The city of Melbourne often fancies itself as Australia’s “cultural capital,” thanks in no small part to its thriving and diverse live music scene.

It’s a title the city wears with pride – but judging by the spate of crippling state legislation over the past few years, it isn’t a title that’s guaranteed  to stick around forever.

One of the most significant threats to Melbourne’s cultural livelihood and an ongoing concern of the arts community is legislation which make it next to impossible to hold an all-ages music event.

While everywhere else in Australia is able to run over-18s, under-18s and all-ages shows, Victoria liquor licensing laws introduced in 2004 restrict venues so they only host either over-18s events, or under-18s events, but not a combination of the two.

Patrick Donovan, CEO of Music Victoria and long-standing champion of the issue, is a particularly outspoken advocate of loosening the restrictions on under-age music fans. He spoke on the subject at the recent Face the Music conference.

“It’s very important to get people involved very early on,” he said.

If it’s the norm to see young people at the cricket ground, surrounded by adults with cups of beer in their hands, then why not at the music venue?

“If young people are coming along to shows and getting involved in music, performing music, then hopefully they’ll be a fan for life.”

It seems baffling that Victoria still lags badly behind other states on this issue, especially considering the simple ways in which other states are able to overcome this problem (wristbands for drinkers, dividing sections into drinking and non-drinking etc).

Instead in Victoria, if a band wants to play to their underage fans, they have three options – stadium shows, de-licensing a venue, or using non-traditional venues.

Stadium shows use the all-ages system, as do many sporting events and even some music festivals such as Big Day Out.

But for it to be profitable for an artist to put on a stadium show, they must have a massive pulling power, with most Victorian stadiums such as Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena able to host tens of thousands of patrons.

There is no way an emerging or niche artist would be able to come close to that number. And ironically, it is these acts that need the support and money of their younger fans the most.

Smaller venues – such as the Corner Hotel, the Esplanade Hotel or the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne – are the ones that are ingrained into the city’s culture.

They often hold the best acts, playing host to bands that are more underground or experimental than their stadium-filling peers.

Grimes, The Living End, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and San Cisco will all host shows at the Corner Hotel in December alone, but these incredible live music experiences are unavailable to those under the age of 18.

Besides stadiums, another option for smaller bands is to find a venue willing to de-licence the premises for a day.

The patronage is obviously there, as evident by the rare occasions smaller venues do put on under-age shows. The Paper Kites November show held at the Ding Dong Lounge sold out, and indie-pop band Last Dinosaurs’ recent gig was just as popular.

The event must finish before 10pm, no one over the age of eighteen is allowed in unless they are a (vaguely worded) “bona fide adult supervisor,” and the venue must provide and pay for one crowd controller per 100 patrons and the list of ridiculous conditions goes on.

But for the venue, this is an extremely difficult task, and most underage gigs are unprofitable for the artist.

In Victoria, to have minors on the premises, a venue must completely de-license itself for the night. This means that they have to lodge an application 45 days in advance, leaving no room for last-minute planning or spontaneity of any sort.

They can only apply for three gigs per application, and each application costs $178 – discouraging venues from regularly holding underage events.

The event must finish before 10pm, no one over the age of eighteen is allowed in unless they are a (vaguely worded) “bona fide adult supervisor,” and the venue must provide and pay for one crowd controller per 100 patrons. The list of ridiculous conditions goes on, but you get the idea.

On top of this is the fact that most venues don’t make their money from ticket sales – the revenues from which usually go to the band and their crew.

Venues make most of their money from the sale of alcohol, which means that when hosting an underage show their main source of income is lost.

At an underage event this monetary loss is worn by the band who have to pay the venue thousands of dollars in venue hire fees, even for some of the smallest venues in the state.

These fees often push the profitability of holding underage events for most bands well into the red, and only bands that have reached a certain level of success can even begin to contemplate accommodating their underage fans.

The third possibility is to hold a show at a venue which isn’t usually used for live music, such as a warehouse or council hall.

But again whether or not this is a profitable venture is a massive gamble for everyone involved.

The promoter must go through the costly process of hiring security and a PA system, as well as in some cases paying the artist regardless of ticket sales – all costs which they are in no way guaranteed to recoup.

They also must seek council approval to hold an event in a government building, and in general councils are notoriously frosty in their attitudes towards youth and live music.

There are occasional success stories – youth organisation FReeZA for example often hold under-age events in council buildings, and just received a 2.4 million dollar boost in funding from the State government.

But they are the exception to the rule. Overall, shows in non-traditional venues are time-consuming, costly to run, and have little guarantee of profit.

These aren’t a set of particularly appealing choices for playing to an under-age audience.

Unfortunately, this means that many kids are missing out on the cultural benefits engaging in live music provides, especially at a young age.

Donovan put it best at Face the Music: “especially out in the regions, if you’re not a sporting person, then there’s not a lot else to do.”

As implied, the double-standard between music and sport when it comes to under-age participation is obvious.

Sport may be a worthwhile activity that encourages teamwork and a sense of belonging – but isn’t music the same?

If it’s the norm to see young people at the cricket ground, surrounded by adults with cups of beer in their hands, then why not at the music venue?

Studies have shown that cultural engagement (including drama, the arts and live music,) promotes a longer lifespan, higher self-esteem, and sense of inclusiveness.

But music lovers need scientists to tell them music has an intense emotional power. Remember your first gig? Or finally getting the opportunity to see your favourite band live?

With or without alcohol, live music has played an important part in many people’s most memorable adolescent experiences. And besides, going to see a band is a much safer activity than a lot of the other options available.

“It’s much better to have these young people getting out there enjoying culture and contributing to culture in a controlled environment, rather than sitting in house parties without any supervision,” Donovan pointed out.

“There’s actually more chance of being stalked by someone on Facebook than in a supervised environment in a venue.”

There are plenty of people in Victoria who would love to see young people being able to participate in the music scene.

Some of these have formed a sub-committee group as part of the Live Music Roundtable, which aims to address conflicts between councils and the live music industry.

“We’ve been lobbying a lot of the councils and basically suggesting, it’s just as important as the skate park or the outdoors for physical activity…young people need to have that outlet for their expression, and also to be able to experience music and culture in a supervised environment,” Donovan explained.

Hopefully they can come up with a compromise that works for venue owners, alarmist community members and – most importantly – underage fans who are missing out on Melbourne’s incredible music scene.

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