Losing the Rhythm

Live music was once a quintessential part of the Australian university experience, so where did it go?

It’s overly cliche and increasingly makes my eyes roll back into my cynical little head, but there really is no joy quite like witnessing live music. Youth culture and the university experience have long been enmeshed with music, and the general scientific consensus that individual music taste solidifies at around the age of thirty tells us that these youthful years are paramount in building a lifelong music identity. While the soundtracks of our study sessions, commutes, and mandatory late teens existential crises are important and deploy rooted sensory memories, live music is an entirely different beast. When jammed into a space best described as a fire hazard, live music becomes the great tsunami of human connection. We are swept up in a sweaty, sticky, heaving mass as we physically and emotionally connect, and share in the joy of sore feet and ringing ears in the hours and morning after.

As a freshly minted eighteen year old, the excitement of my university years was driven by a specific anticipation of the live music scene that would await me in my new tertiary digs. This anticipation was born of stories from the adults in my life – both those I knew personally and those whose familiarity was only through the television or books – about amazing, life-affirming memories made in the congealed, beer-y masses of crowds at university gigs. For all the hard, isolating and draining study, these moments would be my reward. It didn’t take me long to realise a cavernous gap between the stories I had been told and the realities I’d be experiencing. This anticipation quickly became, and even in my post-graduate years remains, an ugly fusion of dissatisfaction and grief for a university experience I never had.

The value of live music at universities lay in their dual propensity for bands to engage with audiences they may not typically reach, and for audiences to gain greater familiarity with their local live music scene.

I’m not the only one who laments the gradual euthanisation of live music in Australian universities. The value of live music at universities lay in their dual propensity for bands to engage with audiences they may not typically reach, and for audiences to gain greater familiarity with their local live music scene. The closure of the University of Sydney’s Manning Bar saw significant public sadness for a venue which housed important memories for many former tertiary students, and reminded us of the important place of live music in the Australian university experience. If we look to the not too distant past of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, live music was not just an aspect of university life in Australia, it was an integral aspect of the Australian cultural scene which supported both the domestic music scene and audiences who wanted to take part in it.

These performances were not strictly for university audiences, use of university venues and low price points provided students and non-students alike access to a cultural scene we could only dream of nowadays. Importantly, this era was driven by a desire to facilitate access to both big name bands and performers, while also providing opportunities for local and up-and-coming acts. If this seems a little too hypothetical, let me give you an example. In the early 1980s, the University of Melbourne Student Union invited a moody, make-up wearing British band whose fame was steadily building both in Australia and globally to perform on campus This band was The Cure, and they were supported by a then little known Sydney band called INXS. Looking back, the acts who performed regular university gigs as both small name and headlining bands reads like a best-of list of Australian music: Midnight Oil, Hunters & Collectors, The Go-Betweens , and Nick Cave just to name a few.

Like almost any major cultural shift, the demise of live music at universities is a story driven sadly, and unsurprisingly, by money.

But it wasn’t just the inner-city latte sipping crowd who reaped these cultural rewards. In 1980, vanguards of the post-punk musical subculture The Ramones arrived in Australia. They would play one solitary show, and it would be the only time the band would come to the island continent with their original and most memorable line up. Where did they play? La Trobe University in the outer Melbourne suburb of Bundoora. The Ramones would not return to Australia until 1988, while nothing interesting happened in Bundoora ever again.

How does one conduct an autopsy on something which still harbours a feint pulse? To suggest the live university live music scene is dead is to undermine the hard work of many diligently working to keep the life support plugged in, such as Julian Wu, a stalwart of the Australian music scene since the 1980s, and current Program Officer for the University of Melbourne Student Union. For Wu, this demise is a “multifaceted issue [with] several issues at play”. Like almost any major cultural shift, the demise of live music at universities is a story driven sadly, and unsurprisingly, by money. In the 1970s, 1980s, and a portion of the 1990s, students in universities across Australia were footloose and fancy-free, day drinking to their heart’s content and liver’s failure while completing a tertiary degree they would never have to pay for. This era saw operation of ‘compulsory unionism’, where students paid a comparatively higher student services and amenities fee, and allowing unions greater funds through which they could organise live music events and pay for performances from artists at various levels of fame. This period also featured a greater government bosom to suckle from, with many students able to live a reasonably happy life through financial support services such as AUSTUDY and Youth Allowance. But like a fart in a crowded elevator, the arrival of HECS had an immediate impact, and signaled the arrival of something darker to come.

“Local live music seems to be a gamble fewer and fewer student unions want to take”

As soon as paying an enormous fee (albeit once at a specific earning threshold) became a question of when rather than if, university culture began to heave and change. From in institutional standpoint, the implementation of HECs was met with a shift in union operations from compulsory to voluntary unionism and eradication of the long standing student amenities fee. While all students paid an amenities fee, this was significantly lower than under the compulsory model. For unions, this meant a shrinking of funds from which they could organise extra-curricular activities and events. Climbing rent and costs of living, and stagnant government financial supports meant that most university students had to manage study and socialisation on top of part-time employment just to make ends meet. By the mid 2000s, students weren’t just poor in disposable income, they were poor in disposable time too. As Julian Wu explains, once upon a time University of Melbourne students ignored the free food in favour of the free drinks at the regular Bands, Bevs and BBQs event. “Now students take two handfuls of free food and either go off to study or head to work. They don’t have time or interest in losing a few hours to seeing a band and having a drink”.

As universities across Australia grow from a wild and reckless adolescence to a boring adulthood of academic rigour, responsibility and relative maturity, where does this leave the condition of live music at Australian universities? For Billy Bianchini – managing director of independent music label Warm Water and student of Australian National University – the diminished power of student unions have conceived a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. For unions facing the dual challenges of shallow funding pools and increased pressure to meet attendance performance indicators for events, “local live music seems to be a gamble fewer and fewer student unions want to take”. “Annoyingly”, he adds, “this perpetuates the problem because with less exposure to local bands and artists uni crowds become less engaged with their local music scene, which in turn makes it a bigger gamble for the unions”.  

While regular live music events continue at some universities, this is not the case nationwide. For Bianchini, “it’s become almost impossible to host affordable live shows on campus” at Australian National University. In terms of securing a venue, it is a case of deciding whether an aversion to spinach is enough to eat shit. Bianchini explains that in an effort to organise a show at ANU, the student bar was converted into a suitable venue by “bumping in around $50,000 of live gear just for one show”. The alternative, he explains, “is to pay through the nose for one of ANU’s privatised spaces and charge $40-$120 per ticket just to recoup costs”. These financial stakes aren’t viable for anything less than a very well established act on a large scale tour, and prices many studying in the nation’s capital out of the only live music venue on campus.

As for the artists themselves, opinions are varied but share an unshakeable hopefulness despite the changing landscape. For Vic Austin, frontwoman of rockers Nothing Really, “there’s always going to be a huge value in live music at universities”, but concedes “the benefit [for performers] in terms of playing at a uni versus a venue would be different”. And despite “feel(ing) positive” about university gigs, this difference between standard venues and university performances can be the influential factor. “Australia suffers from this weird stigma when it comes to university gigs,” explains alternative country musician Brooke Taylor. “In the [United] States or the UK, you can play a uni gig and guarantee a decent paycheck and hefty crowd. In Australia, university gigs are just free shows with an uninterested crowd”. But like Austin, Taylor also can’t shake the optimism, making clear that “if you’re a student in a band, do everything you can to play those gigs. They’re still great gigs, they just don’t have as big an appeal for artists who aren’t in that Triple J demographic anymore”. So maybe it isn’t the university that’s changing so much as it is the intended or expected audiences for these performances – but is taming popular taste and trends really the path to resurrection for university based live music?

That’s right, in 2020 we’ve finally come to terms with the fact that not everyone who attends university is straight, white, male, and able-bodied.

There is no straight line, instructional manual or Wiccan spell which can propel the university music scene to what is once was. In many respects, this is a positive. Diversity an increasingly important factor when booking artists and bands. Greater use of live-stream technology during periods of pandemic isolation has highlighted the importance of providing access to these events for those who may not otherwise be able to attend or engage with live music events in the typical get-crushed-in-the-mosh kind of way. That’s right, in 2020 we’ve finally come to terms with the fact that not everyone who attends university is straight, white, male, and able-bodied. But the opportunities for bands and for audiences alike – opportunities driven by physical connection rather than skills in social media management and curation of an Instagram or Soundcloud account – have fallen by the wayside.

We enjoy indulging in nostalgia because it is a game of certainty. We look at the past and tell ourselves “Yes, this is how it was, and wasn’t it wonderful?”. When we lose something, the pain comes from the fact that our usual ways; our habits, patterns, easy, well-trodden paths no longer lead us to where we want to be.

This is perhaps the tragedy of live music at universities – we all know we’ve lost our rhythm, but no one is quite certain how we get it back. 

Ella Robinson is studying the Masters of Teaching at the University of Melbourne. She sings a lot of Celine Dion in the car.

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