ANALYSIS: How the beer price hike will hurt the music industry even further

Words: Matt Innes

The entertainment industry will take another hit to the hip pocket as the price of beer is set to rise, incurring a ripple effect that will further damage an industry already struggling to be revived.

The four per cent (4%) increase – equivalent to $2.50 a litre – could see punters paying $10 a schooner and $15 a pint in metropolitan areas. It’s more grim news for venue operators trying to get back on their feet after white-knuckling their way through COVID.

For more than two years venues have had to deal with the rolling farce of restrictions like limited capacities, closed dancefloors and social distancing that effectively put live music on hold, or at least made it overly difficult and confusing to organise and promote gigs.

As artists adapted to the new world of social media performance, it became easier and more economical for punters to order-in and catch a livestream than it was to head down their local for a few rounds while watching some bands at a ticketed gig.

Now, as the live music industry is trying to shake off its torpor and return to some semblance of normalcy, both venues and punters are put under increased financial pressure by the price hike.

As it is, Australians pay more tax on beer than almost any other nation; the recent increase raises that tithe from $53.59 to $55.73 per litre of pure alcohol. For pub owners and venue operators, that could be more than $2700 added to their annual tax bill. To survive, there’s little choice but to pass that burden on to punters in the form of price increases. It’s an economic inevitability.

Nevertheless, it’s another obstacle in a long line of many for the entertainment industry to still overcome, and a problem that will have resounding effects on modest suburban pub gigs as it will our international events.

Under harsh economic realities, entertainment expenses are often the first lines to be deleted from the domestic budget. With the increased cost of living and rising inflation making essential items like food and fuel more expensive, there’s little left to spare for luxuries like concert tickets, let alone overpriced drinks.

When the deciding factor for attending a gig is: ‘can we afford to drink?’, it’s the bands and artists that depend on a healthy live music industry that will ultimately suffer, yet again. These aren’t megastars with million-dollar contracts to suckle on while they wait for international touring to be viable once more. They don’t have the benefit of a financial buffer to weather against indefinite hiatus.

Even the labels they are signed to, many of which are small independent business themselves, can’t hold on forever. When an entire label falls over, it threatens the careers and livelihoods of the bands and artists for which it has made itself responsible. It would be like a city disappearing overnight, its intricate network of suburbs and communities evaporating along with its inhabitants.

This is the sad truth the Australian live music industry is facing as it grapples with life under the shadow of ‘The New Normal’ – the haemorrhaging of all our working-class bands and artists that made it unique, worthwhile and profitable in the first place.

It also puts at risk our national custom of enjoying a few drinks at the pub while catching a few local bands or solo artists. Some might say a further tax on beer and the wrath it will bring on the entertainment and hospitality industries is downright un-Australian and an affront to the small business owners that are the backbone of our local economies.

The pandemic and the wrath it brought should have laid perfectly clear for all to see that we cannot depend on international touring as our live music cash cow. We are an island nation still shackled by the Tyranny of Distance, and in times of global strife we are forced to seek assistance within our own borders. This is the foundational quality of ‘mateship’ that differentiates Australia in the world and defines our live music industry.

Maybe that’s just the price of doing business now: everything is getting more expensive; everyone needs to be paid and someone has to pick up the tab. Perhaps $10+ for a schooner is what punters are willing to pay to keep enjoying Australian live music. After all, we’re not a people known for turning down a good time with a cold beer in-hand.

But the buck must stop somewhere and lately it seems the buck is falling well short of the people that earned it. Have our pub owners and venue operators not suffered enough already that they must now endure yet another economic thrashing?

Slim Dusty said there was nothing more lonesome, morbid or drear than to stand at the bar of a pub with no beer; but old Slim never had to fork over ten bucks for a schooner after buying tickets to see his mate’s band play a rocking set to a near-empty room so they can earn *almost* enough to cover what it cost them to perform that night.

Australia’s local pubs and venues have long been the spawning grounds for incredible musical talent. Think about the sheer number of classic Australian bands and artists that owe their careers to the pubs and clubs that lured thousands of punters to shows every night with the lure of good music and fair-priced beer.

We built this industry on the foundation of pub rock, but that once-solid footing is being eroded by cascading failures to properly maintain the entertainment and hospitality industries through the pandemic and the gross mismanagement of getting both back on their feet afterwards.

Our pubs and clubs, along with the legacy they helped create, deserve better than this, as do the bands and the music-going public for that matter. It’s all part of an interconnected ecosystem that has seemingly been left to fend for itself in the aftermath of cataclysmic disruption.

The beer price hike is ultimately another slap in the face for venue operators as they fight to keep their businesses afloat.

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