Music fans rally to save the Tote

For more than 25 years the Tote Hotel in Collingwood has been at the centre of Melbourne’s live music scene. The venue has helped launch some of Australia’s best known bands and played host to a long list of international acts. The pictures and posters that adorn the walls of the bar and band room give only a taste of the musical greats that have played at the venue.

When the current licensee, Bruce Milne, announced that the venue would be closing down last week there was a mass outpouring of anger. Punters set up Facebook pages which attracted thousands of people in a matter of hours. Talk back radio lines ran hot and a protest was called to coincide with ‘last drinks’.

Several thousand people turned up to the protest on Sunday. By mid afternoon the pub was full to capacity and by 6pm the road and intersection outside had to be closed to accommodate all the people. The crowd included music fans, local residents and a wide range of musicians. All were there to call for the Tote to stay open and to continue as a band venue.

Milne had told the media during the week that he was forced to close the doors because “it was no longer profitable to run”. He said that this was because of higher operating costs due to the State government’s new liquor licensing conditions. The pub had been characterised as ‘high risk’ alongside venues like those on King Street in the City. This meant that he faced an increase in liquor licensing fees and a requirement to provide extra security guards as well as CCTV cameras in the venue.

The Government’s new liquor laws, and their claims to be cracking down on violence, have more to do with chasing votes in the outer suburbs than they do with reality. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Tote is a trouble spot. Even the local police have confirmed that they never have any problems with the venue!

The Government has introduced a ‘one size fits all’ approach to liquor licensing which is bound to have adverse effects on smaller pubs, especially live music venues. While failing to give any support to the live music scene, they roll out the red carpet for the likes of the Crown Casino who have just been allowed to open up another 150 gaming tables.

Upon hearing the news of the closure, the Socialist Party through its local Councillor in the area, Stephen Jolly, contacted Milne as well as some senior representatives of the Labor Party. We called on Labor to remove the Tote from the ‘high risk’ category and offered our support to the campaign to keep the pub open.

What we realised very quickly was that the Labor Party had been taken aback by the mass outpouring of support for the Tote. In an election year, they wanted to do all they could to minimise the loss of votes in their inner city seats.

Richard Wynne is the Labor MP for the area and was one of the first to feel the heat. With his seat hanging in the balance he raced back from holidays to try stitch up a deal to keep the pub open. The idea that Wynne has any concern for the live music scene is laughable. It was his party (supported by the Greens) that introduced the new liquor licensing laws in the first place!

Unfortunately, while the Labor Party was buckling under pressure, Milne seemed to have already given up the fight. Despite offers of support coming in from many quarters and our insistence that the Government could be forced to back down, Milne was adamant that the pub would close its doors. A tribute night featuring 26 of Australia’s finest bands was organised as a farewell gig on Monday.

Since then it has been revealed that perhaps there is more to the story than what was being told. While the Tote should not have to face a $1600 increase to their liquor licensing fees, it would be surprising if this was enough to send the popular pub broke. It was reported by Crikey that Milne had also recently lost around $75,000 in a deal with the failed Blueprint music festival – an amount that has surely contributed to the Tote’s financial problems.

If nothing else the case of the Tote shows that the market system is incapable of developing a vibrant live music scene. More needs to be done to provide bands with venues to play that are not governed by the law of making profits.

This is just one reason why the Socialist Party is campaigning for the Fitzroy Town Hall to be opened as a venue for music and the arts. We are also keen to work with other people in the scene to campaign for the re-establishment of the Brunswick Street Festival which used to promote live music in Yarra.

While Milne may or may not be in a position to continue as the licensee, this should not stop the campaign to save the Tote as a band venue. What music fans have shown in the past week is that the Government is scared of mass action. With several inner city Labor MPs worried about the future of their seats now is the time to step up the campaign.

If the Tote went under it would be a blow not only to the live music scene but also to the historic suburb of Collingwood. The Socialist Party will do all we can to assist the campaign and to further promote live music and the arts.

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