What’s wrong with Melbourne’s music?


Apparently, nothing. On the surface it’s booming: in quality and quantity it’s hard to beat Melbourne’s live scene anywhere in the world. But look a little deeper and you’ll find that the people who make this beautiful noise are having a hard time getting a fair share of what can be a very lucrative business for others.

Melbourne’s High St, Northcote, like many other inner-city streets before it, is enjoying a renaissance driven by the right mix of food, booze, art and live music. But while all the cooks, waiters and bartenders are getting paid, the musicians aren’t.

So on High St, and elsewhere, it’s common to see Melbourne’s best musicians passing around a begging bowl and dividing up pitiful handfuls of coins, while all around them, cash registers go ka-ching!, courtesy of their audience.

It certainly seems that if there was an enforceable minimum pay rate for musicians, it would make no difference to the more lucrative venues. They underpay simply because no one can make them pay fairly. Some venue managers I have spoken to respond by saying, “Give me a reason why I should pay more than I have to”.

Sure, there are a lot of musicians looking to play, but in other areas where there is a surplus of labour, it may hard to get a gig, but it doesn’t drive wages down to zero. There’s a surplus of lawyers, but are they getting cheaper? Besides, we supposedly have legal minimum wages to prevent the market from producing inhumane outcomes.

So how is it possible to simply choose whether or not to pay one particular group of employees?

Some venues avoid paying their musicians by passing the entrepreneurial risk (but rarely the chance to profit) onto them. One way of doing this is the notorious “door deal” where the band is paid a fraction of money collected from customers as they enter the venue. Alternatively, the musicians are paid out of any profits above a certain amount.

There are various formulas, but what they have in common is that the musicians can make from zero up to a certain maximum, but the venue owner’s profits can only be increased by the presence of the band, and with no upper limit.

But why should one class of employee bear someone else’s entrepreneurial risk? Musicians are not primarily entrepreneurs, but people with a saleable skill, like a plumber or an architect; no-one has the option of paying the latter groups only if they make enough money to do so.

A legal fiction that is used to justify this is the notion that musicians are “contractors”. Many venues and other employers now demand A.B.N.s from musicians they engage, often presenting this as a legal requirement; and many musicians believe it to be such. This, however, is false.

This strategy is merely an attempt to relieve the employer of any normal responsibilities they would have towards an employee, like proper rates of pay, tax, safety, insurance, etc. and to pass them on to the musician. However, the strategy fails because by law, if 80% of the task someone is employed to do consists of their own labour, they are entitled to the normal conditions of an employee, regardless of the terms of their engagement.

But often the scenario is a lot simpler: $20-$50 each, cash, take it or leave it.

A pay award for musicians does already exist. It has been around for many decades, and anyone playing in an orchestra or commercial theatre is paid accordingly. It was once enforced in the live music scene through “secondary boycotts” (the knowledge that if you didn’t pay your musicians, the beer wouldn’t be delivered to your pub), but when these were declared illegal in 1974, it became necessary to rely on the fairness of proprietors.

Even so, the ghost of the award persisted until around 1990, when the minimum a musician would be offered was about $80. This amount was still referred to as “rates”, as in “I’ll pay you rates”.

Since then, this “floor” rate has dropped effectively to zero. Over the same period, wages and prices have multiplied, and we have seen a spectacular blossoming of the entertainment industry as a whole, with people flocking to hotspots to enjoy bars, theatres, restaurants and live music in unprecedented numbers. Dizzying amounts of money are made. Real estate skyrockets.

So it often stretches credibility when venue managers say they can’t afford to pay their musicians. One recently told me, standing in the middle of the buzzing dining room of one of the four or five pubs in his empire, that he could only afford to pay the band his diners had come to see $30 each. He said this with a straight face and actually seemed to believe it himself.

Like most people, venue managers spend their money on compulsory expenses first, then on things they want, and last on things they should do but don’t have to.

If they genuinely can’t afford to hire musicians, and music is a vital part of the business, then I’d call that business unviable. Any business must be able to meet its expenses, especially paying its employees.

It should be recognised that there are some special places (examples on High St like say, 303 and Open Studio) who are in it for the love and are simply not able to do it any other way. I personally really appreciate them, they’re my favorite places, and it would be disastrous if rigid pay schemes for musicians made these magic little places untenable – that would stifle the creativity of the scene.

But it doesn’t need to happen like that. For example, actors are strongly unionised, and always get paid if they get a commercial gig, but there’s nothing stopping Cate Blanchett from doing a show at La Mama (Melbourne’s famous tiny “experimental” theatre) for next to nothing if she wants. Ideally, musicians (and venue managers) should also have that flexibility.

In New York, for example, they seem to manage this pretty well with an informal two-tier venue system: some venues are “professional”, if you can get a gig there you will be very well paid, and they cost US$20-60 to get in, but punters pay because they know the music will be of a very high standard. Others could be described as “amateur”, not necessarily meaning poor quality, but they’re free or cheap to get into, and as they say, “you pays your money and you takes your chances”.

Maybe this is the way forward for Melbourne. There are already some signs of this: venues like The Northcote Social Club, Bennett’s Lane and The Toff in Town would fall into the “professional” category, who could afford to pay their cash-cows fairly. At the moment some do, some don’t.

And a cultural change is also needed. Melburnians have been spoilt for too long, often baulking at a $5 cover charge. They willingly spend $20 for a prerecorded movie, or $100 to watch a DJ play records with thousands of others, but don’t want to spend the price of a beer on watching an unrepeatable performance up close. Musicians themselves need to think about how freely they give their gifts away, lest they find themselves unable to keep giving.

One thought on “What’s wrong with Melbourne’s music?

  1. Paul

    I’m reminded of the proverb : one mustn’t cast ones pearls amongst swine. Another favourite is an eagle doesn’t catch flies. You have obviously given this a lot of thought and have produced an excellent exposition of the problem with food for thought about the solution. Cheers!


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