The Zoo has always done things different.
When the live music venue opened for business in 1992, in a space upstairs on Ann Street, in the heart of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, punters were provided with a light meal, rolled into the price of entry.
The action on stage was always the main course, with the likes of The Pixies, Lorde, Nick Cave and the Dirty Three, Silverchair, The Church, homegrown heroes Powderfinger and thousands more working the room in the years since.
Time waits for no one. The vegan snacks are a distant memory, though The Zoo continues to evolve, while connecting the dots for performers and touring acts at all levels.
This month rings up five years since The Zoo’s co-founders Joc Curran and C. Smith passed the torch onto the current owners, Pixie Weyand, Luke “Boo” Johnston and Cat Clarke.
The past year has been the worst. COVID-19 has been cruel to venue operators everywhere. No site has been spared.
Rather than wait, Weyand and her colleagues kept live the Zoo’s tradition for doing things different.
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In July 2020, The Zoo kicked off its weeks-long Anti-Social campaign, some of the first socially-distanced gigs anywhere post-pandemic.
Typically, The Zoo operates at a 500 capacity. Initially, the Anti-Social shows opened its doors to 100 gig-goers, twice each night.
“We have no choice but be creative and think outside the box,” Weyand said at the time, “I want us as an industry to look forward and move forward as productively and safely as we can together with the information and resources at hand.”
As The Zoo looks ahead to its 30th anniversary, and places 2020 firmly in the rearview mirror, TIO caught up with Weyand for a glimpse at the recent challenges and lessons learned.
Your venue was one of the first in the world to trial socially-distanced shows. What did you learn from that experience?
I was incredibly nervous to open. We basically had thousands of dollars of fines hanging over our heads if we fucked up so it was mixed emotions: super excited but we didn’t want to ruin it for everyone. So it was pretty high pressure every time we had a show.
Getting the public used to the new live experience was a challenge, essentially what people knew and loved about live gigs had fundamentally changed.
It was regimented and regulated in almost every way from the second they lined up.
But, the centre of our worlds — the artists on the stage playing the music — remained the same, authentic and faithful.
Looking up at that stage was like nothing had changed, it was dependable and comforting.
It actually wasn’t all bad. For the first time maybe ever the entire room was almost forced to be fixated on the artist without distraction, you weren’t allowed to play pool or have a chat up the back.
I think it was almost confronting for some artists, but in a really positive way.
How damn hard has it been for you as a venue operator in 2020 and into this year? How close did you come to packing it in? Was there a moment in time when you thought, “I’ve had it”?
Oh man, it was literally one of the most challenging years of my life on so many levels, mentally and financially it was super rough. But I know I wasn’t alone and in a weird way that made things a little easier to deal with.
Six sold out Spacey Jane shows cancelled the first week of 2021, that was a pretty sad moment for all involved. By that point it was almost 12 months of dealing with instability, things were a lot easier to shake.
The hardest thing to deal with — and still to this day — is the complete loss of control on the business.
Generally, I had a pretty firm grip on the venue, I knew what needed to happen to keep the venue moving forward successfully, but since COVID we have completely lost that.
Our business model is basically non-existent, constantly changing and restricted. We could be shut down at any second, tours cancelled without notice, dates left empty forcing us to close or open to an empty room in an already dire situation.
Ticket buying confidence has been rattled and the live experience has changed.
But for better for worse, I feel married to this industry and I guess like a marriage you have to ride out the lowest of lows to get to the highest of highs.
I love what I do more than anything and not even a pandemic can take that one away from me.
Will the support package help you? Or do you feel once more live venues have been left out in favour of tours and productions?
If we were to be successful in receiving the grant, yes, it would 100% help us.
I mean, it’s helping pull us into shallower water, we have been in the deep end for over a year now.
It’s a struggle to keep our heads above water and this isn’t the end of it.
I would like to hope that live venues get a look in this time round. And I would like to see the double standard between sports and live music addressed and removed.