Live music and ciggies: disharmony in the CBD

This feature article was written in November, 2017, and was originally published here

An ‘80s style disco ball twirls gently in the corner, casting spinning flecks of light onto the roof.

A chair, mended countless times with silver and black duct tape, wobbles under a customer’s weight.

The pinball machine nestled against the wall pings softly, beckoning patrons to battle.

The John Curtin Hotel, a beloved Melbourne pub and gig venue, describes itself as a “no–frills” pub.

The description couldn’t be more appropriate: warm and welcoming, the pub lies on leafy Lygon street, mere blocks away from Melbourne CBD’s bustling boulevards.

A popular pub among tradies and students since the ‘70s, the Curtin Hotel has a charming, cheery atmosphere.

According to its owners, it’s also one of many venues under threat of being put out of business, thanks to the Melbourne City Council’s new smoking bans.

The pub is owned by a burly man named Rusty; no one associated with the pub knows him by any other name.

Ask to speak Ben Russell over the phone, and you’ll be met with a baffled “Who the f**k is Ben Russell? Oh, you must mean Rusty.”

When this titbit of information is relayed to Rusty, his face – adorned with a bushy grey beard – splits into a grin.

He’s been involved with the pub for more than eight years.

Starting as the band booker, Rusty progressed to owning the venue about four years ago.

Wearing a plain white shirt, ripped jeans and scuffed street shoes, Rusty suits the pub and the pub suits him.

But Rusty’s grin doesn’t stay long, after we start to chat.

He’s concerned that with the new bans, his pub will suffer.

In order to smoke, patrons of The Curtin will have to walk two blocks away from the smoke-free areas surrounding RMIT.

“People just won’t come,” he declares.

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Melbourne City Council’s proposed ban will forbid smoking on the footpaths bordering RMIT university buildings.

Already, the council has created smoke free areas throughout the city, including the Causeway, Howey Place, Block Place, Equitable Place, Goldsbrough Lane, QV Melbourne, City Square, the Tan, and Princess Park.

The City of Melbourne believes these smoke-free areas “assist in de-normalising smoking and support people who are trying to quit, or have recently quit smoking,” and protect the community from passive smoking.

Open and friendly from the start, Rusty is becoming accustomed to speaking to journalists about the pub; he’s previously spoken passionately to Beat Magazine and The Music, imploring readers to sign their in-house petition opposing the ban.

“After the Beat article went live, we had calls and emails from agents in Sydney the following day saying that they’d read the article, that they were concerned about the shows that they have here.”

Rusty’s brow furrows as he recalls the conversation.

“[The agents] were already very concerned. And that’s within a day.”

As the bands get to dictate where they play, Rusty believes promoters and agents simply won’t book shows at The Curtin thanks to the ban.

“There’s not a promoter on earth that’s going to put an international band in here, knowing that the band can’t even go out and have a smoke.”

Rusty’s view is alluding to situations overseas.

Spain only introduced a smoking ban in indoor bars and restaurants in 2011, and in the Netherlands, smoking is still permitted inside small or family-only operated businesses.

To many nationalities, Australian smoking bans are overly strict and rigorous – or as Rusty puts it, “totally nanny-state.”

But Rusty is more relaxed than he has seemed in previous interviews; he explains that the Melbourne City Council have been in contact with him to try to find an amicable solution for both parties.

“The Lord Mayor himself has said that we’re an important venue,” he says with a glint of pride in his eyes.

“He doesn’t want [the ban] to affect what we do.”

Yet there is no definitive answer on what the outcome may be.

“It might not be a great result,” Rusty admits.

The Curtin’s bartender Liam Ramsey, who serves patrons their pints with a sly grin on his face, has been working at the bar on and off for about five years; as Rusty’s brother-in-law, he “just can’t seem to get away.”

Liam raises his voice slightly to be heard over the psychedelic rock playing overhead on the sound system.

He speaks about how the ban “pissed off” the venue’s management and other staff members.

Neither he nor Rusty smoke, but they both see smoking as a quintessential part of the live music and pub culture.

“It makes a pub cool,” says Liam with a wave of his polishing cloth.

He jokes about band members ducking over to another bar’s smoking area just to have a cigarette between songs.

Curtin Hotel
The John Curtin Hotel during its daily lull. Photo: Amber Schultz

So far, other venues affected by the ban, such as the Oxford Scholar, don’t seem so concerned.

“We have a side street with outdoor seating where people can smoke,” one bartender said, with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. “It doesn’t really affect us.”

But employees may regret such a blasé attitude toward the bans in the not-so-distant future.

Melbourne City Council is also planning to implement smoking bans in outdoor dining areas from August 2017.

This ban would also affect beer gardens.

While Ms Lindorff, spokesperson from Quit Victoria, told the ABC that there is no evidence that these bans would be bad for business, both Rusty and Liam disagree.

“These bans would only level the playing field for people within the city of Melbourne. Not necessarily for all venues within Melbourne,” Rusty says, sounding disheartened.

“It’s a pretty competitive industry,” he elaborates.

“Bands will be like, ‘let’s avoid playing there because it’s a bit of a pain in the arse.’ Why take that risk?”

Health Projects Coordinator for the Melbourne City Council, Andrew Pell, is adamant that smoking bans and smoke-free areas are supported by the community.

With regard to businesses or individuals who take issue with the proposed ban, Andrew said that the council is “open to looking at solutions.”

“I can’t give up too much information, as we haven’t decided on anything yet,” he explains, “but community support is definitely there.”

The implementation of this ban may mean that live music moves away from established venues within the CBD to venues unaffected by the ban.

Newer venues in the recently gentrified areas of Fitzroy, Carlton and Collingwood seem to be the biggest competition.

Sitting at the John Curtin Hotel during its midday lull in the middle of the week, guests can get a glimpse at what the venue operators believe will be in store for the venue in the near future.

The upstairs band room, with its 350-person capacity, is deserted.

The plastic party lights, strung along the ceiling, sway desolately in the breeze while the music, a hazy combination of psychedelic and vintage rock, cause a regular to stir in his wobbly seat.

The constantly mended chair will perhaps enjoy less use.

The pinball machine may not have enough patrons to beckon.

And that ‘80s disco ball will continue its speckled dance above, casting light above a desolate dance floor.

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