IT STARTED as a rumour: the much-loved Northcote Social Club was about to be put up for sale. Live-music fans collectively sighed as yet another venue was in danger of development, perhaps turning into apartments.
The rumours have been disputed and the venue’s managing director, Andrew Mansfield, was surprised to hear the ‘‘news’’.
‘‘You hear some pretty weird and wacky things sometimes. But it’s not odd that people would say it, what with all these [other] places toppling,’’ he says.
Since late last year five night spots have either been closed or sold. A sixth was passed in at auction. It’s occurred at a pace that has many in the industry worried, and the reasons for the trend is hard to pin down.
The first ripple came in December when the East Brunswick Club said it would close in February after six years as one of Melbourne’s premier mid-size, live-music venues.
Owners Pete and Pam Benjamin announced they were retiring. The new owners revealed plans to develop the site into a six-storey apartment block. Plans have been lodged with Moreland council and a decision is due soon.
Next was the fall of Brunswick’s Phoenix Public House, which opened last September with high expectations. Its last gig in its current form was on June 11.
Last month, two Fitzroy institutions – the Rose Hotel, on Napier Street, and the Night Cat on Johnston Street, whose lease was to expire in 2014 – were both sold at auction. In both cases, the new owners immediately declared the venues would continue to operate.
It didn’t stop there. On June 1, Carlton North’s the Great Northern Hotel was passed in at auction, with a $4 million asking price.
There was no single reason for the cluster of recent sales, Nelson Alexander commercial real estate agent Peter Smyth says. He believes the insecure global economy means investors are eyeing real estate as a more secure investment.
‘‘You can do that either with a good tenant or with the idea of developing,’’ Smyth says.
Land price increases and a booming population means housing demand is tempting pub owners to sell to developers, Real Estate Institute of Victoria spokesman Robert Larocca says.
‘‘Sentiment is not often a part of the decision-making process,’’ he says, adding that he expects to see more venues placed on the market in the foreseeable future.
The Save Live Australian Music rally in 2010 – when approximately 20,000 music fans, musicians and venue operators marched on state parliament to defend new rules to curb late-night violence by mandating security on venues – first brought the issue into focus.
The rule was amended after the SLAM rally.
But the industry is still campaigning for new protection against noise complaints made by new residents of housing developments that are built near long-standing venues – called the agent-of-change principle.
It’s somewhat ironic that while many people want to live in areas like Brunswick and Fitzroy because of the night life, the influx puts pressure on the venues.
Music Victoria president Patrick Donovan says the agent-of-change principle should be strengthened.
‘‘There’s not a lot that can be done about progress – unless councils want to buy buildings and hand them over to the music industry to run – so we need to make sure that landlords and licensees who want to run profitable venues are supported by regulation.’’
Yarra Socialist councillors Anthony Main and Stephen Jolly tried to do just that. Concerned the Rose Hotel might be bought by developers, they asked Yarra council officers to investigate whether planning by-laws could be amended to ensure venues continued to operate should they be sold.
The idea was shot down; the officers reported that the council had no right to tell owners what to do with their properties, as long as they complied with planning rules.
There is new life in the industry, but on the fringes. A new venue has opened since January, Edwards Place, in Reservoir. It follows The Regal Ballroom, in Northcote, which has introduced live music this year. Music co-ordinator Aaron Tzimis says it is the ‘‘right time’’, as the venue has been inundated by people asking why they don’t offer gigs.
‘‘The feedback’s been incredible and we’re really enjoying it,’’ Tzimis says.
As for why people care so much whether a venue goes on the market or gets turned into apartments, Andrew Mansfield says the answer is simple.
‘‘Pubs have been community hubs for decades. They hold a lot of sway in people’s hearts.’’