I went to a restaurant last weekend and was given a reminder of what being an ordinary musician in Australia has become like these days.
The public perception of the musician’s life tends to be coloured by the glamour of those at the very top end: the pop stars and classical superstars that capture most public attention. The reality for 99.99 per cent of musicians in Australia, however, tends to be very different.
Shall we dance?
This was reinforced to me as I tucked into my barbecued meat (it was a Latin-American restaurant called Rios). The music in the restaurant was initially recorded, but then a woman arrived with some equipment. She was a singer, probably Latin American. She spent about 15 minutes setting up her equipment, which seemed to consist of a microphone and some computerised backing tracks (computers are cheaper than real musicians).
She began singing, choosing some songs with mass appeal: the professional choice. It quickly became apparent that she was very good. Her pitch was flawless, her control of dynamics excellent and she had a reasonably wide tonal range. She produced an exceptionally fine performance of Bésame Mucho – one of my least favourite songs. The musicality of her phrasing was first class and she had some fine variation in her melodic sequences.
Although the audience, especially at my table, showed some appreciation, the main response while she was performing was to talk louder. In a sense this, too, was a sign of appreciation. Because there was more atmosphere in the restaurant because of the live music, punters became more comfortable and noisier. But of course it did not make life any easier for the singer.
It set me thinking about the situation of the contemporary musician. For decades, my own performing experience was in venues like this: pubs and restaurants. I do not regard this as a negative: quite the contrary. When Frank Sinatra described himself as a “saloon singer” he was saying with pride that he had cut his teeth in the tough environment of bars, and learned to become the performer that made him famous the hard way.
Even the great saxophonist John Coltrane paid his dues playing in bars. There are recordings of saxophonist Sonny Rollins and pianist Thelonius Monk playing while the audience loudly chatters away. The insistence by Michael Tortoni and Megg Evans that punters keep quiet during performances at the recently closed Bennetts Lane jazz club was something of a rarity.
The main commercial purpose of music in these contexts has been to sell alcohol and, to a lesser extent, food. That has meant that the fate of musicians and alcohol sales has been intimately linked. The emergence of the spate of internationally successful Australian rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s was directly related to the commercial success of the beer barns, which attracted huge audiences, made massive profits and made it possible for the musicians to earn an excellent living.
It is why the changing of Melbourne’s licensing laws in the 1980s was something of a disaster for live music. Because alcohol became more available, the profit margins of pubs and restaurants collapsed and it became far harder to pay the musicians.
Proprietors were still attracted to the idea of musicians drawing audiences, so they looked at other ways of getting the punters in. Some had door deals, although often they would cheat the musicians of what they had earned. Many others introduced “open mic” nights, which purported to give up-and-coming performers an opportunity for “exposure”. But as former federal secretary of the Musicians Union Terry Noone archly commented: “You can die of exposure.”
It means that it is no longer accepted that it is the right thing to do to pay musicians because what they do is a form of work from which a commercial advantage is derived. Instead, musicians have mostly been considered targets of exploitation – often accompanied by smug claims that they are being helped by “exposure”.
That has left many would-be professional Australian musicians tending either to look for some form of government funding or go overseas to work. Or they go into teaching and forget about trying to make a living from performance.
The link between alcohol and music was never overly edifying, but at least it worked commercially.
Unfortunately, now that it has largely gone, a grim reality has emerged. For the most part, there is a belief that musical workers should either not be paid, or paid vanishingly little. One hopes that the singer in that restaurant was an exception.