Less than a month after the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to try to save iconic venue The Tote, Melbourne looks set to lose another home of live music, with Footscray’s Hotel Westwood up for sale.
James Young, one of the Footscray venue’s owners, said the sales of these rock’n’roll pubs were part of “the untold story” of the COVID years, the true impacts of which are still being tallied.
American tock band the Supersuckers, on stage at Hotel Westwood last month.Credit:Mary Boukavalas
On Wednesday, the ongoing effect of the pandemic will be made a little more visible with the release of Music Victoria’s latest Live Music Census. Reporting on the health of the sector from 2019 to 2022, the census finds that long after lockdowns lifted, the COVID-related devastation on metropolitan and regional venues is still being felt.
“It’s no surprise that we are still managing the ripples of the pandemic,” said Simone Schinkel, chief executive of Music Victoria. “We have not yet settled into a new normal, and it’s going to take ongoing long-term strategic planning, commitment and support to reach the full potential we were on track to achieving [before COVID].”
Before the state of emergency was declared in Victoria in March 2020, the Tote in Collingwood averaged 730 shows a year. Between March and December 2020 it staged just five. In 2021, there were 157.
Jon Perring, co-owner of the Tote, said there was “no petrol left in the tank” after three years of struggling to keep the venue financially viable. As a result, the land, building and Tote brand are all to be sold.
A crowdfunding campaign organised by the owners of Melbourne’s Last Chance Rock and Roll Bar has so far raised pledges of $963,000 towards its target of $3 million. The venue is expected to sell for between $6 million and $6.6 million.
The Last Chance’s Shane Hilton said he and his partner wanted to buy The Tote to ensure it remains a live music venue, rather than potentially being sold to a developer.
“We thought if we can raise half the asking price through the community, we would put the venue in trust where it can remain a live music venue forever,” he said.
Expressions of interest must be lodged this week, and Perring said a transfer of ownership is expected to take place by mid-year.
Four decades of live music at The Tote could be coming to an end.Credit:
Hotel Westwood, meanwhile, is also set to change hands.
“It is on the market, and that’s because I ran out of money due to the pandemic and never finished the kitchen,” co-owner James Young, who also operates Cherry Bar in the city and Yah Yah’s in Fitzroy, told The Age.
“My specialty is live music and Hotel Westwood is a pub. It’s time to invite someone else in, someone who knows how to run a pub and can provide punters with a parma, a lasagne, or an arancini ball.
“There’s 21 years left on the lease,” he added. “There’s no risk of it being sold to a developer.”
The Tote’s co-owner, Jon Perring, said the venue was likely to be transferred to new owners by mid-year.Credit:Penny Stephens
Young identified a number of issues facing operators of live music venues, including back rent accumulated during the COVID shutdown but now owing, and “skyrocketing” public liability insurance.
“It’s also taking punters a while to feel comfortable with returning to gigs,” he said. Nonetheless, he insists live music remains a viable proposition, socially if not financially.
“It is worth it. Artists, venue owners and managers, bookers, T-shirt manufacturers … it’s brought us all together,” said Young. “When you back us into a corner we can’t be beaten, in the words of Rose Tattoo.”
It’s no surprise that we are still managing the ripples of the pandemic.
The report suggests the hurdles for Victoria’s remaining live music venues are enormous. Across the state in 2020-21 there was a 69 per cent drop in event revenue compared to 2019, and 75 per cent of live music events were cancelled, postponed or re-scheduled as lockdowns dragged on.
In 2019, the last-pre-pandemic “normal” year, the state hosted 184,043 live music gigs, with more than 50 million attendances. Those shows generated almost $639 million in box office and $1.42 billion in onsite spending.
In 2020-21, audience and visitor spending was slashed by 71 per cent, performers lost 72 per cent of music related income, and more than three-quarters of performers reported mental health impacts.
Despite the return of international touring, Schinkel said, “we’ve seen bands broken up, workers leave the industry, fan networks disperse and venues suffer major losses”.
“We must not underestimate the challenges ahead,” she said. “Victoria’s live music recovery requires significant commitment and cooperation.”
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