Two years after Melbourne’s historic Save Live Australian Music (SLAM) march made live music a political issue, organisers have declared its anniversary this month National SLAM Day. On February 23 2010, over 20,000 people rallied against crippling liquor licensing laws, which had shut down the iconic Tote Hotel in Collingwood and threatened countless others.
“The beautiful thing about SLAM which still blows my mind is it was just a couple of people in Melbourne who were fed up with small minded laws which weren’t anything to do with human beings trying to make a living out of art,” says Claire Bowditch, who addressed the crowd alongside fellow musicians including Paul Kelly, Kram, Tim Rogers and Dan Sultan on the day.
“It was a beautiful karate chop [to the government],” recalls Kram. “But the overwhelming emotion was really positive. It wasn’t a ‘fuck you’… it was more everyone else patting each other on the backs and really celebrating live music.”
Organisers now hope to take that message and momentum interstate with National SLAM Day, with bands, venue operators and community groups encouraged to stage their own gigs. “We feel there’s so much potential at this stage that we really need to harness it with a day where everyone goes out to a local venue and experiences live music,” says Helen Marcou, who together with husband Quincy McLean co-founded SLAM and run Bakehouse studios in Richmond.
“It’s about encouraging owners that it’s worth putting live music in your venue and encouraging live bands that there is a community to support them,” adds Bowditch. Proxy violence high risk
According to Marcou, it’s also about keeping live music front and centre on the political agenda. While there’s been big wins since the rally with licensing laws now amended as of last December to protect live music, not demonise it, she concedes there’s still plenty to fight for.
In September, the Life’s Better With Live report on the nation’s small music venues, commissioned by Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) and the Australia Council for the Arts, revealed mixed fortunes. It found the industry contributed over $1.2billion and close to 15,000 full time jobs in 2009-2010, but estimated musicians’ average yearly income at just over a paltry $12,000.
“That’s beneath the poverty line and a deep concern for me,” says Bowditch, who’s currently resides as the Board Secretary for Music Victoria and the Contemporary Music Representative for the Music Council of Australia. “The real thing is we need to give musicians long term careers and support them as a country at all levels.”
The viability of venues is also a serious concern. Last year Melbourne lost the Arthouse and Public Bar with landmarks like the East Brunswick Club set to follow after being bought by developers. In the face of increasing challenges over noise restrictions, rising land costs and creeping gentrification in inner-city suburbs, SLAM representatives are campaigning for greater planning controls to stem the loss.
“It’s just getting so expensive to run a live music venue and we fear for the future,” Marcou says. “In Victoria, we’re calling for considered planning laws, including Live Music Special Zones, which are identified and protected with residential expectations managed around them. Melbourne city council has put this forth in their new strategy so this is a big move forward.”
But she concedes the biggest battles lies at the federal level, a view reinforced by John Wardle, Music NSW board member and live music activist. “For me, the focus is really on Canberra and federal cultural policy,” says the man who successfully lobbied against NSW’s notorious Place of Public Entertainment licensing laws in 2009.
To start with, he says, there’s a long list of unfulfilled election promises from 2007, including mandatory local supports for international tours, a National Live Music Co-ordinator role and music in the national curriculum. Then there’s the big issue of government funding.
“At both a state and national level, contemporary music is sidelined, while other performing arts, like orchestras and opera, are allocated tens of millions of dollars annually,” he argues. “They’ve got major support and their role has been established for decades. Up until now, contemporary music hasn’t established itself anywhere near that level in terms of engaging governments. So creating awareness and demonstrating support with things like the National SLAM Day is hugely important.”