Small Time: The Brunswick venue that’s a gig space, artist development hub and pizza joint in one

Small Time: The Brunswick venue that’s a gig space, artist development hub and pizza joint in one

Zoe Fox & The Rocket Clocks - image by rcstills (@rcstills)
Words by Bridget McArthur

It’s time we celebrated Small Time – the inspired trailblazers bringing fresh perspectives to the music industry.

Just off Sydney Road, in Albert Street, Brunswick, you’ll find Small Time, home to an NYC-style pizza restaurant and bar.

The double-fronted terrace eyes the street through large glass panels that reveal its dark innards. Framed with blonde wood and salmon-pink concrete, they resemble Polaroids side-by-side. It’s easy to drive by without noticing, but hard to forget once you do. It’s the sort of place you add to that ever-growing ‘cool places to check out in Melbourne’ list in your phone notes.

What you won’t know from a drive-by is that Small Time Pizza & Bar is but one physical manifestation of a larger business concept conceived by music lovers Stephen and Liz Hibberd: Small Time Group, a start-up centred on the mission of championing early-stage artists.

What you need to know

  • It’s time we celebrated Small Time, the live music venue, pizza bar and artist development hub bringing fresh perspectives to the music industry
  • With a studio that can be viewed by the public, Small Time also has recording studios upstairs at the venue which host songwriting workshops, recording, production and mixing and/or mastering
  • Located on Albert St, Brunswick, Small Time is open Wednesday to Sunday

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

Through a combination of business acumen and the organic instinct natural to creatives, the Hibberds designed a new model for supporting early-stage artists to refine their product, and connect with peers and the industry.

Beyond the hospitality piece, Small Time Live is a foundational part of this model, facilitating livestreamed performances that showcase the music and backstories of a range of new and established emerging artists.

“The gigs are free and non-ticketed to promote accessibility. People can wander in and discover new music together. We also wanted to be able to reach people outside of Brunswick, which was the impetus for our foray into livestreaming.

“As we went along, we realised there were different cohorts of artists, so we introduced three models [of Small Time Live] to suit.”

These are: Small Time TV for in-depth interviews with more established artists; Feature Artist Thursday for showcasing Small Time’s emerging artist or project of the week; and Live at Small Time for introducing new names to the scene.

On top of Small Time Live, early-stage artists have access to Small Time Productions, helping artists produce and release new music, and Artist Support, upskilling artists in songwriting and management.

Small Time is largely funded by their New York-style pizza bar, a coincidental homage to the building’s previous life as a family-run pizza shop in the ’80s.

“From a business model perspective, it was really important Small Time was self-sustainable and not reliant on annual grants. The bar and hospitality piece is the profit vehicle.”

As Hibberd puts it, pizza is the perfect pairing for Small Time’s layout. It’s quietly eaten, needs no knives and forks, and allows audiences to clap while eating (or at least slap their knees). It’s also cheap and accessible, with vegan options to boot (because if there’s one thing Brunswick has more of than songwriters, it’s vegans).

But while their slices might scream New York, the business is Melbourne at heart.

“Melbourne is the music capital of Australia, and Brunswick the music capital of Melbourne … It has more songwriters than any other suburb in the country,” Hibberd told us when asked about the choice of location.

“That said, it was really more intuition than anything. We spent three or four months looking around at buildings. A large portion of them were these cavernous, open spaces that we would have had to build out into. This site was perfect, with various spaces to match the different components of our business. It almost felt purpose-built.”

The Small Time team, much like the building and location choices, have similarly interesting, eclectic, largely organic origins. The very first addition to the team, before any concrete foundations were laid, was Luke Gladman, now Small Time’s General Manager.

Following the purchase of the space, James Seymour was brought on as in-house producer to run the recording studio and lead the expansion of the music program. The rest of the team is made up of a mix of individuals with experience in, but above all passion for, the arts and Small Time’s mission. As a result, far from having clear, delineated job titles, most of the Small Time crew have their fingers in many pots.

Belgium-born Romanie Assez, aka Romanie, is an exemplar of this. She went from punter to marketing coordinator, to being one of the artists supported by Small Time. In addition to playing her first-ever Melbourne gig with a band there, she recorded her second EP there as well.

“It was the first time I had this feeling of a community [in the music industry],” the singer-songwriter says.

“I feel like Small Time has given me the confidence I need. In Belgium, [my music career] was sort of lifting off, but not really. Coming here, I had to start over, and I was like, ‘Shit, what have I done’. But I feel like [Small Time] is just a space where you can create and feel yourself. It feels good … I’ve never done co-writing before I arrived here and now all I want to do is co-write.”

Hibberd concurs. “The hospitality space was a big part of fostering community interaction, serving as a launching pad – a meeting place for all these like-minded individuals to go off and collaborate.”

Starting a mission-led small business supporting nascent artists in the middle of a pandemic is no easy stint, but Hibberd has never been one for easy, with a track record of serial entrepreneurship.

He’s been able to approach Small Time with a business mindset often lacking at a grassroots level in the music industry, where creatives abound but business know-how is scarce.

Inspired by the tech accelerators of the business world, Hibberd is now gearing up to launch a more formalised, education-focused artist incubator, including one-on-one mentorship. The initiative will form Small Time Group’s not-for-profit arm, funded by passionate music patrons who would like to contribute to the progression of early-stage artists.

Almost 18 months since it opened its doors, the pandemic that has shadowed Small Time since day dot continues to throw challenge after challenge at the music industry. Far from bitter or disheartened, however, the team at Small Time has never been more committed to their mission.

Hibberd cites it as a difficult but exciting time for the industry.

“There’s a huge amount of talent in this city,” he says. “A lot of them have had a really tough time, but those that are surviving are really doubling down, and innovating how they deliver music.

“Those investing in artists have had to look at the music world a bit differently, too. The inability to tour or access other commercial inroads has forced them to re-focus on the music. I think it’s also brought artists closer to their audiences.

Assez feels similarly upbeat. “It’s just like nowhere else in the world. Especially being in lockdown, everyone’s sort of banding together which is really nice. It was such a lonely time and now everyone has experienced that so everyone is like, ‘Aw, be my friend’.”

Her message for anyone interested in getting involved?

“Just come down and meet everyone. It’s not just for artists. It’s also about music lovers.”

“Small Time really is for everyone,” Hibberd concludes. “It’s a working space through to a community hub and more. And we’re only just getting started.”

Small Time is located at 271-273 Albert St, Brunswick and is open Wednesday to Sunday. More info here.

Want to support Small Time this lockdown? You can order takeaway pizza and booze (currently $33 22-inch pizzas and cocktail refills until Friday July 23). More info here.