Ten years after he took over the Tote, publican and advocate Jon Perring reflected on Victorian music in a keynote speech at the City of Yarra-Music Victoria Venues Day.
Keynote – Yarra Venues day, Fitzroy Town Hall.
2nd March 2020
When Andy, Sam and I first applied to Council to establish Bar Open in 1997, we were unprepared for the push-back and backroom local political resistance that we were to encounter at Yarra Council.
We had to go to VCAT three times and also a liquor commission hearing, to get Bar Open licensed and up and running as a music venue.
The pushback we got was not policy-based, just straight up prejudicial opposition to our vision. The standard line from the Fitzroy cabal of not more than a dozen, 50 years plus, conservative, white, middle-class NIMBYs was
“We don’t want Brunswick St to turn into King St”.
Back in 1997, the Victorian Government and all councils considered live music venues the same as night-clubs and strip clubs.
That is, … undesirable, synonymous with violence and anti-social behaviour.
There was no understanding or appreciation of the value of live music culture or the economic value of the live music industry which operated within licensed premises. Little did we know then, that we were to become the first green field live music venue to be established in decades and still one of a handful of greenfield live music venues established since.
We fought hard and we overcame.
We had other similar battles at the Spanish Club with Council, and with the Victorian Government and Council with the Tote in the process of re-opening it. None of these bureaucratic conflicts were fair or transparent.
One day I might put these stories of attempted bullying and what I believe to be corrupt conduct in some cases, on the public record, but not today.
However, we believed in our vision and were passionate about live music. The 22-year experience of running 6 live music venues has hardened my resolve and still drives me today.
Apparently, I’m a publican.
I can’t deny it, it is true. But actually, running a pub is not what I really care about. The ‘running of a pub’ bit allows me to do what is important to me and that is … facilitating art and culture in the form of live music.
The contemporary live music scene practised in Pubs, Clubs and Bars is the closest thing we have in contemporary urban Australia to a living, breathing cultural practice and I believe it sits alongside indigenous arts practices, the best of Australian literature, performing arts, moving image productions and visual arts in its importance as an expression of Australian life, society and contemporary arts cultures.
That is why, this thing we do, is important to me and hopefully … why it is important to you.
It’s no ticket to get rich.
As you know, a little over 10 years ago, the previous publican of the Tote, Bruce Milne, announced that the Tote would close, publicly citing the requirement for mandatory security guards staffing at Live Music performances as the reason for the Totes closure. This was imposed on the Tote’s liquor licence by the Victorian Government.
This broke the Tote’s business model.
4,000 people formed a spontaneous protest in support of the Tote, closing Wellington St and Johnston St to traffic.
That day began for me with me making a speech out of the 1st floor window of the Tote. It ultimately led me, Sam and my departed business partner Andrew Portokallis, to reactivate the Tote as a live music venue, pub, and meeting place.
Sometimes people describe me as ‘the guy who saved the Tote’. It’s a label I’m not comfortable with. I don’t deny that the role I played was pivotal but the reality is many people saved the Tote.
· the people who attended that original Tote rally and the SLAM rally,
· who have helped lobby the Government,
· put the Tote back together again,
· worked the bar,
· booked the bands,
· picked up the glasses,
· bounced drunks and bad actors,
· and who have cleaned the dunnies the following day.
They also believed what I believed in. That Live Music Venues are important cultural institutions and need to be saved when threatened by entitled NIMBYs, greedy developers, petty regulations and regulators, or maybe in some cases, the venues themselves.
The Tote protest and the subsequent 20,000 strong SLAM rally changed the course of many lives, including mine, and undeniably led to a number of important reforms to Victorian law and generated significant political capital.
· the needs of Live Music to be taken into account in liquor licensing decisions by amendment to the Liquor Act’s objectives.
· The introduction of the Agent of Change principle into the Victorian Planning Provisions requiring proximate residential developments to music venues to acoustically protect themselves from music in the soundscape.
· The variation to the Building Code in Victoria to keep Bar and Pub based music venues (with liquor licenses under 500sqm) as class 4 buildings, not class 9b (Places of Public Entertainment) that kick in extremely high compliance costs.
· And even musician parking permits.
and also, in addition to the Live Music Acord’s achievements, the new political capital facilitated,
· the funding of Music Victoria.
· the commissioning of an economic study on Live Music which has been used to advocate for funding of subsequent music industry business cases.
· Dedicated contemporary music funding for musicians and venues such as the Good Neighbours venue sound proofing grants.
· the Vault.
· the VMDO.
Importantly, it started and created a formal relationship between the Victorian Government and local Governments, ending the lawless wild-west legal environment that existed up until then in Victoria. A situation that is not enjoyed over the border in NSW yet. The formal manifestation of this was the Live Music Accord and Agreement that was signed by the combatants. Myself on behalf of FairGo4LiveMusic, Quincy McClean on behalf of SLAM, Kirsty Rivers and Patrick Donovan on behalf of the newly formed and funded Music Victoria and Tony Robinson on behalf of the Victorian State Government.
So, …. what have I learnt over these past 22 years?
I have learnt that playing music is a deeply political act and it should not and cannot, be taken for granted. It is built on the hard work of many people and it is a privilege to be able to present it and play it.
This is what we do.
This is the business that we are in.
It’s important work.
Cultural spaces like the Tote, Bar Open, and all the other live music venues around town (yours) are a rarity in the modern world. They can’t be created easily as my partners and I naively discovered.
They mostly exist, because they existed before the modern world of regulation and bureaucracy stipulating planning rules, rigorous environmental sound and Building Code regulations that impose their too often impossibly high bar on the ability to legally permit cultural activity, including … playing music to an audience.
Even Governments struggle to create cultural spaces. It has been 10 years that the Victorian Government has been trying to create the Collingwood Arts Precinct next door to the Tote and how many artists are there, there? Zero. How many gigs have been played there? A dozen maybe? Certainly nothing like the 25,000 gigs played at the Tote and the 15,000 at Bar Open in the same 10 years! (I’m excluding the Circus Oz and the Melba Spiegeltent as they are their own thing and pre-date the CAP concept).
Perhaps the State Government is now distancing themselves from the arduous vision of arts-based practice at this site by the duff … ‘Collingwood Yards’ … rebranding.
So, it is a privilege to play music in venues. You can’t have culture unless you have a place to create it in, to nurture it and an audience to engage with it.
The Tote has a history that matters to the music community that goes back 40 years. The notion that culture and land are inseparable is an older idea that goes back far greater than 40,000 years and is at the centre of the festering sore of the Australian state.
So, it is always worth acknowledging the privilege of music-making is conducted on stolen aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. In the Tote’s case, the Wurundjeri-bullak people.
It heartens me to now see that many bands and events acknowledge country before their gig or event and hence, I do so now …. by paying my respects to their elders, past and present, and I wish their future elders well on their journey of leadership and carriage of their cultures and epistemologies. That respect is also extended to all First Nation peoples and their deep relationship between place and culture.
It’s a respect and purpose I try and live up to everyday too.
Dr G of Yothu Yindi said “What a gift this is that we give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.”
So my interpretation of these words is:
· Defending culture must include defending the places in which it is practiced.
· Likewise, defending the places, is defending culture itself.
When the EPA drafts new regulations to control music doesn’t acknowledge the cultural value of music but instead classes it as a pollutant, then that attacks our right to hold and participate in music making at festivals and in venues. This is a current battle front and I must also point out, a violation of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Charter.
“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he/she is the author.”
Likewise, we must defend the practitioners.
When the police attended the Tote in numbers on Australia day 3 years ago and attempted to prevent the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance from burning (legally I should point out) an Australian flag at the Tote, then this expression of indigenous sovereignty needs defending.
When the NSW police pursue Hip-hop band OneFour by using anti-bikie, anti-association laws for making music and attempting to tour, then that is also an attack on our culture. The Victorian Police participated in this by threatening to challenge Victorian music venues liquor license that were considering giving OneFour a gig. These actions require challenge, thought and response.
Don’t get me wrong, members of OneFour have been convicted of serious violet acts and sentenced accordingly. I’m not condoning or justify these criminal violent acts or criticising the justice systems punitive response. In fact, … this is the way these matters should be handled.
What I’m highlighting is the hypocritical nature and racist thinking behind the NSW polices focus on the collective cultural and artistic expression of male islander youth brought up on the streets of Mount Druitt in the form of Drill HipHop.
The NSW police have created Strike Force Imbala to target gang activity in western Sydney and are specifically looking at how such crime may be influenced by … “rap culture”.
Where is their cultural expertise? The police have not reached out to discuss their thinking with the industry or academia. Where is the transparency and the publication of the research underpinning their analysis and tactics?
Quotes such as that by Nathan Trueman of the NSW Police, really concern me.
“I’m going to use everything in my power to make your life miserable until you stop doing what you’re doing? Every aspect of your life, I’m going to make uncomfortable for you”
‘Drill’ Hiphop is performative. The artists are making art in direct response to racism they experience everyday which results in social marginalisation. It’s a reflection of their lived experience, it’s their perceived reality. Furthermore, OneFour’s YouTube videos are clearly qualified by anti-violence disclaimer statements.
‘Drill’ is not unique in its reference to the reality of violence. Let me reference the 10,000 Hollywood films and video games that trade on an immersive violence experience.
It’s a non-stop production line.
Talking about violence and contextualising it does not create it.
So, … the use of anti-association laws designed to target criminal enterprise are not the appropriate legal tools. Cultural expression needs to be seen as pathway out of marginalisation and also an authentic window into the lived experience of those who created it.
OneFour now see and describe themselves as artists.
Challenging hate, violence, racism, misogyny, etc can only be countered by discourse and by ‘response’ from within the music genre itself, not by state police oppression. Nor will artists share a stage with haters.
I would say that a comparison can be made with NWA’s “Straight out of Compton”. Drill is not going anywhere locally if OneFour’s 2.4 million views of “Shanks and Shivs” is any indication.
We need to be in dialogue with VicPol on this subject to make sure that they are not racially profiling and participating in cultural oppression. However, we also need to work with the Police when they are focusing on individual violent criminals. This is in everybody’s interest. We need to establish this dialogue and establish a working protocol.
When our federal government is by definition a corrupt criminal enterprise, ‘the law’ … is seen as … tribal, partisan and not criminality focused.
This is a breakdown in the moral order that underpins the rule of law.
Let me justify this. The federal government is illegally extorting money from welfare recipients with Robo-debt. It’s bribing voters in conservative seats via the targeted sports rorts pork barrelling grants, and its funding Car Park upgrades for train stations in Victorian Liberal seats which adds up to the misappropriation of nearly $5 billion of tax payers money.
Let’s not also forget to mention the internationally acknowledged unlawful human rights abuses of the Australian Government’s off shore detention policies in Nauru and Manus according to a prosecutor of the international criminal court.
This political environment, where governments and the political class no longer enjoy moral authority, places the people in this room and our fellow venue and festival colleagues, increasingly in the eye of the storm.
Furthermore, cultural spaces and organisations independent of the government purse and the artforms performed in them, will become increasing important as forums for cultural expression. Yes, your venues.
Consider that a quarter of the federally funded arts organisations are expected to be defunded because of the deep cuts in arts funding under the coalition government. That’s an estimated 27 to 34 small to medium arts organisation to be wiped out in a matter of month because of the estimated $20-25m funding short fall resulting from the Brandis AusCo ‘snatch and grab’ back in 2017.
All these issues are interlinked. We must remember that we can shape the world we are living in.
A better world, and better art and music comes through that struggle.
That is, … the struggle to resist the rollback of our freedom to associate, to say what needs to be said, to protest when we need and to defend practice and participation in our culture.
These are all reflected in the UN Charter of Human Rights Protections signed up and committed to by the Australian Government.
We need to hold Governments to account.
We must not accept that decent and expression of lived experience is somehow inciting gang violence or that violence and music practice are somehow intrinsically linked!
We must challenge headlines such “90% of music fans use drugs” (SMH July 2019) when we know 99% of drug overdoses deaths don’t happen at music festivals or in live music venues.
We can chart our path and we can write our own history!
We must challenge racists statements by the likes of Peter Dutton, where he stigmatised Australians of African descent by claiming “people are scared to go out to restaurants of a night-time because they’re followed home by these (African) gangs”. Government endorsed racist statements have consequences … as those of us who work in Yarra well know, as we have had to deal with that fall out.
This is the environment in which we operate in.
10 years ago, there was also another tragedy that eclipsed the flash mob out the front of the Tote and the subsequent SLAM rally of 20,000 people. That was Black Saturday.
Yet again, we now see the music community and industry pulling together by putting on gigs in venues all round town in response to the suffering of this summer’s bushfires just like they did 10 years ago in response to Black Saturday.
I mention this because this is music culture … at its strongest … bringing diverse people together, … contextualising our lived experience and facilitating the healing.
We should emphasise this as a counter narrative to the slanderous spin that is often thrown at us.
The Tote’s little bushfire fundraise. $42,500
Neil Morris’s First Nations GoFundMe fundraiser $1.9m
The international stadium sized Fire Fight Concert raised nearly $10m
And there is plenty more. I don’t have figures.
Almost every band I can think of was on a fundraiser bill in their local live music venue all round town. Musicians and artists who earn so little and the tireless efforts of venues and their staff willingly step-up as always … Always!
The broader communities respect for the music community and the power that flows from that respect is derived from these cultural authenticities. Government’s and other hostile forces such as sections of the media, should be reminded of this at every opportunity. This is part of our political capital.
I also believe that the practice of playing music itself is fundamentally an expression of moral order.
That is the co-ordination of difference in the expression of emotion. When music is played, every musician must pursue their individual expression by exploiting their sonic difference but coordinate and co-operate with the group.
It is a celebration of human diversity and a communion that transcends language itself.
The playing of music should not and cannot be taken for granted. The privilege of playing music in front of an audience needs to be respected by defending the culture when necessary and the places it is practiced in! That is actively engaging with the issues and politics that surround us.
I hope maybe that my reflections on ‘what we do’, sheds new light on its importance and critically, …. the responsibilities that flow from it.. The responsibility to determine the future of cultural spaces and the shape of live music.
We are not just publicans, pub managers and band bookers.
We are influencers, enablers, and … curators but most importantly, … we are cultural custodians .