The Beatles’ “Hamburg era” is the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. In 1960, the four then-unknown Liverpudlian teens scored a gig at the German city’s 400-capacity Indra Club. From 17 August, they gigged for 48 nights straight, finishing at 2am on weeknights and at 3am on weekends. “When you think about it sensibly, our sound really stems from Germany,” said George Harrison. “We learned to work for hours and hours on end and keep on working at full peak even when we reckoned our arms and legs were about ready to drop off.”
In Sydney today, such a gig would be impossible. Under the “lockout laws”, the Indra would be turning away newcomers by 1.30am – even if a potentially globe-conquering band were on stage. The laws, which apply to venues of 60+ capacity in the Sydney CBD Entertainment Precinct (the CBD and Kings Cross, as well as parts of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills) prohibit entry after 1.30am and drink sales after 3am.
The Beatles’ “Hamburg era” is the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend … In Sydney today, such a gig would be impossible.
The Beatles is just one of many acts whose sound – if not existence – is the product of a vibrant late night culture. Earlier this month, Flight Facilities, an internationally successful duo from Sydney, voiced their opposition to the lockouts via Facebook. They wrote that their “first club gigs didn’t begin till 3am”. Now-closed venues, like Hugo’s Lounge, Trademark and Soho, provided residencies, as well as opportunities to meet other artists, like George Maple, who joined Flight Facilities on hit song “Foreign Languages”.
As James Young, owner of Melbourne’s Cherry Bar, told The Age, “Creative cultures are late-night cultures … When Frank Sinatra sang he wanted to wake up in a ‘city that never sleeps’, that defined a world-class city … It’s cultural suicide to close down the late-night industries.”
And John Wardle, policy director at the Live Music Office, said, “Having a thriving night time economy is fundamental to having a healthy live music scene. I’ve heard it referred to as ‘The other 9-5’, as in 9pm to 5am, where the hospitality and music industry, food businesses, shift-workers and tourists have a corresponding commercial environment to participate in.”
The Beatles’ story shows some of the practical benefits of a late-night culture to live music. At the simplest level, the longer a venue stays open, the more time there is for music. This creates room for programming of emerging artists and for residencies, which help to hone skills and build audiences. Longer opening hours also mean more opportunities to generate revenue, thereby increasing a venue’s overall live music budget.
Take the Oxford Art Factory, a live music venue in Darlinghurst, for example. Its unique model provides a main room for well-known acts and a smaller room for emerging artists. Since opening in 2007, the venue has guaranteed payment for the latter, regardless of their ability to attract fans. Owner Mark Gerber said, “Many musicians, who might be creative geniuses, aren’t necessarily good at business. Here, they can get performance experience without having to worry about that.” The likes of Chet Faker and The Preatures have graduated from the Oxford Art Factory’s smaller room. However, after suffering a 30% revenue drop since the lockouts, Gerber says he no longer has the resources to continue with this model.
The Oxford Art Factory is just one of many venues to have taken a hit. At a Keep Sydney Open rally, held on 21 February, Isabella Manfredi, lead singer of The Preatures, said many of the venues, including The Landsdowne, The Flinders and The Exchange, where her band “cut its teeth”, were now closed.
APRA AMCOS’s latest analysis of its licensing revenue supports Gerber’s and Manfredi’s concerns. “Figures released by APRA AMCOS through the Live Music Office identify a 40% overall decline in the value of door charge receipts at venues within the Sydney CBD lockout area in the first year of operation, which is unsustainable,” said John Wardle, policy director at the Live Music Office. “CBD venues have shifted programming dramatically, now only having one show each night when previously two were hosted, and there’s been a significant decrease in visitation late at night, as patrons migrate to adjacent suburbs or don’t go out at all.”
Creative cultures are late-night cultures – James Young
A struggling night time economy not only reduces gigs and venue profits, it also damages the size and enthusiasm of live music audiences. Q Music, in a submission opposing lockout laws in Queensland, points out that “many music lovers spend their night in entertainment precincts moving between multiple locations”. A 3am lockout would force a decision to stay in one venue, making “a night out less attractive” and seriously harming “the commercial viability of the venues”.
From Sydney’s experience, such fears are justified. There’s been an up to 80% reduction in foot traffic in Oxford Street and Kings Cross, according to the City of Sydney’s Late Night Management Areas Research Phase 4 Report, published in September 2015.
“What’s most threatening is perhaps the perception that the lockouts have killed Sydney completely,” said Emily Collins, Acting Executive Officer at MusicNSW. “Audiences are being trained to believe that there aren’t gigs to go to, bands to see, music to enjoy. And this is really dangerous, because this training of audience behaviour can take a long time to undo – regardless of what’s on offer. Already we’re seeing people turning to other forms of entertainment because the perception is that the live music experience no longer has the same promise it once did, or, at the very least, it’s now harder, and absolutely necessary to plan your night out.”
On one hand, some people have stopped going to gigs out of an unfounded belief that Sydney is dangerous. Mr Wardle said, “There is a national and international narrative that Sydney is unsafe, which is contrary to NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data, which demonstrates that the downward trend of violence in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross began well before the lockout laws were introduced.”
What’s most threatening is perhaps the perception that the lockouts have killed Sydney completely – Emily Collins, Music NSW
In other quarters, the city’s strict regulations are the subject of mockery and ridicule. In May 2015, Tyler Brûlé, editor-in-chief of Monocle, speaking at Vivid, described Australia as “on the verge of becoming the world’s dumbest nation.” He said, “If you want to be globally attractive, you do need to have bars open until whatever hour of the day. And I need to be able to open a pop-up shop in Surry Hills and walk on the pavement with my wine glass. To me that’s actually important. It is not going to bring about the collapse of society because you do that.”
Furthermore, the lockout debate is preventing discussion around more progressive live music legislation. Mr Wardle said, “From a broader industry development perspective, the lockouts issue has both a reputational and collective impact, as wider discussions around better regulation and sector development that are well progressed in South Australia and Victoria for example are unable to gain traction.”
In Melbourne, 2am lockouts were trialled for three months in 2008 and abandoned. Assault rates between 8pm and 6am have nonetheless dropped – from 13.3 assaults per 100,000 people in 2012/13 to 11.7 in 2014/15. In February 2016, Jane Garrett, Minister for Liquor Regulation, told the Sydney Morning Herald the lockouts were “a disaster for the fabric of our social and cultural identity”. Instead, Melbourne is now conducting a 12-month trial of 24-hour public transport on weekends.
a thriving night time economy is fundamental to having a healthy live music scene
Not only are the lockouts making life harder for live music, they’re also, ironically, limiting its potential to shape positive behaviour. In 2013, Dr Anne Fox, a British anthropologist, conducted extensive research in Australia and New Zealand in an attempt to understand what drives anti-social behaviour in “the night-time economy”. She discovered that, when drinkers partake in activities that involve “a certain degree of ‘cognitive loading’”, they are more likely to feel a heightened sense of unity and less likely to become violent. These activities include “listening to live music or stand-up comedy, playing darts, chess or other bar room games, karaoke, competitions and tournaments.”
Research concerning live music’s potential to reduce alcohol-related violence is still in its infancy, but initial studies, like Dr Fox’s, are positive. Mr Wardle said, “What we don’t have at this time is an evidence base that investigates live music venues and violence; however, there’s a couple of studies in various stages of development. Governments are very capable of scheduling entertainment venues as high risk, but less forthcoming with recognising lower risk activity. Further research in this area will be increasingly necessary as lockouts and risk-based licensing frameworks are endorsed in certain areas of the country … Most venues and artists would argue that live music is a unifying activity that supports social cohesion through shared enjoyment and participation. We don’t associate the dramatic arts with harm and risk, and, if you look at the consumption patterns in dedicated live music venues, they may have more in common with a theatre than a nightclub.”
He also argued that the conflation of densely populated areas with “saturation” was flawed. He said, “International examples such as Greenwich Village and Lower East Side in New York City, Lower Broadway in Nashville and Beale St in Memphis, The French Quarter and Frenchmen St in New Orleans, as well as Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, demonstrate that density is desirable for entertainment scenes to thrive, which is inconsistent with discussions around these issues that frame entertainment precincts as ‘saturation’.”
Ms Collins said, “It’s really important to note that the violence being reported in recent years hasn’t been inside live music venues. The lockout laws have essentially conflated street violence with all night time entertainment and that’s not going to help anyone actually address the core issues. From speaking with venue owners here in Sydney, I’d say many of them would agree that live music crowds aren’t violent ones. The problems start when you push people out on the street when they’re not ready to go home, where there’s not enough public transport, when there aren’t enough taxis. Even if there were forty new venues in Sydney with live music on four nights a week, with better public transport, I don’t think we’d see any increase in violence – we may even see a reduction. Live music gives people something to do, something to be inspired by, something to enjoy. Violence doesn’t come into it.”
Most venues and artists would argue that live music is a unifying activity that supports social cohesion through shared enjoyment. – John Wardle, Live Music Office
Meanwhile, John Collins, bassist for Powderfinger and owner of The Triffid, a music venue in Brisbane, wrote an impassioned protest against lockouts in Queensland: “Labor’s lockout net will catch everything in its path with no consideration for low-risk live music venues … Plenty of live music venues in the Valley won’t survive Labor’s laws. Shows wrap up at about 1am – the same way it happens in other Australian capital cities. They’re watched by good-natured people who don’t buy much alcohol while the band is on stage. They’re not drinking until they fall over. And they don’t want to go home at 1am. They’re supporting the vibrant Brisbane music culture, which is the envy of southern cities. And I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Even if the New South Wales government decides not to reverse the lockouts, there’s ample evidence to suggest that live music venues should receive exemptions. A starting point for policy makers might be Q Music’s aforementioned submission, which states, “These venues are low-risk venues that attract people who seek arts and cultural experiences … The industry suggests that the State Government creates a new liquor licence for original live music venues. These venues would qualify if the majority of their opening hours were dedicated to original live music.”