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Melbourne’s live music scene on the rocks

Currently, music venues can have no more than 50 per cent of their usual capacity, to a maximum of 300 people indoors (down from 75 per cent or no more than 1000). For Old Bar that means 100 people fit in its band room, which Mr Matthews says is just viable.

The Lomond Hotel in Brunswick East tried to work with the rules by building an outdoor stage in the car park last year.

But owner James Neagle gave up on an outdoor music permit this month after noise complaints from a neighbour, forcing music back indoors, where just 34 people fit.

Some regional venues have the advantage of more open space.

Peter Foley, from Archies Creek Hotel near Wonthaggi, avoided noise complaints when hosting live bands on a large outdoor stage he built last year.

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“We’re very fortunate here. Our only neighbours are cows.”

Musician and events programmer Emily Ulman said the return of live music had brought optimism that the scene would rebuild despite caps and border closures.

“But I’ll take what I can get, we’re all sort of jumping on one leg. Whatever it takes, the fact that live music is happening again is just amazing,” Ms Ulman said.

She filled the hole last year by launching Isol-Aid festival, in which musicians live-streamed sets on Instagram from their homes.

Four Tone booking agent Adam Montgomery had been hoping for a boom after the COVID-19 threat eased. In the meantime, he had been booking artists to play smaller crowds twice a night to navigate capacity limits.

Gigs had also moved into bigger rooms, an expensive way to sell the same number of tickets, and he had seen a greater focus on regional shows.

“While no one’s really making any money, tickets are selling really quickly for a lot of stuff. So that’s definitely fuelling a lot of confidence,” Mr Montgomery said.

“If we can get through it, I think it’s gonna be amazing. It’s just there’s a really long way to go … The issue I see is people not being able to hold on that long.”

Legendary former tour manager Howard Freeman, who co-founded non-profit CrewCare, said experienced workers with specific skills had been leaving music in search of work.

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“Who knows how many will come back. I hope they can and I hope they will, because people give their lives to this industry,” Mr Freeman said.

To keep workers engaged, CrewCare launched a program with 27 music businesses and a federal government grant to retrain 500 workers in new facets of live entertainment.

Andy Mullins, co-owner of the Sand Hill Road group, which counts The Espy among its venues, worried Melbourne would end up losing events and musicians to interstate.

“Nobody flies in for the beaches, nobody flies here for the weather. They’re coming for the things that we can’t currently have and that are on their knees, like arts, entertainment, live theatre, particularly live music.”

Creative Industries Minister Danny Pearson said the state government, which supported $25 million worth of grants, was working with the industry on patron limits.

“We would love to see JobKeeper extended beyond March – but if it is not, it is important that the Commonwealth gets on with the job of supporting crucial industries hardest-hit by the pandemic.”

The federal government allocated about $800 million to support Australia’s cultural and creative sector, including the $250 million creative economy JobMaker package.

Arts Minister Paul Fletcher acknowledged arts and entertainment was a major employer that drove jobs in hospitality and tourism.

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