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The Phoenix, Canberra's Much Loved Live Music Venue, Crowdfunds To Survive

For The Phoenix, one of Canberra’s most popular live music venues, it’s been a rough few years: fire, flooding and a series of legal disputes with Sydney Building landlords and LJ Hooker has left the pub faced with crippling debt.

In response to this crisis, The Phoenix recently launched a fundraiser, the outcome of which would determine whether the 25 year old establishment could survive. At the time of publication, it’s already raised over $47,000.

The GoFundMe campaign, which began on 4 January, has a goal of $75,000. That money, the page states, will pay off the pub’s debts to “suppliers, current landlord and lawyers.” With a running total of $46,415 funded by 500 contributors, the fundraiser has seen an average donation size of just over $98.80 per donor.

The donor rewards include having one’s name etched into a brick or tile in the pub, valued at $100 and $150 respectively. An invitation to a future GoFundMe party can be attained by a donation of $200. For its donation of $5000, Canberra re-use and recycling business The Green Shed will have its logo emblazoned across the much-consulted monthly Phoenix gig guide. For $50,000 the pub will “name the Phoenix stage after you (or whatever you want), with commemorative plaque on front of stage.”

The Green Shed’s association with the Phoenix goes back to the pub’s inception. Co-founder Charlie Bigg-Withers told Woroni that it supplied the Phoenix with many of its original furnishings. As for the hefty donation, Bigg-Withers explained that “the thought of the Phoenix closing was heartbreaking.”

“It has always been a part of us and a safe place for all walks of life to hang out! [It] has given so many artists a place to perform and that is a rare thing in Canberra these days!”

In addition to the pub’s own fundraiser, a simultaneous campaign has been undertaken by local and interstate musical acts — bands have jumped at the chance to contribute free sets on the venue’s stage.

A significant number of the bands volunteering to play for free include current and former students at the ANU, including Slow Turismo, The Lowlands, The Wrst, Kilroy, Scroggin, Moaning Lisa and California Girls.

Fiete Geier, The Phoenix’s band bookings manager, told Woroni that the response of Canberra’s independent music scene has been heartening.

“There’s just so much love for the Phoenix,” he said, “it’s pretty amazing how many not just bands, but people in general have put their hand up to help.”

At first, the uncertainty of the pub’s future had made Geier reluctant to stack the weeks ahead with bookings, but he noted with a reserved optimism that things were looking up. But the bookings manager was quick to note that the future of the Phoenix still hangs on the success or failure of the GoFundMe campaign.

Over the past quarter-century, The Phoenix has functioned as safe haven, social hub and cultural enclave for ANU students, staff and graduates. As well as its frequent and varied live music, the Phoenix’s monthly poetry slam Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! has long been a well-attended student favourite.

Thomas Rowell, a long-time patron and current PHD candidate, told Woroni, “the Phoenix has been a crucial part of my whole student life here at ANU.” For Rowell, what sets this “really lovely, grimy, rowdy, happy pub” apart from other student haunts is the opportunity to witness “whatever local upcoming weird art and music kids around here are making”, and the conspicuous lack of “pounding club hits, $3 tequila and vomit.” Rowell’s own band, folk/bluegrass outfit Scroggin, performed a benefit gig at the Phoenix in late January.

The proprietor of the revered live music venue took to Facebook on 3 January to detail the succession of events which had led to its impending collapse.

“The pub was doing well, so well that it had to expand,” read the post, in reference to the Phoenix’s late-2013 expansion into the next-door premises formerly occupied by Murphy’s Shooters.

In February 2014, however, a fire in neighboring restaurant Coo left several businesses in the city’s East Row, including the Phoenix, severely damaged. While the ‘new half’ of the Phoenix was able to resume trading in short order, the publican was informed by LJ Hooker on the day of the fire that the landlord of the ‘old half’ did not have the premises insured. Nevertheless, the Facebook post notes that the Phoenix was “‘assured that the damage would be rectified”.

Almost a year later, with the ceiling of the original premises still affected by fire damage, several days of heavy rain led to even more damage, this time from flooding. The Phoenix stated that the flooding was the result of inadequate covering of the site with tarpaulins and claimed that, following this development, “The premises were completely gutted by L. J. Hooker’s repair contractor without our consultation.”

This work left the pub without sufficient plumbing, lighting, other electrics and disability access, as well as attracting the scrutiny of the Heritage Council, which requires that tenants of the historical Sydney and Melbourne Buildings maintain their premises’ facades to strict standards.

Faced with an ultimatum delivered by LJ Hooker to either restore the original premises themselves and resume trading or have the lease lapse at the time of its next expiration, the pub poured $250,000 into the rehabilitation of the site.

Despite a short-lived reunification of the old and new halves in March 2017, the Phoenix was evicted after LJ Hooker raised further concerns regarding compliance. On 31 July last year, the lease for the original premises expired and was not renewed.

In an arrears letter dated 13 November, made public by the Phoenix via its Facebook page, LJ Hooker requested over $200,000 worth of rent back payments despite, the Phoenix claims, “the premises not being refit to purpose for trade under the lease and our having spent $250,000 on the building ourselves.”

The 3 January Facebook post quickly disappeared, leading commenting observers to speculate that it had been reported as spam or libel by either The Phoenix’s landlords or property managers, resulting in its deletion. It was reposted in its entirety shortly thereafter with the prefix, “Just going to repost this as they removed the original…” It has remained online since.

The Phoenix has been an invaluable place to play music, has helped my bands and most of the bands in Canberra find our feet, and all round been an irreplaceable dive,” says Thomas Rowell, “it’d be really brutal for Canberra to see it go.