Live hotspots: How Melbourne’s newest venues are holding up after the pandemic
Subscribe
X

Get the latest from Beat

17.05.2023

Live hotspots: How Melbourne’s newest venues are holding up after the pandemic

Melbourne venues
Photo: Mamma Chens
words by sam beros

Nature is healing and so is Melbourne’s music scene.

We’ve always been at the front of the pack when it comes to smaller shows – a 2017 census found Melbourne holding the most live music venues per capita worldwide. Post-pandemic, the city has taken its time in crawling back to old heights.

Thankfully, all signs point to 2023 being a banner year for live music’s return. Large-scale concerts are back and bigger than ever; Ed Sheeran recently broke the record for the biggest ticketed show in Australian history. How are smaller venues faring?

Keep up with the latest music news, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

For three of Melbourne’s newest, it’s been a long and difficult road, but a rewarding one. New challenges have arisen for owners – not to mention the already-difficult task of building from the ground – but thus far, these spots have triumphed.

I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with those behind them all about what it’s really like out there for small venues right now.

Mamma Chen’s

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Mamma Chen’s (@mammachens)

Ever since she joined the music scene at 14, Mamma Chen’s co-founder Em Chen has never been in less than four bands at a time. Right now, she’s in seven.

It’s part of the reason her Footscray venue is so musically eclectic – unbound by genre, it boasts diverse line-ups weekly. On any given night, you’re just as likely to be rattled by heavy metal as you are made to ponder performance art.

Along with incredible variance, Em and her mother, Linda, are primely concerned with making the venue a welcome environment for non-binary musicians and creatives.

Taking the place of the now-extinct Dancing Dog Café, the mother-and-daughter duo signed their lease in early 2020, mere months before the pandemic. Naturally, the timing was troubling. Paying rent over the duration of the lockdowns left limited money for renovations, but now Mamma Chen’s is well on the other side, and burgeoning.

“Making sure people are calm when they’re here is really important to us,” says Em. We chat by a collection of board games: their implementation has been well-received. “If you’re not feeling talkative, games can be a really good way to still have a nice community vibe without having to socially interact. It’s a different way of being social.”

I’m struck by the dedication to the small things. Alongside the board games, there’s cucumber and lime in the water jugs, as well as visible stimuli-free spaces for those that need them. Em and Linda are consistently listening.

“We’re always learning more. There’s heaps more that we can do and we want to, it’s just a case of when and how and what we can afford at the time.”

Accessibility is hugely important at Mamma Chen’s.

“The first priority when we did the renovations was putting in a ramp in the front entrance, widening all the doorways. We got rid of the kitchen and put in an accessible bathroom.” Even the bar benches are lowered at points to save people from craning their necks.

Future plans look toward the band room. “We’re raising funds to make the stage accessible. I think we’re about halfway now, and we’ve had massive support from the community. Once we have a lift to the stage, more people can perform, which is really important to us – we just haven’t been able to afford it yet.”

There are also projections to add a recording studio and visual art space to the currently-unused second floor once an elevator has been installed.

Sadly, not all owners have the financial option to do the great work Em and Linda are doing. “It’s hard, because a lot of the venues are old buildings, or under heritage listing. You might not be able to do certain things. But it’s also extremely expensive and a lot of venues just don’t have the money to be able to do that.”

The welcoming and inclusive nature of Mamma Chen’s has helped sprout the seeds of a similarly minded community. “A lot of people that come here regularly are not friends, and they didn’t know each other before they came here. We see more and more of it the more people come back.”

Proudly, the spot has attracted a crowd aligned with friendliness and acceptance. “We’ve found that 99% of people that have come have been really friendly to the staff, to each other and to the bands and it’s just been awesome.”

One obstacle unique to Mamma Chen’s lies in its location. With Melbounre’s music scene so centralised to the Northern Suburbs, getting people through to Footscray has served as its own challenge.

“I’m hoping that more live music venues open in West so that we can have a bit more of a hub. We’re still establishing ourselves within the general music community.” Feedback has been positive, but it’s been a journey bringing the venue into the conversation and culture.

Lately, it’s been a struggle for the more well-established venues. Times have been tough financially and mentally for a lot of people, and even though the will is there, there’s been a dip in gig attendance scene-wide.

“People just don’t have the money to spend that they used to. But people want to get things back up and running, and people are doing everything that they can. I have all the faith in the world that it’s gonna come back to how it was and get even better.”

Ringo Barr

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Ringo Barr (@ringo_barr)

“It looks a little bit like a normal bar from the outside, except there’s a big wall of records.”

By day, a vinyl shop. By night, one of Melbourne’s newest live venues.

Owner Rob describes Ringo Barr as a Melbourne music lover’s haven – a space where those in the Northern Suburbs can grab a drink, catch a band and browse wax all in one. “People might not plan to buy a record, but might sort of leave with one or two on the way out.”

One thing’s for sure: the punters get it. The Sydney Rd spot has been embraced with open arms in its first six months – no small feat in a music landscape as choice-diverse as Brunswick’s.

The idea to combine vinyl and bands has been a “long-term mission” for Rob, something he’s thought about for several years. “You do need to sell other things which have a better margin [than vinyl], and alcohol tends to tick that box, and it just happens to be a good combo with the records and the live music.”

Deeper down, though, it’s a project built from passion.

“I just love all those three things. I think a lot of music fans are sort of equally taken with physical media and live music, and drinking alongside both of those things.” 

Operated on Sydney Rd, the venue has spent its initial six months balancing between live music (Fridays to Sundays), open mic nights (Thursdays) and BYO vinyl days (Wednesdays).

“Hopefully, I’m contributing something to this neck of the woods. I hope it’s a bit symbiotic like that,” says Rob. “If you’re opening a new bar [in Brunswick], you have to do something slightly different.”

The giving spirit lives strong when considering Ringo Barr’s sustained effort to provide a generous local and independent collection of records, offering Melbourne musicians a place to sell their wax while simultaneously giving bar-goers a chance for new finds.

“There’s been a good number of people picking up [local vinyl], and I guess as time goes on, word spreads – hopefully other places start doing this as well.”

The overall hoard, Rob says, is modest – reaching only a couple hundred at the moment. He hopes to eventually bring that number up to the thousands.

Other future plans? Food is in the works, but throwing a fourth thing into the equation may have to come once Ringo Barr has properly settled in. Running seven days a week is on the cards too, but there’s no rush on that for the moment.

“I’ve got to kind of wait until I can get some help with that, but there’s definitely some things in the backroom brewing. That’s kind of the vibe at the moment, taking it a week at a time and seeing where it all leads, really.”

Rob is greatly appreciative of the “overwhelmingly positive” extent to which the spot has been embraced. There’s been the odd quiet night, but it’s been hard to work out whether they’re to do with the venue, or the general state of the Melbourne scene right now.

“People who are coming out are really enjoying going out, but there is still that period of habit-breaking which a lot of people may still be going through,” says Rob.

“We’ve spent three years at home and some people might still be a little bit in the habit of staying home and not going out as much as they used to, and that might be for financial reasons as much as forming habits over lockdowns.” 

 “This whole period, immediately post-COVID, in a Melbourne context, feels like it’s still up for grabs. I don’t think it’s developed a stamp, or an identity, just yet. I think people are still looking to see what that’s gonna be.”

The Penny Black

Brunswick’s NONO has had what venue manager Prue Robertson has referred to as an “identity crisis” over the past couple of years.

While a fresh coat of paint made for a worthwhile experiment, management is looking to return it back to its older glory – pulling back on the Japan-inspired food and stylised presentation and refining focus toward what the people want: the bands.

Originally known as Penny Black’s, the venue was acquired by Australian Bar Holdings (ABH) this April. The company has plans to bring the place back to its pre-pandemic origins as an old-fashioned rock and roll staple of the Brunswick area.

“People were so attached to Penny Black’s. It probably deserves – and this building deserves – that resurgence.”

The previous owners, Welcome To Group, transformed The Penny Black into NONO back in mid-2022, reshaping the heritage-listed space into a more stylised section, ditching bands and beers for house music and cocktails.

Soon after the change, the venue ceased its live offerings – a hefty blow to those that cherished its long history with live music. Now, things look set to return back to the way they were.

“I think what we’ve got from feedback from the community and feedback from the general area is that it was an institution. Now that it’s sold again to ABH, they’ve listened to those voices in Brunswick and realised that it is an institution that needs to be saved.” 

The NONO experience’s party-based focus may have been an easier sell in other areas, but in a suburb so appreciative of gig culture, it fell flat. “I feel like it was a good concept but it perhaps didn’t land correctly in Brunswick,” says Prue.

Scott Assender, the original owner of The Penny Black, is working in tandem with ABH to help smoothen its revival.

The venue looks to hit all its old core bases: a ton of bands, a solid pub offering, good value pizzas and the occasional late-night DJ run in the backyard. It hopes to continue to host safe and diverse events, working with multiple bookers to get true variety flowing between the different nights.

“We’re just looking to bring that wide scope of music back and make sure bands are on every night.”

Prue’s relationship to Brunswick is fairly new – having spent four years running Queensland club Dracula’s, her return to Melbourne has revealed a collective trauma different to up north.

“We obviously all went into lockdown, but it wasn’t as strict as what happened here and it wasn’t as devastating to the hospitality industry.”

“We’re in a bit of a space where everything is expensive for people at the moment. But the community between 18 and 30 are still there, still wanting to see live music, still wanting to go out and socialise. I think it’s coming back.”

With ABH and Assender at the helm, the venue looks to return soon, and in a big way.

For more on how Melbourne venues are doing after the pandemic, head here