Honestly, who’d want to be in the Australian live music biz these days? While the predicted tsunami of permanent venue closures from the COVID pandemic thankfully didn’t come to pass, there may be another threat looming for an industry still punchdrunk from lockdowns, border closures and tour cancellations – this month, it nearly claimed its first victims.
The Grace Emily Hotel is a beloved Adelaide institution that has long been a home for live music – and only live music. For most of the 2000s it’s held gigs six or seven nights a week, from acoustic acts to full bands cramming onto its tiny stage.
A shocking number of the best gigs of my life were experienced in that cozy bandroom. First time I saw The Mountain Goats? The Grace. First time I saw The Handsome Family? The Grace. Tim Rogers solo? Ditto. It’s also where I first fell in love with dozens of great South Australian artists, from No Through Road to Naomi Keyte.
When Ben Folds – who became an Adelaide resident in 1999 – decided he’d like to test out some new material with an unannounced late afternoon show, word of mouth spread so quickly that you could not move from the spot once you got inside. The Grace is that sort of a place.
As the board out of the front has proudly declared for over two decades, it contains “No Pokies, No TAB”. There’s also no kitchen and a heartwarmingly limited variety of beers and wines on offer, which suits the pub’s quirky, personal atmosphere but also meant that it couldn’t pivot to alternative emergency income streams like pickup meals or cocktail delivery as some other quick-thinking pubs managed to do when lockdowns struck.
For months the venue was completely shut down, along with every other pub in Adelaide, and even when it was able to open again it faced new challenges. For example, the thing that makes the Grace so fantastic for seeing bands – the aforementioned live room, which looks comfortably full with 40 people and is absolutely heaving with one hundred – also makes it uniquely difficult for social distancing.
Despite all this, the venue reopened its doors a few nights a week as restrictions lifted, and Adelaide music lovers breathed a sigh of relief. Local acts booked their record launches. Interstate artists directed their tours there.
And then, in late November, it abruptly closed again – because the company who provided the Grace’s compulsory public liability insurance had decided, with two weeks notice and no extensions, that it would no longer be offered.
The Grace looked like it would face what another long-running Adelaide venue, Sugar, had been grappling with for months. Stonewalled by insurance providers who’d either said a flat no or quoted exorbitant prices, Sugar was forced to stay closed for eight months and start a crowdfunding campaign to stay afloat. “I turned from one broker to another here in South Australia when I couldn’t get insurance and they ended up saying to me we will never, ever get insurance,” Sugar owner Driller Jet Armstrong told the ABC.
“I got told by my old broker, ‘if you didn’t have live music you’d get covered tomorrow’”
The increasing hurdles for pubs to get the insurance they need in order to operate was first flagged not by live venues, but by regional pubs who discovered that the insurance market had hardened significantly in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires.
Insurance companies have had a difficult few years, since their entire business model is based upon people paying regularly to avoid rare-but-expensive disasters and not, say, once-in-a-lifetime pandemics that drag on for month after unpredictable month and a reduced pool of operational businesses paying into the pool of money.
And the Grace Emily’s plight could be symptomatic of a larger problem: pubs being seen as a risk for insurers – especially with the number that struggled through shutdowns – and companies opting to no longer offer insurance for them. If fewer companies offer cover, and those that do are charge higher premiums, that puts further pressure on already-stretched budgets and lower-than-average revenue.
The Grace Emily’s publican Symon Jarowyj finds it hard to believe that his venue, long known for its relaxed vibe and no-dickhead policies, is considered too risky to insure.
The problem, he tells NME, is that venues that book live music are treated by insurers like nightclubs with dancefloors where people can spill a drink and slip over – rather than the Grace’s old-school sticky carpet bandroom.
“And we don’t make nightclub money,” Jarowyj adds, “so that just makes us look like a bigger risk. I got told by my old broker, ‘if you didn’t have live music you’d get covered tomorrow.’”
The insurance headache is one acutely understood by music festivals, which have been clamouring for a government-backed national insurance scheme, similar to existing ones in Europe and the UK, since mid-2020. These business interruption safety nets would mean that an event could be cancelled a day before gates opened (as happened with Bluesfest in April) to avoid further COVID-19 spread and the promoter wouldn’t risk a crippling bankruptcy or artists and vendors going unpaid.
Such suggestions have been rebuffed by the Morrison government (although there have been grants to venues) – but the state governments in New South Wales and Victoria have stepped in with similar schemes to protect their cultural sectors.
And Canada is grappling with the exact same situation as that of the Grace and Sugar, where venues in Toronto are under threat of uninsurability and there’s a campaign afoot to pressure the government to intervene in the face of skyrocketing premiums and “untenable” conditions.
In the meantime, the Grace remains shuttered.At the time of writing the Grace Emily had cancelled all their shows for the rest of 2021, posting on Facebook that “unfortunately we are in a complicated position with renewing the public liability insurance hence the longer delay.”
The Grace has always been adamant that its closure is temporary, and Jarowyj is confident that it will reopen in January. But its recent struggles – and that of Sugar – shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.
It would be cruel indeed if the live music industry survives natural disasters and a global pandemic only to be wiped out by actuaries.