When I first started playing gigs as a teen in Brisbane in the mid-2000s, venues charged $10 entry for a show with three or four local bands on the bill. Not all venues were the same, but many took up to 20 per cent of the ticket price, with the rest divvied up between the bands, and all bar takings usually kept by the venue too.
On a very good night we might make upwards of $500 per band, on a bad night we’d make $50 between four musicians.
Moving to Melbourne in pursuit of rock-star ambitions in 2011, I found the cost of a ticket was still around $10. Sometimes ticket prices dipped as low as $5 for a night out.
In the decade since, ticket prices have shifted closer to $15, but it now costs more for a pint of beer in some bars than it does for a 40-minute set of original music by talented young musicians.
A current push by the musicians’ union, Musicians Australia, a branch of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, seeks to address this by setting a minimum rate of pay at $250 per musician, per performance.
The proposal is currently aimed at gigs supported with public funding, but the long-term goal is to mandate a minimum rate of pay for musicians sector-wide.
Venue owners, such as The Tote’s Jon Perring, have already come out strongly against the proposal, saying it would bankrupt small live music venues. However, this isn’t the full story.
It isn’t cheap to be a musician in Australia today. There’s the cost of equipment, rehearsal space, travel costs to and from rehearsals and gigs, the outlay of time and capital in the form of years of training – and the paid work forgone in pursuit of a passion.
All this set against a backdrop of the rising cost of living and stagnating wages both in their “day jobs” and musicians’ inability to charge more per performance due to an assumption that audiences and venues aren’t willing to pay – an assumption that has remained unchallenged for decades.
As venues reopened after Melbourne’s 18 months of lockdowns, there has been a growing awareness about what live music is really worth – and a question as to whether ticket prices should be raised to support those who make it possible. However, with no bargaining power and entrenched assumptions about what punters are willing to pay, musicians remain some of the most undervalued cultural workers in Australia. And to be frank, those who benefit most from this arrangement are the venues and promoters.
Small live music venues are peculiar spaces. Though they operate as for-profit, small-to-medium businesses, they double as social and community hubs for music scenes, often prioritising giving an emerging band their shot over a profitable night. Regardless, too often this contribution comes at a cost to musicians.
Serious intervention is needed to raise the bar for everyone in the live music industry. A move to a minimum rate of pay for musicians is the catalyst we need to value their cultural labour accordingly.
Of course, this fundamental shift would come with a teething process. Ticket prices would have to quickly catch up with their actual value, and there would be a short-term shock to audiences and the profit margins of smaller venues.
But a focus on the potential risks shows our lack of imagination as to what else we could be doing to support a truly thriving cultural landscape.
Elsewhere, France has a strong history of direct subsidies for artists in the form of an unemployment insurance scheme, as well as many publicly owned, not-for-profit small live music venues run by state and local governments.
In Ireland, a Basic Income for Artists is being trialled, paying 2000 artists the minimum wage for three years. In Korea, a youth basic income has been trialled to great success, which would have obvious implications for young musicians.
Putting a minimum floor on revenue available to artists is an obvious and productive policy – as is a minimum rate of pay for musicians.
Of course, some venues might fail (as they already do now), but those that survive will be able to attract better talent.
Niche genres such as grindcore, reggae or punk might also move to DIY, not-for-profit spaces, but this does not mean commercial audiences for these genres will cease to exist. In fact, minimum pay for musicians and greater government involvement may grow the number of community or publicly run live music spaces in Australia, like the recent push for co-operatively or community owned venues in the UK.
I have a great deal of affection for small venues such as The Tote. I have played on that stage and danced in that pit many times. It’s where I met my partner at 3am after the Renegade Pub Football League’s annual ball.
What made these moments possible – what brought them alive – was the talent of the musicians who played, and who have been underpaid for a generation.
These musicians are workers. They shouldn’t be made to pick up the tab.