“The economic stakes are so high that punters, musicians, and venue operators are apoplectic about needing to slap pollies awake from their collective dream of pretending to care about live music.”
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE LOCAL, A QUARTERLY FEATURE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD NEWSPAPER.
By Clinton Caward
“Every Australian band comes from a different pub,” Peter Garrett once said in The Big Australian Rock Book, “and it’s there they define what they are about. Every band remembers that pub, and it’s more than sentimental value, it’s much stronger.”
Romanticising the past is always a bit suspect, but when it comes to Oz pub rock, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for venues that once incubated the raw talent of our live music ecosystem. And even if those memories are haunted with scattered comedowns, blackouts, waking with epic hangovers and the first tingle of a cold sore, we remember the bands that hammered themselves into shape over the anvil of pub gigs.
Cold Chisel, The Angels, Divinyls, Nick Cave, INXS, Rose Tattoo, The Saints, X, all of them staggered from pubs. Would we even have The Wiggles if they didn’t first scurry on stage as The Cockroaches?
But while bands at the Manzil Room in Kings Cross in the ’80s cranked out their first set at 1am, come 2017 and the Kings Cross Hotel was forced to shut down a punk gig at 9.15pm because of noise complaints. Walk around Kings Cross these days and you’re more likely to be knocked down by children on scooters than drug addicts twitching to the Wayside Chapel for a free shower. Gentrification is city-wide, and new parents feel a near Darwinian obligation to blunt the edginess of the inner-city with safe spaces for their broods.
Many blame the demise of live music on the 99,000 pokies in NSW that stole many of the venues Paul Kelly once referred to as, “my universities”. And while the 2003 NSW government report Vanishing Acts found “live music operations have been displaced by gaming facilities”, the contributing factors are much more socially panoramic.
Culture has evolved, or devolved, depending where you stand, and because of well-meaning nanny-state laws designed to keep us safe, no current venue would risk having an Angry Anderson choke himself unconscious with a microphone cable, and if Barnesy was lurching about, slugging vodka straight from the bottle, they'd chuck him out.
In his essay History Is Made at Night, rock historian Clinton Walker thinks the cuts began with a confluence of noise restrictions and fire regulations. Safety wasn’t “a concept in the 70s,” where regulation just meant “wearing a collar”. The 1982 introduction of random-breath-testing also meant punters could no longer drive home half-pissed, and had music magazine RAM asking, “The end of Sydney rock as we know it?”.
In 1989, Triple J went national, losing its Sydney focus. Inner-city squats and cheap share-houses disappeared. Despite grunge’s best efforts, the ’90s saw glow-stick-wielding teens lured off to drop Es at raves. The internet generated more competing forms of entertainment, giving us other app-ening ways to meet up and get laid, things once done in pubs, which are now wallpapered with flat-screen TVs pumping endless sport. Smoking inside was banned, and bigger mortgages meant less disposable cash for over-priced drinks. NIMBY noise complaints sent the Annandale Hotel into receivership in 2013, just four years after The Hopetoun sunk its last schooner on a long voyage to the end of the night. Not to mention pub music is ‘low’ culture, which means it doesn’t get the Australia Council largess set aside for ‘high’ culture like Opera (that far less people see).
Structures that supported musicians also took a bit of a battering. From 2004 to 2013, street mag Drum Media revealed gig listings had dropped by 61 per cent. A massive decline in CD sales, and surge in music streaming guaranteed musicians were much poorer with their Spotify pay checks between $0.006 and $0.0084 per play. That’s about $6k per million plays. Jobs had been tanking for a while, and in 1998, the NSW Jazz Union found 67 per cent of those canvassed had lost employment in the 12 months prior to the survey.
The 2014 lockout laws, imposed by legislators who think after-dark equals anti-social, were just another kick to the guts. In the 12 months following their introduction, 44 drink-led businesses went under, taking 144 jobs in the City of Sydney precinct. Over a hundred restaurants, cafés and takeaway food outlets followed. APRA AMCOS figures showed venues with a Live Artist Performance licence had a 40 per cent overall decline in ticket sales.
Any mullet-lengthed dreams of returning to unregulated glory days are deluded, but it’s equally myopic to assume live performers are yesterday’s heroes.
Live music is still big business.
A landmark Tasmanian University study, The Economic and Cultural Value of Live Music in Australia 2014, found that “for every dollar spent on live music, three dollars of benefit is returned to the wider community”. We aren’t just talking about ticket sales. Those dollars also go on food, booze, accommodation, transport – not only work for the artists, but all through the economy, providing 65,000 full and part-time jobs, estimated to be worth around $15.7 billion to the national community. NSW is the largest contributor to the industry at $3.6 billion and 23,207 jobs.
It’s because the economic stakes are so high that punters, musicians, and venue operators are apoplectic about needing to slap pollies awake from their collective dream of pretending to care about live music. While inner-city gentrification might be a global issue, Sydney can learn a lot from savvy innovations other cities have thrown up to manage and encourage successful night economies.
After losing 40 per cent of its music venues over the last decade, London introduced a ‘Night Czar’. New York has the Office of Nightlife, Berlin the Club Commission, and Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich have all installed ‘Night Mayors’. It’s a global trend that’s seeing bottom-up collective action anoint advocates to spruik for 24-hour cities.
In Berlin, for example, promoters who banded together to stop residents getting venues closed, now have a seat in government, and can boast their nocturnal bona fides with statistics showing that over a third of Berlin’s tourists come for the nightlife. With the city having 35 million overnight stays per year, it’s obvious that a profitable well-managed night economy feeds largess back through the hospitality, food, transport and community matrix.
One local advocacy organisation is The Live Music Office. It’s director, John Wardle, thinks the City of Sydney deserves some kudos for a live music ‘Action Plan’ that’s seeing $360,000 in grant money flow to local venues. “The challenge for the city is retrofitting. Trying to encourage new music culture into an environment that has a lot of residential development.” And state governments love high-density apartments which produce noise complaints, because those apartments are worth billions in stamp duty.
But $360k to play catch up is nothing compared to the Victorian Government’s $12.2 million contemporary music package, and WA’s $3 million Creative Music Fund, which both have actual vision for creating jobs, opportunities and reducing red tape.
Of course, there are still places to catch a gig – The Botany View, The Bank Hotel, Brighton Up Bar, Oxford Art Factory – and the Kings Cross Hotel, now in the shadow of 135 new apartments, is embracing a desire to lead the conversation about the importance of a diverse and vibrant nightlife. “We’ve transformed part of the hotel into a live theatre, held fundraisers with Keep Sydney Open; secured funding from the City of Sydney to support local musicians; and we’re looking into turning the third level nightclub into a community rehearsal space for emerging artists,” says the pub’s marketing director, Dan Lacaze.
There’s a thriving DIY music ecology in Marrickville, but even that’s at risk; the proposed Sydenham Creative Hub, which would have seen the area officially developed into a live music precinct, was recently voted down by council.
The NSW Parliament has just begun its enquiry into the Music and Arts Economy, and it will be interesting to see what it delivers for ‘low’ culture gig-pigs, seen as too naive to understand the realpolitick of city planning. But, “if you want to have a better nightlife relationship with your city,” Amsterdam’s night mayor told Neighbourhood Paper, “get organised and don’t just lean back and wait for the city to deal with the nightlife issues. You have to represent feasible strong ideas that can create better night life policy.”
Otherwise, our nights will be increasingly filled, with near empty streets.