisions, that according to spokesman and Tote owner Jon Perring places a small venue into the same regulatory category as an airport if it provides live entertainment.

And the federal government should also act on tax offsets that rule out rock deductions and increase revenue derived from the Alcohol Excise and Wine Equalisation Tax.

If anything, live music is worth much more than the half-a-billion dollar figure in yesterday’s report, which only covered smaller venues. Official Live Performance Australia figures released earlier this month show contemporary musicians sold $659 million worth of tickets annually at larger shows, a significant proportion of which was spent in Victoria.

In other words, of the $757,000 in state funding allocated under umbrella organisation Victoria Rocks in 2008-09, the flow-on or “multiplier” benefits to the economy were at least 700-fold.

And all the while, struggling musos make do with annual salary of under $20,000 a year, with 57% earning less than $10,000, according to Deloitte.

FG4LM’s Perring says the case for extra funding from all levels of government is “self evident”.

Music

Aug 9, 2011

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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.

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.

Culture

Dec 23, 2010

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It’s almost impossible, really, to sum up a year in something as complex and multiple as arts and culture, but if one trend stood out it was the maturity of the online environment. This was the year in which online culture moved from being an important and growing aspect of the space generally to the site of the world’s most important cultural and political issues.

In particular, people woke up to the significance of online media for the social and political worlds. The year’s most important movie, The Social Network, was about Facebook. The film itself married a taut script to cleverly understated direction. Written by Aaron Sorkin as a court-room drama, it told a satisfyingly moral tale about the perils of fame and the costs of entrepreneurial belief. The drama stimulated a considerable discussion about the implicit class and gender structures built into the Facebook algorithms. Perhaps appropriately, it also bestowed the ultimate 20th century imprimatur on the Facebook story: a Hollywood feature.

The year’s biggest media event — WikiLeaks — was also a profoundly online phenomenon. Media outlets have long published juicy leak stories, of course, and organisations to promote whistleblowing have been tried before. But none have had the same impact or published quite as much classified and secret material as WikiLeaks. Journalists and editors were forced to take note of the changing technical aspects of their craft, in which sophisticated information and encryption technologies are becoming as important as shorthand and shoe leather.

As Bernard Keane noted this week, the internet has changed the balance of power between the world’s elites and an increasingly connected and informed citizenry. Many — including Julian Assange — think of this trend in informational terms, but in truth it is a far more cultural phenomenon than we realise. The changes being wrought to our economy by new technologies such as social networking and collaborative editing appear to be bearing out the predictions of academics such as Scott Lash and John Urry, who foresaw a “culturalisation” of the global economy in the 1990s.

In the cultural industries themselves, information technology has already profoundly transformed the way consumers and producers interact. The newspaper and book publishing industries collectively spent much of the year navel-gazing. Would people still read printed books or newspapers? Could journalism or novel-writing survive as living crafts? As circulations spiraled downwards and e-readers transformed the economics of the publishing industry, all bets were suddenly off.

The fate of the music industry, however, shows cause for optimism. Music is 10 years ahead of newspapers in adapting to the consequences of digitalisation. Believe it or not, people are still buying and listening to music. While the big record labels continue to struggle, the live performance sector is experiencing astonishing growth. If there has been one surprise of the US economic downturn it’s been the robust sales of music festivals there, which mirrors the roaring trade for the live music experience enjoyed by Australian promoters. With the summer festival season about to begin, the success of music festivals such as Meredith, Falls, Woodford and the Big Day Out reminds us that the gatekeeper model is still a very valid model … as long your fences actually work.

Speaking of gatekeepers, 2010 also saw the first steps by big media to try and re-erect the online paywalls that most newspapers had removed at the start of the decade, starting with Rupert Murdoch’s London Times. The Times‘ readership fell off a cliff immediately, leading many to doubt the viability of the experiment. New media guru Clay Shirky argued it signalled the beginning of a shift back to an older style of publishing, in which media outlets such as The Times ceased to be broadly read journals of record, and returned to their roots as specialist newsletters.

The struggle of Big Content to try and hold back the tide of online change has seen several big lawsuits continue through the year. In February, we saw the Federal Court hand down its decision in the Men at Work case, in which a music publisher successfully sued record label EMI and songwriter Colin Hay for back royalties over a flute riff in Hay’s famous 1981 hit Down Under. February also saw AFACT, a consortium of big content firms, fail in their attempt to sue internet service provider iiNet for the illegal downloading they claimed it was facilitating.

But perhaps the most significant event in Australian cultural policy in 2010 was actually a protest. In February, more than 15,000 people gathered on Bourke Street in front of Victoria’s parliament building to protest against a decision by Liquor Licensing Victoria to enforce onerous security requirements on live music venues in Melbourne. The new regulations had led to the closure of one of Melbourne’s best-loved rock venues, a Collingwood pub named The Tote.

The protests were the biggest against a government decision about culture in a generation, and marked a new milestone in the cultural policy debate in Australia. For perhaps the first time, ordinary citizens marched to support their right to attend contemporary music venues, and made cultural policy an election issue. The Brumby government quickly agreed to a sweeping series of reforms, and by years’ end Liquor Licensing director Sue McLellan had departed. Whether the Ballieu government will live up its election slogan of “Liberals Love Live Music” remains to be seen.

The Victorian venue protests were — or at least should have been — a wake-up call to Australia’s arts establishment, which continues to equate “artistic excellence” with a narrow palette of 19th century, European artforms. In response to such criticisms, the capital-A arts lobby, led by opera director Richard Mills, mounted an amusingly trenchant defence of “heritage arts”. It largely fell on deaf ears. As 2010 draws to a close, it is apparent that the status quo in arts funding policies — in which opera and classical music receive vastly more funding than nearly any other type of cultural expression — is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

Advertising

Apr 15, 2010

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What do Melbourne’s centre of pub music, The Tote, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s reference to the dog that didn’t bark have in common?

They are both about how silences are not silences but really absences and, thereby, throw light on some 20th century literary theory while also providing a quick guide to how successful lobby groups and politicians operate.

You only realise how omnipresent some lobby groups are until they disappear from the media briefly. The public health lobby (currently mainly anti-alcohol and anti-obesity) is one of Australia’s most effective PR and lobbying groups. They churn out a range of studies, statements, conferences, events that all contribute to their goals.

With alcohol those goals are restrictions on availability through restrictions on licensing; bans on advertising and sponsorship; and, steep increases in taxation.

There are other approaches, such as those advocated by Obama adviser Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, but generally the debate in Australia focuses on controls and is underpinned by the assumption that people have to be regulated into taking responsibility.

Now the anti-alcohol lobby is somewhere in the media almost every day — normally when in the print media, squeezed between the increasing number of full-page ads for cut-price booze. But recently they seemed to be a bit quieter when The Tote was forced to close because the state government had imposed stricter licensing regulations. Indeed, the lobby almost disappeared from the debate and none of them seemed to be rushing out statements that this was an unintended consequence and that there might be drawbacks to tighter licensing. More recently, although, with the state government backing down, there has been the odd unsourced piece, such as one by Melissa Fyfe in The Sunday Age, which argued this sort of licensing was never a priority and that there were many other things — roll out the usual policy suspects — that were far more important.

The same silence applied when the news broke of the Israeli government using false Australian passports for the hit team that got a rather ugly arms dealer (who was also travelling on a false passport). The pro-Israel lobby is in the media almost as frequently as the anti-alcohol lobby (although they get their assumptions tested and questioned more than the health lobby does, and debate about Middle East issues is robust in Israel and increasingly in Australia) but during the passport episode they fell silent.

Politicians also fall silent when their opponents are in trouble and making the news. or when comment is considered unwise. During the recent Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton was caught by police hooning around St Kilda, the Grand Prix’s Ron Walker called for some understanding of his position. Under normal circumstances anyone making such a call would be excoriated by politicians and the media, but in this case silence largely prevailed. Of course, these incidences are not silence but situations in which what would normally be there is absent.

It was just such an absence — the dog that didn’t bark — which allowed Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery. Similarly Edward said in Culture and Imperialism that the surprising absence from Mansfield Park is the Caribbean sugar plantation slavery Sir Thomas Bertram must have relied on to finance his British lifestyle. This was made graphic in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film Mansfield Park where the issue was a key part of the plot.

So what makes lobby groups effective? In the case of many lobbies, such as the anti-alcohol lobby and the Israeli lobby, it starts with framing their issues as a Manichean choice between, for the anti-alcohol lobby, good and evil where pure public health people battle to improve the public’s health in the face of the evil manipulations of alcohol and snack companies. With the Israeli lobby it is a tiny (but militarily strong) democratic nation defending itself against anti-Semitism and some maniacal religious fundamentalists (although Israel has a few of these as well).

Of course some alcohol and snack companies do behave badly, and Israel does face existential threats. But the point about effective framing is that it removes any nuances and dictates how the entire debate is conducted.

The second key tactic is de-legitimising opponents — sometimes through vilification. Anybody who has ever worked with alcohol companies or taken a research grant is not entitled to be heard whatever they have to say. An academic acquaintance of mine happened to say that a proposed NH&MRC guideline of anything more than two standard drinks constituting binge drinking may be counter-productive. Behind the scenes he was confronted with enormous pressure from colleagues, public health professionals and his own faculty. Naturally he pulled his head in.

The final tactic is relentless and ruthless pushing of a few co-ordinated key messages which re-inforce the central framing through every available channel.

The reality is that much of what many lobby groups do, and their agendas, are never really discussed. The recent UTS-Crikey study, for instance, focused on business-driven PR and not the stuff pumped out by non-business campaigners in areas such as health, education and the environment. As a friend said to me about the UTS study, you don’t have to be a listed company to have a pecuniary interest, just look at all the researchers, lobby groups, environmentalists calling more for money for something they want or support.

Ritual declarations of interest: I have worked for the alcohol and snack food industries, and public health lobbies; have been criticised by, and criticised, the anti-alcohol lobby; and, am a long-time supporter of the Save Albert Park campaign.

Noel Turnbull is an adjunct professor, media and communications, at  RMIT University.

Victoria

Apr 12, 2010

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New Tote Hotel proprietor Jon Perring has called on the Victorian government to immediately fix its liquor licensing laws, to avoid a repeat of the saga that forced the hallowed rock venue to shut its doors.

One day after Victorian premier John Brumby interrupted his Sunday afternoon to pose for TV cameras inside the soon-to-be-reopened Tote front bar, Crikey understands Perring will deliver a list of demands to permanently change the regulatory landscape.

In a discussion on the sidelines of yesterday’s event, Perring told Crikey he would ask the government to insert a clause into the Victorian Liquor Control Reform Act to protect “associated industries” such as live music, forcing the Director of Liquor Licensing to specifically consider the impact on the scene when ruling on license conditions.

“The re-opening of the Tote is a very valuable first step…but there’s more to be done, and we will talk to the government. We’re confident we’ve got dialogue…we don’t want to have to stage another rally,” Perring said.

Yesterday, Perring’s company Seventh Tipple announced that The Tote would re-open in six weeks, after the group revealed it had signed a lease agreement with owners Colonial Leisure Group in the lead-up to Easter. In addition to his duties as one of The Tote’s three new publicans, Perring is the public face of lobby group Fair Go 4 Live Music, which co-organised a public protest that saw 10,000 Melburnians descend on Parliament House.

In New South Wales, bureaucrats must take into account the interests of the live music industry when ruling on licence conditions. However, in Victoria the Liquor Licensing Commissioner is an independent appointment and operates at arm’s length from the Act.

Under the Live Music Accord signed with the government in February, venues such as the The Tote are able to apply to have high-risk conditions, that mandated minimum security levels, removed. But progress has been slow, with an application from Brunswick’s Lomond Hotel to have its status changed stuck in bureaucratic limbo. The Tote’s application is expected to be fast-tracked in the wake of yesterday’s announcement.

Crikey understands that the industry will also demand changes to “order of occupancy” requirements, that protect venues from noise complaints from new residents.

Premier Brumby hinted at the prospect of further negotiations when questioned by Crikey, saying that the government “would continue to work with licensees to deliver outcomes” and adding that the government had “changed the nexus” on the issue.

The “saving” of The Tote comes after the state member for Richmond, Richard Wynne, concerned about his re-election prospects, waged a personal three-month battle to see the venue salvaged, which involved him returning early from Christmas holidays for crisis talks with the property’s owner, Computershare mogul Chris Morris.

Perring has had Wynne’s ear throughout the saga, and yesterday praised his input as “helpful in ensuring that the voice of Melbourne’s live music scene was heard within government.”

Crikey understands that the signing of the Accord was a crucial factor in convincing Colonial Leisure, controlled by Morris, to sign the new Tote lease with Seventh Tipple. The accord effectively convinced Seventh Tipple’s bankers that the venue could survive as a viable business with its onerous security requirements removed.

Yesterday, Wynne said he would ask Yarra Council to close off Wellington Street for the venue’s re-opening party, calling the prospect of an outdoor event “a great celebration for the community”. This morning, Wynne wrote to Yarra Mayor Jane Garrett to announce his intentions.

The line-up is yet to be determined, but Seventh Tipple’s Andrew Portokallis said there were “heaps of bands” in contention that were unable to play the venue’s last stand in January. The Cosmic Psychos were a last minute withdrawal from the farewell gig after bassist Ross Knight hurt himself lifting weights.

Meanwhile, Morris confirmed yesterday that previous proprietor Bruce Milne’s personal financial situation, especially a botched beer deal with the collapsed Blueprint festival, had contributed to The Tote’s demise, as previously reported by Crikey. On Jon Faine this morning, Perring said Milne would soon be auctioning The Tote’s remaining squares of sticky carpet, which were nowhere to be seen yesterday.

However, Perring said the Tote name is expected to be retained, pending negotiations with Milne.

Victoria

Feb 23, 2010

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Pressure is growing on controversial Victorian Liquor Licensing director Sue Maclellan over her enforcement of the state government’s liquor licensing laws following last night’s backflip on live music by the Brumby government.

As up to 30,000 Melburnians prepare to engulf Swanston Street to protest the legislated link between live music and violence, Crikey can reveal that Maclellan waged a sustained campaign against much-loved rock venue The Tote following a technical licence breach last April. Yesterday, protest organisers signed an accord with the state government dumping the high risk security requirements that caused the pub to close.

“We received more visits in that six-month period than we did in the past eight years”, former Tote proprietor Bruce Milne told Crikey this morning.

“I was just a target. They were going to find a way to close the doors on me and there was nothing I could do.”

Milne said after he incorrectly listed a director on an administrative form, plain-clothes compliance officers, dubbed “Sue’s stormtroopers”, visted the Tote relentlessly in the lead up to its last day of trade on January 18 to check the pub wasn’t in breach of the now-abandoned security requirements.

Milne said the Tote received a letter in May from Yarra Council questioning the venue’s compliance under local government building codes. However, when Milne contacted the council, he was told the letter was an initiative of Liquor Licensing — the authority had allegedly leaned on the council to pursue the pub through other channels.

Allegations also persist over the presence of covert liquor licensing officers inside the Tote on Sunday 17 January as 3,000 people protested its closure outside. Security guards have told Crikey that they recognised officers from previous encounters. One of the individuals, who was not drinking, was confronted by Tote management but they declined to identify themselves. (Liquor Licensing Victoria has denied this, saying no employees were present at the Tote on the day in question).

The new accord, forshadowed by Crikey a month ago, was signed at 4pm yesterday in an apparent attempt to defuse anti-Labor sentiment ahead of today’s rally. On ABC radio this morning, a humbled Premier slapped down the one-size-fits-all laws under Section 58 of the Act that Maclellan has staunchly defended.

“We’re recommending that she remove the blanket requirement…one-size fits all is not necessarily the best way forward,” the Premier said, agreeing that the consultation regime when the high-risk rules were negotiated two years ago was inadequate.

According to the new accord, current licenses will revert to their status before Maclellan began her high-risk crackdown with a reduction in security to a level determined by the venue in consultation with local police.

Fair Go For Live Music Chief John Perring told Crikey that the new requirements, if they had been abandoned at their inception, could have saved the Tote, despite the venue’s other problems with its lease and mounting debt.

However, Perring said there was still a long-way to go to finally de-link the “high-risk” requirement with live music: “That’s what we’ll be pushing for in the next 12 months, to remove the link entirely”.

On ABC this morning, Brumby said the cases of smaller non-music proprietors, which have seen their liquor licensing fees increase by up to 500%, may also be re-examined with industry input.

A spokesperson for gaming minister Tony Robinson said  that Macllellan’s department will soon be merged with the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation to increase efficiency and reduce administrative costs.

Maclellan told Crikey that she was “yet to make a decision about re-applying for her job” when her contact expires in April. Insiders are expecting the position to be widely advertised.

Victoria

Jan 20, 2010

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Security requirements for inner city Melbourne music venues are set to be slashed in a desperate government bid to save live music from the scrapheap amid spiralling liquor licensing costs and a looming state election.

As hallowed punk-rock incubator The Arthouse announced it was going the way of The Tote and shutting its doors next year, the owner of several live music venues, and a leading candidate to take over The Tote’s license, Jon Perring, told Crikey he will meet next week with Victorian gaming minister Tony Robinson to thrash out a new deal that would see security linked to a venue’s alcohol sales as opposed to current laws which are triggered by the presence of “live or amplified music”.

“I’ll be seeing Tony Robinson. It’s a no-brainer to fix, it just requires the commission to de-link security compliance with live music and relate it to alcohol consumption,” Perring said.

“There’s no relationship between live music and violence. If we can’t fix this problem there’s no way of saving the Tote. It’ll be hasta la vista baby and we’ll be back to watching Lateline.”

A major factor in the demise of The Tote under licensees Bruce and James Milne was a doubling in security expenses from $60,000 to $120,000 a year after the venue was issued with a a new set of demands by Liquor Licensing Victoria chief Sue Maclellan. The increase dwarfed the hike in fees under the new risk-based framework for licensed venues, which was only about $1,600.

Perring said Maclellan, the Victoria Police and other inner city venue owners will be involved in the discussions, that would see venues assessed on a case-by-case basis, rather than the current approach which has lumped Tuesday afternoon ukulele acts in with sold-out Saturday night rock shows. In both cases, venues are required to employ two security guards for the first 100 patrons and another guard for every 100 after that, regardless of the level of perceived “risk”.

Letters sent from Liquor Licensing Victoria to several venues this week demand that owners abide by formal requirements over security guards and CCTV, as well as stump up for extra license fees.

A spokesperson for the state government, Rebecca Harrison, told Crikey that the Director of Liquor Licensing had the power under the Act to “exempt or modify business from the high risk conditions on a case by case basis”.

Late this morning The Arthouse revealed it was also set to close as a result of the new laws that came into effect on 1 January. In a statement released to music website Mess and Noise , Arthouse manager Melanie Bodiam said that she had altered her licence to trade until 1am to avoid a hike caused by the fresh fees, denying it vital revenue from late night alcohol sales.

“The Arthouse is affected by the new liquor licensing laws that kicked in on the 1st of January this year. As a consequence we are now licensed till 1am opposed to 3am as before. I’m sure you can imagine the impact of loss off revenue and staffs wages.” A “frosty” relationship with the venue’s landlord was also to blame.

The case of The Tote was also compounded by the circumstances of the lease, which was a month-to-month proposition, and the personal financial situation of Milne, who is believed to be hovering close to bankruptcy. On Monday, Crikey revealed that Milne was struggling under the weight of a $75,000 bill owed to Carlton and United Breweries from a failed booze deal with the collapsed Blueprint music festival. A Tote staff member was dismissed as a result of the transaction.

On ABC radio this morning, millionaire Tote landlord Chris Morris went into more detail on the state of the hotel, revealing he had recently granted Milne a “rent holiday” as he struggled to keep the business afloat.

The other major concern is believed to be the physical state of the building, which will require substantial investment from Morris’ Colonial Leisure before a new lease can be offered. Prospective proprietor Perring told Crikey that despite the latest hiccups, The Tote remained a viable business.

The issue of live music venues is considered a serious election issue by the state government, especially in marginal inner-city electorates that could see sitting members skittled by the Greens. The member for Richmond, Richard Wynne, is sitting on a tenuous 3.1% buffer in his electorate, which includes The Tote. The electorate of Melbourne, which includes The Arthouse, is held by Bronwyn Pike by an even slimmer margin of 1.9%.

Companies

Jan 19, 2010

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The controversial one-size-fits-all approach to Victoria’s liquor licensing laws is again under fire after a Queen Victoria Market wine shop was classified as a “high risk” in the same league as a 1,000-capacity South Melbourne superclub.

In a echo of the scandal that caused storied rock pub The Tote to shut its doors yesterday, Swords Wines, which specialises in refillable flip-top bottles, is regarded as dangerous because the produce markets in which it trades open before 9am. Under the new laws, “ordinary” trading hours are between 9am and 11pm.

Swords operates four outlets at markets across Melbourne and has a retail store at Clifton Hill. On a Saturday it opens at 6am at the Queen Victoria Market, alongside other shopfronts in the Dairy and Produce section.

Managing Director Brendan Beattie told Crikey he has been saddled with an extra $11,697.60 in fees this year, which were due to be paid on 1 January. Beattie applied for an exemption, but because he employs over 5 full-time staff, the request was slapped down in a tersely worded letter from controversial liquor licensing chief Sue Maclellan.

“The recent amendments to the Liquor Control Reform Act 1998 do not provide a process for an exemption from payment of fees or an alternative classification for premises such as yours,” Maclellan wrote on 7 January.

“I regret I cannot be of further assistance.”

In a previous letter, Maclellan infers that Swords’ business could propagate “alcohol related harm”, presumably wrought by early-morning revellers on their way home from nightclubs that share its “high risk” status.

swordswine

Swords Wines, which is in the same “risk” category as King Street nightclubs under the Brumby government’s liquor licensing laws

Beattie said the new fees had the potential to gut his business.

“It’s going to be huge, it’s just another overhead that’s added on and it’s not as if you can turn around and increase your prices. The last 12 to 18 months have been very tough, with the GFC and the wine glut.”

Beattie said that liquor behemoths, including many Dan Murphy’s stores, were only required to pay the base fee of $795 — $5565 less than Swords’ Victoria Market outlet.

“When I spoke to Sue Maclellan she simply said you are obliged to pay the fees this year and we’ll try and consider you next year. There was never any consultation and I don’t believe they’ve given it any thought.”

He said he has no choice but the pay the fees, which are now due on 21 January, otherwise he would be forced to shut his doors.

The controversial changes to the Liquor Licensing Act, based on a contested report by a group of external consultants, have already claimed one scalp with yesterday’s forced closure of The Tote amid a $60,000 doubling in compulsory security costs.

Victorian Shadow Consumer Affairs Spokesman Michael O’Brien told Crikey the laws, introduced into state parliament last year, were a “disaster”. “The fees have increased to $35.8 million this year and this is just an excuse for a $20 million tax grab.”

“The law can’t be risk-based if it doesn’t discriminate between a King Street nightclub and The Tote, or a mum and dad corner store and a Dan Murphy’s.”

In country Victoria, O’Brien said some small business had decided to stop trading rather than cop the massive fee increase for trading outside the normal hours on public holidays, which places them in the same category as a tranche of troubled regional nightspots.

In an emailed statement compiled by her advisers, Maclellan said Swords Wines was able to apply for a reduction in trading hours, which would see a “significant reduction in fees”. However, Swords told Crikey they were required by market management to align their opening hours with other stores on the premises.

Last night at The Tote’s swansong, high-profile bands including The Meanies and Spiderbait slammed the state government and the Liquor Licensing Commission and expressed their support for outgoing Tote licensee Bruce Milne.

On Sunday, Maclellan launched an extraordinary attack on Milne, lashing The Tote for a string of license breaches and accusing the music scene stalwart of dishonesty.

Music

Jan 18, 2010

5 comments

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.

Victoria

Jan 15, 2010

5 comments

THE Tote Hotel, one of Melbourne’s most influential live music venues — and late-night haunt for musicians and fans alike — will shut its doors early next week.

Embattled owner Bruce Milne, who purchased the licence with his brother James in 2001, said yesterday the Tote was a victim of liquor licensing measures that deem his business a ”high-risk venue” on par with King Street’s nightclubs.

The Age

So you’ve become Premier/Minister/hack MP in a 21st century Labor government in Victoria. Congratulations! All those years of crap in student politics, sucking up to branch fixers, etc, have paid off.

You’ve managed to avoid ever having an actual job, taking your place in a self-selecting political caste of teenage misfits who joined Young Labor to find someone who’d talk to them.

Now you run a whole state, with a city of three-and-a-half million people as its centrepiece — a one-time industrial and commerce centre now globally famous as a centre of art, design, music, writing, etc. Over two decades, assisted by some judicious decisions by past governments of both parties, your capital city has gone from being a famously dour black hole to a huge cultural and tourist enterprise, as well as a genuine hub of new ideas.

Your mission is clear: kill it.

First, of course, you’ve got to pay lip service to it, with endless boilerplate speeches about new life in old cities, etc. But really goddam I mean, culture. Henry Bolte had all the luck. Grow it, dig it up, bang it into shape and sell it. How to get it back to that torpid, easily managed condition?

First off, let the police dictate social policy. This makes the difficult task of squaring off the claims of free citizenship versus social order by abolishing the former. Once you see society through the eye of the police — as simply a problem to be managed — things will be much easier. They can run the state as an enormous stop and search zone, and you can get on with sub-factional fights between “the Pack” and “the Ring” or whatever six fat groupers in the East Bumcrack branch are calling themselves now.

Second, there’s only one person who matters at the end of the day. No, not the voter, what are ya? I mean the editor of the Herald Sun. Treat every panic as accurate reporting, and assume that every area of social life needs the sort of control applied to the worst areas. Treat every hole-in-the-wall bar as if it were a King St bloodhouse, and make every children’s party at the Ola Cohn fairy tree have two security staff, just in case there’s a red cordial incident.

You can then govern in the spirit by which Hilaire Belloc defined puritanism — “the fear that someone somewhere may be having fun” — and let’s face it, these musos, artists, etc, can be arseholes. Remember how everyone laughed at you when you said that the city needed to wipe out all the stencil art and put in window boxes and flowerpots? Who doesn’t like flowerpots? Jeezis. Next they’ll be making fun of your Enya CDs, or your DVD box set Films of Ron Howard.

Sometimes you may accidentally find you do something interesting, such as build a world-class building at Southern Cross station, a truly striking masterwork. You must screw this up as quickly as possible. First put a bunker-style factory outlet next to it — and just in case it doesn’t stuff up the look, connect it to the building so that it does. Then, when people are consoling themselves that at least it looks great from the other end, let The Age put up a third-rate shed that ruins the roofline along the street.

Remember, it’s not enough to do bad urban design. The mark of a 21st century Labor government is to act as if urban design matters, spend tens of millions extra on the architecture — and then screw it up, almost gleefully. What you really need to communicate to people is your half-hearted commitment to the city, your lack of follow-through, and your deeper buried hostility to these frikkin citizens, yap yap yap yap all the time, when you’re about to lose East Bumcrack Macedonian branch to the TWU-MORO front subfactions.

Now, you’re getting into your stride, and you can really focus on making the city as diminished as possible. There’s a lot of bars and cafes around. Wonder how come they sprang up? Whatever, there’s such a shedload that raising their license fees 500% will really help pay for a decade of incompetent public transport stuff-ups. Besides, all that noise those music venues make — how we supposed to get on with making a global city of culture with all that mofo racket? Jeezis.

Besides, getting rid of all that music makes it easier to put up oversized slab-tilt apartment blocks  — vital if you’re to destroy whatever distinctive selling point a Victorian city has, and a way of avoiding innovative and dynamic solutions to population growth. Use Docklands as an example — let corporate clients dictate the planning of remaining inner-urban land, and create that most amazing of things, a pre-fabricated urban wasteland. Label it “the Warsaw end of Collins Street” and put it on the Neighbours tour. Add in the huge white elephant film studio you built against the advice of every uncompromised media industry figure, who told you it would be undercut by cheaper facilities within five years, and technically obsolete within 10.

But at least throw a bone to the city’s stand-up comedians — call the farcically mismanaged smart-ticketing system “Mickey”.

Finally, attend a glittering series of official functions for organisations piggybacking on the culture you’re killing. Wonder why everyone’s so angry at you. Resolve to redouble your war against the public.

Above all, be secure in the knowledge that tens of thousands of bar owners, musos, activists, etc, will not get themselves together to mount a high-profile, high-volume campaign in your marginal electorates, scaring the hell out of you. Rest assured they’re too unfocused and whiny to combine their significant financial resources, high-profile public image and creative energies to give you a problem you can’t ignore.

Quietly order the old 6 o’clock closing legislation from the archives …

Put on some Enya.