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Live Music State of Play: Sydney and Melbourne

Jasmine Crittenden
| July 31, 2014

Tom Waits might still be wondering if “the jukebox might be the death of live music”, but in 1990s Sydney, the jukebox seemed to be just the first chord in a rather long and torturous lament. Between costly licensing, anti-noise neighbours, super sports screens and poker machines, the city’s once vibrant scene, which had rocketed the likes of Midnight Oil and INXS onto the international charts, was slipping into decline.

Newtown Social Club “I don’t want to sound like the old bloke who keeps harping on about good old days–but it was a hell of a lot better then,” Ed Kuepper told the Sydney Morning Herald. “One of the things that has been great for property developers has been bad for artists, and that’s the whole gentrification of the inner city, which has been fairly shallow and depressing.”

A Live Music Taskforce fact sheet, published on 4 November, 2013, reveals that the City of Sydney local government area is home to 2,268 liquor-licensed premises, but just 143 (or 6.3%) hold live music licences with APRA|AMCOS. “In 2012,” the sheet states; “61 (43%) reported expenditure of box office receipts of up to $10,000, 63 (41%) reported between $10,000 and $100,000 and 19 (13%) reported $100,000 plus.”

Melbourne, on the other hand, hasn’t suffered such a significant downturn and continues to pride itself on being “one of the world’s live music capitals”. As of the 2012 Victorian Live Music Census, a run-of-the-mill Saturday night saw 97,000 gig-goers attend shows, spending $745,000 on tickets and a whopping $3.7 million on merchandise, transport, food and beverages.

That said, neither capital has been immune to the impacts of increased population density, inner-city gentrification and legal complications. In recent years, both have mourned the loss of legendary music haunts and, in the past few months, both have launched Council-endorsed live music action plans.

Venues Lost

Sydney bid farewell to the Hopetoun Hotel in 2009, watched Raval turn into a microbrewery in 2011, lost The Sandringham and The Gaelic Club in 2012, saw Blue Beat’s final gig in January this year and now awaits the next chapter in The Annandale’s troubled story, with a renovated version of the once hard rock devoted pub set to open on 7 August. What’s more, the new lockout laws, which came into force on 24 February, have sparked serious concern.

We don’t want live music venues to close because they’ve been lumped in with venues whose sole purpose is to sell booze, MusicNSW’s Kirsty Brown told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Meanwhile, the Victorian capital said goodbye to punk rock institution The Arthouse in May 2011, the East Brunswick Club in March 2012, The Empress in December 2013 and The Palace Theatre in May this year. In 2010, The Tote closed temporarily following a since-overturned tightening of liquor licensing laws.

More recently, noise complaints have been on the rise, possibly as a consequence of rising property values. In November 2013, Collingwood’s home of punk and metal The Bendigo narrowly escaped closure and, in late July this year, Cherry Bar owner James Young, facing the construction of a 12-storey high apartment block next door, held a crowd funding campaign to raise money for soundproofing. A music-loving public pledged $90,000 in just two days.

“I think the scene could move to Sydney,” urban planning researcher Dr Kate Shaw told the ABC in January. “If opportunities started opening up in Sydney and closing down in Melbourne, it wouldn’t take much to shift.”

Venues Gained

However, as the Village People are wont to say, “you can’t stop the music”. Despite the difficulties faced in both Sydney and Melbourne, old venues have managed to survive, new venues have opened their doors and prominent industry figures have been speaking out and taking action.

Sydney has former MCA councillor John Wardle to thank. On 26 October 26 2009, after years and years of legislative and cultural warfare, Wardle managed to overturn the state’s performance arts-strangling PoPE (Place of Public Entertainment) laws. “Put simply,” Marcus Westbury writes, “until the stupid laws were finally done away with . . . you could do pretty much everything in a NSW pub, café or gallery without tonnes of red tape except play live music or perform anything live.” If Westbury had his way, we’d dub October 26th “Buy John Wardle a Beer Day”.

What’s more, in July 2008, a new liquor act made it simpler and cheaper for small bars to sell alcohol without food and banned them from housing poker machines.

It might have taken a year or two, but it wasn’t long before music entrepreneurs started to take advantage of their newfound freedom. Numerous Sydney cafes, small bars and galleries now host live music–regularly or occasionally. Simultaneously, there’s been a move towards multi-purpose, custom-built venues offering, not only gigs, but also a host of other cultural experiences–from “live art” to temporary exhibitions to film screenings to ten-pin bowling.

oxfordartfactory ed
Examples include the Andy Warhol-inspired Oxford Art Factory, which has been providing Darlinghurst with a “cultural focal point” since 2007; Goodgod Small Club, which has been functioning as a “subterranean tropical oasis” since October 2008; 505, which graduated from underground to aboveground in 2010; The Hi-Fi, which took over The Forum’s old premises in 2012; the Newtown Social Club, which opened in the Sandringham’s old home in May 2013 under the experienced eye of Jack Martin; the 400-capacity Jam Gallery, which brought three new stages and three bars to Bondi Junction in December 2013; and The Standard, which became The Standard Bowl in March this year.

“I don’t think the days are possible anymore where it’s just purely a live music venue – except maybe for places of a certain size, such as The Enmore,” Oxford Art Factory boss Mark Gerber told Mess + Noise in 2012. “We certainly don’t rely upon live music 100 percent; we’ve always had a diverse array of entertainment put on by promoters and by ourselves. There are arcade game nights right through to gay events and other stuff.”

Meanwhile, the Melbourne Pavilion is set to increase its capacity from 1,300 to 2,250; South Melbourne’s Star Hotel has just re-launched a regular live music program and The Shadow Electric’s band room is going permanent.

New Scenes, New Strategies

While individuals and businesses have been taking action at the venue level, both the City of Sydney and the City of Melbourne have come on board with live music policies. The former launched theirs in April and the latter in June.

In Sydney, the Live Music Taskforce, headed by John Wardle, is executing a 57-point, five-year plan that focuses on small- and medium-sized venues. Proposed moves include the appointment of a live music liaison officer, reduction of red tape, access to non-traditional performance spaces, simplification of the approval process necessary to minor events, the provision of advice regarding noise issues, an increase in affordable housing for musicians and grants for all-ages events. The full action plan can be downloaded here.

Melbourne’s Music Strategy, created by the Music Advisory Committee chaired by Councillor Rohan Leppert, presents a three-year plan. Plans include a year-round live music programme, more all-ages events, the development of a Melbourne Music City guide and app, the fostering of connections with music-loving international cities like Nashville and Berlin, an expansion of Melbourne Music Week, the provision of intelligent advice for live music start-ups and the possible creation of a music hub in the CBD. Download the whole document here.

Title Image Credit: Palace Theatre.  Photo credit: remixyourface
Article Image 1: Newtown Social Club. Photo credit: Clare Hawley
Article Image 2: Oxford Art Factory. Photo credit: James Dennes

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