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Sydney’s lockout laws have ruined the economic viability of the city’s live entertainment culture, a state parliament inquiry has been told, with venue closures and poker machines replacing band rooms. By Steve Dow.

Sydney’s late-night economy waning

Oxford Art Factory, Darlinghurst.
Credit: Maria Boyadgis / Four Minutes to Midnight

Oxford Street in Sydney’s inner-eastern Darlinghurst starts to look like a ghost town after midnight on weekends, says Mark Gerber, the founder of live music and performance art venue Oxford Art Factory. “After 1.30am you can count the foot traffic on one hand. In the immediate years before the lockout it was approaching the kind of vibrant and diverse nightlife that cities such as London, New York, Paris and Melbourne are still proud of today.”

Gerber’s booking agent for the past four-and-a-half years, Tom Byrnes, has revelled in the success of local acts Flume, Gang of Youths, DMA’S and The Rubens, all of which have performed here. The venue’s main room capacity of 490 punters has sometimes made it the first stop for international acts, too. Small- to medium-size band rooms elsewhere in Sydney have fallen prey to gentrification and apartment development, cumbersome and contradictory approvals processes, sometimes vexatious noise complaints and the allure of easier revenue from poker machines.

Then came the hotly protested lockout laws. They were selectively applied to some Sydney areas by the then Baird state government in 2014, in response to separate one-punch killings of two teenagers in nearby Kings Cross at hours long before the arbitrarily pronounced lockout time of 1.30am. A two-year trial begun in 2016 of easing that time for live music venues to 2am, and pushing back last drinks from 3am to 3.30am, has been a “mere token”, says Byrnes.

The lockout laws continue to have an “unspeakable impact” on the Oxford Art Factory, and musicians and other performers are bearing the consequences. “No longer can we afford to have unsuccessful or poorly attended nights,” says Byrnes, in a submission to a state parliamentary inquiry. “We are now less able to take risks on unestablished bands and emerging artists, which therefore minimises the opportunities we can present to the local scene.”

Before Easter, the state parliament held its hearing for the Inquiry into the Music and Arts Economy in New South Wales. Hoodoo Gurus frontman, and The Saturday Paper’s music critic, Dave Faulkner, was invited to speak about the impact of live music restrictions on Australia’s music economy, to which NSW contributed about one third. “It is a vital industry, but it is treated as a very poor relation by the government and councils,” he said. “We are akin to sex workers; that is, we are to be shunned.”

Down towards Circular Quay, The Basement at Macquarie Place, one of three live music venues with audience capacities of fewer than 1000 remaining in Sydney’s central business district, closed last week after 45 years. The Basement’s management insisted building manager AMP Capital was not kicking out Sydney’s oldest licensed music venue, where the likes of Prince, De La Soul, Neil Diamond, Dizzy Gillespie and Ben Harper have played gigs among thousands of local acts; rather, the Basement’s lease expired and “we are looking to find a permanent home”.

Meanwhile, inner-western Newtown, spared the lockout laws, has had a 300 per cent increase in foot traffic and drunken hordes descending on the area.

Over the past month, the City of Sydney has received more than 7200 submissions about its late-night development control plan, says city councillor Jess Scully, indicating residents “care about where late-night entertainment and culture happens” but have been excluded from entering “the conversation”.

In December 2016, the NSW government responded favourably to recommendations from a “night-time economy” roundtable, consisting of business, community organisations and government agencies. It consequently established a Night-time Economy Taskforce, led by the government agency Create NSW, and made up of 15 other government agencies as well as the City of Sydney, to implement an action plan. But progress has been glacial.

New night transport initiatives have been promised for this year, but Tarek Barakat, Create NSW’s director of strategic policy, research and projects, told the government inquiry hearing that to his knowledge no planning law had changed in the 16 months since the government responded to the roundtable recommendations.

NSW is the only mainland state lacking a contemporary music plan, Labor MLC John Graham noted during the hearing, and the one being formulated by Create NSW is already four months overdue. What was the blockage? “These are complex issues,” said Barakat, who could not give a date for the music plan’s completion. More broadly, Graham asked, would there be a master plan for the night-time economy in 2018? “I am happy to come back to you with a more exact date,” Barakat replied, “but at the moment I can commit to this year.”

Under questioning, it emerged Create NSW is funding MusicNSW, the state’s peak body for contemporary music, with $455,000 in 2017–18, and in the previous year gave the Live and Local initiative $250,000 to help Western Sydney and regional councils stage small festivals. Collectively, Graham noted, that “looks like on my calculation about 10 per cent or 11 per cent of what Victoria is providing” to contemporary music. His comparison was to the Victorian government’s $22.2 million support over four years for Music Works, a contemporary music program.

Barakat responded that the government was providing more than $300 million in operational capital grants to the likes of the Sydney Opera House and the Art Gallery of NSW. “A lot of those organisations hold contemporary music,” he argued.

The Sydney Fringe Festival, however, submitted that most professional NSW-based artists, “will never perform or present in the Opera House or other major cultural institutions”. In that context, in a bid to repurpose other spaces, last year the fringe festival tested an industrial site awaiting development in Alexandria as a multipurpose, low-risk performing arts centre. Police responded to the project by slapping “no dancing and no DJ” clauses on the development application.

Fringe director Kerri Glasscock wrote a piece for ArtsHub last month entitled “Sydney, you’re killing my optimism”. She wrote that the Inner West Council, created by the NSW government in 2016 under forced council amalgamations, had rejected five years’ work into developing the inner-western suburb of Sydenham as an entertainment and employment precinct, despite the site’s industrial zoning as well as in-principle support from NSW Planning and Environment. The decision would have a “lasting and significantly detrimental effect” on the “cultural landscape of greater Sydney”.

Ben Pechey, the City of Sydney’s manager of planning policy, told the inquiry the council was considering “agent of change” principles for noise coming from the likes of music venues. Under this approach, introduced by the Victorian government in 2014, if a new music venue opens in a neighbourhood the onus is on them to manage the noise. But if a new residential building is built in an area that already has light music venues, it is the building management that needs to protect residents from the noise.

Meanwhile, the state seems unwilling to countenance that the introduction of poker machines into hotels under the Carr Labor government in 1997 and their outsized growth has any connection to musicians being denied gigs. Liberal MLC Catherine Cusack tried to divert conversation from the topic when Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW, told the inquiry he played his first gig as a musician at 14.

In the 1980s, he said, it was possible to play in Sydney several times a week: “Then the rules changed. Introducing poker machines had a huge effect.”

“Sorry to interrupt you, but I am focusing on the demand for music,” said Cusack. “This is all about demand.”

“From a venue operator, it is chicken and egg,” Knowles insisted. “If you are not putting music on, you are not developing audiences. The more venues tip over to offering poker machines as entertainment to their clientele, the less you are developing audiences for live music.”

Knowles’s colleague, MusicNSW managing director Emily Collins, gave evidence that creative confidence is low because of the propagation and absorption of the narrative that Sydney is dying.

For an industry that brings in an estimated $3.6 billion to the state economy and provides more than 23,000 jobs, Collins says, it has been, “heartbreaking to witness the closing of venues, the erosion of performance opportunities and the migration of industry professionals and artists to other states that are more supportive of their careers and more affordable”.

She summed up the tenor of submissions from musicians and venues: “What used to be seen as a hard slog is now seen as a near impossible battle.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "The way the music died ". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.