With Fitzroy's Old Bar being the latest in a list of venues declaring themselves to be struggling, we spend a night there to see its point of difference for gig-goers
The Old Bar is, in a city of music, a stand-out band venue. Because it’s small. Because it’s a cave, with posters, like hand paintings, all over its walls. There’s no room for anything else. Just the music. Just good times. All sorts of bands. A place that small has it all. Country, rock, punk, acoustic, open mike nights, pop. Straight up groups, things just weird.
It’s early on a Monday night and cult movie buff is in the bar. He does his VHS Club every Monday, playing a film, loud, on the telly above the drink dispensers. Soon he’ll be replaced by the Unpaved Sessions. Six mind-numbingly brilliant artists taking turns at solo. Meanwhile, the Crotchety Knitwits knitting club is in full swing. Bit by bit the place fills. Then, as more pubs in the area shut, the crowd grows again. Last night the place was full for a gutsy three band EP launch. The venue is a home.
Its charm is its curse. Its size makes a full houses and good vibes as easy as some raw tallent and plugging in a guitar, but it also gives the place a thin bottom line. With such a lean summer, there was no winter padding. Balancing on the razor’s edge of existence, the Old Bar’s owners posted their plight on the internet, which went viral.
“The numbers are up since the call to arms,” bar manager Nick Finch says. He is also the guitarist from Graveyard Train. “But still, with the dollar high, more and more international acts are coming over, sucking the coin from local gigs."
A venue like the Old Bar hosts local bands seven nights a week, so it feels the pinch when venues like the Corner and the Hi-Fi ("awesome venues," Finch says) can offer pretty cheap tickets for international shows. I put it to him that when live music was booming, too many band venues opened, splintering the crowds.
"Maybe," he replies.
Shows like The Voice don’t help either. Steering people away from originals, from the quirky, the different, the new. All the things the Old Bar is. A beginning for anyone who has that grit. A rock solid for the industry stayers. A party when the bands are done.
"The doors almost shut last week. It's great more people are coming in now they know," Nick tells me.
I agree, but have no idea how long goodwill like this can hold. You want to go to a place because you want to, not out of duty.
Always a solid crowd, with this surge of support, the numbers and vibe are getting better still. Yet that might not be enough in this age of enormous running costs.
Maybe it’s simply the times. Maybe every beer in the Old Bar tastes so damn sweet to me, maybe every band sounds so good, because I know, in the back of my heart, all those who are housed by and play in and live around it are dinosaurs. That we are dinosaurs, living on borrowed time. Rock was once young. It replaced something somebody thought was grand.
But then again, rock has always been about defying the times.
To me, the Old Bar is the heart and soul of live music in this city. A living, breathing thing. May it never die.