May Live Music Venues Be Seen as Valuable Cultural Resources
Abdul Qowi Bastian
The headline on an AFP story last week, “Music Fees Could Drive Berlin Clubs Back Underground,” upset me. The city’s tourism body has decided to impose a 10 percent levy on all cover charges, which could force disco bars and clubs in Berlin to go out of business.
Meanwhile in New York, a legendary punk-rock club, CBGB, was reincarnated as a festival over the weekend. The revival of the country, bluegrass, blues club that helped launch the careers of Patti Smith, Blondie, The Ramones, to name a few, was seen as an attempt to resurrect the venue’s original avant-garde spirit. The New York Times praised the festival as it “held nostalgia for an era of pre-Internet, do-it-yourself networking and noise-for-art’s-sake experimentation, as well as gratitude for how much current music can claim some CBGB lineage.”
Whatever the genre, wherever the club is located, live music remains an important industry. As the music industry — especially recording — battles declining
revenues due to digital file sharing, live performances and touring —
aside from commercials and ringback tones — have emerged as another
source of revenue.
In this day and age, live music is an alternative, if not the primary, means of income for musicians. Live performances are also seen as a marketing tool to further promote bands’ albums. Most of all, music venues are a place where bands can forge strong relationships with audiences and fellow musicians.
In many Western countries, live music’s economic importance is underlined by cultural factors. Rock pubs, dance clubs and jazz restaurants have not only played significant roles in musicians’ lives and careers, they also have an equal importance in the life of the cities.
Many cities have been closely associated with music: from New Orleans jazz, Seattle grunge, Nashville country, Memphis soul, to Merseyside pop. Female punk rocker Patti Smith, whose career was launched in the aforementioned New York CBGB club, testified in what she called “a little love poem for New York” that the city had a profound effect on her musical ability.
“New York is the thing that seduced me; New York is the thing that formed me; New York is the thing that deformed me; New York is the thing that perverted me; New York is the thing that converted me. New York is the thing that I love, too.”
It must have been painful for Smith to bid CBGB farewell in 2006. At the final concert, Smith and her band performed there and, toward the end of show, played her first historic single, “Gloria.”
It was painful when I witnessed the closure of two respected Melbourne clubs in 2010: the Tote Hotel in Collingwood and the Arthouse in North Melbourne. The Tote management cited crowd control costs, coupled with stricter regulations on trading hours that forbade clubs to operate beyond 1 a.m., as dominant factors behind the closure. Although the Tote was later re-opened under new management, it had attracted media attention and, at the same time, disappointed music fans as the actions were hurting small businesses.
Groups supportive of Melbournian live music were highly critical of the state government’s action. The city’s music representatives — Fair Go 4 Live Music, SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) and Music Victoria — created a petition to collect signatures from music fans in the state of Victoria, calling on the local government to overturn the link between live music and high-risk conditions on liquor licenses for live music venues.
These organizations arranged a SLAM rally on one fine Sunday, delivering the petition signed by 22,000 music fans to the Legislative Council at the Parliament, accompanied by a rock n’ roll song, AC/DC’s definitive “Long Way to the Top.” The song was fitting because the video clip of the song was shot along Swanston Street, Melbourne’s busiest street. The rally was viewed by both the Victorian Premier and local music fans alike as a celebration of Australian music.
Such sad stories won’t stop here and will still reverberate across the world, from Down Under to Europe to the United States. Local clubs are a site where communities are created, skills tested and developed, and reputations earned. Local clubs, like CBGB, could be the birthplace of great musical talents to come and has the potential to make history. But all these won’t happen if policy makers ignore live music’s importance.
There are several reasons for that, one of them being the existing perceptions that music industry should, and could, exist without the government’s assistance. Live, local music performances are simply not valued and are not seen as something that would attract benefits for the country. As obvious as it is, there is still much work to be done in the areas of creative industries, nationally and globally.
Living in Indonesia, a nation that does not possess sophisticated live music venues, it is only reasonable for a music fan like me to take part in other countries’ troubles about the closure of their respected clubs. As someone who has been attending live shows regularly and who has spent his youth watching local bands reach stardom from small inner city rock clubs to arenas, I know how harrowing it is to watch your favorite local clubs close down because they can’t afford it anymore. Live music venues mean more to audiences and musicians than many can understand.
What is needed now is a radical shift in how governments and policy makers view music, from an ephemeral leisure activity to an economically and socially valuable cultural resource.