Five Things I Know: Joel Morrison, The Old Bar

Old indeed – this year, the Old Bar turns 21. This week, the Fitzroy establishment celebrates the best way it knows how: with live music from Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, SPOD and many more Melbourne favourites. Ahead of the big bash, we spoke to Joel Morrison, the Old Bar’s co-owner and booker of 16 years, about the post-COVID landscape, misconceptions about entertainment precincts and the tricky issue of a minimum wage for live bands

Bookers balance demand and quality

There are always trends, some musical style going in and out of fashion. There was a time where whiskey rock, which is probably what I’d term it, was the main thing in Fitzroy, with bands like Brothers Grimm, Graveyard Train and Cash Savage & The Last Drinks. You can see the waves of different styles of music getting popular, and you’ve got to sort of move with that. You can’t just keep booking exactly what you like and what you want. As the band booker, we’re pretty much – and I hate the word – curators of content for the community. Of course there has to be a level of quality, and it has to fit within the realms of The Old Bar, but you have to be willing to move and keep going with what people want.

That’s the secret of being a band booker: you have to be able to recognise quality and a good band, even if you don’t like that style of music. It’s not easy, and it comes from experience, practice and being passionate about music. There is an element of personal taste, but there’s also a level of professionalism that the booker can use to recognise quality in bands. And that’s something that I do pride myself on and I’m sure every booker does.

Post-COVID bands need to be shown the ropes

Within the past two years, there have been a lot of new bands that haven’t been able to learn from other older bands. It’s not a case of wilful stubbornness or laziness. It’s more they haven’t just been shown the ropes.

It used to be that you’d expect bands to know these things. Now you’ve got to tell every single band member that we need posters, you need to advertise. We have a mixer, this is the way we do it. It’s a bad idea to play a gig, and then another one the very next night at a venue two doors down with the same line-up. It hasn’t occurred to these bands that that is splitting the audience and affects everyone adversely. Because of the COVID ‘reset’, it’s gone back to square one a bit. I don’t fault bands for that.

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Liam Matthew, Joel Morrison, Singajaya Unlayati at the Carringbush Hotel
Liam Matthew, Joel Morrison, Singajaya Unlayati at the Carringbush Hotel. Credit: Kalindy Williams

The more the merrier

One direct way we witness gentrification is that your locals change. Over the 16 years I’ve been here, we’ve seen that change quite a lot, because the people have had to move out to the suburbs, further north or even all the way up to the country. We’re still a destination venue, which is great. People still come here for the shows, not just because they’re in the neighbourhood, but also because it is an entertainment precinct and there are a lot of other things happening. Even if people rock up and go, ‘well, tonight, it’s not for me’, they can go two doors down to Sugar Gliders, Bad Decisions or Shady Lady down the road.

That’s the common misconception: that all these venues next door to each other are competing. Whereas if you have like five bars in a row, you’re gonna get more people moving from one to another and create this little entertainment precinct. I think the more venues and bars, the more things in this scene, the better. We all work together, we’re all friends. Everyone drops into each other’s bars or pubs and sits down before or after work. There’s a real camaraderie that’s stayed through my whole tenure of 16 years. Everyone can commiserate and congregate.

Bands should be paid more – but with whose money?

I’ve spoken to a lot of people about the issue of minimum wages for live bands. I’m in a pretty unique position where I’m a venue owner, band booker, and I also play in a band. For the Old Bar, if there was a minimum fee of $250 per band member, we would 100 per cent go out of business. There’s just no way we could afford that. I’m all for bands getting more money, I’m just not sure how that would work. We run on an oily rag. The fact we’ve made it this long is unbelievable to me. And there’s been many weeks over the years where I don’t get paid and that’s still happening. It’s a very, very finite amount of profit, and it all goes back into the business.

It’s a real tricky one because there are things against it and things for it. One of the things against it, as a band booker and venue owner, regardless of the payout of the money, would be the incentive for bands to advertise their gigs properly, and to do the bare minimum of posters, contacting radio, telling their friends. If a new band is going to get $250 per member, then what’s to stop them from playing the week after or to actually try and get as many people as possible?

“We run on an oily rag. The fact we’ve made it this long is unbelievable to me”

So as a band booker, that would make me a bit nervous about booking new, younger bands. And as a venue owner, you just wouldn’t be able to afford it. Say we have three to four bands every night. With three to four members in each, you’re looking at two grand per night. Whereas some nights you only make $1,500 or something like that. You can only book bands that are a guaranteed sell-out, which is not the business I want to do. I want to promote young bands, I want to promote new events. And that just wouldn’t be feasible with this, unless there’s someone backing it and money coming in from grants or from the government or somewhere else.

This issue has really been framed as ‘us versus them’, and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if people think the venue owner is earning heaps and heaps of money, but I’m not, anyway. I’m definitely not. We’re here for bands. This is why we’re in this business, we want bands to play here and get bigger. If there was more money for the bands, we’d be giving bands more money. We should be working on this together. It’s why I’m in this business. So I’m not against it, of course. It’s just that I don’t know where that money is coming from.

Old Bar
Credit: Kurt Eckardt

It’s hard to disengage in this business

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We’re not as wild and crazy as we were when we first started – we all have young families and taking the kids to school with a hangover is not the best thing in the world. But being involved on a day-to-day basis means you’re still speaking to all your staff, hanging out with the customers, seeing the bands. This is my business, this is my life. If I wanted to have a business where I just sit back, I would do something else.

You do have to take time out every now and then for mental health and self-care. You can’t just stay at the pub drinking till 3am every night. Maybe once, every now and then. But it is hard to disengage. I had a two-week holiday last year for the first time in ages, and even then you still have to be on the phone booking bands. It’s 24 hours, so you need to be on call. It is hard to step right away, I’d say pretty much impossible. There’s times where I’ll get fully stressed out and just wring my hands and say, ‘That’s enough. I’m going to move to the desert and start a petrol station with the owners of other venues who have had enough too.’

Luckily, I love the job. At the end of the day, I love the business. I love the industry. Live music, for me, is just one of the greatest things in the world, especially in a small venue. Funnily enough, going to a show at even the Forum is almost too big for me. I need that in-your-face intensity, that emotional connectedness where you can literally reach out and touch them.

The Old Bar celebrates its 21st birthday on December 3 with Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, SPOD and more. More info here

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