Recent trends have seen attitudes towards alcohol consumption shift greatly in the past decade. But how does that translate to Australia’s bustling live music scene, where drinking has historically been ingrained in the culture?
The first time I drank at a concert, I was 16. It was the second gig I’d been to without my dad, and somehow I’d weaselled my way into one of the opening bands’ social groups. As the band themselves sweatily stumbled off the stage post-set, their friends celebrated by merrily passing around a bottle of Jägermeister, everyone getting a chug or two in as a sign of communal respect.
Nobody was fazed when the bottle made it to my hands, though everyone knew I was underage (this was also an 18+ show, and I may have gently boasted that I’d snuck in to look cool). I swung the bottle back and took a hefty gulp, immediately scrunching my face and clenching my larynx as it burned with herbal acidity. “Welcome to the party, dude,” one weathered techie cheered as he wrapped his arm around my shoulder. I felt accepted by that little circle. Then I joined them in swinging beers and talking shit until I was thrown out by security when I couldn’t cough up an ID.
Heavy drinking defined many of the gigs I’d go to over the following years. DIY punk shows had an unspoken rule that you’d enter with a six-pack to share with your comrades; shooting absinthe and Fireball was the only right way to start a night at Hot Damn or Goodgod (a Sydney institution gone far too soon); and I can hardly remember my first BIGSOUND because the very second the day’s last meeting would end, the first of several dozen beers would be slammed (if you hadn’t already been slamming them between keynotes).
Somewhere around the middle of 2017 – about five years into my gig-hopping career – my alcohol consumption became a bit of a problem. Even low-key acoustic shows required snuck-in hard liquor; I’d successfully convinced myself that I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t having fun. This led to more than a few nights where I’d black out and make an absolute dick of myself, being forced to cringe into oblivion when I’d hear all the stories about it the next day.
I stopped drinking heavily at shows after one particularly rough night that May. I forced myself to at least stay lucid for the headlining performance – a responsibility I struggled with at first. But after a few months, I noticed I’d started having more fun at gigs: it was nice to remember what a band actually played in their set, and I was able to engage more with it when I was aware of my surroundings. It seems pretty self-explanatory on paper, but when substances control you, the obvious can feel mind-blowing.
I went teetotal in 2021 to accommodate for a medical condition, but just this month I’d been told that condition no longer affected me. So I had my first drink in two years at a local pub show last weekend, and it felt very… underwhelming. It felt nice to fit in with other punters, cradling my pint of cider like a prized possession, but I don’t think that was worth the $14 – a price I assumed must’ve been a gaffe when the bartender rang it up. Nope, turns out a pint of cider actually costs fourteen whole dollars in 2023. That alone could explain why most young adults are drinking less at shows.
And it does, at least partially. One Sydney-based concertgoer in their mid-twenties (who asked to be kept anonymous) says they only drink at shows when they aren’t price-gauged by the venues they’re held at, name-checking the Burdekin Hotel as a rare haunt welcoming of the cash-strapped. Asked if they’d drink more if alcohol was more financially accessible, the respondent says they “absolutely” would “without an iota of doubt in [their] mind”. Canberra-based retail worker Rylan, 25, echoes the sentiment, quipping that she “wouldn’t be caught dead paying $20 for a shitty beer at the Hordern Pavilion”.
Monica, a 32-year-old marketing coordinator and Twitch streamer based in Sydney, affirms that cheap booze helped her and her cohort spend many a weeknight wasted in their halcyon days: “We used to go to the Cambridge Hotel [in Newcastle] every Wednesday night. It was incredible for live music, and it would also be Student Night, so they’d have drinks for $3 – and you didn't have to show your student ID, so you could just go out on a Wednesday night, see a couple of bands, get absolutely plastered, then go to work the next day.”
So too did 27-year-old Dani, an Adelaide-based photojournalist, who agrees that “cost definitely factors into” Australia’s changing attitudes toward drinking at gigs. “And not only the cost of drinks,” she adds, “but the cost of travel, tickets, food… A night out to a gig is getting pretty costly overall.” Another potential factor she posits is that concertgoers are “starting to be conscious of what they're putting in their bodies and how it impacts them”. She explains: “If you're going to a gig in the middle of the week, you’re going to feel the effects of that the next day, which isn’t going to feel good if you’ve got to work.”
By proxy of crowds being more health-conscious, venues are starting to offer a better selection of non-alcoholic alternatives. Dani says this makes her decision to drink less at gigs an easier one to make: “If I'm at a gig and I have the option between a certain alcoholic beverage or a non-alcoholic alternative, I’m more likely to go for the non-alcoholic option because it's available to me. I think just having that variety has changed a lot of people’s habits.”
When I think back to that show where sharing swigs of Jäger was a rite of passage, I remember all the other hardcore and metal shows I’ve been to where the pressure to drink was inescapable; I think about The Amity Affliction’s 2015 documentary Seems Like Forever, where they showed that in their early years, getting fucked up every night wasn’t just normal, but expected.
Having long been closely involved in her local scene, Dani says she’s noticed bands join punters in easing up on the beers: “There’s a lot of straight-edge bands that I’m seeing become more prominent – that’s not really something I experienced when I first got into the hardcore side of the music industry, and I think it’s really cool. Even bands that do drink when they tour, I’m seeing more variety on their riders.”
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A veritable authority on Australian hardcore, Lochlan Watt – host of The Racket on triple j and frontman of metal band RUN – tells me that he still drinks at most shows he attends, but has wound down a fair bit in recent times. “My consumption began to shift in early 2018,” he explains, “after I was snapped out of the alcoholism I had developed over the previous decade of heavy touring, and being around live music three-to-four nights a week when I wasn’t touring. I once wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so, but I don’t like to drink before I play anymore – I feel more powerful without it, and it also means I don’t quite give myself the opportunity to become a mess before the night is over.”
As far as he sees it with today's up-and-comers, Lochlan agrees with Dani that young bands are embracing sobriety more openly. “There has been a modest resurgence in straight-edge [culture] from the younger generation,” he says, “and a whole generation of gig-goers all now approaching middle age while grappling with the destructive influence of alcohol.”
That long-stinging pressure to drink imposed on bands, though, hasn’t gone away. Lochlan explains that “alcohol sales are what keeps venue’s doors open, not ticket sales”, pointing out that “bands are compensated for performances in drink tickets, not healthy snacks”. It’s an “inherent pressure”, he says, which permeates “almost all live music settings, not just heavy music”.
This viewpoint isn’t totally ubiquitous across the scene, though. Sydney-based 22-year-old Leah, who plays bass in rising punk bands Final Girls and Join The Ranks (and performs solo as Spite), drinks at every show she’s at, whether as a punter or performer and tells me that she’s “never seen anyone shamed for choosing not to”. She’s also “never felt any direct – or indirect – pressure to drink” herself, but can see why others might: “If you were someone who didn't drink at all and you were at a show where everyone else had a drink in their hands, I get why that would create a sort of indirect pressure.”
Leah admits that she did flirt with alcoholism in her early adulthood, but having taken “a bit of a break for a while”, she’s confident in her ability to drink often without risking her safety. “I just like how it feels when I drink,” she says. “Especially when I'm playing – it kind of helps me shake the nerves off. A lot of it is very much, like, the ‘ritual’ of it. There’s not so much an expectation to drink – I don't feel like I have to – but that’s just the vibe, you know? It’s like, ‘Everyone else here is drinking, and I already know drinking is a fun thing that I like doing, so why wouldn’t I?’”
On the other side of that coin is the frontwoman of an up-and-coming metal band from regional NSW, who says she’ll drink at gigs she’s attending “maybe once a year if it’s, like, a small bar show”, and “really only drink[s]” when she’s DJing “to take the nerves off”. The 27-year-old (who asked to be kept anonymous) used to drink regularly when she performed with her band, but eventually stopped because she would “just end up feeling like crap”. She agrees with Leah, though, that drinking “doesn't seem to be an expected norm” in the heavy music scene, and “no one thinks you’re weird if you’re not drinking”.
In Melbourne’s EDM scene, up-and-coming DJ and producer Jordz tells me, there’s a little more of a pushback to sobriety. “I personally don’t drink,” she says, “and on a few occasions [where] I’ve told people, I’ve been met with replies like ‘you’re a pussy’ and ‘grow up’. I think maybe it’s a view that’s extended on from toxic masculinity, so perhaps a guy who doesn’t drink would be more used to replies like that from other men. Most people are respectful of it – drinking is a leisure, not everyone has to be into it.”
Jordz is also noticing “an increase in sobriety” among those behind the decks, especially as more “seasoned” DJs start to go easier on the party lifestyle. There’s hope that such might lead to a shift in the longstanding reputation booze has in her circles: “Alcoholism in DJing is quite common, because from the moment we walk into the clubs we’re given free drinks – it’s a way for venues to be hospitable, and if the crowd sees us drinking they’ll perhaps buy more drinks. That easy access and allowance to drink while working can get a bit much for some.”
Nowadays, like Dani said earlier, it’s easier to stay sober at gigs when that sobriety is accessible. A representative for The Croxton in Melbourne says the venue has seen “a big surge in the demand for non-alcoholic options”, particularly over the last year. “We stock a non-alcoholic pale ale and it's our fourth highest selling packaged beer,” venue manager Michael Taylor revealed, noting that it’s sold cheaper than its alcoholic counterparts, “which obviously does affect [the venue’s] profits, but is a trade-off [worth making because it] helps promote responsible drinking”.
Taylor also backed our assumptions that cost played a big part in bar sales fluctuating: “We do see higher spends in older crowds as they usually have more disposable income,” he says. “With the recent cost-of-living rise we've seen in Victoria post-COVID lockdowns, younger crowds are generally more frugal with their money as it's not as cheap to drink on a night out anymore.”
Another major venue in Melbourne (a representative of which asked to be kept anonymous) agreed that non-alcoholic options are “definitely a growth area for beverage sales”, and while they’re “not really [accommodating for] a large percentage of [the venue’s] profits”, they are “certainly requested enough by patrons to [necessitate stocking] a variety and plenty of artists now request non-alcoholic or low-alcohol beers on their riders”.
Things couldn’t be more diametrical in Brisbane, though, as non-alcoholic beer alternatives “only make up about one per cent of total sales” at one major venue (likewise asked to be kept anonymous). There’s an upside: the venue currently stocks a beer by leading alternative brand Heaps Normal, and the representative we spoke to says that “as [non-alcoholic beers] and the brand itself have gained popularity and recognition, sales have increased”. And yes, it’s also true in Brisbane that “younger crowds have lower spends than those over 30”.
That’s the case in Sydney too: a representative of one major venue there (again, anonymous) says that “younger generations are drinking less per person than previous generations” – but not because they’re opting for non-alcoholic alternatives. “We provide multiple zero- and low-alcohol products at all bars,” they explain, “[but they] do not make up a significant proportion of sales. Especially if you were to research non-drinkers at concerts, you would see the majority purchase energy drinks or soft drinks over zero-alcohol products.”
I didn’t research exactly what non-alcoholic beverage punters were swinging for, but I did ask “the audience” for their opinions. In a Twitter poll of 262 regular attendees of live music events in Australia, 67 said they drank at every show they attended. 111 respondents said they drank “every now and then” (this group did however account for people like Lochlan, who drank at most shows but not always), while 40 people said they used to drink at shows but no longer do, and 44 said they’d never been drinkers.
Most of those that expounded on their answers cited cost as a leading factor in their choice to rethink their drinking habits, with a large group also mentioning a wider effort to be more considerate of their health. Hoping to accommodate them are brands like the aforementioned Heaps Normal and fast-rising craft breweries like Better Beer, Sobah and the Athletic Brewing Co.
Sobah is particularly interesting as a driving force in the landscape of non-alcoholic craft beers. It was ostensibly the first major brand of its kind to launch in Australia, first making waves in 2017 after its founder and director, Dr Clinton Schultz, spent a year experimenting with home-brews.
The game-changing move came out of frustration, Dr Shultz tells me: “I stopped drinking eight years ago, and when I did that, there were absolutely no options. You'd go to a bar, and you’d be offered a soft drink – or even worse, soda water with a wedge of lime – and get charged six bucks. I don't like either of those, so I felt like I had to just stand around drinking water. And when you're doing that, after you've made the choice to stop drinking, people ask questions. You just get sick of answering questions all the time, to be honest, so I stopped socialising for a period of time because there just weren’t any options available.”
Dr Shultz hopes to give Sobah a bigger push in the live music space now that venues and festivals are (mostly) back to operating as they did before the pandemic. The recent launch of its relocated brewery will allow the brand to expand its operations, with one lucrative plan being to link up with leading Australian bands and artists for collaborative releases. They’ve already done one: last year’s limited-batch Fake Magic Lager, co-created by EDM superstars Peking Duk.
“It was an absolute riot,” Dr Shultz says of the partnership. “They're amazing guys, super supportive, and they were really keen to promote a healthier drinking culture within the arts. Obviously for them, being performers, they’d always found that there’s been that sort of pressure to drink whenever you’re doing a show – so I think it was a great opportunity for them to help tackle that stigma.”
Since launching Sobah, Dr Shultz says he’s seen that broader stigma around drinking loosen significantly: “I think it’s completely accepted and normalised now, which is great. I mean, you can go to the majority of venues, and they’ll have at least some form of non-alcoholic adult beverage. I think the more that those options have been made available, the more it's allowed for the normalisation of not drinking.”
So as far as it pertains to Australia’s live music scene, young adults are drinking less for two main reasons: non-alcoholic options are becoming far more accessible, and thanks to the absolutely brutal cost-of-living crisis we’re all going through, alcohol is becoming far less accessible. There are certainly other factors – among them being a rise in health consciousness and the glorification of binge drinking no longer being so prevalent in mainstream media (as Daisy Jones detailed in this great Vice article) – but even those that do choose to drink often, like Leah and Lochlan, are making considered moves to be more responsible with their drinking habits.
It certainly helps that non-alcoholic beers like those being cranked out by Heaps Normal and Sobah legitimately slap. The big guns like Heineken and Carlton have had sober options in their repertoires for much longer, but the tastes of those are more traumatising than anything you could do while blacked out.