“It’s been really tough, actually.” Sasha Janssen inside her Brunswick East bar, Whole Lotta Love.

What happens when the music stops?

Brunswick’s live music venues have been to Hell and back over the past 18 months – but they’re still standing

210730_whole lotta love_10

What happens
when the
music stops?

“It’s been really tough, actually.” Sasha Janssen inside her Brunswick East bar, Whole Lotta Love.

What happens when
the music stops?

Brunswick’s live music venues have been to Hell and back over the past 18 months – but they’re still standing

Brunswick’s live music venues have been to Hell and back over the past 18 months – but they’re still standing

Mark Phillips
Monday, August 16, 2021

THERE have been plenty of times in the last 18 months when Sasha Janssen has thought about giving up and shutting down her Brunswick East music venue Whole Lotta Love.

Few industries have been more deeply impacted by COVID-19 than the live performance and events sector. Live music venues like Whole Lotta Love were forced to close for most of 2020, and with the seemingly never ending cycle of snap lockdowns and capacity restrictions, their future remains precarious.

“I’ve made it this far and I’m a stubborn person and a fighter by nature so I will do everything I can to keep it going,” Janssen tells Brunswick Voice during the short respite between Melbourne’s fifth and sixth lockdowns.

“Live music is one of those things that brings everybody together. Music is kind of a universal language and we need to make sure we have places like mine to be able to support that and keep it ongoing.”

For a suburb like Brunswick, which has a well-earned reputation as a place where you can see and hear top quality music performed live any night of the week, the loss of venues would be devastating. Take away live music, and you take away a big chunk of the character of the suburb.

“That’s why people live in this area and if they can’t see live music, I’m not sure what’s going to hold us here,” says Simone Schinkel, chief executive of Music Victoria and a Brunswick resident herself.

Or, as Michael Tortoni, owner of The Jazzlab in Leslie Street, puts it: “You can’t do takeaway jazz.”

“People want to be in the club and experience it live and the musicians feed off the audience and the audience feed off the musicians,” he explains.

“It’s an incredible feeling. They walk out so happy. Music does have that affect on people and people love the venue and love the musicians that play there so it has a really positive effect on audiences.

“It’s a very interactive art form. So it’s very tough for us [to be closed]. We can’t do it unless we’re open.”

Survival instinct

For years now, venues like Whole Lotta Love have been fighting battles over noise and neighbourhood character, all the while looking over their shoulder at property developers building apartments on the sites of former music shrines like the Brunswick East Hotel and the Sarah Sands Hotel. But COVID has introduced a whole new set of challenges.

Janssen, who has run Whole Lotta Love at the northernmost end of Lygon Street for the past five years, admits she was plunged into dark depression by turmoil of 2020.

“It’s been really tough, actually,” she says. “Especially during that first lockdown and first part of the second lockdown it [shutting down permanently] was something I definitely contemplated quite a lot. That’s what led to my big depressive state during that time, thinking about the staff and legacy and all that.

“For 10 years now this has been an established venue, I’ve owned it five years and worked really hard for it so the thought of having to lose all of that because of something that was completely out of our control was terrifying and absolutely heart-wrenching … An absolute fear of mine was that we would lose this place and lose another live music venue out of Brunswick.”

Like many music venues, Whole Lotta Love is part of the glue that binds the community together and customers and musicians have gone out of their way to praise Janssen’s survival instinct.

“Most of them [customers] have all said ‘thank God you’re still here, can’t imagine what this place would be like without Whole Lotta Love’. That kind of stuff has just been phenomenal.”

Whole Lotta Love also happens to be Simone Schinkel’s local.

She says that prior to the most recent lockdown, the music industry was trading at just 12% of its pre-COVID levels and she is fearful of how long small venues like Whole Lotta Love can keep their doors open. More financial support is desperately needed, she says.

“In the middle of last year we were only 4% so it’s improved, but 12% of trade is horrible,” she said.

“I actually can’t believe we’re still here. We’ve managed with JobKeeper and rent relief and there’s been lots of other types of relief but the overall scale of impact was not equalled by the scale of support.

“In the past there have been cash injections which have kept us going longer but unless there’s something soon it’s on the edge. They’re tired and rundown. It’s a cumulative effect.”

"You can't do takeaway jazz." Michael Tortoni at The Jazzlab. Photo: Roger Mitchell/Ausjazz

Michael Tortoni supports measures to contain the pandemic, but doesn’t hide the frustration he feels over government-imposed lockdowns.

“To be a jazz club owner like I have been and dedicated to the art form all my career really, even with all my experience and all the issues I’ve had to solve over 30 years I would never have believed the government would have closed my business underneath me,” says Tortoni, who ran the famed Bennett’s Lane venue in the city before opening The Jazzlab five years ago.

“It’s hard to fathom and if someone had’ve suggested that three years ago, I would have laughed at them. I would have thought it was fantasy.”

Tortoni says each lockdown has been different, and the cumulative impact has been taxing physically and mentally, but he has never seriously thought about closing for good.

“I plan to die in my jazz club,” he says.

“It is challenging but I’m the sort of personality I would never give up. But I can imagine a lot of people would get to the point where they throw their hands up in the air and say it’s too hard. Because it is hard, very challenging. Five times now we’ve done this and each time it gets harder psychologically to keep going.

“It’s tiring, all the stop starting, it’s just too much. What it does is it kills the rhythm of your life.”

Music Victoria CEO Simone Schinkel.

Janssen echoes those sentiments, saying she’s determined to soldier on because of her own deep love of live music and the joy it brings to both musicians and audiences.

“I definitely am a fighter, I guess, and didn’t want to just give up,” says Janssen. “But also seeing the amount of support I had from the community and all of my regulars was the driving force.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Scott Assender has just reopened Penny’s Bandroom, formerly known as Penny Black, in Sydney Road after it was closed for 18 months.

It’s a risk in the middle of the pandemic with the ever-present threat of lockdowns, but Assender says live music is the cornerstone of his vision for the 270-capacity venue.

“We would not open Penny’s without live music, it’s just what we want to do,” he says, adding that a priority when the venue is able to have music will be to support artists in Brunswick and neighbouring suburbs.

While Tortoni remembers a feeling of “jubilation”, Janssen says the first opening night after the long lockdown in winter 2020 was “really terrifying”.

“Fortunately, we got booked out the first night by a group fo regulars and friends so that gave me a really nice ease back into it because we had the friendly crowd and seeing them come into support us made it all worthwhile.”

But even then, it was several months before the venue was able to host live music again and gigs didn’t come back in earnest until January. Janssen has no idea if or when she will be able to return to the venue’s old pattern of live music five nights a week.

Michael Tortoni supports measures to contain the pandemic, but doesn’t hide the frustration he feels over government-imposed lockdowns.

“To be a jazz club owner like I have been and dedicated to the art form all my career really, even with all my experience and all the issues I’ve had to solve over 30 years I would never have believed the government would have closed my business underneath me,” says Tortoni, who ran the famed Bennett’s Lane venue in the city before opening The Jazzlab five years ago.

“It’s hard to fathom and if someone had’ve suggested that three years ago, I would have laughed at them. I would have thought it was fantasy.”

Tortoni says each lockdown has been different, and the cumulative impact has been taxing physically and mentally, but he has never seriously thought about closing for good.

“I plan to die in my jazz club,” he says.

“It is challenging but I’m the sort of personality I would never give up. But I can imagine a lot of people would get to the point where they throw their hands up in the air and say it’s too hard. Because it is hard, very challenging. Five times now we’ve done this and each time it gets harder psychologically to keep going.

“It’s tiring, all the stop starting, it’s just too much. What it does is it kills the rhythm of your life.”

Music Victoria CEO Simone Schinkel.

Janssen echoes those sentiments, saying she’s determined to soldier on because of her own deep love of live music and the joy it brings to both musicians and audiences.

“I definitely am a fighter, I guess, and didn’t want to just give up,” says Janssen. “But also seeing the amount of support I had from the community and all of my regulars was the driving force.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Scott Assender has just reopened Penny’s Bandroom, formerly known as Penny Black, in Sydney Road after it was closed for 18 months.

It’s a risk in the middle of the pandemic with the ever-present threat of lockdowns, but Assender says live music is the cornerstone of his vision for the 270-capacity venue.

“We would not open Penny’s without live music, it’s just what we want to do,” he says, adding that a priority when the venue is able to have music will be to support artists in Brunswick and neighbouring suburbs.

While Tortoni remembers a feeling of “jubilation”, Janssen says the first opening night after the long lockdown in winter 2020 was “really terrifying”.

“Fortunately, we got booked out the first night by a group fo regulars and friends so that gave me a really nice ease back into it because we had the friendly crowd and seeing them come into support us made it all worthwhile.”

But even then, it was several months before the venue was able to host live music again and gigs didn’t come back in earnest until January. Janssen has no idea if or when she will be able to return to the venue’s old pattern of live music five nights a week.

“Venues are part of the critical infrastructure of the music industry.”
Sasha Janssen

“Venues are part of the critical infrastructure of the music industry.” Sasha Janssen

Venues continue to be hindered by the “four square metre rule”, which limits their capacities. In the case of The Jazzlab, this means a venue that can easily hold 200 is reduced to an audience of just 50. But while jazz is often performed to a seated audience, seated gigs are less attractive for a rock music dive bar like Whole Lotta Love.

To rub further salt into the wounds, venues were about to be allowed back to full capacity in late March when the state government imposed another lockdown. Every lockdown means gigs have to be cancelled or rescheduled which is even harder for the musicians. The financial strain for venue owners is immense. The livelihoods of whole armies of casual workers are also impacted.

“As a music venue, you don’t make money generally from the ticket sales, that goes to the artists,” explains Janssen.

“We make money from the bar sales. So if there’s only 24 people here there’s only a certain amount they can drink legally and physically, so we’re kind of capped on what our earning potential is so some nights we just lose money.

“There always were nights when you’d lose money but it was a calculated risk because you knew you’d have the weekend nights where you could operate at full capacity and make your money back. But I haven’t operated at full capacity since March last year.”

Schinkel says the determination of Janssen and Tortoni to keep trading against the odds is echoed again and again at other venues. But she said a recent survey by Music Victoria found that 60% of music workers were actively considering leaving the industry. The industry is at breaking point and at risk of “bleeding talent and skills”, she says.

“People will open up and make a loss because they’re committed to the audiences and the industry and the musicians — and the joy that can bring is what we need right now. But credit cards are getting maxed out and savings are being used up because it can’t last forever… Ultimately, as long as there are restrictions in place, our industry is impacted more than any other in the way capacity restrictions and border closures and all of those things affect us.

“We can only see a way out via vaccinations so anything we can do to help that we’re ready and willing to do.”

A gig at the Retreat Hotel in Sydney Road in the pre-COVID days.
A gig at the Retreat Hotel in Sydney Road in the pre-COVID days. Photo: Facebook

Tortoni is in full agreement that increasing the vaccination rate is critical to restoring live music.

“There’s never been an issue at the club and we’re very, very careful in terms of hygiene and QR coding and everything we need to do, we do,” he says.

“I’m vaccinated, the manager is vaccinated. We’re doing everything we can and there’s no cases of Covid around us, touch wood.

“Venues don’t seem to be where the problem is but unfortunately we’re all getting tarred with the same brush and a lot of businesses won’t survive it … Everyone just needs to get vaccinated. Maybe introduce a policy of no vaccination, no entry. I don’t know, but we’ve just got to get on with it.”

Simone Schinkel is worried about how the plight live music venues are facing might impact on the soul of inner Melbourne.

“Howler is an example in Brunswick that has a food and beverage space and then there is the band room. If this keeps going, can it continue to run as a band room? There’s other things they can do but is that what we want them to be?

“It’s taken years and years to build this and we can’t overlook that’s it’s really hard to rebuild that stuff when it’s lost … You can’t recreate it overnight.”

Sasha Janssen warns that Melbourne’s reputation as one of the world’s live music capitals is at risk.

Despite everything, Janssen says she is determined to soldier on regardless.

“Venues are part of the critical infrastructure [of the music industry],” she says.

“You lose your venues, your artists don’t have anywhere to play and hone their craft. And it’s not just the small venues, we’ve got a bit of an ecosystem here where bands cut their teeth on my stage and move into bigger venues once they outgrow venues like this and that makes way for the next band to come and start playing on my stage.

“We need that recognition that venues of all sizes and models get support so we can keep the industry going.”

Sign up for our mailing list