Dante's Inferno' Ball, Paddington Town Hall 1962. Source: Dictionary of Sydney, courtesy of Barvara Hush.

Garage bands without garages? Lessons from music in cities

We seldom take music into consideration when we think about liveable cities, even though few would dispute that cities people love include music. This is unfortunate, because music can tell us so much about what has worked for people in cities in the past, and we can learn from these examples to understand what is likely to work in the future.

In the history of music in cities, one repeatedly hears of the importance of spaces (including but not limited to garages) that are not very glamorous but which are great for trying new things.

Creative city policies can be awkward and ineffective when they try to preserve exactly what has happened previously, or try to replicate what has worked in a different place [1]. But we can take broad note of what has worked, and in particular take note of the features people consistently reflect on positively.

Where are music scenes created?

A 'garage band' once referred to enthusiastic amateur bands that rehearsed in suburban garages. Garages were important to bands because they were flexible spaces with low expectations.

In the history of music in cities, one repeatedly hears of the importance of similar spaces to garages, even if they are not literally garages. Share houses, warehouses, inner city parks, honky tonks, hole-in-the-wall cafes, speakeasies, docks, abandoned houses, basements, recreation centres, and pub rooms hastily repurposed to host live music have all been important [2]. Their common features are low expectations and flexibility.

They have low expectations because there will not be terrible repercussions is everything does not work out perfectly. It is possible to make money, and possible to reach a high performance standard, but not essential. No one will lose much in the way of money or reputation either way. These spaces are flexible because they can also be used for a range of uses in addition to music. They can be reconfigured quickly, and using them for music doesn’t preclude using them for other purposes. This means there is less pressure to be perfect, and more space to try new things.

New York in the late 1970s was a difficult time for the city in many ways, but several music genres formed and flourished: notably hip hop, punk, and disco. The participants from these overlapping music scenes have since reflected with surprising fondness on the crime, urban blight, and blackouts that characterised New York City in this era [3]. The city was often unpleasant but it offered the distinct appeal of having many spaces that could be quickly remade and unmade. CBGBs, Studio 54, loft parties, discos, and block parties: all were garages of a sort, and all were immensely exciting when combined with new people and new technology.

Descriptions of vibrant music scenes from Australian cities show some similarities to those of New York in the 1970s. Participants from music scenes in Melbourne in the late 1970s, and Sydney in the 1980s, have reflected positively on the mix of dodgy pubs, share houses, old ballrooms and other run-down spaces found in these cities largely as a result of economic restructuring. In combination with new people and new technology, these spaces facilitated exciting social interactions in otherwise difficult urban environs [4].

The excitement with which people recollect making music and meeting people in blank ‘garage-like’ spaces cannot be understated. We we can learn from this example of when music and cities worked together easily.

A shift away from prescriptive spaces

One way to incorporate this into policy is to reconsider prescriptive uses of space. From what we know about music in cities, we should seriously consider if the great appeal of garages, and the emotions they can generate, are really about spaces for putting cars in. A recent study in Melbourne found that a large proportion of on-street parking is utilised by the cars of house residents who have found other uses for their garages [5].

Meanwhile, residents of apartments are legally required to pay for about 15 square meters of concrete which can only be used for putting a car in, even if they do not have a car and even if they lack space for other activities. These are not flexible spaces. As yet, there is no genre of ‘car space band’.

This strange outcome stems from a variety of factors, but in large part from policies that favour prescriptive use of space, and which have implicitly valued cars and de-valued activities like music. The problems of this approach are easier to ignore when housing is affordable, but become particularly unhelpful when it is not, with implications that go beyond music.

During COVID-19 lockdowns, people with additional household space that could be reappropriated to work use have been at an obvious advantage. This included a great number of garages, but as we should already know from music precedents, no car spaces. If planning requirements had been built from a key metric of “is it possible to put a car here?” to “would it be possible to rehearse here?” or even “is it possible to do anything else at all here?”, then the outcomes are likely to have been more flexible, and thence more liveable into the future.

Twinkle - Garage Band Practice. Source: Mark Vaske, Flickr.

The impact of technology

Music history has shown that technological change has enormous impacts on how people interact, but that rather than negating the importance of physical space it has tended to result in people moving, as some physical spaces become less important and some become more important.

In the 20th century, record companies wielded immense power. This power was related directly to the costs of recording, reproducing and distributing music. During the 1980s and 1990s these tasks became more feasible for musicians to do without entering into a mortgage-like relationship with a large organisation [6]. Technology had helped to create the power of record companies, but newer technology (i.e. mp3, home recording, and the internet) drove the industry's restructuring.

The restructuring of the music industry also changed its geography. New technology resulted in clustering into particular inner city venues and dispersal from suburban venues. As musicians began to undertake more tasks themselves, they operated in smaller geographic areas. Without as much of a contractual relationship to organisations, there was less ‘push’ of musicians through suburban and national touring circuits and more ‘pull’ to particular locations where meeting, rehearsing, and performing were relatively easy [7]. This created buzz in some areas, but also set the stage for increased conflict over city space, notably through noise complaints and property prices [8].

Freed of the dependency on recording contracts, musicians have nonetheless found that for one person to actually undertake all the tasks required to sustain a music career is tiring and, more often than not, ineffective. Meeting and mixing with other people is still important [9]. Even when they are discovered online, contemporary musicians still move cities to further their careers, tour with other artists to gain recognition, collaborate with other people to produce more interesting music, and derive much of their revenue from live performances. Without meeting people, their music is not heard.

In theory, less physical space for music should matter less with the technological changes that have made ‘do it yourself’ possible. In practice, the relationship is more complicated. It is more analogous to a trio than a solo act: physical space, technology, people.

Rising tensions in the inner-city

In Australian cities, small music venues rightly came to attention as spaces that were important but easily lost, victims of their own success in enlivening suburbs. Meanwhile, even if venues were saved, the price of living near them was prohibitive to many musicians and audience members. The net result was that in the early 21st century, tension over finding spaces for music in the city increased even while it became more possible to record music at home alone [10].

An effective counterpoint to this situation has been music scene participants working together to emphasise the economic and social importance of music venues [11]. Nonetheless, policy makers should remain sensitive to the fact that music activity is a good indicative test of flexibility and liveability within a city. As small enterprises built around human interactions, music venues are vulnerable to administrative and financial pressures, and can often end up in the ‘too hard basket’ [12]. Their growth or decline says a lot about what is possible in a city. We know from historical precedents that musicians will adapt and find new ways to work, but only up to a point [13].

Policy makers should remain sensitive to the fact that music activity is a good indicative test of flexibility and liveability within a city.

The future of music in cities

For the foreseeable future we can expect music production to involve multiple people and to be dependent on physical places, including rehearsal spaces.

One way to respond is with programs that facilitate flexible use of space and a ‘do it together’ rather than ‘do it yourself’ ethos. These can act as a counterpoint both to the difficulties of accessing physical space, and to the draining aspects of do-it-yourself technology.

For example, since 2009 the Renew Adelaide program has facilitated the use of vacant commercial spaces for experimental enterprises. Renew Adelaide does the work of negotiating temporary rent-free leases and navigating planning permissions, while the lease holders put their energies toward trying out their idea in a public space. Some ideas progress to commercial leases, some don’t, and the fact that this can happen without dire consequences is part of the point [14]. One of the more recent successes of Renew Adelaide is a flexible space for music recording, performance and rehearsal: Electric Ant Records.

Another way to respond is to look to where musicians are finding a way to adapt in cities, and try not to stop it. Lately, it has been possible to hear bands rehearsing in commercial storage sheds in the suburbs of Melbourne. Undoubtedly this is not exactly what the spaces are intended for by their owners, nor what is specifically allowed under zoning requirements. It would be easy to stop this activity for one reason or another. But it is also improbable that these musicians live in large houses or have access to anything resembling a garage at home, and rehearsing online is not as easy as it sounds.

When we think about liveable cities, it is useful to think through the perspective of music. Firstly, because music is important in its own right, and secondly, because it says so much about what works and does not work for people. We can look to examples like this as a precedent of where people will seek out new spaces in cities responding to multiple challenges and changes. It might not be exactly as planned, but it is still working.

A black and white image of a bearded man playing electric guitar to a small crowd in a small bandroom

Performance at Electric Ant Records. Source: Renew Adelaide

Sarah Taylor

Sarah is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Unison Housing Research Lab, a collaboration between RMIT University and Unison Housing. She completed her PhD in the historical geography of live music in Melbourne and Sydney between the 1980s and 2000s. She has published on topics relating to social housing, live music, music industry restructuring, collaborative networks, and learning analytics. As a musician, she has performed with folk group the Taylor Project since 2006. Sarah places a high value on extracting meaningful information from both quantitative and qualitative data sources and on locating immediate policy concerns in a wider historical and geographical context.