As more venues close, Geelong’s music fans are despairing of the city’s live scene. Cover bands continue to make a good living, but original musicians are struggling to get a gig.

Music hits a sour note

17:59:PM 17/01/2013
Myke Bartlett

Keeping it real: A live performer (top) at the Geelong Music Festival.
Keeping it real: A live performer (top) at the Geelong Music Festival.
Andy Pobjoy is a musician who has turned to the dark side. With a background in jazz, the Geelong local has given up on a career performing his own work and instead earns a living performing covers at weddings, parties and, basically, anything.

“For some people, going out and playing covers is something they would never do. But that’s what I’ve had to do, being a musician in Geelong. I can’t make money out of original music. I’d have to move elsewhere to do that.”

Pobjoy’s story is by no means unique. These are tough times for local, original musicians. Obviously, there are still places to hear a live band on a Friday night. But while plenty of CBD pubs and clubs offer paid gigs to established cover bands, there are only a handful of venues hiring Geelong musos who actually write their own tunes.

Musician Matt Baird says he makes a good living playing the cover-band circuit, but acknowledges this success has come at a price.

“I think every musician has that burning desire to write their own stuff; the rock-star dream. At the end of the day, as you get older, you’ve got to make life decisions. The original scene has got extremely tough and the covers business is a very attractive option.”

Baird also runs Geelong Entertainment Services, a booking agency that places cover bands across several of the city’s main venues. Even though these bands are still in demand, he’s increasingly finding more gigs at corporate functions than in pub back rooms.

Booking agent Marie James has noticed a similar trend. She says the Geelong music scene has changed dramatically since her agency, Haze Music, opened in 1977. Pubs once offered live music as a draw for punters, but now they tend to rely on DJs or, even worse, the pokies to get people through the doors.

“It used to be vibrant and lively, with bands in every pub and club, but now we’re having to concentrate our business on weddings and engagement parties. A lot of places have popped up and had a go with live music, but they don’t seem to last long. I think people are not going out like they used to for a dinner and dance.”

Baird agrees.

“You can’t blame the venues. Geelong’s always been a very tough scene for live music. There’s just not enough people wanting to get out there and pay the $5 entry fee.”

Pobjoy says there’s one very simple reason that people are staying at home.

“The city’s not a pleasant place to be around. I don’t think there’s anywhere in Melbourne that would have security guards at a bus stop, trying to break up fights like it’s The Jerry Springer Show. I wouldn’t dare ask any of my friends to go out for a drink in the middle of Geelong because it’s just not safe.”

This dangerous vibe has been poisonous to venues attempting to mimic Melbourne’s thriving laneway culture, he says.

“Some friends of mine opened a bar up a little laneway. They wanted to have a nice, quiet, funky little bar with live music, but they just couldn’t get people to walk up that lane.”

The latest venue to close is The Wrong Crowd, a CBD bar offering a wide range of original live music. Pobjoy – who regularly performed there – says he is “shattered” by its loss. With The Nash (National Hotel) also closed, albeit for renovations, things are looking all too quiet in the CBD.

However, if there’s little to sing about in the town centre, there are a few notes of hope just down the road. Ocean Grove takeaway shack Piping Hot Chicken Shop has been providing a home to original live music for years. Current owner Ben Chudoschnik says they get plenty of punters driving down from Geelong to hear new music, rather than braving the city centre.

“I don’t think live music is dead in the Geelong area, but I do think it’s doing better on the outskirts,” Chudoschnik says. “There are more smaller joints who aren’t trying to cram a thousand people in. Smaller venues like ours are a little bit special and build up their own following.”

Chudoschnik says operating on a smaller scale allows him to do something many inner-city venues don’t – he actually pays his musicians. “They get the entire door charge, so if they get a 100 people through the door, that’s two grand in their pocket. Even on a quiet night, they’re still getting $400.”

Similar, smaller venues might just be the answer to revitalising Geelong’s music scene. A spokesman for Geelong mayor Keith Fagg says the council is currently upgrading laneways in the hope of attracting more foot traffic. But Pobjoy says he’s seen too many venues crash and burn. For would-be venue owners, the risks currently involved in setting up shop – on the off-chance foot traffic improves – are far too great.

“It shouldn’t take you having to sell a vital organ to start a live venue,” Pobjoy says. “What really kickstarted the scene in Melbourne was those little on-premises licences for $400 a year, which is bugger all. You can serve food, serve alcohol and make a profit. If you break down some of the barriers, you might encourage more performance places to pop up.”

Pobjoy would like to see pop-up bars making the most of the large number of empty shops in the city centre.

“There’s so many empty spots there, you could transform the place in a week.”

Elaine Carbines, CEO of the Geelong Regional Alliance (G21), says this sounds like a great idea. She says the city landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with investment shifting towards the waterfront and the retail sector relocating to Bay City Plaza and Market Square.

“We need to look at new ways to revitalise those empty shops because they’re not going to be replaced by more shops. We’ve had pop-up art venues, where shops in the CBD have been used, and there’s no reason to suggest live music wouldn’t be considered.”

Carbines admits the current situation won’t be fixed overnight. She hopes greater investment in the arts precinct, the courthouse and Geelong Performing Arts Centre will offer more opportunities for musos, but thinks it might take an influx of new residents into the CBD to kickstart a scene.

Meanwhile, the best thing for the Geelong music scene may be to stir up local passions. Pobjoy hopes people will start demanding more live music in Geelong because, well, it’s good for Geelong.

“We’re so parochial in Geelong about things like footy, so why can’t we be parochial about our local musicians and artists? If we could somehow get local audiences supporting local acts in local venues, we could really create something. But until that starts to happen, we just won’t have a scene.”

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