If there was ever an industry which demonstrated an ability to survive and sometimes thrive in the most extreme vicissitudes of laissez-faire capitalism, it's Australia's live music scene.
Cash payments, sometimes ruthless promoters, stingy, dingy venues, late nights, instrument theft, aggressive punters - somehow musos still find the passion to play.
As AC/DC laconically, ironically, iconically chronicled in It's a Long Way to the Top: 'Gettin' ripped off/Underpaid/Gettin' sold/Second hand/That's how it goes/Playin' in a band' pretty much describes life on the road, in the pubs and clubs.
But COVID has ripped the heart out of live performance of all forms, hastening a decline already driven by the insatiable desire for poker machines and the gentrification of hotels.
It hasn't been helped by state and federal government reticence in providing support to artists, who fit the bill of self-employed workers as well as any tradie or small businessperson, but found they could still not access Jobkeeper or Jobseeker payments. Among Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance members, 35 per cent found themselves ineligible for payments.
It's shameful to realise that Australia provided less support to its musical performers than Germany, France, Austria, Lithuania or Columbia, as this incisive article by Daniel Holmes in Independent Australia makes clear.
The federal government's RISE Fund - 'supporting the arts and entertainment sector to reactivate' put up $200 million over two years, the lion's share of which went to established 'classical' arts bodies such as operas and orchestras, and community arts projects.
Ballarat's live music scene was rebuilding when the pandemic began, after the loss of a series of venues like Sutton's House of Music. With the support of the City of Ballarat, music was being delivered in innovative approaches. Now, as the importance of regional venues becomes more obvious - could Ballarat lead a resurgence in live music?
The passion in Matt Stone's voice is clear when he talks about his determination to reopen and revive the scene in Ballarat, especially for young bands and artists.
Having made The Eastern a venue which offers young bands a chance to play live and loud, he's worried two years of pandemic restrictions will be hard to overcome.
"There is really a big hole in the music industry that's going to come out until we get going," Stone says.
"We've lost two years of development for all the young kids, but we're not going to go anywhere. We're gonna fight and work our way through this, because that's my stubborn attitude and how we run this place.
"I'm genuinely worried. We had bands like Snake Valley and Leftfield Luxury, and a few of these bands were really starting to go a couple of years ago. They were just young kids, 18 or 19. They're gonna go again, but we're two years down the track and we just lost all this momentum.
"There's no other kids following them through at the moment. I'm really nervous about having fresh, good young development.That's our base to build on."
Musician Mick Trembath sits on a Music Victoria board looking at reinvigorating live music in Victoria. He says Ballarat is 'streets ahead' of anywhere else in regional Victoria planning the return of live music.
But there are obstacles, he warns.
"The Metro venues are in huge trouble because of massive overheads and Ballarat, because it's not so expensive, is in a slightly better position," Trembath says.
"Ballarat is in a better position for recovery than other regionals because we can also draw an audience, unlike smaller regional cities. Although everyone is hurting now, Ballarat does have a pretty good chance of bouncing back quicker than (a) Melbourne as it's a big expensive debt hole for music now and (b) other regional areas as they are starting from scratch."
"The other thing is that Ballarat has space that can be rented for $500 a month, and through the Evolve initiative, a hugely supportive council. We're running live music all through December, we have a pool of good musos, a crew of urban musos who are looking to move here because it's cheaper, and a whole lot of venues that have the capacity to run live at sustainable levels."
For Kim Salmon, the regions are key to rebuilding live performance.
A 40-year career with some of the most seminal bands in Australia has given Salmon experience and perspective in how regional venues like the Bridge Hotel and Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, The Eastern in Ballarat, The Meeniyan Town Hall and others have contributed to the survival of live music.
"I've barely scratched the surface with regional shows," Salmon says.
"They're really important in any framework in recent times, because there's so many shows you can play with a band without being overexposed - you've got to spread it around.
"Having more regional opportunities means you can play elsewhere and in playing, and earn money and develop new shows. That's for a musician who's a lifer like myself, as opposed to some young person in a young scene, which is a whole other economy, playing with friends, going out and getting trashed," Salmon laughs.
"If you're still around after all that, like me, us players have got to have lots of places we can keep playing. The fact there are such great venues... the Bridge has been a real mainstay for me over the years, and Theatre Royal as well, with their stunning outdoor courtyard, where I played last year.
"So because of (Castlemaine's) proximity to Kyneton, you can play there, and then next night be playing at Major Tom's. You could conceivably do one weekend in that area, and then do another area. There is a definite the rise of that sort of thing and it is really important."
Venue booker and promoter Nick Murnane says Ballarat could cement itself as somewhere to play as vaccination rates rise and venues reopen.
"I think we are set up to come out on top of it," Murnane says.
"It's just been such a hit to a lot of the local bands. They're all struggling, especially in Ballarat. Without the touring acts that supplement the scene, it can be tricky for venues to stay open to help breed the local bands. It's sort of a Catch-22, I guess.
"Music will still play in our venues regardless, but to actually hone a local music scene, you really do need venues to prosper, to give opportunities to those up-and-coming bands."
"It's great to see places like the Piano Bar back on the live stream, doing that, that's fantastic. But for some of those younger, up-and-coming bands, there were a lot of album launches and EP launches and things that were coming up. They can't sell their music online, some of those independent, relatively unknown bands at the moment.
"So they rely on their live shows to sell merch, get visual artists involved and get their music to other people in that live dynamic. It is poised to be alright, but it's going to take a lot to get the customers' faith back. Some people are asking if it's safe; some people are vaxxed, some are anti-vax... we are skating a very dangerous line where we don't really know what's happening."
So what is the strategy to get Ballarat positioned to give live music and performance the best start it can expect once restrictions ease?
Mick Trembath says the key is to get musicians and private venues to think about the long term future - which is easily said and not so easily done, he warns.
"Places like the Ballaarat Mechanics' Institute, Trades Hall, the Observatory and a whole range of emerging venues are always keen to think further ahead, but don't have the pull to get crowds in - yet," Trembath says.
"The winners will be the venues that can run live music in summer if we can, so hopefully there will be a shift there. It's bloody awful now... but Ballarat being able to work within its capacity is its saving grace.
"We ran 150 live gigs in the streets from January to April this year. I don't know anywhere else in Oz that did that. Even though audiences were low (outside Begonia which was still 60,000 in a week... usually it's 60,000 a day) the support really helped musos keep some hope alive.
"There's a whole bunch of characters that play in the Melbourne Old Bar scene who moved here because of The Eastern. Gelareh Pour has moved here, Sam Boon, Dav Byrne of Iridium Audio, who works with some of the best metal artists; Issie Hart who works all over Australia in opera is back."
Trembath says unlike some other regional towns, Ballarat's other musical interests have survived the pandemic upheaval.
"All our brass bands and pipe bands and orchestras survived. Many of those institutions fell over for other cities. Same with festivals like Begonia, Organs of the Goldfields, the Rockabilly fest. They are all still up and ready to go - all without people being plunged into massive and unsustainable debt."
Matt Stone believes the City of Ballarat has a greater role to play in making sure music is supported.
"Whether that's giving venues some leeway or some exemptions, whatever that means, but we are going to need some level of support... all the support we can get. Look, music is not going to die, it's one of the first things people want. But I am worried.
"Financially once the support dies off... I'm not going anywhere, but it's going to be hard. Like I said, there's going to be a couple of years of kids who didn't end up going down that path. Now they're a bit more developed; maybe they found something else in life over these last couple of years. Or maybe there's kids playing at home, and they've got all this great stuff going on.
"We just have to suck it and see."
Nick Murnane still sounds a note of caution, saying while Victoria is blessed with a great number of brilliant musicians and the regional circuit is enterprising, Australia has also lost many recognised artists to more profitable and secure lives overseas - artists like Courtney Barnett.
"In the short term we might not have those top-tier musical acts which rouse the whole scene," Murnane says.
"Those drawcards that bring 1000 people to a show, and then 100 might go to the next show at the Eastern or something like that. That's what we bank on with those bigger acts. But now they're leaving for greener pastures.
"It could be another year or so before things get back to what they were."
For Kim Salmon, the Godfather of Grunge has enjoyed watching his confreres embrace the new world of the livestream, building new audiences with online gigs.
"I mean, there is always that bit at the start, the 'is this thing on?' business, but some people have adapted really well to those online gigs," Salmon says.
"Dave Graney and Clare Moore in particular, did really well with them - you know? It's a thing, they have a chat at the side and regular people attending. The chat that goes on around the show is as much of it as anything.
"It's another thing, but I mean, I'm all for other things. Any way you can perform, any outlet, is valid. Our bass player Stu Thomas, I've seen him periodically doing these things.
"I did the one with the Surrealists in June last year, which was filmed, eight cameras recorded in the studio and we actually made an album out of that we made up on the spot, made a thing out of it, so that that was quite a successful endeavour, really."
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