In March 2020 bar owner Mike Keiller was looking forward to celebrating the legendary Perth venue’s 21st birthday later in the year.
He’d been holidaying in New Mexico and had like all of us been hearing increasing reports about the coronavirus. At the time it still seemed a distant notion, but for Keiller it would soon ensure that The Mustang Bar’s 21st year would be like no other in its history.
“It was weird because I was out of Australia and you kept hearing about it on the international news and all the rest of it,” he recalls. “Where we were was quite remote, so we only got bits and pieces of it and it still didn’t seem quite real. We got back into Australia on March 1 and everything was kind of normal, then 10 days later they shut the borders and it seemed like we’d dodged that bullet then a couple weeks later we were in lockdown.
“Actually, I remember on the plane coming back sitting next to an elderly woman from New Orleans, who was talking about how she was going on a ship cruise and how she got a subsidised deal and gaming chips chucked into the package and the rest of it. I swear that she would’ve got on the Ruby Princess. I sat next to her for 14 hours and thinking about it now, I don’t know if she’s still alive.”
The ides of March brought news of imminent lockdowns across the country and Perth was no different. On March 18 indoor gatherings of more than 100 people were banned and by the start of April gatherings of more than two people were banned and the WA border was closed.
“It happened fairly quick,” Keiller recalls. “I appreciated that we needed to get prepared for it, but it was pretty eerie walking into your business after 21 years and all the fridges were in darkness and all the stock had been stripped out. It looked like ground zero. Fortunately, the suppliers were all pretty good, they took stock back that hadn’t been opened. So with a lot of the debt we had on the books as far as the stock went we were able to send it back and eventually got the credit for it.
“There was a lot of cooperation from people we dealt with over the years, but even though we were closed there was still stuff we had to do. There was quite a bit to do for about a month, just to try and keep staff connected to the venue though JobKeeper, just scrubbing stuff down and cleaning and general maintenance. Then when all that kind of stopped I’d be here on my own thinking, ‘are we ever gonna see it like it was?’”
Outside the normally buzzing streets of Northbridge were empty. Tumbleweeds would not have been out of place.
“You’d walk out and there was just nothing happening on the street,” Keiller says. “It was like the last day on earth. It was pretty bizarre.”
On June 6 the WA Government eased restrictions to allow seated indoor gatherings of 100 people, but it wasn’t enough to enable the Mustang Bar to re-open.
“Soon as I heard the word ‘seated’ it was a no-brainer,” Keiller says, “it just wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t open until there could be 100 people in a room standing. So the first time we opened was June 28, with 100 people and it was standing. It was normal except that we were just under a quarter capacity.
“It was okay… there was enough vibe, people were just happy to be out. All the bands kicked in and that was all cool then it was about two weeks after that it got up to the 50% mark where we were at for quite a while until the most recent lockdown.”
To help make things viable the venue introduced a door charge on Friday and Saturday nights. This development came after 21 years of free entry at the door.
“We were carrying 100% of the entertainment load and trying to get there on 50%,” Keiller explains. “The first part of the re-opening was okay because most people were on JobKeeper; in effect, they were probably earning $200-$300 more a week than they otherwise would have in their normal casual employment, so they were pretty free and easy in the way they spend their money. It wasn’t just the fact that they’d spent more on Friday-Saturday night, they spent it more across the week.
“The mid-week-nights were actually a bit stronger than the half-capacity would indicate and you got to 190 under the rule pretty easily so we had to introduce the door charge otherwise it wouldn’t have been viable. That kicked in after JobKeeper dropped off from late November.”
Keiller says that happily, the punters took the newly introduced weekend door-charge in their stride.
“They understood that people were working under restricted circumstances. A lot of people said, ‘well you’ve never charged the entire time you’ve been open, so it’s cool. Don’t worry about it’.”
In February, WA went into another short-term lockdown, forcing venues such as the Mustang Bar to again close their doors. The first Covid-19 community transmission in 10 months had just been recorded.
“The latest two-week one I think was a bit trigger happy,” Keiller states. “A lot of people say it was a five-day shutdown, but it was a 14-day shutdown with some restrictions lifted after five. A lot of venues, and we were one of them, couldn’t really open after the five days with the restrictions that were still in place. For venues like nightclubs, it was just a given from day one that they couldn’t open for a minimum of 14 days.
“To be honest, I was pretty pissed off. I thought it was an over-reaction for one case.”
The restrictions were eventually lifted and from March 15, venues are able to increase capacity to 75%. It’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not lost on Keiller that we still live in uncertain times. The best way for the Mustang Bar to go forward, it seems, is to stick to its 21-year ethos of delivering quality and diversity, consistently.
“Some might say it’s an opportunity to revisit what you want to do, but with so much uncertainty around I don’t think it’d be a good business strategy to change. I think we’re better off doing what we do. It’s been good to us for 21 years, and good for the bands and all the rest of it.
“People say, ‘I love coming here because we know what to expect.’ We’ve always had a philosophy that whether it’s a rockabilly band or a cover band or a DJ, there’s a baseline of quality. I think that if you follow that basic principle of just supplying quality it might not be some people’s preference, but they’ll cop it sweet.
“We’ve always tried to give everyone a fair crack whether it’s been the rockabilly crew, swing, country or Americana, and it’s always worked well for us. I can’t see a reason to change.”