Stephen A Russell and Mary-Jane Daffy report from the front line of St Kilda’s live music wars.
The last time Dave Graney enjoyed live music in the Prince of Wales public bar was a sunny afternoon last year. As punters rocked along, a council enforcement officer stood on Fitzroy Street measuring noise levels. “It’s a loud street in a loud area,” says Graney. “Absolute madness.”
Perhaps, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past two years, the battle between live music and residents in St Kilda has made headlines, as Pure Pop Records, The Great Provider and the The Vineyard have all faced council fines and restrictions resulting from residents’ complaints.
Many locals, including legendary muso Graney, lament what they say is the loss a golden era for St Kilda’s live music scene, when punters could wander between gigs at the George, the Prince and the Espy, with pitstops at long-lost venues such as the Linden Tree, Joey’s and the Venue.
“St Kilda was quite sophisticated and those night people gave the place its whole ambience and reputation,” says Graney.
He says the vitality in Melbourne music is now north of the river. But local venues deny the St Kilda scene is on death row.
Last week, the Prince of Wales relaunched its public bar as a live music venue after a 10-month closure and $250,000 renovation that included double-glazing, acoustic ceilings and soundproofing.
“It’s been very expensive, laborious and disruptive to trade,” says Julian Gerner, a partner of the Melbourne Pub Group that bought the hotel in October 2011. “But we have to stand up to the obligations and responsibilities as custodians of the Prince of Wales to provide live music.’’
The relaunch scotched community fears that MPG would pull the plug on live music at the Prince, but plans to stage gigs seven days a week have been temporarily thwarted by the recent discovery of a chimney, directly behind the stage, which leaked noise into the hotel rooms above.
Gerner is determined to fix the problem but admits he has found himself in a Catch-22 situation. “You’ve got the community up in arms trying to save live music, you’ve got residents trying to stop it, and we’re stuck in the middle.”
None of this has daunted Peter Foley and Mark Burchett, who last month launched their Flying Saucer Club in leafy St Georges Road, Elsternwick.
It’s an unexpected addition to a suburb better known for its schools and parklands. But perhaps the most surprising thing about the 220-capacity venue is that, five weeks after opening, it has barely raised an eyebrow among its neighbours.
Foley and Burchett, who also run Oakleigh’s successful Caravan Club, have taken a pragmatic approach to bringing live music to the ’burbs, presenting a distinctly non-rock ’n’ roll line-up featuring the likes of Clairy Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes and jazz vocalist Vince Jones, and going out of their way to meet the neighbours.
“We want people to feel like it’s their place,” says Foley. “It comes from the community up. We’ve tried to form really strong relationships, so that if it does come to a [noise complaint] case, we have a lot of support.”
Already local businesses are inquiring about sponsorship. “I thought we might struggle here,” Foley admits. “But the response, and encouragement, has been overwhelming.”
As for the live music stoush in St Kilda, Foley believes part of the problem is that councils are, by nature, complaint-driven. “They’re not proactive,” he says. “They need to develop solutions so everyone can be happy, rather than simply appeasing the noisy minority.”
Only last month restaurant The Great Provider, on St Kilda’s Marine Parade, scored a win when Port Phillip council approved an application to feature live music at evening functions. It followed a protracted battle, in which nine residents lodged complaints.
Owner Andrew Rolleston says he’s delighted with the decision, even though it means installing an expensive noise limiter.
Local resident Clare Miller is less impressed. “We are amazed and surprised,” she says. “We’re not confident they [the council] actually really care about residents.”
Miller, who lives opposite the restaurant, says she’s regularly disturbed by its music, often between 11pm and 3am, despite double-glazed windows.
“There haven’t been sporadic complaints like the council suggests,” she says. “There have been consistent complaints for over three years from residents.”
Port Phillip mayor Rachel Powning believes reports of the live music wars in St Kilda have been exaggerated. “I actually don’t think it’s a big problem,” she says. ‘‘Overall we don’t receive a high number of complaints about live music venues.”
In 2011, the council received 294 complaints about barking dogs, 373 relating to construction site noise and only 30 specifically regarding live music. Still Powning acknowledges there are challenges. She says rising property values lead to gentrification and higher business rents, which in turn can prompt smaller venues to diversify into live music.
But she says venue owners must recognise that live music carries responsibilities. “The reason you don’t get complaints about the Espy is because residents and council made sure there were acoustic controls built in.”
Powning has formed a live music working group involving residents, venue owners and councillors to forge a best-practice approach to resolving the ongoing problems.
Dave Stevens, son of AC/DC’s Bon Scott, has had his fair share of battles with the council. The owner of Barkly Street record store and cafe Pure Pop Records attracted a series of complaints after he started hosting live gigs in the tiny rear courtyard, including more than 100 complaints from Maurice Venning on nearby Chaucer Street.
A former musician, Venning insists he isn’t against live music but says Pure Pop needs soundproofing. “When Claypots had complaints from neighbours after they started playing live music, they put in a proper sound wall – no more complaints. Our dear friend at Pure Pop has done absolutely nothing.”
Following inspections, the council demanded Stevens demolish an illegal wooden structure that predated his tenancy. He admits he almost gave up the fight to keep live music. “Residents have more rights than business owners,” he says. “The mayor has been really supportive, but when the noise thing snowballed, every department went through me with a fine-tooth comb.”
He says a new soundproof structure will set him back a tidy $100,000. Undefeated, he has launched a Buy a Brick campaign, asking supporters to buy a brick in the courtyard, with the proceeds to go towards soundproofing.
Powning acknowledges the challenges small businesses face to meet upgrade requirements. “It all costs money. I think there’s a real role for councils firstly to advise venues on changes and possibly even look at grant opportunities.”
Back at the Flying Saucer Club, Foley is sympathetic to Pure Pop’s plight. ‘‘I would have given up if I had to go through that,” he admits
For Stevens, that’s not an option. “St Kilda used to be a vibrant music suburb. Now that’s mainly moved north of the river; there’s not much left here,” he says. “Twenty years ago, one venue probably wasn’t important. Now it is.”