Last Saturday, 16th April, was Record Store Day (RSD) and what a super successful event it was too. Over the last three years that I’ve been a RSD ambassador I’ve seen it go from strength to strength. The success of RSD has made me think about how we can move forward to develop a more sustainable local music ecosystem. In particular, I am keen to see small local music venues survive in what is increasingly becoming a hostile environment. Local music venues are under attack from all angles including, gentrification, urban planning, outdated laws and the general ongoing financial climate. Bodies such as Music Victoria have done amazing work in helping to keep grass roots music venues operational but as with all ecosystems some of the responsibility lies with us: the general public.
I’m old enough to remember the slogan ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ with the logo of a cassette and cross-bones on record sleeves during the 1980s. The major record labels in the United States and the United Kingdom instigated this slogan to publicly confront and shame domestic consumers over the private copying of music onto blank cassette tapes. Industry trade groups, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), mounted publicity campaigns aimed at combatting the practice of ‘home taping’. In addition to this sloganeering, they threatened to take legal action against home tapers, lobbied governments for new copyright legislation and tried to have a tax levied upon blank cassette tapes. The home taping of CD and vinyl recording onto blank tapes was publically condemned. Lots of people did it. I remember friends giving me their home-recorded tapes of popular music albums. This practice was labeled as piracy, even though private, non-commercial copying was predominantly legal in both the UK and USA.
In a significant precursor to the digital file-sharing battles of the 1990s and 2000s, fans and musicians widely objected to these attempts by trans national corporations at media control, often through highly creative responses. I would argue that downloading has pretty much killed tactile music sales, well almost. Thanks largely to the Internet, the music industry has been thrown into a state of flux and re-organisation. This new paradigm has resulted in artists at all stages of their careers becoming reliant on money from live shows to pay the bills and survive. Even international rock stars have mundane bills to pay too, from the mortgage to their beans on toast!
There’s only one problem and its a pretty big problem. Unless the artist is lucky enough to be ‘loved’ by a huge audience, playing the local enormo-dome with tickets selling at $200 plus, they will probably be found playing smaller grass roots music clubs across the country. It’s a fantastic circuit which both musicians and fans love. So how about we introduce a new slogan of ‘Not Buying Tickets In Advance Is Killing Live Music’? Through the creative deployment of this new slogan we could help keep music venues open. Walking up and paying on the door is par for the course for many fans of live music. Many local and regional acts can attract good numbers, even though they probably won’t sell out the venue. The problem here is that come the night of the show, if it’s raining or the punter just can’t get off the sofa, it’s easy not to bother showing up. If punters don’t walk though the doors then small promoters get nervous, chew their nails, panic and often they will cancel the gig if they don’t sell enough advanced tickets. It’s understandable for small venues which operate on very tight margins. If a small 200 capacity venue only sells 50 advanced tickets, you can fully understand why they get twitchy when they are committed to paying bar-staff, door personnel, technicians, turning the lights, AC/heating on and providing power for backline PA and lights. The break-even point in a 200 capacity venue is probably around 180 tickets; those last 20 ticket sales are the ones that make the show worthwhile.
I’m very lucky because I live in Melbourne one of world’s great music cities. According to the Live Music Census (2012) there are 62,000 gigs annually taking place in over 470 venues in the Greater Melbourne area with 14.4 million patron visits resulting in an industry worth $1.04 billion per year. Those figures are staggering, even more so when you consider that live music in Melbourne employs the equivalent of 116,000 full time jobs. To put then into some type of perspective the combined automotive engineering industry in Victoria only employs approx. 25,000 people. Without good governance, stringent financial management and our own active involvement, this fragile musical ecosystem could be eroded and eventually lost forever. One big irony is that prime TV talent shows have commoditised popular music to such an extent that many people will no longer venture outside of their front door to enjoy live music at a venue. The economic environment and the general tightening of the purse strings have all taken their toll on live music ticket sales. The big hangover from the above is that gig fans are being a bit choosier and many are not buying advance tickets for shows with a detrimental effect on live music venues.
The other casualties are full band shows. It’s no surprise that more artists are performing solo or with slimed down backing bands/tracks rather than with a full band. Fees have gone down in the last few years so it is much easier to take less risk with booking a solo performer. Fine for someone who plays and sings, but not so good for some artists with one string to their bow. Ultimately its the audience that suffers. While I love the intimacy of the solo gigs, you can’t beat rocking out to a complete band with a ‘full production’ show in an intimate venue.
It’s not just the small venues that tread a fine line, look at some of the medium and larger sized venues and to some extent the touring festivals in Melbourne. It’s very frustrating that increasingly, with each passing year, more and more people prefer to pay at the door rather than buy tickets in advance. The numbers end up the same in the end, but it puts the promoters under a great deal of financial pressure in the run up as they work out how many paying customers they need to break even or occasionally turn a profit. Buying a ticket in advance diminishes these financial worries and keeps venues open. If people bought tickets in advance there would be no need to run campaigns along the lines of ‘lets keep venue X open’.
My message is very simple. If you want to keep live music alive and kicking in small and medium sized venues, then you need to cough up for the ticket early and persuade a bunch of mates to go with you. You’ll have an amazing time, inject some much need cash into the local community, provide employment for all types of trades and help support the local music ecosystem. My very simple equation is thus Beer + Live Music + Friends = Good Times and if you don’t believe me then go out and test my theory. So if you see a gig you like, buy the ticket as far in advance as possible, otherwise it might not be on when you get there!