|Photo by Matt Cammo at the John Curtin Hotel
From my shaky-footed beginnings playing covers in a backpacker bar with holes in the floor circa 2009, I think it’s safe now to say that I’ve got a few tentative sapling roots in the Melbourne live music scene. Last year I joined the band of an amazingly talented songwriter, and I attended more live shows than I’d been to in my entire life before that, most of them being local. Most of my most-played artists on my iPod are local or at least Australian contemporary, and I feel a stronger connection to them than most international artists. After being raised on songs about New York and London, it’s refreshing, it hits closer, to hear songs mention towns and streets you know by name, to hear a voice that sounds a little more like yours. I’ve met a lot of the people I listen to and follow musically. Some of them know my face, some of them know my name, some of them just remember me from other times and other shows. That’s simply the way this community works; we run into these people before and after the shows. They’re not sitting in a green room somewhere for fear of getting mobbed; they’re out at the bar getting just as drunk as the rest of us, trusting their fans enough to be enthusiastic but respectful, and I’ve never seen it go any other way.
I haven’t travelled enough to know what the music scene is like in other towns and cities, but the word I hear is that Melbourne’s ranks pretty high, and without bias, I can see why. The venues are accommodating, the drinks are cheap, there’s a show I could go to and enjoy literally every night of the week if I had the money and enough caffeine to keep me upright. As it stands, I try and go to at least two local gigs a week, and while I’m still pretty broke, I’ve never seen that as money wasted. Why? Because it comes back. Maybe not as money, but it’s an investment in an economy that I’m a part of as much as the people on the stage. We make friends with people in bands and we see them around at other shows doing the same thing we did at theirs: Giving back. None of us are expecting to land a support slot with every band we go and see and say “hi” to at the bar later; we’re not even expecting members of those bands to come to our shows. But feel like we have a sense that we’re all in the same hot water. We all chose a path that isn’t easy. A lot more than twenty-five minute’s work goes into a twenty-five minute set. We spend days rehearsing and writing new material, we drag instruments and amplifiers from cars and public transport to cramped and stinking rehearsal rooms and back again. Some of us are moved out of home, working a job, doing university, and pouring money and time that we can barely afford to spare into what some people would, and often do, call a “hobby” or a “pastime” and question our justifications for. And we do it with smiles on our faces, because it’s all worth it the second you see someone from the stage, sitting in a back corner table, nodding along and singing the words toto themselves. We are all hooked on that same drug. It sinks our time and money and sweat, and it sometimes costs us relationships, friends, and jobs, and we simply shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that that’s shit not worth having.
Pretty much none of the bands or artists I’ve seen are doing shows for the money; the “quick buck” does not exist. You either commit to roughly two years of hard slog, of constant gigging, of keeping your material fresh and your live show dynamic and energetic and of waiting to get noticed, or you sink fast, and you drown. Plenty of good bands die of running out of creative steam or of inertia or impatience, and it’s a sad thing to watch. Even some of my favourite mid-to-high profile Australian artists are still working second jobs or staying in low-rent properties on the dole. And I feel like a lot of the solidarity to be found in the community of musicians comes from that same shared feeling of waiting to be able to make enough money to eat and make rent each month off our craft alone, rather than working too many hours a day after late nights playing shows to twelve people. We respect each other’s differences and embrace our common love for music, of any genre, as long as it’s live, and being played loud by people who give a damn as much as we do, and we make the waiting easier on each other.
Cam Maggs is a Melbourne musician and one third of the band Steph Hill and The Missing Fundamental who have generated an intensely loyal following at some of Melbourne’s best live music venues, and released their debut single, ‘Crawling’. Self described as physically 22, mentally 14. Flashes of fun and tolerability swamped in oceans of dullness and tiresome self-deprecation. Cam can be found at regular open mics at The Empress, Station 59 & The Brunswick Hotel.