Is Australia's live music scene dying, or is it thriving?

A wise man once said “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna Rock n’ Roll.” But is “the top” still relevant to the modern musician? 

Musicians pour countless hours into their craft; touring, creating, managing and consistently performing are just part of the full-time gig that is music. Yet we’ve come to accept hard work in the culture without the guarantee of a fair week’s pay.  We hit up some Aussie musicians and friends of Parlour to find out what keeps their hearts beating in rhythm and their minds fixed on melodies.

One of the biggest kickers for musicians is touring. While it’s widely loved among those who get the chance to do it, it’s also a lot of hard work, a lot of time, and a lot of money. 

“I just finished my first ever headline tour and there are plenty of difficulties, it’s a whole different deal when you’re headlining as opposed to supporting. The organisational part is massive!” - Clea

“It’s all a learning experience. I wish I’d known that I would lose money on touring to begin with, but I don’t really hold onto it. ” - Jim Lawrie

Finding the finances and the time off of work is something that needs to be accounted for, especially considering that you can very likely lose money while touring. Not to mention the fact that you’re without your home or regular routine for the duration of the tour. 

“Eating out, no piano, no space. I’m a homebody who likes to tinker around with painting and playing.” - Leah Senior

It’s like a full time stint that you pay for. So what’s the charm? 

“I’ve done a few charity shows over time, I’m no Mother Theresa, but I do alright. There was one I did for a group called Musicians for Hearing (a charity for hearing loss who arrange sign-language interpreters to sing for the hearing-impaired at performances) It was one of the best things I’ve been a part of.” - Jim Lawrie

"I walked away with a greater sense of value in my music than any paid invoice could give." - Jim Lawrie

Touring and performing alone is something I’m still getting used to. I have really bad anxiety so being so vulnerable on stage without my band is hard work. But, the feeling afterwards always makes it so worth it.” - Alice Skye

Despite the hardships and costs of touring and performing, most musicians we’ve talked to almost unanimously focus on the sense of gratification and accomplishment in being able to give back to the community and simply share their music with others. 

Though all artists in this article expressed to us their satisfaction and appreciation in performing and touring, I was curious as to how they find the time to actually do it, as well as work a day job and make ends meet.

"It’s an endless juggle." - Leah Senior

Rather than allowing for work to intervene with music, we found that our guests avoid this by taking work as a second priority and keeping their efforts in line with their passions. 

"I’ve quit a heap of jobs! Pushing the idea of a career off into the distance." - Leah

Cutting jobs, taking time off, or working in roles that are lacking in glory or glamour (*cough*cough* hospitality *cough* retail) are all commonplace for a musician devoted to the art. Unless you’re last name is Kent and you wear spandex, finding the time to improve as a musician while working full-time is incredibly difficult.

"I’ve mainly worked hospitality and other jobs that are flexible and unambitious in order to keep writing and playing". - Jim Lawrie

"I am notoriously bad at being organised. My idea of being ‘on time’ is usually being 5-15 minutes late.. but when it comes to music I would bend over backwards to make sure I could make it. So a lot of the time it would actually be my music-life getting in the way of my work life. Priorities!" - Alice Skye

Clea mentions having finally made the decision to see how far she can sustain herself on her music “without having to jump back on the hospitality train (hopefully never!)”. Living off of music is obviously no easy feat. With the majority of listening garnered through digital streaming services, it’s a shame that musicians can either earn or a bucketload through digital releases or just enough for the occasional burger.

"Spotify can be your friend if you get onto a good playlist, but because of modern music platforms, indie musicians hardly get a bar from digital and physical purchases" - Clea

"I’ve definitely profited, but not in large amounts! I think once I got a royalty check of $2.75" - Alice

Profits for many artists come from the direct support of fans in the form of actual tickets sales and purchasing of their releases. There is a lot of luck involved in whether or not you can earn a wage from streaming alone. 

"It can be profitable if you get on a well regulated playlist and rack up plays into the thousands or millions, but asides from that I think the only benefit is that people are able to access your tunes easy, and maybe that’ll lead to them coming to a show." - Jim 

That being said, not all gigs pay well, or at all for that matter. This doesn’t stop any of the guests of this article though, all of them citing and endorsing free shows as worthwhile experiences. 

“I can’t afford to do it all the time but to me the experience is so worth it while I’m still learning to build up confidence.” - Alice

“I’ve done so many (low-paying gigs)! Sometimes it just looks like a fun time, other times it might be an “opportunity”. Although I’ve gotten to a stage where I get tired of playing for nothing, when you’re starting out and full of energy I reckon go for it.” -Leah

With digital distribution being so popular, yet so unreliable financially, the opportunity to perform for the sake of the art becomes rarer. Eventually, an artist has to expect fair payment from their profession. 

Performing is a part of the passion, but is also guided by your ability to sustain yourself financially. As an artist invests more of their life into music, and pursues it as a profession as opposed to a hobby, the scene takes on a large administrative, business side.

“It’s a full time job in itself. And I think you also have to be prepared for the administrative side of it” - Jim

"All the music business stuff is a bit of a drag- especially when you’re juggling jobs and creative stuff" - Leah

At the end of the day, musicians have to be able to sustain themselves from what they do. As such a lot of non-creative work goes into what is intended to be a creative field. 

"Music feels like work when dealing with the admin side of things but more so like play when touring, releasing music, creating music clips and artwork." - Clea

And as with many independent careers, starting up is often synonymous with being tight on cash. 

“Have savings! Just so you can feel comfortable if things don’t start to heat up straight away” - Clea

"Be patient and shop second hand." - Alice

“Before you get to enjoy a sustainable lifestyle as a musician little sacrifices have to be made…cheap rentals, thrifting, lots of home cooking (all of which I believe are very rewarding and good for the soul)” - Clea

There isn’t much of a middle-ground in terms of a musician’s wage. If you aren’t making it a big and living good off of your music, you’re probably budgeting and living frigidly for it. 

“Ultimately I would just love to have a little more financial support so I could keep tinkering away without worrying so much about making ends meet.” - Leah

It’s something that’s become not only accepted, but embraced. I asked Leah what she gets out of being a musician, to which she jestingly boasted :

"Debt and the romance of following your dreams. Also being part of a wonderful community where you are constantly meeting like minded people." - Leah

Despite the majority of this article being focused on discussing the hardships and sacrifices that musicians tend to make, the lifestyle is undoubtedly worth it for our guests. The financial complications and hard work that go into the music aren’t on the mind of the passionate musician when considering the future. 

"I’ve learnt a lot about myself through playing music and one thing I’ve realised is that if I never earned a dollar doing it, I’d still come out richer than when I started" - Jim

"It’ll never be a 9-5 job with a secure salary. I’m okay with that." - Alice

When I asked what it is that pushes them through the constant administrative work and small lifestyle sacrifices, and why they choose to live by music,  our guests explained that choice has very little to do with it. 

"I’ve tried studying and working full time and it’s always something I have to force or talk myself into. Music comes much more naturally. I struggle a lot with making decisions and music is the first thing I’ve never had to question. Obviously performing is hard and can be tiring – but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done." - Alice

"I guess the way I’ve come to see it is instinctual or as a necessity. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be happy, if I wasn’t happy I wouldn’t be alive. That’s a very simplistic way of describing it, but its true for me at least" - Jim

"As long as I have a roof over my head and food on my plate I’m just fine. I don’t see the point in living lavishly but not doing what you love most." - Clea

It comes down to general happiness. People find happiness in many different ways, whether it be through comfortable living, through a sustainable career, through being with friends and loved ones or through watching the zeroes in your bank account rack up over the years. Some people find happiness solely in their passions.

“Life is most definitely too short to not do what you truly want to do.” - Clea

For their music and their passions, small lifestyle compromises become even smaller to the devoted musician, and the focus always returns to artistic expression and experience of sharing music. 

 If there was anything you could change about being a musician, what would it be?

"Honestly? Nothing!" - Alice Skye

Written by Leonard Bernardone

Is Australia’s live music scene dying, thriving, or the same as it’s ever been?

Everyone has their opinion on how well the music scene is faring in this digital age. With live venue attendances of roughly 26 million per year, you’d be mad to say that live music isn’t relevant. However, upcoming artists involved in the culture are struggling to fill seats, and consequently their stomachs.

We interviewed some musical veterans and friends of Parlor to get their take on the state of the industry, including Michael Spiby of The Badloves, Kim Salmon, and Steve Kilbey of The Church. First, we asked if they think live music is at risk, which was met with the following by Kilbey:

“It seems there are less opportunities for young players than back in my early days. There were millions of venues then, and there aren’t now. So where can they all play?”

Asides from the increasing availability of music at home and on-the-go, live music is also largely impacted by changing legislations and venue requirements. Australia just isn’t as accommodating for the culture as it used to be, and venues such as The Cherry Bar and The Tote, both crucial Melbourne rock staples, have been brought to their knees by noise complaints and mandatory renovations/cutbacks. Gig spots are finding it less and less profitable or secure to host live performances unless they can tone it down and avoid noise complaints.

Although gig spots are becoming scarce, more avenues are becoming available for live performances. Alternatives such as Parlour, that can bring musicians literally to your doorstep, would’ve been impossible fifteen years ago. Asking a band like The Church to play a show at your home could have likely been viewed as ridiculous, but the culture has shifted. Thanks to the internet, communications between the audience and the performer are clearer than ever before, and having your favourite band or musician perform at your location is not only possible but actually quite reasonable!

While there may be a shift in the availability of venues, the culture has shifted in a way that live music is no longer restricted to specific gig-spots. Spiby responded differently, however, attributing the changes of the music scene to technology rather than venue availability:

“Venues come and go but the scene is still as vital and productive now as it was in the early days. It’s the distribution of recorded music that has changed drastically and, through technology, anyone can release their music without a label… with varying success!”

Where engaging with live music used to be a large part of musical discovery, we now have a free (or dirt-cheap) personal curator in our pocket saturating us with literally thousands of immediately available musical options. If you aren’t a music-lover, a gig-goer, or a musician, looking for music can often be like trying a new restaurant and discovering that their menu is 62 pages long. More often than not, it’s overwhelming, and a lot of people stick to what they’re already familiar with rather than seeking new developing artists.

On the other hand, the listeners that do actually want those options and are trying to discover new musicians, have more avenues of discovery than ever before! Music blogs, Youtube channels, streaming services and social media platforms are but few of many ways to find new music,  allowing for artists to extend a further reach than ever before. Hell, my first Jessica Pratt gig was attended solely by luck; my Spotify app decided to inform me that she was performing live that very night in Northcote.

And from there I discovered Aussie musicians performing at the same venue, such as Leah Senior.

Businesses and venues can send out newsletters and notifications at a drastically smaller cost than what used to be available (physical media), events can be hosted with little to no physical advertising, and the word can spread like wildfire very easily.

“There’s loads going on all over the country.” - Kim Salmon

Whether or not technology is filling seats or killing interest, Kim Salmon boasts a strong confidence in the current generation. Citing interest in an array of punk-rockers of this generation ( Nun, Wet Lips, Aus Mutants), Kim Salmon went on to explain that as a music teacher himself, he only teaches the basics, and allows for his students to make their own sound and take their own artistic approach.

“If anything, I’ve learned a lot myself since teaching.” - Kim Salmon

Though there are new challenges in venue availability, and artists have a hard time standing out, the current generation is also equipped with so much in the way of distribution and creative freedom that the culture is now also adapting to the artist. The mainstream may not seem to have as passionate and engaged a following as when rock was at the forefront, but the niche and sidestream audiences are more viable than ever.

We’re in an age where fans of low-key folk artists or obscure genres like Vapourwave can be crowdfunded and directly endorsed by the fans. Hell, Chance the Rapper recently won a Grammy without even being signed to a record label.

The need for official venues is no longer as constricting as it always has been, artists are able to sell themselves independently, and fans can engage at a more direct and personal level.

Oddly enough, in an age of digital communications, music is often more intimate and real than ever.

Playing festivals and concert halls is great fun but is slightly isolating due to the scale of the events, where intimate settings like Parlour shows are … real!  Music is meant to be shared between humans, that’s when it’s most fun. - Michael Spiby

by Leonard Bernardone

The Future of Live Music is Local

Jack Carty playing to a full house in Warranwood, VIC

Jack Carty playing to a full house in Warranwood, VIC

By Matt Walters
Founder / Director – Parlour

For the past two years, we’ve witnessed the birth of a new live music era in Australia. You’re unlikely to hear about it. But it’s there – bubbling away in the background – in suburbs and towns – all around you.

When we launched Parlour in 2015, we were told by plenty of people that established artists would never play gigs in fans’ houses. We heard every defiant argument against the idea – “too scary”, “too risky”, “not great for an artist's brand”. Slowly, we’ve seen perceptions change. We’ve always known that once an artist experienced playing a Parlour gig – they’d be hooked. Since launching we’ve facilitated over 650 gigs in Aus & NZ with some of the biggest names in the country – from Boy & Bear to Bob Evans.

We regularly espouse the financial benefits of playing these gigs – low overheads = high returns (we pay artists an average of $1000 per gig) - but the feedback we get from artists tells us so much more.

Here are a few quotes from musicians that have embraced the platform:

“Firstly, it’s very important to note that Parlour gigs don't just feed your pockets, they restore your faith in humanity. We've done 30 Parlour gigs around Australia now, and they always bring a connection between us and our audience like no other show can.”Jordie Lane

“It’s the purest exchange of music you can have with someone.“Fraser A. Gorman

"The most difficult thing about our show at Green Street was finding a park and getting out through the maze of one-way streets and cul-de-sacs. Everything else was easy. The gear seemed to want to work, and the crowd was receptive and spirited. If we wanted a drink or something good to eat that was no problem either. It makes you wonder why at some gigs everything seems so damned hard."Mick Thomas

“Playing Parlour house concerts has been a real joy. By the time I leave each house concert I feel like I have spent the afternoon or evening with my own family and friends.”Bob Evans

Digital technology has made it easier than ever to record and release music. It’s also made it easier to find fans – so are there fewer live performances happening?

Back in time
Sarah Taylor, a PhD student at RMIT University in Melbourne charted the shift in the landscape just a few years ago. (see Sarah's article here)
Back in 1983, it wasn’t unusual for bands to play Countdown (national TV), and go on to play every night of the week. Bands would go suburb by suburb, hitting smaller pubs – and even playing twice in one night if they could wrangle it. Well known, working bands were self-sufficient back then – they often travelled with their own production – PA’s & lights. Anywhere they could play and get paid, they would.

So what changed? Why did artists suddenly play less often?

Through the 90’s, suburban venues began to close due to noise restrictions, pokies and breathalysers and newer venues in the inner city began to open. Touring a band is expensive in Australia, so bands simply began to tour less often. That’s when change happens. Tastes shift. But the impact on the live music landscape has been enormous.  

There has also been a shift to hypersensitivity around over-saturation, which, I feel is quite ironic. Artists are encouraged to post every day on social media by their label & management but are way too careful about how many shows they’re playing. It’s a strategy guided by the fear that overplaying will reduce demand for an artist. As a result, artists are spending more time on self-promotion online and less time honing their live show. This is not necessarily a good thing for the longevity of the act. This also explains why an artist's image / social media strategy is often far more advanced than their live show.

Part of the issue is that at present, there is a strongly held belief in the industry that demand for an artist can only be handled by the venues & festivals. With artists lucky to walk away with only 35% of the gross from a venue show, it’s hard to understand why this is the case.

As much as Parlour would not exist without Artists, the amazing people who host Parlour Gigs are equally important to the formula, these are the people opening up their home, bringing people together and supporting local live music. As we’ve gotten to know them – a pattern has started to emerge. So many of these people love live music but they feel alienated from it. Many have families and live in the outer suburbs or in regional areas where there just aren’t quality venues. A trip into town to see their favourite band at the Corner Hotel is an expensive logistical challenge – babysitters need to be organised and transport can be hideously expensive. Many would rather save to attend festivals where the kids are welcome. And so, now we are seeing a return to a hyper-local approach with Parlour gigs.

Artists from all walks of life are starting to go direct to fan. Parlour is appealing to artists because we make it easy – just turn up, play and get paid. It’s also appealing because 95% of gigs are privately crowdfunded by hosts. Recently Jordie Lane played a massive 30 date national Parlour run with us. In Victoria, he played the same suburb half a dozen times over the course of the month – because – why not? The demand was there.

I believe this is just the beginning. In the past 6 months we’ve put together tours for the likes of Holly Throsby, Sally Seltmann, Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon), Bob Evans, Fraser A. Gorman, Henry Wagons, Oh Pep!, Jack Carty and many, many more. Artists have been known to play 3-4 times a week – some even squeeze in 2 gigs a day if they can. Because – why not? The demand is there.

Artists are ready and willing to take charge again and technology can facilitate the return to a thriving, hyper-local live music scene. Who would have thought that it would all take place in the home?

Bob Evans, Hosts and attendees at a Parlour gig in Torquay

Bob Evans, Hosts and attendees at a Parlour gig in Torquay