Finding our voice
Owner and director of The Abbey at Federation Square, in Nicholls. Photo: Melissa Adams
On the subject of live-music venues in Canberra, we can borrow from Bob Dylan and say, the times, they are a-changin'. As newly minted venues pop up, others wither away, sometimes with the promise they'll return.
Among the fresh crop we find The Abbey, and Smiths Alternative Bookshop. Among those that have disappeared and reappeared, we find the Greenroom. There's an ebb and flow to the landscape.
The man behind The Abbey's push to turn itself into a live-music venue is chef Andrew Hollands, a hospitality industry veteran best known for restaurants Ellacure and Soju Girl.
The pitch for the appeal of The Abbey, in Nicholls, as a venue is that it is one of ''the most visually spectacular venues in Australia'', featuring 1000-year-old oak as a stage backdrop and an organ pulpit.
Hollands is a foodie and muso at heart. The acoustic style very much appeals to him and so, when casting an eye around The Abbey and musing on what else it could be used for, live music was a natural choice. His project to turn The Abbey into a live-music venue has gone from brainchild to reality in less than a year.
Artists who are on board and are slated for gigs include country singers Kristy Cox and Aleyce Simmonds, plus young sheep shearer turned singing star Luke Dickens on June 8, and pop, R&B, jazz and soul singer Renee Geyer on July 22.
''At the beginning, we're going a bit safer, we want to attract [people of] my mum and dad's era, the Renee Geyer and Wendy Matthews crowd,'' Hollands says.
''I know they have money. I want fine food, fine wine and fantastic artists … An elegant setting. There'll be a burlesque show, too.''
Those who do end up playing at The Abbey can be assured of having their whims catered to.
''We want to make sure we really push to look after these guys so they say this is the only place to play in Canberra,'' Hollands says.
Asked about the health of the live-music scene and whether there are enough punters craving to consume what he's offering, he says Gold Creek near Federation Square is going through a new evolution as Gungahlin grows bigger.
''There's so many houses, so many families but not a whole bunch to do on this side of town. There aren't too many live-music venues out there in Gold Creek.''
''I started working here when I was 13, left, did my apprenticeship, opened a restaurant in Bruce, worked around town and ended up back here. And nothing really changed in the time I went away. I'm trying to bring a bit of finesse back to the area.''
Another new kid on the block is Smiths Alternative Bookshop, a Civic spot that won the heart of Georgia Curry who is now promoting gigs at the shop. Her plan is to present three concerts over winter to gauge interest. Brendan Gallagher is to play on June 8.
''The plan is for an intimate sort of vibe in the book shop,'' Curry says. ''[The concerts] are not going to blow the roof off. It's a tiny room with an 80-person capacity. We're not going to get into death metal.''
Curry takes care to point out she is carving out her own niche.
''There's plenty of room for more … I don't think it's an overcrowded market. I don't want to step on anyone's turf. There are some venues in Canberra that do what they do brilliantly. [But] there's nothing around like this. It's alternative, like the book store.
''Smiths is on the fringe, the music will reflect that.''
The atmosphere is of particular concern. Curry isn't into, say, church halls as venues.
''You need somewhere a bit charismatic. Me, personally, if the venue is the Convention Centre or the Royal Theatre, it turns me off. I don't want to go to some conference. That's how it feels, like you're rocking up to a seminar or something.
''You want to go somewhere cookin' with a vibe there.''
Curry is interested in a study that Canberra's peak live-music body, MusicACT is conducting. It is looking into suitable live-music venues and has sought expressions of interest from motivated music lovers interested in researching and developing an online guide to all public buildings suitable for use as live-music venues. The guide is to be for business and community organisations wishing to stage live music and will include advice on regulatory requirements.
She is also keeping an eye on demand. Having done the three concerts, a springtime series could follow depending on how it all turns out.
As for a venue that has made a comeback, gone away and could come again, the Greenroom could be resurrected once more. It ceased in 2008, made its return this year when the Tradies Club approached it, then was closed again in April, much to the displeasure of music lovers, after a month-long trial in March.
''After getting screwed around, we want to do it ourselves and do it properly,'' Canberra promoter and Greenroom manager Garry Peadon says.
He is eyeing a potential spot in Civic and is considering viability and affordability.
''You need good-quality acts and good-quality service. To get the acts generally takes some time to sort out,'' he says of how to stay afloat as a live venue in Canberra.
If all goes well, the latest incarnation of the Greenroom could be up and running in July. Peadon is convinced there are enough punters around to keep the rejigged venue in business.
''Population isn't the problem,'' he says.
''However, we [the audience] are a little sceptical of who we go and see, especially if we don't know who they are. Canberrans will flock to known acts, rather than venture out and check out new ones.''
While booking a local act to play in Canberra was easy, attracting interstate and international acts was much tougher, unless the promoter was on good terms with the right agent.
''Internationals would rather go to Wollongong than go to Canberra,'' Peadon says.
He isn't full of praise for every venue in Canberra either.
''Some aren't up to spec. How do I put it? They're not giving us a very good name. There are some very good venues around town, but some of the main ones aren't doing us much justice.''
Asked if it was harder to survive as a live-music venue in Canberra compared with, say, a restaurant, Peadon says it's easier for those who find the right place for decent rent.
''It's a short market. It's not like Sydney or Melbourne where you've got heaps and heaps of pubs everywhere that have live music on.''
ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Chris Peters says live-music venues have to operate in a ''very, very tough environment''.
It was tough in a regulatory sense with regard to noise levels and problems with new residents griping about noise that has been around longer than they have. Changes in the calculation of licence fees, which were linked to the risk profile of the type of business, instead of turnover, also created problems.
''Live-music venues are lumped in with some of the bars and music venues where there are risk areas related to people having too much to drink and causing problems. But people go to live music for the music, not to play up.
''There's extra costs because of the change of licensing fees and live music is caught up in it.''
He adds that the audience here is tough, the market is tough, there is a small audience to draw from and those who will go for live music tend to treat it as ''almost a fashion statement'', going from one trendy spot to the next.
But Peters is certain there will always be new venues popping up. ''There's always a way to try and approach something that will attract an audience. It's fresh ideas and new concepts that are likely to succeed.''
■ Kristy Cox, Aleyce Simmonds and Luke Dickens are performing at The Abbey on June 8. Doors open at 6pm, the support act is on from 7pm and show time is 9pm. Show-only tickets cost $25 are available by calling 6230 2905. Renee Geyer is performing on July 22. Doors open at 6pm, show time is 8.30pm. A three-course dinner and the show cost $125 a person.
■ Brendan Gallagher is performing at Smiths Alternative Bookshop on June 8 from 8pm. Tickets cost $20 per person through smithsbooks.com.au.