First the Covid-19 cancellations came as a trickle. Then a wave. Eventually they turned into a flood that left devastation in its wake. An open letter signed by more than 1000 prominent Australian musicians and venues describes March 13 – the day the government banned mass gatherings of more than 500 people – as the day the live-music industry “fell off a cliff”.
Among the signatories to that open letter are Joanne and Melissa Tonkin, The Gov’s manager and booker respectively (and co-owners with the broader Tonkin clan). The front bar may look like many other pubs, but with no bottle shop or pokies, the nationally acclaimed venue is almost entirely reliant on live music for cash flow. In a normal year up to 600 bands pass through The Gov. While this number includes large international acts, the venue also paid out $450,000 to local musicians and promoters in the year leading up to March.
All of that stopped on March 13. When Broadsheet first spoke to Melissa Tonkin last month, she’d already cancelled or rescheduled more than 100 gigs in the main venue and the same number in the front bar. The Gov’s band room has a capacity of 800, but it’s possible that it will be years before it can admit that many patrons again. As Joanne put it, “Our business is live music and mass gatherings, and unfortunately we’ve got no business at this point.”
In April, Joanne and Melissa’s father Brian announced that the future of the pub was uncertain. He estimated that it would only be able to survive for four months without some form of assistance, and a petition to save the venue from permanent closure quickly attracted almost 10,000 signatures.
In May, the state government responded with a $1 million fund for local live music, of which $300,000 was earmarked for The Gov. For the Tonkins, securing The Gov’s immediate future meant they could turn their eyes to the long term with confidence.
As restrictions ease, the family has had to completely rethink how it can run the venue. A purpose-built stage in the restaurant has replaced the smaller front bar, and is now hosting live music three nights a week (rising to four next week). Out in the band room, the idea of marking out a grid for social distancing was dismissed as impractical, but livestreamed shows, cabaret seating and two sets a night have all got the go-ahead. This Sunday the first livestreamed gig will take place in front of an audience of 10, while larger seated shows for 80 are beginning on June 26. From a business perspective these gigs are marginal, but for the Tonkins much of the excitement lies in the return of live music, a thrill that resembles seeing the first green shoots of spring emerge after a long, cold winter.
For smaller venues, seated shows are simply not an option. “With strict social distancing I think we fit 10 punters in the band room, so there’s no point booking stuff,” says Grace Emily publican Symon Jarowyj. “Everything about the pub is being social, we’re not known for our extra tables or table service”.
And yet he’s remarkably sanguine about the venue’s future. Having worked 70 to 80-hour weeks for “fucking ages”, he took some welcome time off before ripping up and replacing the carpet in the band room. Now he’s thinking about how to turn the situation into an opportunity to provide greater support to local bands.
Moving forward, Jarowyj plans to reduce the number of touring acts by 80 per cent and focus on local musicians – even after state borders reopen. “The pub’s always been local-first anyway, but we’re going to really concentrate on local bands and getting younger kids having a crack,” he says. “I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by how good the local scene is.”
As an added incentive, he’s got help from Coopers to offer 20 per cent off beers when bands are playing, “so if you come in and support a band, we’ll support you and give you cheaper beer”. He’s planning to reopen the pub on June 15 with a capacity of 50, and he hopes patrons will be able to sit at the front bar by then if they socially distance. “If you can get your hair cut and nails done,” he reasons, “you can sit at a bar and have a chat to the publican.” But it’s a “bittersweet” date because there’ll be no live music – that’s only viable “once social distancing measures are removed”.
And for venues more akin to nightclubs, the limbo of indefinite closure goes on, despite the fact that many are still paying rent. “In my mind,” says Jive owner Tam Boakes, “I’m still here and operating this business as usual, but I’m also realistically thinking that’s not going to be an indefinite plan because of costs.”
Usually, Boakes would close Jive’s balcony area for smaller shows, packing the crowd in tighter to create a better atmosphere. Now she’s looking at doing the opposite, reducing the capacity from 300 to 100 and figuring out how to make up the shortfall in income.
But even that possibility is some time off. Because the venue is a single room, the current social distancing rules mean she can only fit 30 people into the venue, so she’s still anticipating a three or four month wait before she can begin scheduling shows. Despite being optimistic earlier in the year, she now admits she can’t see how she’ll “financially be able to hold on until then, with bills piling up and no income”.
The irony, Boakes says, is that her team and other live-venue workers have decades of experience managing crowds and ensuring everyone acts in a responsible manner. “I think what everyone’s forgetting is [that] we’re trained to do this. We’re all trained with RSA [responsible service of alcohol] and managing crowds and managing people.”
Across the industry, one of the big concerns is that if any live-music venues are forced to close down, they’re unlikely to be replaced. Even before Covid-19 live music was a tenuous business, and the possibility of objections from neighbours makes finding a suitable venue in the city nearly impossible.
The $1 million government fund is a good start, but the industry is still clamouring for help. As well as federal government funding to help venues stay in business (which the open letter calls for), all three venue owners emphasise that community support is vital to their ongoing survival. When state borders reopen, national tours may take months to organise, but they are uniformly enthusiastic about the talent right here in South Australia. Boakes sees it as “a really, really good opportunity for people to get up and support the industry, see what great talent we have here”.
Joanne Tonkin echoes that sentiment. “It’s extremely important the public come and support local musicians when they do get up there and play,” she says. Live music isn’t just a job for her – it’s a lifelong passion. “I love coming to a show and watching everyone enraptured by the music and having a great time. You can see they’re feeling alive.” Melissa puts it even more succinctly: “We provide good times for people”. Like all venue owners and operators in Adelaide, they want to do exactly that for many years to come.