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Australian Geographer, Vol. 43, No.

1,
pp. 3550, March 2012

Gatekeeping Night Spaces: the role of


booking agents in creating ‘local’ live music
venues and scenes

BEN GALLAN, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

ABSTRACT A complex relationship exists between music scenes and the infrastructure in
which they are located. This article focuses on the rise and fall of the Oxford Tavern, a live
music venue in the Australian city of Wollongong. Pivotal in this venue was the role that
booking agents played in developing what they perceived as an inclusive, self-sufficient and
vibrant music scene*by generating and then consistently implementing a strict philosophy
on what music and which bands performed there. Bookings were not based on reputation,
and potentially better known or more lucrative bands were regularly denied access in favour
of ‘local’ bands socially connected to the music scene. These bands were authenticated as
‘local’ because of social and geographical proximity*not because of any innate
musicological distinctiveness connected to Wollongong. This social geographical emphasis
on ‘local’ and ‘original’ music transcended musical genre and subcultural style. Although
in one sense ‘exclusionary’, gatekeeping also fostered bonds of community and belonging,
creating a perceived haven for diverse local cultures within a monopolised urban
nightscape. Such gatekeeping practices*explored here through interviews with booking
agents and music scene participants*were pivotal to the longevity of the music venue and
scene. Only when booking agents with a strong ‘local’ ethos were removed from the venue
did it struggle to survive, and ultimately collapse.

KEY WORDS Live music venue; local music; gatekeepers; cultural infrastructure;
Wollongong; Oxford Tavern; booking agents.

In July 2010 the Oxford Tavern, a pub in the Australian city of Wollongong,
abruptly closed its doors. This brought an end to the major venue and focal point of
the city’s music scene for the past 20 years. With a small stage, dingy room and poor
sound qualities the pub had never been purpose built or retrofitted as a music
venue. Nor had it launched a globally famous band, genre or subculture. Instead,
it was associated with local meanings of what it meant to play and support local
music*a place to drink, socialise, dance, mosh, sing and belong (see Plate 1).
It was a place for both up-and-coming bands and established acts to perform.
The emphasis was on being local and playing original material rather than
any preference in genre or style. Infused with many memories and myths through

ISSN 0004-9182 print/ISSN 1465-3311 online/12/010035-16 # 2012 Geographical Society of New South Wales Inc.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00049182.2012.649518
36 B. Gallan

PLATE 1. Part of the Oxford Tavern scene. Photograph courtesy of Ian Laidlaw.

a prolonged intimate relationship with the scene, the Oxford Tavern’s closure has
now left a vacuum of permanent performance space for the local music scene.
This article traces the rise and fall of the Oxford Tavern (hereafter ‘the Oxford’)
within the context of broader debates about live music venues, cultural infra-
structure and urban planning. The story of the Oxford is partly familiar*in other
cities music venues have closed and musicians have complained about limited
performance space. Ironically, threats to live music venues come at precisely the
time when culture, creativity and performing arts are increasingly positioned as
important to urban economies (Evans 2009). Typically, venue managers are
blamed for replacing bands with poker machines, as are gentrifying newcomers
complaining about noise. Conversely, urban developers are responsible when
venues are closed down to make way for inner-city apartments (Gibson & Homan
2004). What I explore here, using the Oxford as an example, is how the success and
failure of music venues can also be understood through the key role of cultural
gatekeepers*booking agents who control which bands are given performance
opportunities. These agents regulate access to venues, as arbiters of taste*but also
play a crucial role in fostering a sense of belonging which translates into ‘regulars’
(repeat visitors) investing meaning in the venue’s social and cultural milieu. Only
when key gatekeepers at the Oxford were replaced with outsider agents distanced
from the scene did the venue’s ongoing viability erode. Cultural gatekeepers are
thus critical for the evolution of the performance spaces of city life.
Questions of ‘culture’, ‘creativity’ and urban development currently loom large
in civic debates about Wollongong’s future. Wollongong is a regional city with a
population of 280 000 people and a rich legacy of steel production, but more
recently has partly de-industrialised, and diversified into education, tourism and
cultural industries. In the 1950s Wollongong offered the ‘plumes of progress’, with
promotional material celebrating a city landscape of smokestacks billowing into
the air (Hagan & Wells 1997). The steel industry retains significance, although it
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 37

remains a source of tension and shame, as attempts to re-brand the city move away
from rust-bound images. The council is now actively pursuing economic develop-
ment under a creative cities script, evident in Wollongong City Council’s branding
of itself as the ‘City of Innovation’ (Waitt & Gibson 2009). Only belatedly have
culture and creativity attracted attention in debates about Wollongong’s future as
the city comes to realise the potential of innovation-based industries*and not soon
enough to circumvent the closure of the Oxford.
Why the Oxford closed is a matter of much debate locally. The venue has seen
years of changed management, ownership and receiverships, brought about in part
by inner-city development and post-industrial restructuring. The urban precinct
the Oxford was located in was hit by the economic crisis in 2009 (Roderick 2009),
and notoriously entwined in Wollongong corruption scandals that broke in
February 2008. Property speculators bought inner-city real estate going bankrupt
before completing developments. The Oxford was part of a failed $300 million
development to build a six-storey office, retail and residential block. Discussions are
ongoing to use the Oxford parking lot and surrounding empty blocks for a paid-
parking scheme in the city (Tonkin 2010)*a sadly ironic twist on Joni Mitchell’s
famous refrain: ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’. There is, however,
a subplot in the pub’s demise concerning the venue’s booking agents, who
constitute a form of cultural gatekeeper; these gatekeepers played a role when
the venue thrived and their subsequent absence contributed to the venue’s ultimate
decline. Beneath glossy city branding exercises and the gutter politics of real estate
there was another story worth exploring: the deeply social and geographical ways
in which music venues come to succeed (and subsequently fade). In fleshing out
this story, this paper follows the narratives of interviewed booking agents,
performers and members of the local Wollongong live music scene. The key is
what is meant by ‘local’ in Wollongong and the pivotal role that booking agents
played in the creation of a music scene within the Oxford.

Scenes, venues and gatekeepers


This paper relates to existing literatures on musical geographies, scenes and cultural
spaces, but focuses on the idea of what constitutes ‘local’ music. A music scene
is the people, organisations, events and situations associated with the production
and consumption of a particular musical style (Cohen 1999, p. 239). Increasingly
the idea of a music ‘scene’ has been subject to sociological, musicological, and
geographical exploration (Straw 1991; Kruse 1993; Connell & Gibson 2003).
Music can be conceptualised as both a worldwide industry and a localised cultural
pursuit, so issues of scale have been particularly relevant, conceptualised through
distinctions between local, translocal and global scenes (Bennett & Peterson 2004).
Whereas music can be understood as embedded in geographic locations and
vernacular cultures it is also influenced by genres and styles transmitted across
the globe through various media (Warren & Evitt 2010).
This paper extends on this work, focusing especially on the ‘local’ side of this
equation*not because the ‘local’ has any predetermined ontology or pre-eminence
but because in this case study it happened to be the geographical scale in which
meanings of the music scene were invested. Indeed, it could be argued that
meanings of ‘local’ in the music scenes literature have been frequently overlooked
in favour of understanding the relationship between the global and local. This
38 B. Gallan

has come at the expense of interpreting social meanings of music, its prosaic
significance, and factors guiding participation in music scenes in highly localised
ways (Bennett 1997). While global connections are without doubt interesting
musicologically and culturally, literature emphasising localglobal hybridity has
said less about the vernacular spaces and music scenes more or less disconnected
from the global music industry and enmeshed in other frameworks, such as pubs.
This paper therefore focuses on what ethnographic methods revealed as thoroughly
‘local’ practices participants described in Wollongong*local in the sense of music
created within and for Wollongong but also because of the strong connection of this
musical space to a site of drinking and socialising. Indeed, it is no coincidence that
in Australia one’s closest pub, geographically or intimately, is colloquially referred
to as your ‘local’. It is this sense of the music in a ‘local’ pub I seek to evoke here.
My focus on ‘local’ music is not without precedent. Finnegan’s (1989)
ethnographic research on musical participation in Milton Keynes, England, argued
that ‘local’ music is a ‘tangible manifestation of music in its own right’ (p. 235),
legitimising social forms of music as an everyday activity. Specifically researching
‘pub rock’ in northern England, Bennett (1997, 2000) extended this theme and
argued that local aspects of music scenes hold everyday significance to participants,
irrespective of subcultural coherence or substantive relations to the global music
industry. This recognises the social function of scenes within a specific ‘local’
context*regardless of competency or commercial viability. For Wollongong, ‘local’
context means understanding how scene-related practices were connected to one
specific performance space, continuously, across generations. Here the spotlight
is on attempts by a music scene to establish and maintain a continuing presence*a
fixed social and geographical base (O’Connor 2002). It is these fixings of scene
activity that develop locally specific and vital infrastructure such as recording spaces
and music venues, on which scenes rely (Connell & Gibson 2003).
In this approach, less emphasis is given to whether the music performed in
Wollongong is unique or reflects regional culture*though this kind of frame has
been adopted in similar studies of music scenes elsewhere in Australia (Luckman
et al. 2008; Rogers 2008; Stratton 2008). Instead, more relevant is how
geographical elements of Australian cities shape availability of cultural spaces for
music scenes: as a sparsely populated continent, centres of population have evolved
unique city cultures in relative isolation from each other (Bennett et al. 2008).
Relative isolation is particularly important in Wollongong both because of its size as
a small city (and thus difficulties sustaining an alternative music scene), and its
close proximity to the metropolis of Sydney (Waitt & Gibson 2009). Wollongong
offers a fresh perspective on Australian scenes outside of major capital cities. Here,
access to limited infrastructure and performance opportunities is an issue*
magnified for the Oxford in that it was considered the city’s only ‘alternative’
option in a monopolised night-time economy that rotated around heavy drinking
and Top 40 music. Currently over half of Wollongong’s 12 pubs and clubs are
operated by one company. Issues of pub ownership, management and booking
policies are critical because, as Cohen has argued, live venues become a focal point
of musical practice*they make a scene physical and visible (1999, p. 241). In
Australia, music venues and scenes have a strong historical connection to pubs, and
hence debates about pub regulation also become de facto debates about cultural
infrastructure.
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 39

Pubs are an ‘authentic’ space of live musical production within an Australian


cultural context where unique styles of local live musical production and
consumption have been fostered (Homan 2003). Notwithstanding discourses of
the ‘crisis’ in live music brought about by poker machines, noise complaints and
different entertainment options for publicans, live music still inhabits Australian
pubs (Johnson & Homan 2003). Once upon a time the expected way to build a
career in Australian music was by ‘paying one’s dues’ through the pub circuit,
although increasingly festivals and Internet distribution provide alternatives
(Gibson & Connell 2012; Leyshon 2001). Australian pubs may not be the
necessary stepping stone nowadays for globally recognised bands (as was once for
Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil), but reliable venues are still essential and pubs very
much figure in the cultural mix of Australian cities and towns. Indeed, smaller
regional centres such as Albury, Parkes and Lismore maintain pub scenes featuring
live original music.
Conversely, there have been several high-profile cases where live music venues/
pubs are under threat of closure. A theme that resonates in the Australian media
is the constant threat facing live music spaces (Olding 2009). Key legislative
frameworks concerned with public assembly and noise have influenced the
precarious survival of Australian pubs as music venues (Homan 2003), most
notably the Annandale and Hopetoun Hotels in Sydney. The Annandale remains
open, but the Hopetoun is boarded up with ‘post no bills’ emblazoned on its
exterior, seen by many as a live music tombstone. Stricter technical requirements
such as exit widths, fire and sound-proofing are frequently cited as problems. When
the Hopetoun closed in 2009, for ‘undisclosed reasons’, newspaper articles and
public forums speculated that financial burdens, security requirements, noise
complaints, neglectful ownership and management were to blame (Harvey 2009).
Social networking sites were established that aimed to ‘save’ such venues (http://
savethehoey.blogspot.com). However, others argued through online forums that
survival of scenes within city pubs depends more on active scene participation.
Beyond technical measures of compliance, venues need thriving social investment
in them to survive. This particular argument is expanded here in relation to
Wollongong’s Oxford.
The manner in which music venues remain successful over long periods of time
has yet to be the subject of sustained academic inquiry. There is no clear formula
that makes a venue ‘work’ and the roles of major gatekeepers are certainly under-
theorised. Finnegan (1989) and Bennett (1997), in work on English pub music,
have examined the ways in which performers and consumers influence live music
provisioning*primarily through relationships with pub landlords. But this research
has not been extended to gatekeepers between venue owners/managers and
producers/consumers of live music. Beyond artists and pub owners, key gate-
keepers, or ‘cultural intermediaries’ (Bourdieu 1984), allow scenes to flourish
within venues. Intermediaries use cultural knowledge to influence consumer
behaviour and control ‘taste’ and ‘style’, occupying authoritative positions between
production and consumption spheres.
Prior research has explored cultural intermediaries in music scenes in terms
of recording processes and studios (Gibson 2005; Watson et al. 2009); and in
relation to the power of record company executives. Their role has been discussed
frequently as part of a critique in which exclusivity, power and knowledge
are mediated in music as a form of cultural work (Gibson 2003; Negus 1998).
40 B. Gallan

In contrast, research on place-making and urban regeneration has recognised the


vital role of cultural intermediaries (Wynne et al. 1998; Evans 2009). Within
creative city development, intermediaries provide essential knowledge to bridge
consumer and creative practices and preferences with relevant infrastructure or
policy. Chatterton and Hollands (2002) have similarly argued that diverse nightlife
spaces rely on collaborations between intermediaries and producers/consumers
rather than corporate monopolies. Here I seek to examine this further, to
understand the practices of cultural gatekeepers in producing a scene, intimately
connected to a venue.

Scene participation and research


Ongoing participation in the music scene of the Oxford, both performing and
consuming live music from 2005 to 2010, was an overarching influence on this
research. The Oxford thus provided the lens through which an understanding of
spatial relations in music scenes was developed. Similarly, a prolonged engagement
with the scene and venue has contributed to a position of privilege in this research*
with autobiographical-ethnography a beneficial method in understanding the
intricate nature of music scenes (McGregor & Gibson 2009) and in writing
geographies (Banks 2003) beyond the subjective limits of my personal perspective.
Participants for this research were recruited through personal networks within
the scene and allowed to ‘snowball’. Participants recommended key people they
regarded as central to the scene who should be invited to participate in the project.
Responses were gathered using qualitative research methods that included face-to-
face narrative interviews, photographs, e-mail correspondence and discourse
analysis. Participants discussed their periods of participation in the Oxford’s live
music scene (from 1988 to 2010). The most effective way to conduct interviews
was to allow participants to narrate their association with the Oxford, a technique
that allowed understanding of changes over temporal scales (George & Stratford
2000). Narratives and oral histories established the sense of the researcher and
the researched sharing participation in the Oxford scene*omitting information
that could be contextualised through scene participation and observation. They
also allowed people to reveal critical episodes of their involvement with the venue
outside the researcher’s own lived experience of the venue.
What followed was an autobiographical-ethnography of the scene and venue.
Cohen (1993) has argued that ethnographies of music scenes should focus on social
relationships; analysis was structured in light of this*explaining the social
and musical processes and practices associated with the Oxford as both a scene
and venue. Moreover, this research is limited in that the Oxford’s management
declined to participate. When the venue closed the (then) current booking agent
and local media experienced the same reluctance for correspondence (Jones 2010).
Because of this, management and venue ownership are voiceless. As with the
Hopetoun, the ‘true’ reasons for the venue’s closure remain a mystery. While the
values I personally place on local music come into play here, I have attempted to
avoid speculation on the motivations of management and ownership. Criticism is,
however, inherent where I have attempted to relay conversations about the
perceived ‘death’ of the venue as other scene members have described it to me*
in this manner I have attempted to reveal a facet of the Oxford’s operations as
experienced by both myself and the scene’s members. On the other hand, I am
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 41

consciously aware of re-producing, too uncritically, politicised, anti-establishment


discourses negating the agency or financial interests of the venue’s owners. Instead,
I have attempted to focus on that which can be known from ethnographic research
within the venue’s music scene*the role that booking agents have played in
sustaining a music venue, and the importance in examining the role of booking
agents or intermediaries in the provision of urban cultural spaces more broadly.

The role of booking agents as gatekeepers: creating the ‘local’


In the late 1980s the Oxford, like many pubs, had live music playing at weekends
but was yet to develop an emphasis on local and original acts. Pat, a local performer
for the last 25 years in Wollongong, recalled:

. . . twenty years ago [i.e. the late 1980s] there’d be music on Friday and
Saturday nights . . . Friday would be a covers band playing top-40s
and Saturday would be a country or jazz band . . . on the stage behind
there’d be a back drop of an outback scene for the country bands and
they’d switch it over the following week and to a Parisian street for the
jazz band.

At that time there were few spaces for local artists to perform original material.
Even busking has, at times, been the subject of Council bans in Wollongong,
further limiting performance opportunities (Waitt & Gibson 2009). Robbo, a local
musician who preferred writing and performing original material as opposed to
cover songs, remembered:

in those days for an original band or song writer there’s no gigs you could
get anywhere. Not in Wollongong . . . the only places you could were
covers, usually Sydney cover bands, the Wollongong ones didn’t do so
well . . . it was hard to get a gig . . . you couldn’t get one in Sydney cause
they’d say ‘You come from Wollongong, how are you going to get a crowd
here?’ So you never got a gig in Sydney either . . . I thought ‘ok, well I’ll get
a gig in Wollongong somewhere’.

Robbo was determined to find a place to perform his original material but saw most
opportunities blocked by cover bands or out-of-town artists. But Robbo was also
aware of a growing interest in a different style of music, an undercurrent in
Wollongong interested in alternative styles of music: ‘the people that were young,
they were into something different, they wanted something new, they didn’t want
to hear Top 40 crap’. Robbo was continuously searching for a receptive venue and
pestered managers of the Oxford*who eventually relented. After successfully
propositioning the owners to allow his band to perform original songs, other bands
approached Robbo interested in playing the venue too: ‘They were like ‘‘well how
do I get a gig?’’ and I said ‘‘talk to this bloke, ’cause Kevin’s [Manager] great’’ . . .
in the end I just kept sending bands to Kevin.’
Under this guise, a booking agent role took shape. Robbo provided a valuable
resource for the Oxford’s management by sourcing bands to perform within the
pub. Over time, in addition to changes in technology used by the pub (such as
42 B. Gallan

computer monitored stock) the licensee decided to shift the pub’s management to
one floor manager and one booking agent:

the licensee sacked Kevin and gave me the job booking saying ‘sort of
handle it for me’ . . . it went down to one manager and me as booker . . .
I first started playing there 8990 and got the job officially booking it
around late 90early 91 . . . so I was the first official booker of an original
venue in town. (Robbo)

Robbo’s position began a lineage of local booking agents involved in the scene. The
booking agent role was somewhat covert, subordinate to the management and
proprietors of the venue, but also actively involved in local music. Booking agents
operated as a bridge between two separate interests*a local creative scene and a
pub run as a business. Booking agents of pub venues need initiative and
commitment plus the commercial nous required to negotiate the legislative and
managerial frameworks of pubs.
Upon gaining the job, and being a passionate ‘local’ performer, Robbo made a
conscious decision to establish the Oxford as a venue that would only book local
and original acts. This was influenced by his experiences of the rare opportunities
available for young musicians locally. Robbo remembered:

I made up this poster [see Figure 1] . . . it said 100% . . . live, original, local
acts . . . that was our moniker . . . anyone who wasn’t a Wollongong local,
wouldn’t get a gig. Anyone who was doing covers, wouldn’t get a gig . . .

Robbo recalled the struggle to compete with venues that didn’t consider local
and original music as significant artistically or financially. The emphasis was on
bands, consumers and booking agents to effectively create their own cultural space
in the city and in the process negotiate the infrastructural and legislative frame-
works of pubs:

It was a culture we were trying to do . . . once you get the whole culture,
a whole lot of people with one thought, ‘we can do this thing’, it starts to
spread to other places, people start hearing about it . . . but it takes a lot of
energy and you’ve just got to keep doing it . . . keep banging your head
against that brick wall and keep going . . . never stop . . . that’s really how
the Oxford happened . . .

As a booking agent, Robbo spearheaded this local attempt to find permanent


performance space in Wollongong in which the scene could develop.

Maintaining the ‘local’


Booking agents continuously implemented unspoken ‘rules’ about booking only
‘local’, ‘original’ acts, aimed at maintaining the vibrancy of the local scene. This
allowed momentum and stability to develop. The ‘scene’ did not denote the
development of a particular Wollongong ‘sound’ based on subcultural or stylistic
conventions (cf. McLeay 1994). It was regarded as an extremely diverse scene, as
The Hat, a former sound engineer of the venue, recalled:
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 43

FIGURE 1. Flyer advertising local and original live music at the Oxford Tavern. Image
courtesy of Steve Robinson.

The Oxford ultimately was a pub for ‘social groups’ that would have been
harassed at ‘normal’ pubs. Punks, mods, bohemians, skinheads, you name
it. At the Oxford they all got along.

Consequently, musical genres were varied, with emphasis on scene participation,


a loose coalition of oppositional or ‘alternative’ subcultures, and adherence to
‘local’ music rather than musical style*as Pat remembered:

if your tastes were eclectic enough there was something for everyone and
there seemed to be a lot of eclecticism on the part of the punters, you’d see
the same people come, they didn’t care, they knew there was going to be
good music.
44 B. Gallan

Diversity was brought about by the philosophy that booking agents introduced*
that the venue would be built around local and original music rather than stylistic
preference. There was no room for exclusion based upon genres, and as such the
venue never specifically became a metal, punk, rock or grunge venue. Nurtured by
booking agents, ‘scene’ became a strategic process of carving out cultural space for
a particular subset of Wollongong’s population where active involvement was
extremely important. Jeb, who booked the venue intermittently from 2004 to 2008,
favoured bands that were active scene members and contributed more than just
performing gigs occasionally:

I always put bands on that supported the place too . . . you’d know the
people there, and the people going to watch their friend’s bands every
week will get more shows than someone who’s never turned up . . . bands
where people just turned up to play a show and you’d never see them there
any other time. You need to support the venue a bit too . . .

At the Oxford, attending shows was about interactions and collaborative networks
between bands. But attendance was also about scene members ‘paying their dues’,
and having this commitment recognised by scene peers and rewarded by the local
booking agent. This emphasis on attendance is characteristic of the reciprocal,
independent ethos of many other local scenes (Rogers 2008, p. 644). Booking
agents therefore act on ‘local’ knowledge, not so much of latest trends in the
broader music industry but by consistently implementing rules aimed at main-
taining the social vibrancy of a local scene. If bands operating outside the
parameters of ‘local’ music (for instance playing Top 40 covers) were seeking
gigs, they were likely to be deemed inappropriate. As Robbo recalled:

I knew exactly what was going on. If a band said ‘you didn’t do this for us’
it’d be like ‘why did you bring out the INXS covers, it doesn’t work like
that’ . . . so you’re kind of cultivating, you’re always part of it . . .

The scene had consciously engendered a passion for ‘local’ music (the music that
was intricately involved with social networks and drinking practices). So much had
watching ‘local’ bands become an important aspect of scene participation that in
turn larger, more successful acts were often consciously shunned. Robbo retold an
instance of a touring band coming into contact with the Oxford scene:

I had a phone call from this guy from Melbourne, on a tour to Sydney, he
said ‘we can’t pay for it, we’ve got all the gigs . . . but there’s just no money,
we need 300 bucks, can you do something?’ and I said ‘Well I only help
Wollongong bands’ and they said ‘we’ll do anything you want, what can
we do?’ so I said ‘send us a tape and I’ll think about it’. The tape sounded
really good . . . so they played, they were just brilliant, but they emptied the
venue in about two seconds, every one hated them. The pub said ‘put
them on again, and you’ll lose your job’. It was The Dirty Three! [laughs].

The Dirty Three were a group from Melbourne formed in the early 1990s that
enjoyed commercial and critical success in Australia and abroad for their avant-
garde instrumental music. Ironically, The Dirty Three’s foray into foreign markets
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 45

was built upon connections and networks created within independent music scenes
(Walker 1996)*similar to the very ethos of local and original music fostered at the
Oxford. But crucially, there was a difference here between an independent ethos
shared across a variety of scales and scenes and the fixed geographical specificities
of being ‘local’ at the Oxford*which meant being a band from Wollongong,
playing original music, with the ability to attract a local following.
In excluding higher calibre artists from other Australian regions and cities,
strategic booking practices at the Oxford also protected a creative space for local
bands. A common problem for up-and-coming bands was (and still is) finding
nurturing performance space. At the Oxford bands could attain gigs based on being
‘local’ regardless of any musical competency. As Robbo continued:

I had some crap on stage . . . we got known for having some really bad stuff
. . . but . . . some of the crappiest bands, after a few gigs they got really good
. . . all of them got good . . . all you had to do was give them a couple of
gigs . . .

The Oxford was a space for talent development but also for local cultural
expression for its own sake*a place in which bands could be born, become heroes
and then wave farewell (not always graciously): ‘It’s the thing, a lot of us didn’t
really want to be famous, we just wanted a gig and to get a few people to it’
(Robbo). This experience of ‘local’ music emphasising performance is at odds with
the assumption that bands ubiquitously seek to transition to larger scenes or that
there is necessarily a linear progression towards ‘stardom’ (cf. Frith 1988). For
many performers the Oxford was the biggest and best thing they did; in my
experience it certainly was, even compared to touring to larger cities and scenes in
Melbourne and Sydney.
Maintaining the vibrancy of the local scene required the booking agents to be
eternally vigilant. While the reputation of the Oxford led to out-of-town acts playing
the venue intermittently, it still retained its unique edge of being local and original.
As the following narratives reveal, straying too far from that philosophy would have
adverse repercussions.

‘Neglecting’ the local


It is in some respects a fortunate coincidence that the Oxford’s licensee was willing
to relinquish control of the venue to relatively amateur booking agents. While this
was a mutually beneficial relationship, the scene was not always respected as such.
Robbo remembered a tension between the venue’s management and the scene:

I remember when [the floor manager] said ‘This is the first time I’ve heard
the Oxford has made a profit’. He kind of didn’t want to but had to admit
it was because of the bands . . .

Tampering with this mutually beneficial relationship upset the dynamic that made
the Oxford both culturally vibrant and commercially viable. The booking agent’s
personal investment and understanding of local practices were an invalu-
able resource in the running of the Oxford. However, booking agents were
not sufficiently paid. Robbo was initially paid $50 a week and it never became a
46 B. Gallan

full-time job. In addition, the personal investment needed to juggle scene


participation with booking duties often proved stressful, resulting in burnout.
Booking agents transitioning out of active scene participation usually passed the job
onto someone else, whom they deemed locally credible and connected to the scene:

. . . when I left I gave it to Ed. He was a guy in a band and wanted to have a
go . . . he crashed and burned pretty badly . . . Hooper had a go at it, but
it’s really wearing . . . everyone after me has had the same problem, you
have this nervous breakdown doing it . . . (Robbo)

Because at times the booking agents weren’t effectively recognised as crucial


gatekeepers, the position wasn’t immediately filled. Periods of interruption between
booking agents worked against the scene’s vitality. At times this led to a breakdown
in the relationship between management and bands*reflecting the pub staff’s lack
of involvement. Pat recalled one instance after a gig, and in between booking
agents:

The next floor manager . . . was told nothing about how much the bands
get paid, when I went back to collect the money I had to say ‘that’s not
what you get on a Saturday night’. I knew all the rates . . . but their records
were just meaningless . . .

While the Oxford’s management appeared blasé about the music scene they did
at times attempt to interfere with booking practices. This is commonplace in
Australia because of music venues being located in pubs, accompanied by issues of
ownership and regulation (Homan 2003). Robbo saw this as a serious issue for
scenes to contend with:

bar owners seem to think because they own the place the music is in, that
they are the industry or they know about the industry, and they probably
know the least . . . you’ve got this dichotomy when you’re trying to start
a venue of knowing what you can do and how to do it, but fighting
against these people who are doing everything they can to stuff it up
on you.

Interference from the Oxford’s management would have a negative impact upon
the scene’s relationship to the venue. During periods of disruption booking agents
were instructed to change their booking practices based on management’s
subcultural interpretations. Jeb recalled:

The Oxford tried to get rid of their core crowd . . . the last meeting I ever
had with them was like ‘stop booking punk bands’ and it just didn’t make
sense . . . [shrugs shoulders].

As discussed above, the scene of the Oxford wasn’t created on the basis of genre.
Therefore, attempts by management to dictate style effectively alienated the
entire scene. The knowledge that booking agents held from scene participa-
tion was essential to filling the venue repeatedly and creating a vibrant atmosphere.
Neglecting this relationship would have dire consequences for the venue.
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 47

‘Losing’ the local


Coinciding with stagnating inner-city development and the accompanying corrup-
tion scandals mentioned above, after 2008 the vibrancy of music experienced at
the venue declined. Late that year the Oxford’s new management decided to
outsource the booking agent role to a Sydney-based company. Correspondence
between my local band Reason Strikes and the newly outsourced booking agent
stated:

As you may or may not have heard, there have been some big changes to
personnel at The Oxford (new owner/new licensee/new general manager).
Basically, the only night that will be available for local/rock/punk bands
will be Friday nights. (E-mail from Sydney booking agency 8/12/2008)

This step effectively changed the venue from four nights of local, original music
to one night a week. Losing a local booking agent in favour of a Sydney-
based company meant losing the cultural knowledge that agents had accumulated
through years of active scene participation and tradition. Outsourcing the job also
meant that the emphasis on local and original music was no longer a central
philosophy of the venue. The motivations that drove Robbo in establishing the
Oxford were lost with an outsourced position. Whereas locally embedded agents
were active within the scene as both performers and consumers, outsourced agents
had a different physical and emotional connection to the space, isolated from
constant interaction within it. Robbo lamented the way in which the venue’s
operation had changed:

You’ve got a Sydney agent, they don’t really care, ’cause . . . all they’ve got
to do is fill the room, if they fill the room they get paid so much percentage
for doing it and you know, job’s done.

Attempting to ‘fill the room’ saw booking practices shift towards targeting specific
genres or a variety of entertainment. These booking practices created a tension
between how the venue and the local scene related. Jeb saw this as a cynical attempt
at raising profits: ‘those random one off things, whatever they make for the pub on
a particular night . . . it just alienates a whole range of other people’. Local music
scenes are more actively involved in shaping their spaces than simply having
someone book a range of entertainment. This echoes recent work revealing that
local youth cultures can be resistant to naı̈ve attempts to inject or impose ‘culture’
(Baker et al. 2009). An outsourced approach to booking destabilised the venue,
affecting crowd sizes. Changes in ownership and perceived neglectful management
fuelled a general uncertainty surrounding the venue’s future. It still provided a
space for local music, but supplementing this with other entertainment or
performances severed the connection of the scene to the venue that had been
fostered by local booking agents. In retrospect Jeb concluded:

probably what alienated a lot of people, they started trying to change


things, like putting cover bands in on certain nights, and putting pole
dancing in . . . I think the reason they would say is the bands aren’t pulling
as many people but . . . that came back to a lot of the bands that started
48 B. Gallan

getting booked in there . . . and it’s just ’cause [the Sydney agent] didn’t
know the area, putting on three bands from Sydney that no one’s ever
heard of, on a Saturday night . . . you always needed to put a local on . . .

By removing local booking agents as gatekeepers, the Oxford effectively lost


corporate knowledge of which bands were key to its core social crowd and
patronage. The Oxford had been established and recognised as Wollongong’s
only alternative venue in a monopolised night-time economy, created by bands for
them and their friends. Without this status and support from Wollongong’s live
music scene the Oxford suffered and subsequently closed its doors permanently*
perhaps not solely because of the loss of local booking agents, but certainly fuelled
by the retreat of a local live music scene they had worked hard to cultivate.

*
Conclusion long live pub rock?
The Oxford was the central focus of Wollongong’s local live music scene for over
two decades. Its closure provides a timely opportunity to assess what made the
venue successful over that time. Local booking agents were key gatekeepers in
ensuring the local scene was created and maintained for the specific purpose of
performing and consuming ‘local’ music. Australian rock music has been
historically linked to pubs; considering this, booking agents both arbitrate taste
and create a vibrant scene that financially benefits the pub/venue, thus ensuring
publicans continue to allow live music in what are otherwise ostensibly drinking
spaces. In the case of the Oxford, without the emphasis of local and original
music fostered by booking agents, the relationship between the scene and
venue lost its intimacy. Booking agents were not always adequately valued by
the Oxford’s owners and management as central to their business. This remains
the prerogative of pub owners. It is impossible to know whether they under-
stood the stability and success that a committed booking agent could bring. In the
case of the Oxford the key role*and philosophy*of booking agents was steadily
neglected and finally lost with the outsourcing of booking duties to a Sydney-
based company. Valuing the knowledge and experience of booking agents
embedded within local scenes is a key element to ensuring successful relationships
between music scenes and venues.
Within Wollongong’s music scene, the death of the Oxford has perhaps not
been as detrimental as once feared. Many local performers and consumers had
taken the venue for granted*losing this key piece of infrastructure served as a
wakeup call. Other pubs now provide a stage for local and original music, but
more infrequently. New venues often draw criticism that they are not ‘looking out’
for local music but merely diversifying entertainment and patronage to raise
profits. The impetus for establishing scenes within these venues once again rests
with local booking agents. The local music scene continues to struggle to establish
a venue as a stable focal space. Since pubs continue to provide valuable
performance spaces for live music in Australia, the role of local booking agents
remains relevant, for maintaining legendary venues, creating new ones, influen-
cing musical directions and creating particular audiences.
Gatekeeping Night Spaces 49

Acknowledgements
The author is grateful to Chris Gibson both for supervision and extensive
comments on earlier versions of this paper.

Correspondence: Ben Gallan, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental


Research, School of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong,
NSW 2522, Australia. E-mail: bwg032@uowmail.edu.au

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