Five Things I Know: Paris Martine, The John Curtin Hotel

Shock and dismay went through Melbourne when it was revealed in February that the legendary music venue and historic watering hole the John Curtin Hotel had been sold to an overseas buyer. Though the city’s construction unions have pledged via a green ban not to work on the Curtin’s redevelopment, its operators remain in an arduous limbo as the property sale settlement has been pushed to October – a month before their lease is up. The Curtin’s booker Martine speaks to NME about the struggle to save the venue and larger issues surrounding the longevity of live music venues in Melbourne and beyond

Venues can collaborate to help interstate touring

When we reopened, there was a big rush of people who were keen to get out and get to shows, but we still haven’t seen a complete return of bands touring interstate. That’s because the risk of touring is already high, and in addition to that there are risks of band members getting COVID and shows being cancelled at short notice.

How can we look after and start making roads for those interstate bands to start coming back with a little bit less risk? That’s what I would like to see. In the past, I’ve reached out to venues of equal size to The Curtin in other states and asked: “Can we as venues help create a touring route for these bands by working together?” I have had a couple of tours, with varying success, where venues pitched in and helped to make tours happen. But I don’t see a lot of it and I think that would be incredibly useful, particularly now, when both the amount of risk and pressure on bands to self-fund and get themselves down to Melbourne is incredibly high.

John Curtin Hotel booker Paris Martine
John Curtin Hotel booker Paris Martine. Credit: Supplied

What exactly is being protected?

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Venues that occupy corner real estate are worth more knocked down to a potential developer than what they are standing. But when they are protected, one of the huge problems we face is that use is never protected. The only thing that’s protected is the facade. And that creates confusion for people because they hear the word ‘heritage’ and assume that the building and its use will be protected. But that’s so far from the truth. Protecting ‘heritage’ takes into consideration community value, which can be confusing. People can be asked to put submissions in about community value but still end up with a facade of a building with a block of apartments behind it.

Heritage Victoria have been fantastic about this, but we still need to have a serious conversation about what ‘heritage’ is and what ‘community’ means and what value we place on the actual buildings that hold that community together. The Curtin is a band room, yes, a room for development of artists. But it’s also a room that really values conversation. Students go there. A lot of historical political meetings were held in that venue, and that proud tradition has actually, believe it or not, continued for decades. It has a remarkable proximity to students, the trades hall, the unions and the State Library, where people usually gather whenever there is some form of activism. All that combined with people actually in the arts who feel passionately about issues, architects and designers, people in creative jobs… you bring those people all together and you’ve got a remarkable space that doesn’t exist anywhere else I can think of.

Businesses need long leases to build

We would love to be able to speak to whoever has purchased the building so that we can talk to them about an extension of the lease, to continue to present live music. But even if we got an extension of the lease, it would need to be long enough to justify making improvements that will ensure its success. That’s not just an issue for the Curtin: old buildings need work. This is an issue that is rife throughout Australian venues.

“Even though it’s great to have 10 venues all in one street, it’s no use if venues are popping up in just one area”

Roofs start to leak, floors start to become old, noise begins to escape through spaces. If operators can’t get a long enough lease so that they can actually invest in their business and renovate, those buildings are in a very precarious position and those owners can’t make plans to improve their businesses. I think in the future, you will see more and more freeholders everywhere unwilling to give those long 15- to 20-year leases or 10- to 20-year leases that they used to give to pubs because they might want to sell up to a developer without an existing tenant. What are the ramifications on the vibrancy of the city? Live music can be incredibly rewarding, but the margins are not huge – and we don’t want them to be huge, because we don’t want to be charging prices that are not accessible to people who want to experience the arts.

We need to future-proof businesses and buildings

Nobody wants to go and blame this one thing on the landlords or on the real estate agents: we want to talk about what we can do about it. And perhaps what we can do is look at grants to actually fix things within these buildings, to future-proof them for the arts. There has been some talk of initiatives such as funding a tradie brigade to come in, work on these old buildings and get things done for businesses. We’ve got these financially viable businesses out there that can continue – all we need to do is fix these problems, and they’re not huge problems.

Sometimes you see grants that go out and you think to yourself, ‘that money could have future-proofed this venue for 10 years, with 200 gigs a year and three bands on every night, and five members in each band…’ You do the math on that. We could offer land tax incentives to buyers who want to keep venues as they are. This would attract local investors to buy the buildings, people who care about Melbourne’s vibrancy. We could recognise “Assets Of Community Value” like they did in the UK, putting a two-year stop to a sale going through so that the community can act to find a sympathetic buyer or buy as a community.

We need long-lasting venues everywhere

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People start saying, “Oh, that venue closed, but another venue opened, so it’s all OK.” Often venues will open, but they won’t survive for more than a couple of years. I can prepare you a list of venues that have opened and closed down, or have tried to get off the ground but have found it’s too hard.

You might see venues pop up but the question should be: where are those venues coming on board, and where do we really need them? Because even though it’s great to have 10 venues all in one street, it’s no use if venues are popping up in just one area. We need vibrant reasons for people to come into the city – to create business for those establishments that need customers, who have dinner and then come along to the show. That kind of transaction is required everywhere. It’s no use if it’s all in one tiny section of Melbourne: music should flourish everywhere.

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