The indignation started with the sudden impending closure of Collingwood’s Tote Hotel in mid-January, its licensee’s hands forced by new liquor-licensing requirements aimed at curbing alcohol-fuelled violence. Two thousand people protested, peacefully if not quietly, outside the venue a couple of days later. A spooked politician in the pub’s marginal inner-city seat took note.

The indignation then snowballed as other small live-music venues announced that they, too, would be forced to close, accidental victims of legislation meant to target problem nightspots but applied universally. By February 23, twenty thousand Melbourne music fans protested, peacefully but definitely not quietly, outside parliament house. Spooked politicians in government and opposition took note.

But will it make any difference?

The SLAM (Save Live Australia’s Music) rally was organised to protest changes to Victoria’s liquor licensing that are having the unintended effect of compelling live music venues to close. The changes include new fees based on trading hours (if you trade past 1am, you automatically incur higher fees, regardless of whether your capacity is 15 or 1500) and the enforcement of an old law that recognises venues hosting “live and/or amplified music” as high risk, and thus forcing them to employ a minimum of two security guards for the first hundred people, as well as installing CCTV cameras and facing increased licensing fees.

Introduced as a response to the worrying increase in dangerous and even deadly street brawling that has been linked to Victoria’s relatively liberal liquor licensing, the changes were “an endeavour to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence in the city” as Premier John Brumby noted when speaking to Triple J’s Hack on the day of the rally.

There is no denying that street violence is a problem in Melbourne; a problem that is, anecdotally if not officially, getting worse; a problem that must be dealt with. But as rally organiser Quincy McLean says, like many, he feels that a blanket classification of all live music venues as high risk is not the answer to the problem.

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That twenty thousand or more turned out for the rally is testimony just how many agree. The most public victims are rock ‘n’ roll venues The Tote and Elizabeth Street’s The Arthouse (and, most recently, Carlton’s Dan O’Connell Hotel, which was forced to call time on its century-long family-friendly tradition of celebrating St Patrick’s Day with folk, Celtic and rock music). But as local musician and rally speaker Rick Dempster noted in his speech to the crowd, “these laws don’t just affect rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve seen Latin bands affected by it, people playing Greek rembetika music, people playing gypsy music, jazz musicians; people playing all kinds of music.” And it’s not just pubs and live music venues either; restaurants and bars are being hit too. Chapel Street restaurant The Greek Deli used to host traditional Greek musicians. No more. For the pubs hosting live bands for 20 punters on a Tuesday night, it’s financially untenable; for The Greek Deli owner Jim Pothitos, catering to 50 diners mid-week, it’s the same story – not to mention the deterrent of two bouncers at the restaurant door!

The laws are “the latest in a long line of botched decisions and poorly-thought-through policy impacting hard on artists and creative communities,” Marcus Westbury, former artistic director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival, wrote in February. He recalls the effect on other Melbourne cultural institutions of previous bureaucratic kneejerk reactions. Remember the Chapel Street Festival? The Brunswick Street Festival? Both casualties of the public liability insurance issues a few years ago. What about the 2am Lockout? It was reviled by bar owners and punters alike, and was eventually declared a failure – in fact, a government-commissioned KPMG survey of venues and patrons reported that violent crime actually increased during the trial.

Westbury’s own personal run-ins with bureaucracy include safety rules designed for industrial workplaces being “cripplingly misapplied” to small art galleries and ‘best practice’ building codes forcing small theatres to find hundreds of thousands of dollars to move a “perfectly functioning door barely an inch”. As for the latest laws, he’s not alone in noting that they are broad enough to be applied to almost anything involving a PA, from theatre shows to solo dance performances to gigs so small that “two security guards would represent a significant proportion of the audience”. Yet such shows are now classed as high risk, and must have the two security guards.

Uncoupling the law’s automatic link between live music and nightclubs, and high-risk conditions is the number one concern of the accord signed between the Brumby government and the organisers of the SLAM rally. The Accord was announced the day before – in what some claim was political manoeuvring in an attempt to slow momentum for the rally – and is an acknowledgement from the government that it “overstepped the mark”, as Premier Brumby put it on Hack. “The one-size-fits-all approach we put in place wasn’t the right approach,” he admitted. “We’ve recognised that and we’ve made changes.”

Or rather, they’ve made commitments to make changes. As McLean notes, “Accords don’t really achieve a lot and so far it’s just promises, but we all know about politicians and promises.”

Among the government’s commitments is that it will “recommend” agreed changes to the Director of Liquor Licensing (DLL). But the director, Sue Maclellan, is independent from government and as has a reputation for taking a hardline approach to such issues. Premier Brumby, however, is confident the changes will occur very quickly – despite the fact that only moments before making that claim he told Hack that “when she [DLL] makes the decision will be a matter for her”. The accord also commits the government to continue working with the live music industry over the next six months. It is, McLean freely admits, a work in progress. It’s also an election year, and the government is well aware that this issue could cost it the inner-city seats of Richmond and Melbourne, at the very least.

“We’ve given them six months to sort it out,” McLean says, “which takes us up to August; the election is in November. In the lead up to August well be putting a hell of a lot of pressure on them, and once that deadline’s past, if they haven’t removed the link between live & amplified music and high-risk we’ll be campaigning against them.”

In addition to continuing to work with the government, McLean mentions that SLAM has other ideas, other protests, to continue pushing the message. Obviously, getting more official recognition of and support for the live music industry is a major goal, and it’s one that could be helped substantially by the establishment of a Melbourne International Music Festival, similar to the existing international comedy, film and arts festivals. In fact, says McLean, Melbourne City Council is already behind the idea. “I don’t know how directly it’s inspired by the rally,” he says, “but they definitely called us afterwards and said it was something they were looking at and were pretty excited about. And really, it would make perfect sense.”

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