The regional rejuvenation of live music in Australia

It’s not just the Foo Fighters in Geelong – from big names to imaginative events, the future of regional live music feels bright

In 2021, Amyl and the Sniffers released a cult summer anthem. “I wanna go see the country / I want to get out of here,” Amy Taylor sings on ‘Hertz’, a certified banger about a road trip: the unbridled joy of piling into a car and fanging up the freeway, window down, wind in your hair, a hotly-debated playlist blasting.

‘Hertz’ hit hard when it arrived last September. Living in Melbourne during the world’s longest pandemic lockdown meant most people – Amyl included – had barely been able to fang it to their local shops, let alone up the Calder.

It felt a little like a collective catharsis then, when in April this year Taylor stood, spindly leg propped up on a ferocious fold-back spitting out these words to a rain-soaked crowd of punters in Geelong. The band were warming the GMHBA stadium stage for the Foo Fighters, supporting one of the world’s biggest rock bands in a town once best known for Ford cars and a footy legend nicknamed God.

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Yes, the Foo Fighters were ultimately playing a big international rock gig only an hour from Melbourne. But it did feel symbolic of a sense of regeneration occurring in regional touring circuits around Australia. The show was part of the Victorian government’s Always Live initiative that aims to bring live music back to the state – both in the city and regionally. The NSW government has a similar scheme with Great Southern Nights, and there are smaller efforts too.

In Geelong, the Surround Sounds music festival is shining a light on the Bellarine Peninsula’s long music history and Dinosaur City Records have announced Homecoming, a concert series that will see artists return to their mostly regional hometowns across Aus. Add these to already established events like the much-loved OK Motels Charlton-based mini festivals, which have since expanded to one-off gigs – also in Geelong – and the future of regional live music suddenly feels bright.

As we (Victorians especially) continue to process the lingering trauma of pandemic lockdowns, there seems to not only be hope on the horizon for regional venues and touring musicians – but the glow of a kind of renaissance, as new venues open up in farther-flung spots and artists are seeing regional touring as a viable, and fun, option.

One of the last road trips I took pre-pandemic was to see dream pop four-piece Tender Buttons and art punks Zig Zag play at Tanswell’s Hotel in Beechworth. It’s an unlikely joint for such a gig, but illuminated by a roaring orange sunset on a hot November night, the front bar shook with joy as locals meandered past, popping their heads in to see what all the commotion was about.

Located about three hours northeast of Melbourne, the historical gold rush town is best known for its honey and its jail. But over the last 10 years, the recently departed publican of Tanswell’s, James Cleeve, worked tirelessly to create a space for musicians to play. It was, for the most part, a labour of passion. Post-lockdown, the pub’s booker (and NME contributor) Doug Wallen and local community – who have seen firsthand the positive impact live music has on their town – are committed to keeping this up.

“There’s a kind of renaissance of venues opening in farther-flung spots and artists beginning to see regional touring as a viable option”

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And there’s dozens of these stories around just Victoria alone, from The Bridge and the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine to the Volta in Ballarat, which took over from Karova Lounge. While the Caravan Music Club recently moved from Oakleigh to the Bass Coast town Archies Creek and Laneway Festival co-founder Jerome Borazio has opened up the music venue Haba in Rye.

“I think it’s fantastic that there are these regional touring routes that have popped up thanks to the hard work of people over many years,” says Tim Heath, who runs the Theatre Royal. “And now there are young promoters who have cottoned onto to this and are doing exciting and imaginative events as well.”

OK Motels promoter and former Karova Lounge booker Shaun Adams has witnessed firsthand the gradual transformation of regional touring. And while it’s early days yet, he does believe there is a flow-on effect in seeing bigger bands – like Amyl and The Sniffers – play more shows outside the city. “It inspires smaller bands to go and tour regionally,” he explains. “It opens it up for hundreds of other bands to explore their options in regional Victoria.”

There has been a trend across Australia, but especially in Melbourne, for some time that has seen young people and creative communities moving further out of the city. In Victoria communities in places like Kyneton, Castlemaine and Ballarat have transformed over the last two decades as people seek space and more affordable housing. The same can be said for smaller cities like Newcastle and Geelong, formerly towns built on industry that have been recast as hubs of creativity.

Cool Sounds playing at The Bridge Hotel
Cool Sounds playing The Bridge Hotel in Castlemaine on the Homecoming tour. Credit: Simon Fazio/Dinosaur City Records

Since the pandemic this shift has felt seismic. This is in part because the migration of people to the regions – myself included – has increased, but also because many of these communities have worked for years to make it viable for bands to tour outside of major cities like Melbourne.

“There is a regional buzz, a lot of exciting people producing wine, food offerings, cafes that we didn’t really have 10 or more years ago,” Heath says. “So it gives people options and it’s really fun… you see young bands come here and they’re really excited to visit the town.”

Having endured the longest pandemic lockdown in the world, there is no doubt that Australia’s – and especially Victoria’s – live music venues, in part kept afloat by grants and funding, are still struggling to recover. There are new challenges that Adams and Heath note as well – including a trend towards slower ticket sales, and the public buying tickets later.

But there is still a tangible hope at what the future holds.

“I’m always optimistic about most things,” Heath says. “Certainly the regional thing won’t go away now. The music industry is a very strange beast, and it has trends, chops and changes – but I think we all just adjust to those and evolve with it.”

“The whole industry is very much still in recovery,” Adams is at pains to highlight. “But for sure the regional door has been fully opened – and we have to be thankful for that.”

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