Helen of Fitzroy

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, then Helen of Fitzroy is the woman who launched thousands of music fans in the direction of the Victorian Parliament sharing a simple message: Save Live Australia’s Music

On February 23 2010, 20,000 musicians, fans of music, punters and publicans marched through the streets of Melbourne in protest against legislation that linked live music to violence. The SLAM (Save Live Australia’s Music) rally was not only a chance to tell the government that this was simply unfair, unjust and downright ludicrous, but to celebrate the culture and strong community of live music in Melbourne.

This was a time when small venues around Melbourne were suffering at the hands of the law and were closing down, musicians were losing gigs as venues were cutting their live music program not because they wanted to, but because they simply couldn’t afford to. Liquor Licensing had linked small music venues to high risk venues meaning, your local pub would need two security guards, CC-TV and would pay a huge insurance premium just to give you a chance to listen to local and live music. The link crippled the culture of live music.

The nail in the coffin for live music was when iconic Melbourne live music venue The Tote, had to shut its doors. Right then the Victorian Government picked a fight with a formidable force. They picked a fight with a community that they had in the past disregarded. And right there to take them on was co-founder of SLAM Helen Marcou, who, with her husband and fellow co-founder of SLAM Quincy McLean, fought back to save the culture of live music.

“It was a fight, let me tell you,” says Helen of the initial days of SLAM.

“At the first meeting [with the Victorian Government], the Greek came out in me, we were sitting around doing small talk and I just said ‘cut the small talk. Here’s our list of demands, give this to your boss and tell him to fix it!'”

Born and bred in Melbourne, Helen remembers being captivated by music after her first ever gig, as an eleven-year-old seeing Skyhooks at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. From that day, she took hold of music, and what it offered, with both hands and literally never let go. Growing up, hers was a time when Patti Smith and punk sensibilities gave fans an alternative to the world of ABBA and pop. Helen immersed herself in the inner city Melbourne punk scene, the culture, the literature, the fashion and has ridden the wave of music to this day.

“What I’ve enjoyed for a lot of years,” says Helen, “is that we [along with husband McLean] haven’t really looked back. Music has been constant in our lives.” Even though she’s not a musician – as she says herself “someone has to be in the audience” – her love of music is insurmountable. Her livelihood is the recording and rehearsal studios her husband began 20 years ago, the Bakehouse Studios (in North Fitzroy and Richmond). McLean has been playing music for over 30 years, their children play in bands and the people that surround them – generally involved in the industry – are a surrogate family.

So when the government threatened to destroy this – Helen’s family – she knew she had to do something about it. Helen and Quincy called on the troops to begin the first stages of a campaign that, unbeknownst to her, would change the way policy is created around live music in Australia forever. From that initial meeting – four weeks before the actual SLAM rally – musicians, publicists, politicians, art directors, web designers, local radio presenters and publicans all got together to create what would historically be known as the greatest cultural protest Australia had ever seen.

“While we were speaking to politicians, we were just shocked at their level of disconnect with the community,” she says of the early negotiations that took place before the rally. “I understand they get into politics, they get really busy, and they lose touch with what’s really happening out there in their constituency, but their kids still go and their staffers go, so there’s an onus of responsibility that they should really know what’s happening in these venues.”

And in creating this dialogue between musicians and publicans, she became outraged to see the injustice that was happening to her very own people. Venues were getting targeted by compliance police, and around 130 venues in a six month period had to either reduce their live music program, or in some dire cases, cut it out completely.

“This was a haemorrhage as far as we were concerned. Musicians were losing jobs; it was affecting our community, their livelihood and ours.”

And it wasn’t just the traditional pubs and live music venues affected, it was places like The Greek Deli that needed to have two bouncers outside their restaurant all because they wanted to have a bouzouki player entertain the diners. “Live music venues were a very soft target because they are under resourced as it’s a passion for many people. They don’t do it to sell alcohol. Generally people drink less alcohol when there’s cultural focus, if you go to a gig you don’t go to the bar during the band, you are there for a show.”

As a punter of live music for well over 30 years, Helen is the first to say, without a shadow of a doubt, that there is simply no correlation between violence and live music. It was an unwarranted and unjust regulation created by a government who were out of touch with their constituents. “The government were naive to think the music community can’t get themselves organised,” she says with a wry smile and has since watched, not only the music community come together when it mattered, but, in the past two years, grow in strength.

Their demands then were simple: they wanted a fairer approach through liquor licensing. They were calling for them to get out there, get in the venues, see what happens before you hit the venues with high risk conditions. And, they wanted to remove the unfair link once and for all between live music and violence.

On the eve of the rally, SLAM representatives, the lobby group Fair Go 4 Live Music (FG4LM) and the newly established Music Victoria, all co-signed the Live Music Accord, then spent nearly seven months negotiating the Live Music Agreement, where it was officially announced that live music does not cause violence.

Since then, SLAM has successfully negotiated important changes within the live music community, not just Melbourne, but Australia wide. As a flow on effect from the rally, and the momentum it created, a report was commissioned by the Victorian government to look at the economic, cultural and social contribution of live music. It found that this half a billion dollar industry saw around 5.1 million people attend live small gigs in a year, whereas 4.2 million people attend AFL home and away games, yet AFL still receives support and has infrastructure in place to ensure its future. A national report, a first of its kind was commissioned for the same reasons and found that live music contributes $1.2 billion towards the Australian economy, and yet musicians are still paid around $12,200 annually. In light of this, Helen admits there is still a lot of work to do and it’s time to take the fight nationally through National SLAM Day.

Over 100 small venues in Australia – from Tennant Creek, to Adelaide, to Katherine – will host local bands in one of the biggest musical celebrations Australia has seen. In a national first, tens of thousands of punters will pack out venues around Australia in support of one single cause.

“Go to your local venue and see some live music and experience the community, the intimacy and the spontaneity you will only get in a live music venue,” says Helen. “Music is around us; we use it for celebration, we use it to mourn. We use it in every part of our lives so we’re saying to the government it’s time to acknowledge, support and nurture it for the future.”

Two years on, after all the blood, sweat and tears that’s been put into SLAM, she tells me that as tiring and exhausting as it’s been, it has definitely been rewarding; one that she hopes will “leave a legacy, a healthy cultural landscape, a fertile ground for growing creativity” for her children and for lovers of live music in Australia.

But after all this time, it’s still only the beginning and Helen says there’s a lot more to do to save live music. “It hasn’t died,” she says of live music in Australia, “but the government certainly need to take it seriously and they need to think about kind of nation we want to be in the future.”

Helen will be watching her husband and son play in their respective bands at The Tote on Thursday 23 February, where will you be? For more information and to register a gig visit slamrally.org.au