Why Music Belongs to the Dregs

‘On Repeat – The Goings On In Aussie Music ‘ is just Bea spinning their wheels about the tunes they love and the culture they can’t escape. This month they talk about the effects of gatekeeping in the local scene.

Dreg (noun)

  • the least valuable part of anything; absolute scum

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Music is universal, but there are cockheads wherever you go, saying what you can and can’t do, what you can and can’t listen to.

The concept of gatekeeping has been around since Beethoven. If not the composer, then the dog at the very least. To dictate what’s important and what’s not is a powerful tool. While I won’t point out that it’s a tool used in our societal hierarchy to exploit the masses, I will say that it’s something easily manipulated. People gatekeep to feel important. We cling to the art we enjoy out of insecurity, tying ourselves to a set of beliefs that we don’t want criticised. And it sticks to the music scene like shit on velcro.

Unlike other artforms, music doesn’t have a protagonist to follow. It has a performer whose standards, we believe, are above our own. It leads to people forming a parasocial connection with this intangible, faceless product. A cultural commodity. There’s nothing to learn; there’s something to chase, resulting in deadshit dads interrogating you about your Pink Floyd t-shirt.

We all just want to be a part of something. I get it. But if you’re reading this and you’ve ever asked someone to name three songs, kindly walk off a cliff.

The term ‘gatekeeping’ is looked down upon because it’s easy to exploit, but it’s not always a bad thing.

Take the Oxford Tavern, for example, an old pub in Wollongong that shut in 2012. Before then, the Oxford was a highlight in Wollongong’s alternative night-life, and it was because of gatekeepers.

Well, it was because of a gatekeeper—a booking agent, whose job it was to keep their ear to the ground and be on the lookout for any local acts, regardless of genre, appearance, or even technical ability. The only prerequisite was that they had to be from Wollongong.

The booking agent was the middleman. They were the nexus point between the people and the pubs. They were, ostensibly, a local, under the guise of a suit and tie. But their local practices provided them with an invaluable resource.As Ben Gallan puts it:

“Booking agents…act on ‘local’ knowledge, not so much of latest trends in the broader music industry but by consistently implementing rules aimed at maintaining the social vibrancy of a local scene.”

The role was introduced in the late 1980s, and it fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Oxford. Instead of trying to cater towards everyone with cover bands, bingo, and some shit raffle every other week, the Oxford honed in on one particular crowd, fostering a community in the process. This wasn’t at the detriment of diversity, mind you, nor did it denote the Wollongong scene to a particular sound. The Hat, a former sound engineer, claimed the Oxford was “a pub for ‘social groups’ that would have been harassed at “normal’ pubs”. A local Wollongong performer recalled the Oxford as having “…something for everyone…there seemed to be a lot of eclecticism on the part of the punters”.

The impact these people had on the Oxford was second-to-none, but booking agents were seldom recognised for their contributions. They weren’t sufficiently paid for their efforts, nor were they ever offered full-time employment, leading to burnout and conflict with the higher-ups.

The Oxford Tavern scene now, then, and forever. Photograph courtesy of Ian Laidlaw.

The scene was vibrant until around 2008, when the Oxford changed management and outsourced responsibilities to a Sydney-based booking agency. It lost the crowd that had accumulated overtime, instead working towards a banal ‘fill the room’ philosophy. The culture wasn’t cultivated, it was injected. The Oxford shut down four years later.

The role of a booking agent is one that doesn’t garner much respect from either end. To management, they’re lowlifes, and the term “gatekeeper” nowadays has done nothing but tarnish the scene and people’s enjoyment of modern music. You could even argue that excluding international acts and keeping the scene vacuum-sealed is negatively affecting the industry.

Like I said, music is universal, so why would we limit ourselves to bands exclusively in our area when we can listen to everything the world has to offer?

It all comes down to belonging.

Bringing international acts onto home plate makes for some great performance art, but it doesn’t contribute to community. We all want to feel special, but we also want to be a part of something.

I didn’t know anyone when I stumbled into my first bar. You could argue that I still don’t, not really. But now whenever I walk into Greaser, the sound guy says hi and I get a free shot of Fireball on entry, so I must be doing something right.  

Engaging and interacting with art, with others, of all kinds, allows us to develop our own sense of self, our values and beliefs and the way we view the world. It’s crucial for us, as humans, to belong, and put a face to the music.

Now, look, I don’t know much about music; I just listen to it. I listen to everything. The sips of beer, the small talk in-between songs, the murmurs of appreciation at the end of a set, is what matters most to me. I’m usually too drunk to keep the tunes in my head after a song has finished, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards. That’s what I focus on, all the chit-chat on repeat.

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Song Recommendation: Let You Go by OK Hotel

Sticking to bands from Wollongong, this alt-rock band just released their sophomore EP not too long ago, and I reckon this is my favourite track from that. It’s the heaviest track from the EP, so I’m fairly impartial, but these lyrics are second-to-none. The perfect blend of pictures painted and angst in your 20s, this one’s near and dear.

Catch us next month for the latest topic: In Defence of Aussie Rap

Same Chat-Time, Same Chat-Channel

Bea is just a silly lil fella. They write a lot about what they see, and the things that happen to them, because they still haven’t figured out a way to put their thoughts into verbal constructs. They think they’re cool, so let them indulge in that fact. You can find their work in many places, or you could harass them on Instagram @_rad_boi_

Bea Warren
Bea Warren
Articles: 2

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