Melbourne: City On The Rise // Listen

courtney Barnett feat

There’s a curious fascination to be had exploring the relationship between a city and its culture; that ebb and flow of output and reputation, exemplified in so many ways and attributable to any number of factors. At the risk of starting off on a note of national pride, it’s provided Britain with a wealth of enclaves and communities on its own doorstep stretching from Glasgow to Greater London with all manner of stop-offs en route. But that’s not to say we’ve not been impacted by cultural shifts elsewhere. The ingenuity that emerged from Cologne and Detroit in the 1970s and late 1980s respectively crossed the geographical divides to serve formidable notices of intent. So too the early 1990s invasion from Seattle and Portland. In 2015, on the back of successful international exports the spotlight’s starting to shine on Australia and, in particular, Melbourne.

Long-hailed as the world’s ultimate sports city thanks to its hosting of horseracing centrepiece the Melbourne Cup as well as the Australian Open and Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne’s also had a long history of culture and creativity culminating in renowned centrepieces such as the Melbourne Fringe and Melbourne Festival. It’s little wonder that the nation’s most revered musical acts such as The Go-Betweens, Triffids and Nick Cave and his Birthday Party cohorts all undertook stints within the city’s confines, before launching their assaults on the international market from bases in London. Though creative pockets are present in Brisbane (via bands such as Blank Realm and Violet Soho) and Perth (Tame Impala and Pond. Courtney Barnett, as part of her contributions from the midst of a gruelling US tour, attests that “I just read a great essay by [Pond’s] Nick Allbrook called “Creative Darwinism: Pretty Flowers Grow In Shit” – check that out.”), with the likes of Twerps, Fraser A Gorman and the aforementioned Barnett all making waves overseas, it seems as timely as ever to look closer at the Victorian capital and probe deeper into what makes it so special.

I feel like when I moved there, that’s when I really started to write better songs. – Courtney Barnett

“I feel so lucky to be from there,” said Melbourne’s current export of the moment, Courtney Barnett, during a radio interview conducted during her UK tour earlier this year, with a tone which suggests the city is as important to her as she currently is to it and its international perception. “I feel like when I moved there, that’s when I really started to write better songs, I was inspired by the other bands around and seeing really great music, discovering new things and playing guitar in other bands.” As evidenced by a recent Sydney Morning Herald piece, the city has crept into her lyrics, be it the Fitzroy Lido or Hume Highway – when pressed on the matter she clarifies that it’s “the visual landscape to my inner soundtrack. for the most part. My surroundings are often varied, evoking imagery of all countrysides and cities. But I always return to Melbourne physically, so until that changes, my songs will always return to Melbourne too.” Nonetheless, she describes it as “a mega hotbed. There’s always been great music here – and dance, and art, and theatre, and writers and thinkers.”

Listen whilst you read:
A showcase of Melbourne music curated by RRR FM Music Co-ordinator, Simon Winkler.

It’s a view seconded by her longtime friend and labelmate Fraser A Gorman, whose début album Slow Gum recently reached these shores. “Melbourne has the strongest music culture in Australia by a mile,” he says without a hint of hesitation “I think it’s something we are very proud of. In turn a lot of bands give it a really good crack, write the best tunes they can and get involved with little scenes that pop up around bars and pubs like the Tote and Old Bar. I love Melbourne music. And I guess the rest of the world is getting into it too.” The question is, is the city going through a cultural purple patch or is the world finally taking notice, having been asleep at the wheel? For Jen Cloher, who aside from being Barnett’s partner and fellow Milk! Records linchpin, boasts an impressive CV including award-nominated musical efforts of her own, it’s “a little of both. Melbourne has been an amazing music city for a long time. Friends who visit from New York, London, Berlin, Portland all comment on how much is going on here. And for a relatively small population, a LOT is going on here!” It’s a view corroborated by Guy Blackman of Chapter Records, the Melbourne-based label responsible for bringing the likes of Twerps (they of infectious, irresistible ‘Back To You‘ fame) and Dick Diver to a wider audience, “Melbourne has always been a hotbed of musical talent, it’s the music capital of Australia. It’s kind of like the plug-hole in the sink of Australia – musicians from other parts of the country usually swirl around until they end up in Melbourne. It’s still just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s nice to see a growing awareness of what’s been going on in Melbourne for ages now.”

In much the same way that London remains the industry hub despite other domestic hives such as Glasgow and Manchester, Sydney retains its status as the country’s music industry epicentre despite attention being shone on Melbourne and beyond. The relationship between the two cities is one that keeps cropping up with those spoken to, with Barnett saying “I’ve heard people ponder the Melbourne vs Sydney question, and one recurring point was that Sydney has all the beautiful beaches, and the harbour, and general prettiness. Whereas Melbourne just has a dirty brown river. What better birthplace for creativity?”. “Robert Forster from the Go-Betweens reckons Melbourne is about bands, Sydney is about songs. I think there’s probably something in that.” offers Al McKay from the highly rated Chapter signings Dick Diver (second album Calendar Days was The Guardian’s Australian album of 2013, while Barnett proclaims “my favourite Melbourne band is Dick Diver”), who’ve developed a knack of melding rich imagery to warm melodicism over a hat-trick of well-crafted albums. “There’s great bands and labels in other parts of Australia too,” he continues, echoing the caveat others have made during their responses, “and people travel around. We’ll bump into friends’ bands up in Sydney or Brisbane or Adelaide or Perth and we’ll see them at shows when they’re in Melbourne.”

We have more venues and music makers than any other Australian city – Elise Peryonnet

So with the industry hub based in Sydney, and other virile scenes dotted around the country, what are Melbourne’s key strengths that have allowed it to remain what many consider to be Australia’s music capital? Fittingly for a city that has birthed such creative minds and thinkers as Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Clive James, everyone seems to have their own take (indeed, for Barnett the intellectual liberalism is a key component in itself , as she suggests “the magnet for left-wing & green minds seems stronger than the rest of the country”). For Cloher, the city’s secret weapons lie in its topography and property economics – the latter fact an element that, according to a recent VICE piece, has quickly been forgotten by London. As she explains, Melbourne is “flat and has wide streets, which makes it easy to get around if you’re a band. Seriously! Loading in and out of venues and parking is easier here than Sydney or Brisbane. Rent is a lot cheaper too (although this is fast changing) so you have a big city without the huge expense.” While Gorman initially thinks that much of the city’s songwriting owes to the fact that “Melbourne is located on the southern coast of Australia, and it’s often really cold here. So I guess people spend a bit of time sitting inside and making music…” he soon segues into what will become a recurring theme in responses: its vibrant live music culture. In much the same way Aidan Moffat and Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson have said in interviews that venues are the reason Glasgow has the upper hand over Edinburgh, Gorman attest that “the music scene here is alive and kicking because there are actually venues to play at. There are probably 4 100-300 cap venues that I can think of in Sydney. There is about 30+ that I can think of off the top of my head in Melbourne. Just having somewhere to facilitate music being played is half the struggle in this young country of ours.”

It’s a view which, on the basis of Elise Peryonnet’s words at least, is held within some quarters of government-level organisations. Peyronnet acts as the Premier Events Manager for Melbourne Music Week (MMW), the annual showcase extravaganza produced and owned by the City Of Melbourne, it sees the city play host to everything from industry panels to all manner of shows large and small. Not to mention the well-received Live Music Safari which in 2014 saw 14 venues host free entry events throughout MMW’s duration. Though quick to draw attention to the fact the city’s ‘independent’ culture is very strong: “we have mainly independent record stores and influential independent record labels”, she’s another quick to heap praise on the city’s live culture, “there’s a plethora of music venues which make Melbourne such a unique city…We have more venues and music makers than any other Australian city.”

It’s a viewpoint heartily backed up by the 2012 Victorian Live Music Consensus. One of the largest music industry surveys ever conducted, such was its scope that it would require 100 university volunteers in addition to the original research team in order to ensure its effective completion. The results make for some fascinating and eye-opening reading, starting with the venue data. In terms of venues which put on live music two nights a week or more, Melbourne (in 2012 at least), has 465 – 137 within the Central Business District, 194 within the inner suburb precincts, and a further 139 in the city’s outer suburbs. Factor in the 14.4m patron visits to any of the 62,000 gigs and shows put on annually with total spending at venues (food/drink/merch etc) put at $1.04bn AUD and you’re left with an industry in the city which provides full-time equivalent employment for 103 musicians, 82 DJs, 41 production staff and 468 venue staff.

But of course, this wouldn’t be possible without en engaged audience too, creating a sort of self-perpetuating feedback loop. It’s a point which Andrew Mansfield of the Northcote Social Club is quick to acknowledge when he says of Melbourne “a lot of Australia’s best musicians gravitate here, largely I think for the amount of venues and punters who are willing to support live music seven days a week. Melbourne usually sells the most tickets on any given tour if it’s going around nationally, so I think local, national and international musicians reward Melbourne by coming back this way regularly.” Though having risen to attention internationally of late with the news that Courtney Barnett used to serve at its bar, The Northcote has long occupied a position similar to Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club does here in the UK. Well-respected, the 300-capacity space co-exists alongside Melbourne colossi such as The Forum, Hi-Fi and Prince Bandroom and retains a reputation for making interesting, left-field bookings (Barnett has professed it remains one of her favourite venues in the city). Continuing to muse on Melbourne music fans and their appetite for live music, he adds “Life all about supply and demand and music fans here will go out any night of the week, they’ll cross town from their own suburbs for stuff they like, and spend money supporting artists. Because of this it’s less daunting to run a venue in a town pretty full of venues.”

When a review of licensing laws in 2010 saw a number of esteemed venues under threat, 20,000 protesters descended on central Melbourne

Ignoring the census figures already discussed, if you think Mansfield is overstating the importance of the relationship between venues and gig-goers, consider this: when a review of licensing laws in 2010 saw a number of esteemed venues under threat, 20,000 (yes, you read that right) protesters descended on central Melbourne in response to form the SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) rally. The upshot? A government forced to take notice and more progressive measures put in place. Similarly, when MMW’s Elise Peyronnet says that “going to the local pub to see a band on a Friday night is a huge part of Melbourne culture”, it’s worth revisiting the census figures to learn the average Friday/Saturday night sees over 97,000 punters at gigs, and that the census night alone – 13/10/2012 – generated $5.4m AUD of turnover from door entry and other patron spending.

It’s all part of the deep-rooted, interconnected community-oriented culture which exists in the city, a key aspect of which lies in its respected community radio network. Speaking of its importance in the city’s cultural make-up, Fraser A Gorman says “if it wasn’t for Community radio stations like RRR and PBS, most of these bands would struggle to get heard. Also events like The RRR BBQ and Reclink Community Cup definitely rally people from all ages and places to come together and enjoy some great Melbourne music. It’s a beautiful thing.” It’s a view backed up by Chapter Music’s Guy Blackman, who from a label perspective adds “Melbourne has probably the strongest community radio sector in the country, there’s a bunch of stations that are really supportive of independent Australian music that reach a lot of listeners.”

At its heart lies the aforementioned RRR, a station which attracts 44,000 listeners a week and who can boast the likes of Sarah Smith (editor of national music site LouderFaster) and Fee Bamford-Bracher (who also works on the locally-produced music trivia show RocKwiz) among its presenting ranks. “There’s no question that Melbourne is filled with incredible artists working across a range of genres and styles at the moment,” says the station’s music co-ordinator Simon Winkler as he contemplates the current state of play in the city “From our position at RRR it’s an exciting time, but we’re also in the fortunate position of being able to truthfully say that it always feels that way. Though it’s extremely satisfying to see the artists championed locally being equally celebrated and embraced overseas.” Asked what the key strengths are which have enabled Melbourne to be so well-regarded nationally (and beyond), he’s another to extol the virtues of its collaborative approach, adding much of it is down to having “a supportive community, comprising of passionate individuals, artists, event organisers, venue owners and bookers, fans and media, that are all active in assisting and advocating for the work of others around them. The diversity of music making groups within the community is another element adding to the overall strength.”

The diversity of music making groups within the community is another element adding to the overall strength.

However hard it is to imagine given her ascension, that spirit of co-operation and community would help a young Courtney Barnett find her feet in an unfamiliar city. Having “moved from Hobart to Melbourne when I was 20, with the idea in the back of my head that this was the unspoken place to be if I wanted to make art and meet other musicians” she admits “I was too scared to even play music for the first year that I was in Melbourne. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know where to go, or how to get a gig. I slowly met friends and artists and musicians and like-minded people and it gave me confidence and a feeling of purpose and fitting in. We all put on shows together and worked on albums together, sometimes toured together, lived in shared-houses together. I never really saw it as collaboration…more as just a way of life.” This collaborative approach has led to member cross-pollination between bands (to the extent that no-one seems especially sure exactly how many bands Dick Diver’s Al Montford and Steph Hughes are in at any given moment – the former plays in UV Race, Strait Jacket Nation and Lower Plenty amongst others, the latter in the criminally underrated Boomgates, who can also boast Twerps members amongst their ranks). For the Northcote’s Andrew Mansfield, it’s a huge boon as “that community of musicians is what’s getting awesome bills booked on Tuesday nights all over town.”

For Chapter Music‘s Ben O’ Connor, it also stimulates diversity in the city, as “community and co-operation have always been 2 very important elements for us as an independent label and members of an independent music community. Most people on Chapter play in a bunch of other bands. There’s not a lot of separation between different genres here. It’s not weird for someone to play in a grind band and a pop band, or to see the same people at a weird disco club that you saw earlier that night at a punk show.” It’s a view supported by Jen Cloher, who adds “It’s heartening to see that Melbourne can be a melting pot for acts as diverse as Hiatus Kayote, Total Control, Laura Jean, Courtney Barnett, C.W Stoneking, Remi, The Drones, Dick Diver… I mean, super, super diverse! So it’s not even that Melbourne has a ‘sound’ or even one scene, it has a whole bunch of scenes.” “It’s a big part of what makes Melbourne a fun place to make music,” concurs Chapter’s Guy Blackman “everyone has wide-ranging tastes and doesn’t want to limit themselves to doing just the one thing.”

But having this diversity is nothing if there’s no-one to release it, and thankfully Melbourne has labels in spades. Apart from Milk! (which Jen Cloher humbly refers to as “a bunch of friends and bands that play together and help each other out”) and Chapter, the city’s also home to the likes of Bedroom Suck, Aarght, Cool Death, Ruff Records, Future Archaic and Home Loan (to name but a few) all supporting local artists, and the importance of these home-grown outlets can’t be overstated. After all, in the UK, Postcard Records would cause a mass stampede of A&R men catching domestic flights up to Glasgow in the early 80s, cementing its musical status it continues to enjoy. Likewise, Factory Records and its Hacienda would play a key role in early 90s Manchester university applications outweighing available places at a ratio of 10:1. So what do these ’boutique labels’ (as they’re called by several respondents) offer Melbourne? “They’re ultra important,” says Courtney Barnett “apart from breeding great music and ideas, independent and DIY [movements] provide liberation from the mainstream and controlling systems, and encourages others to think outside the box.”

For Gorman, they feed back to earlier discussions about community, both between the bands and audience, as he says they “are extremely important for bands in Melbourne, they give a home and a musical family to a bunch of musicians who may not have got the same recognition from more regular or ‘run of the mill’ labels. They create scenes or little cultural groups around them not only because of particular bands but also fans who just want to be apart of it. I guess people from overseas see these little labels and the following around them and think it’s great, so they become apart of it too.” Just like Postcard and Factory, they also act as the perfect showcase for the city’s talent on the wider stage, which Blackman confirms by opining “we’ve always felt like music here is as good as any around the world, so it’s been important to us as a label to try to present our artists on an international level.”

In 2015, presenting artists on an international level is something which Melbourne has done rather well, especially in Barnett’s case. So with her stock so high globally and interest being shown in her hometown, is the city experiencing a ‘Barnett effect’ either by galvanising the existing scene or inspiring the next wave? Though conceding she’s arguably too close to offer a truly non-partisan view, Jen Cloher nonetheless admits “I hope so. I hope loads of young artists are inspired to keep creating work because they have witnessed the possibility of a young woman, who doesn’t wear make up and goes by her own name, receive recognition around the world for her songwriting and musicianship. I hope it makes a hundred little girls go out and buy a guitar and start playing in their garage. I hope it strengthens the community in Melbourne and brings artists closer together in some way.” Gorman is another to highlight Barnett’s success as a female in what’s oft-perceived to be a male-dominated arena, adding “Court is an incredible musician and will definitely inspire many around her (myself included) for many years to come. I also think it’s wicked to see a female get up there and absolutely smash it out of the park at every gig. It’s awesome to see more females on rock ‘n’ roll stages these days and I hope it becomes more and more common. With legends like Court and J-Cloh [Cloher] slinging rad tunes the future looks bright ahead. Court is very highly respected here as a musician and her success has definitely put the spotlight on Melbourne.”

fraser a gorman 2

But outside of her labelmates, many are unsure. How much of the attention is due to the relative proximity, time-wise, of the release of her debut album is unclear. But another theory is that of the cultural cringe, a long-held part of the country’s national psyche summarised by Cloher, “Australians tend to ignore their own writers, musicians and filmmakers until they’ve found success overseas. We’ve always had this cultural low self esteem. We need the rest of the world to approve of what our artists are doing before we can.” It goes some way to explaining how, despite countless high-profile TV appearances overseas (in the US especially), most people back home first heard of her via an introductory prime-time featurette (curiously filmed – with the attendant expense – on her spring UK tour rather than the domestic tour which followed straight afterwards).

A national mindset of low cultural self esteem isn’t the only challenge the city faces. Almost everyone spoken to had little time for the country’s Tony Abbott governmental administration and its lack of arts support (save, unsurprisingly given the event’s governmental associations, MMW’s Elise Peyronnet). Cloher bluntly says “at a time when people are looking to Australian art, our government decides not to fund it. What a disgrace.” Gorman’s quick to agree, adding “the government seems to focus a lot more on sport rather than art or music. They love it when Australia wins the cricket, but music doesn’t get as big of a cheer as it should.” Though Barnett adds the caveat that “artists do not need the government in order to make art, and nobody should feel entitled to receive monetary help in order to make art” she’s another to express frustration at the current state of play, adding “but I do find it absurd when they ‘market’ Melbourne as this groovy grungey, graffiti’d, tattooed, cultural underground hub but then go out of their way to de-regulate and fuck it all up.”

The city may also be a victim of its own success, in more ways than one. First there’s its domestic perception (“I think the rest of Australia has always found Melbourne’s belief in it’s own cultural importance almost unbearably smug” Chapter’s Ben O’ Connor reveals) and predicted copycat syndrome, with Guy Blackman suggesting “what will probably happen next is other, much more ambitious and inevitably, much shittier bands, will grab the spotlight by making watered-down versions of things that people have liked about Melbourne music so far. Bigger labels here have already started signing second-rate versions of Chapter bands, not realising it’s not about any particular sound, style or image…” Ongoing gentrification and the threat it poses on live music remains a cloud that continues to hang over parts of the city too, with Andrew Mansfield bemoaning that “in the last ten years that many inner suburbs have experienced significant hikes in real estate value that drove out artists and brought in people less enamoured with the vibrancy of live music on their doorstep.” Perhaps one of the staunchest challenges is the one to which there’s no quick fix – that of geography. It’s even a concern for the globetrotting Barnett as she intones that “One of the biggest issues with the rest of the world ‘taking notice’ is that we are very very far away. I had no concept of just how far until I finally left a couple of years ago, and it’s just too damn expensive for us to travel around the world showing people our music! Bless and curse the internet for revolutionising the way we can share music I guess.”

Nonetheless, you get the impression that whatever fate throws up, Melbourne and its residents will somehow always prevail. As Dick Diver’s Al McKay asserts, “Melbourne has had a good music scene for a long time so has the culture and infrastructure as well.” Mansfield is another who exudes confidence about the future, suggesting the strong relationship between bands and the city will prevail, “there’s something about selling out some of Melbourne’s iconic rooms, it just has to happen in most bands career progression so they all wind up here eventually”. Adding on the subject of the live music and licensing situation “some protections are now in place to help venues survive the threat of closure from new residents that like the idea of moving to a vibrant area but not the actual bustle of the vibrancy itself.” (“Politicians seem to be at least giving lip service to the importance of live music in the city.” concurs Guy Blackman.)

On balance, with its vibrant, survival-ensured live music circuit, strong sense of community and co-operation and a seemingly limitless conveyor belt of whipsmart, talented musicians churning out an array of glorious sounds at will, Melbourne looks to be in the rudest of health. Factor in the shrinking of distance afforded by streaming and online outlets the future, as far as Melbourne’s continued impact on the international stage is concerned, looks very rosy indeed. But whatever the future holds, if there’s one thing to find time to do in 2015 it should be to lose yourself in Australia’s musical capital finally getting its dues on the international stage – all the while marvelling at how, based on the passionate people we spoke to, it couldn’t ask for a better set of people leading the charge.