Caroline Buckingham: ‘I am TOO invested in the Butchers Brew program – I want to see everything!’

Only a couple of years ago in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill, a former butcher shop was transformed into a small live music venue, Butchers Brew Bar. It was the brainchild of owner Caroline Buckingham who decided the area she lived in needed a bit of oomph in terms of live music. Just as things were taking off, the pandemic struck. Since March this year, we’ve had to live with lockdowns and learn to adapt to what’s being called in the media “the new normal,” with reduced capacities permitted in public places and establishments. Things have been extremely challenging for musicians and for venues. To help musicians and provide a service for music lovers, Caroline devised a plan to offer live streaming for audiences – Butchers Brew was among the first venues in the country to offer this. We spoke to Caroline about her life as a music lover, how that translated into becoming a live music venue owner, the difficulties she’s encountered along the way, and how she’s coped with COVID-19.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and what music means to you?

I’m not a musician, but music has always been a huge part of my life. I spent my early childhood in ’70s London, which was crackling with creative energy. All sorts of great sounds seemed to be everywhere and the ’70s will always be my personal golden era of music. It felt to me like the UK was still emerging from the trauma and horror of both world wars but while there was a certain bleakness, there was also a tangible sense of optimism; it was a time of great social improvement, for challenging the status quo across everything from gender, class, race and queer politics, to art, music, comedy and fashion – it all seemed part of the same big shift. My parents encouraged us to be open to new ideas, respect the arts, care for the environment and other people, and to be good socialists.

I’m the youngest of six kids and all of us were into music. My Mum was being a Beatles and Rolling Stones fan, but also played beautiful classical piano. My four brothers worked at the street markets around London, two of them on different record stalls. They’d each bring home fresh new vinyl every week, mostly the latest great rock, pop and reggae, but also lots of interesting alternative stuff as well. With the English weather, we spent a lot of time indoors, mostly in front of the record player. Even though I was still in primary school, I still clearly recall my mind being blown hearing all this amazing music, like early David Bowie, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd, Santana, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Toots and the Maytals, War and so on.

As well, our next door neighbour John Farrell was a brilliant stride and ragtime piano player who also hand-made his own piano rolls, transcribing the recordings of Art Tatum, Jelly Roll Morton and other greats by ear. I didn’t fully realise it at the time, but he was actually a bona fide genius, which is a term I never use lightly, quite eccentric, very funny and a bit fearsome. He ran a Dixie band called The Black Bottom Stompers and hed often come home from a gig a bit wired up and play late into the early hours. He was absolutely brilliant. I loved lying in bed listening to him play. He also led my Mum over to the dark side with ragtime piano and she became very accomplished in that style.

His daughter was about my age, so I spent a lot of time at their place and had the benefit of listening to an enormous amount of mostly trad jazz, from his massive vinyl collection, as well as from his incredible playing and from all the amazing rolls he made, which we played on their vintage pianola. All in all, between Mr Farrell, my brothers, Mum, what was being played on the radio and Top of the Pops and so on, I absorbed a whole lot of everything like a sponge.

When I was 13, we moved to New Zealand. The family next door also had a girl my age and she had three older sisters who were real party girls, heavily into funk, soul, top end disco and so on and they helped me develop my disco/ funk palate a whole lot more with Natalie Cole, Average White Band, James Brown and others. I started going to live music gigs when I was 14 and haven’t really stopped. Western Springs Stadium was where all the international touring bands played in Auckland at that time. My friends and I used to rock up to pretty much everything and if we couldn’t afford tickets, we’d jump the fence. From my mid-teens, I hung out with my Auckland friends’ older brothers and their friends. We were a tight circle of music geeks. They helped me acquire some fake ID when I was 16 so I could get into pubs and we’d go see heaps of local bands, as well as touring bands playing the indoor licensed venues, plus the big stadium gigs.

I moved to Sydney in the late ’80s and fell in love with Triple J, which was my constant companion when I first got here. It was an amazing radio station then, with diverse, interesting presenters and programming until it rebranded as ‘The Youth Network’ with dumbed down, high rotation playlists. Arnold Frolows, Tony Biggs and Tim Ritchie were particular favourites and they expanded my listening to include a lot of great artists who never get played on mainstream radio. Too many to list here, but included The Neville Brothers, Albert Collins, Nina Simone, Tim Buckley as well as an introduction to Afrobeats and World Music. I married a trumpet player and he got me deeper into jazz, Sinatra, big band and latin music then later, I got into more contemporary hip hop through my children. After my marriage ended, I met another professional musician and composer who further opened my ears and gave me confidence about my tastes and musical knowledge. Not that anyone needs permission to like anything, but despite his obvious deeper understanding of the craft and his professional expertise, I loved that we still always connected on an equal level with music.

What made you want to open a live music venue in Sydney?

Well, I guess I’d probably have to plead insanity on that one. The initial plan was just to set up my own business, but I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do, other than to work for myself. Then small bars kept coming up. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but my partner put me in touch with Louis Tritsaris, who has been involved in setting up lots of bars and music venues around Sydney and Louis offered to help me. I wanted it to be in Dulwich Hill as I’d been living here for 20 years and while I loved the area, there was very little to do here at night. Louis organised the tradies, supervised the fit-out and did a lot of the labouring, but I was also very hands-on and kept fully involved in everything, as well as dealing with all the paperwork.

Had you had a background in running nightclubs?

My only prior experience in hospitality before opening Butchers Brew was some bar work and waitressing in my early twenties, but I’d seen so much live music over the decades. That experience counted for something. I know what I like in a venue and what will draw me back, just as I know what pisses me off and what I don’t want to deal with. So non-musical elements like comfortable seating, clean facilities and a quality drinks list were equally as important to me as the obvious basics of good acoustics and sightlines. The rest of my professional experience is largely corporate, but to be honest, I never really fit into that world very well. God knows I tried, but that’s a whole other story. On the plus side, I picked up a broad range of handy skills along the way in areas like marketing and customer service, as well as a basic knowledge of contracts, copyright and legal issues, which has come in useful at different times.

How long has Butchers Brew Bar been operating? And who were some of the early bands who performed there?

We opened at the end of December 2018, so we’re coming up to our second anniversary. We had a soft launch/ private event to test it out for the first night — chaos!! But we learned! So the very first gig was the Jason Bruer Trio with Aaron Blakey and Jacob Graham, then James Ryan put a band together for the first public gig a week later, which featured Jo Fabro, Jacob again, Yannick Koffi and Andrew Dickeson. Other artists who played here early on included Dave Panichi, Lachy Hamilton, Pat Powell, Peter Head, John Harkins, Michael Griffin, Eamon Dilworth, Arthur Washington, Jo Fabro, Freyja Garbett and a bunch of other stellar artists. We’ve certainly always been extremely spoiled for choice.

What are some of the ups and downs of working in the live music industry?

Well, the worst aspect is definitely the long hours, so it’s fortunate I love my job. I book all the bands and I book artists who interest me, so that makes it very difficult to take a night off, as I’m maybe TOO invested in the program and just want to see everything! At the same time, there’s a lot of back-end stuff that I can’t do if I’m at the venue, so I end up putting in over 100 hours a week, which is not sustainable long-term. I’m resilient, but mindful of not burning myself out. I’m a pretty cheerful and optimistic person by nature, so if I find I’m getting a little cranky, I know I need to take time out to clear my head. I’m extremely fortunate to have my wonderful son, Frankie, working alongside me as my bar manager. He’s a dynamo, always has my back, has great judgement and we have an amazing partnership.

Have you ever had to throw anyone out of the venue?

Yes, I’ve had to ask people to leave from time to time. I don’t like doing it, but it’s part of the job and I always try to do it in a discreet, respectful way and maintain everyone’s dignity. Most of the time it’s just intercepting drunks wandering in from the street or other venues, or people objecting to paying a cover charge or being a bit of a pest, nothing major. My first bar job when I was 20 was at a pretty tough Auckland pub. I held my own among some pretty scary-looking dudes, so I’m not easily intimidated. I also think that being an older female is an advantage on door duties. There’s not much to be gained from picking a fight with me – you won’t impress anyone and you’ll just look like a sad loser, not a tough guy.

When COVID hit and much of the country was in lockdown earlier in the year, Butchers Brew Bar was one of the very first venues in the country to offer live streaming as an avenue for musicians to perform and for patrons to listen. It was a wonderful initiative and I’ve heard from many musicians how grateful they were for your support. Can you tell us a little about the logistics and difficulties involved in presenting live streams? How did your patrons respond to the initiative?

Well, COVID was just devastating for everyone. We’d worked so hard over the preceding two and a half years to build something – fourteen months completing the fit-out, then battling through the first year to build the name and get efficient.

Then just when we seemed to be getting traction, we saw it all start to collapse from early March 2020 as everyone just stopped going out, culminating in having to close to the public altogether in late March, through no fault of our own. As bad as it was for us, my musician friends were also seeing all their gigs disappear, as well the double whammy of losing their back-up income from teaching. At that point, there was no certainty anyone would get any government assistance at all, but we all still had bills to pay. I could see many people weren’t coping well but felt that no matter what, we still had a purpose-built room and equipment that we could somehow put to good use. A few people started asking about live streaming, so I looked into the legalities of it and when I saw that we could do it, as long as we ran a tight and clean ship, it was clearly the way to go.

My main priority was to just keep a little money and hope percolating through the sector and to keep the connections and infrastructure alive. I felt very strongly that it was crucial that audiences stayed in the habit of paying for live music. While COVID meant that our sector had been shut down and gone to zero income, the hardship wasn’t equally spread. For instance, while many office workers had to adjust to things like working from home, they still had pretty much the same income, while the pandemic also caused some people to actually make more money. I knew that a lot of people who were doing about the same or better financially wanted to help those who were struggling, so setting up paid live streaming to keep everyone connected seemed the logical thing to do.

I knew we were never going to make a huge amount of money out of it but it was never about that for me, it was about maintaining the infrastructure, being proactive and basic survival. Most people totally understood where we were coming from and supported what we were trying to do. I did have a problem with a couple of cowboys in production who latched on to us early on and tried to take advantage, but we cottoned on to them quickly and our association didn’t last long. I also saw some ill-informed comments on Facebook along the lines that what we were doing was illegal and dangerous, but this was from the same miserable old coot who whinges about everything, while doing nothing positive himself to offer any practical help to anyone, but you just roll your eyes and carry on. Other than that, we’ve had amazing feedback from everyone and I’m very proud that we led the way.

Inner West Council was super supportive and gave us funding to set up our own in-house live streaming system. I got great advice and help from Chris Bell at Swimming Echidna on that, as well as Peter Nelson and Simon Dunstan who run the live streaming at Johnston Street Jazz. Our streaming is now managed by Alison Rhodes who’s a real sound and production gun, but we do far less of it now, as people just seem to want to be at the gigs rather than watching from afar. It’s great to have that back-up in place now though – and if it all goes to custard again, the bases are covered. It is also something I want to grow and develop, similar to what Smalls is doing in New York, but thats another one for the To Do List.

Apart from the live streaming you presented very early on, what else did you have to do to stay afloat?

We set up a Membership Drive in April and ploughed those funds straight back into our immediate overheads and early streaming. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who signed up as they enabled us to keep our heads above water through lockdown. When we were allowed to reopen in June, we had our capacity reduced to about 40%, so the old $10/ $15 door charge model wasn’t going to cut it anymore and we had to come up with new ways to make that work.

It was obvious that the only way we could stay viable was to increase the cover to keep paying the bands properly and introduce a drinks tab to cover the bar overheads. It was a gamble, but again, going back to my previous point, I knew that musicians and venues were among those taking the biggest financial hit, but not everyone was as badly affected. Many people in secure employment understand the predicament and value what we do, so as long as we maintain the quality and provide a good, clean, safe, comfortable place to see high-calibre live music, it’s a fair trade.

Do you think the COVID protocols have been good for venues in general? Is the fact that people need to book ahead rather than just turn up good for business or an administrative pain in the neck? And how are patrons adapting to the protocols?

Even before COVID, we always placed great importance on hygiene and cleanliness. My Dad was a health inspector and I’ve always understood the importance of handwashing, correct food handling and cleaning everything down thoroughly at the end of the night. We’ve always paid strict attention to that. We take our COVID plan seriously and we added additional measures on our own initiative, such as double-washing all glassware, crockery and cutlery, and keeping fresh air circulating through the venue. We’ve turned our reduced capacity into a plus by rearranging furniture to create a cosier ambience and as a general point, I actually like the fact that, thanks to COVID, when I go to any venue in Sydney now, I will be guaranteed a seat.

I did cop some unexpected abuse from a few patrons after we started reopening to the public again, people who hadn’t pre-booked, rocked up expecting a table and took it personally when I had to turn them away as we were at capacity, but c’est la vie. I think people are a bit more aware now and understand that it’s not just venues but also customers who now have to adapt and plan ahead, and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be considerate about personal hygiene and shared space.

The hardest one for me has been the ban on dancing and social mingling. After about 40 years of this being integral to my personal enjoyment of live music, it’s against every fibre of my being to suppress it, but that’s just what we have to do right now.

Most people get it but even now, a few people are still a bit resistant and don’t care about exposing us to the risk of a $10,000 fine or possible closure. It adds another level of stress we didn’t have a year ago, but as with everything else, we just have to adapt and manage.

Your venue hosts a range of musical genres, including jazz, blues, funk and soul. What is it about these styles of music that appeal to you?

Again, a mixture of early childhood influences and the people I’ve been fortunate to meet on my journey through life. I don’t particularly care for ‘clever’ music, but I do love groove, harmony, melody and a well-crafted song. I love dancing and belting along with whatever’s up on the car ipod. I like that I can hear the same track a hundred times, then hear something about it in a live performance that I’ve never heard before which casts it in a completely new light. For me, good music, dancing and singing along is an instant mood boost – my favourite way to de-stress.

What have been some of the musical highlights for you since the bar opened?

We peaked early in February 2019 when Andrew Dickeson set up a gig with New York heavy-hitters Ted Nash and Marcus Printup, plus Andrew, Jacob and John Harkins on rhythm, and Dave Panichi rounding out the horns. I was on a cloud for weeks after that. We’ve had so many amazing gigs I can’t name all of them, but other highlights would have to include some incredible gigs with Clayton Doley at the helm, every gig that Darren Percival has done here and hearing great original music from rising stars like Linden Furnell, Lyre Byrdland, The New South Trio, States of Chaos, Lachy Hamilton and others. We also have a lot of fun on our Brazilian nights every Sunday — we’ve reached maximum transcendence on quite a few of those.

What’s next for you?

A holiday would be nice, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I’m still learning how to do this so well keep plugging away, but I’m very proud of what we’ve done so far and feel very happy about where were going. We have another 12 years on the lease, so that will take us up to 2032. After that, I don’t know, but I’d love to be able to keep going indefinitely.

Butchers Brew Bar: 499 Marrickville Road, Dulwich Hill, NSW 2203