Angela Stretch, Co-director, TTYA. Hard Road – the Future of Live Music in Sydney is presented by Talking Through Your Arts.
Stuart Coupe, director of Laughing Outlaw Records and well-known as a music journalist, manager of bands including the Hoodoo Gurus and Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls, radio presenter, publicist and tour promoter.
Clinton Walker, prolific author, critic, presenter and documentary maker, arguably our best chronicler of Australian grass roots culture. His books include Highway to Hell, a biography of AC/DC’s Bon Scott, and Buried Country, a history of Aboriginal country music.
John Wardle, Chair of the City of Sydney live Music and Live Performance Taskforce, a former advisor to ministers in both houses of the NSW parliament and works on regulatory reform for live music nationally. He performs and tours regularly on lead guitar with a number of alt country bands.
Mark Lucas, is the volunteer president and music curator at Petersham Bowling Club (PBC). In 2008 he initiated what has become a successful live music program. Lucas has been a Sydney based singer-songwriter / performing artist since the mid 80s. He iis CEO of Australia’s principal professional costume resource for film and TV.
Is live music in Sydney viable? Does it have a future?
Things are not that bad in Sydney. Maybe we are all just getting a little bit carried away. Venues come and go. There are some things that contribute to a downturn.
We have an incredible number of international tours coming through all year long. This is having a major impact on the Sydney live music industry – especially for local artists. There is little money around and there is an assumption that the audience can go and see local acts in addition to international artists.
Sydney Audiences are wimps. When the temp drops by 17 it will be officially winter and the number of punters entering venues will drop dramatically until the cold passes. During the cold season venues start doing it tough.
Perhaps music is less important to a younger generation. Perhaps venues are also a little bit a fault. Back in the day we used to hit cities across the state – Sydney, Blacktown, Penrith,…. at each space there was an audience! 5 – 6 shows a week, regularly. 300+ crowds showing up at North Ryde on a Tuesday night to watch Paul Kelly play. I’d like to discuss why the whole suburb industry has dissipated. That touring circuit around town seems to have left us.
Another big problem is councils and zoning. This is a problem around the world. Homeowners and landowners buy a new place next door and have the power to shut the place down. Neighbours start closing venues down because it affects their immediate lifestyle. Noise complaints. This make the running of a venue incredibly expensive (legal fees –ongoing). Annandale Hotel is very relevant. Tell me that’s not going to become high-rise apartments? There is a real friction between live venues and residence.
This year I’ve been busy with policy work.
We all understand how amazing live performance really is! You get something more. Venues are struggling. There is a lot of great stuff going on. Supporters and industry professionals are simply going to the wall, it’s distressing. I’m concerned for artists. If we don’t sing our songs, no one will. I play myself. Not to have opportunities to play is incredibly sad, it just kills you.
I’ve spent way too much of my time thinking about these issues. Making mischief. Running campaigns. Most of the last decade I worked planning reform and liquor reform for NSW Australia. I was the strategies behind the ‘Raise The Bar’ Campaign on liquor reform. I ran that in South Australia too, which has changed the liquor licensing laws there too. I have an interested in ‘Barriers to entry’. Red tape,cost and compliance – we all find that incredibly frustrating. I’ve turned my feeble mind towards trying to make changes here.
I’m now chairing the Task Force in Sydney and I do have some agendas. There is some unfinished business for me with my work I did on liquor reform. I did a lot of work on the new noise complaints process in the liquor act. That’s simply not work for artists. The Annandale is a case in point. There is a number of others. So, to have put so much work into something just to see it completely whipped is disheartening. We’ll try again there.
The task force takes up a lot of time. We are heading into our 3rd set of meetings.
We see two streams.
1. A regulatory stream.
2. Audience development stream.
It’s one thing to have the rooms, it’s another to have the audience showing up. Coming up with ideas for audience development is a pretty big challenge at the moment. I would put that question to everyone here.
“What would you do if the Lord Mayor came to you and said write a plan for the city!”.
There’s a lot of history to the city we are in right now. I don’t think our sector has participated particularly well along the way. I don’t think the music sector has done all that well. I don’t think the people paid to represent the music sector have done a great deal.
When pokies came in 1997 it was a big deal. I was 27 yrs old. I spent that year out of the country, I was away. I had done a lot of gigs in my early 20’s, I came back and all those rooms were GONE. People can say that pokies support rooms, and they do. They are part of the income stream. That made a huge difference. Ultimately this was my main motivation to run campaigns.
Certainly inner city residential development strategies. Random breath testing. Kino.
Broadcast sport used to be on the TV on Saturday afternoon. Saturday nights were for the bands. The reason we have the lotto draw on Monday and Tuesday was because back then the musicians union lobbied for that to be not on the weekends. They wanted the weekends to be for music!
- To see policy, funding and priorities going to the major performing arts relentlessly, year after year.
- Half of all artists are musicians and yet NSW has got no contemporary music strategy.
- This year we are spending $150 million on a new loading dock for the Opera House.
- We have got no strategy for contemporary music.
- There is some great stuff happening at the federal level for contemporary music, the new cultural policy from Canberra is really exciting.
Yeh, what they just said!
We sit together and talk about the good old days, everyone sort of does. Conspicuously, we are not all dead white males, although we may look like it, we nearly are. We are all old white males which is pertinent! My point is, music is about embracing a large diverse sector of the community, it’s not just for juvenile delinquents who wanna buy drugs and stay up all night. There’s a whole lot of people like us too! We all have different needs when it comes to music and it’s difficult to cater to everyone.
Nostalgia. I moved to Sydney in 1980. It was incredible, I didn’t go past Cleveland St. It’s a total other planet. And now we’re sitting here in Marrickville! There are some rooms, warehouses and pubs doing some stuff. There are good reasons for hope. Petersham Bowling Club, Camelot, Red rattler, bits and pieces all over the place, Enmore spots. I seem to recall we actually had fewer venues back in the day?!
And now there’s this thing happening in Marrickville. It’s not always strictly speaking legal. There are things popping up and I go to it! It’s not exactly my crew. I get motivated to show up.
What bugs me? The event organisers and the musicians are getting a hard time for putting this stuff on. It’s common sense sort of stuff. We hear about the licensing squad planning to go down and give someone a hard time. “we’re not hurting anyone. It just gets a bit loud and a few horty torty residence throw their hands up in the air.”
We need to find a way to prevent the inequities that have happened around the state and ensure they don’t recur in Marrickville! We can’t let new developers that have come into Marrickville steamroll the existing community activity which is really desperate and wants to flourish right now.
I come at this first as a musician and then as a venue operator, I fell into it. Years ago I wanted my own room so I can do whatever I wanted to but of course it’s not like that.
The first I played in Sydney was at the Lismore Hotel in 1984. We complained back then “there weren’t enough gigs”. I was working 3 nights a week. Playing original music. Getting paid. Now we live in a pay-to-play world where; if you don’t get enough hits in the door you gotta pay to use the production.
The ground has shifted beneath the musicians feet dramatically. You have to look at the economics of that because a lot of things have happened in this city and other places I guess. Nick Greiner pandered to the oak. Fire regulations drafted and enthusiastically applied. Booze buses. Random breath testing. Smoking bans. Nimbi’s move into the village, lock up the village idiot and killing the vibe.
Techno arrived and danced on the graves of our rock n roll dream. Some of that’s progress, some of that’s natural. It just happens because tastes change.
The nanny state stuff, the bullshit. That needs to be dealt with. John, and a number of other people are tackling that head on.
I’m looking at this as a venue operator and as a musician. Where are our audiences coming from?
We are a bunch of white middle ages old guys pontificating about this stuff. The younger venue operators in this room probably have a better perspective than we do.
Social media, the whole change in the way people approach their lives. There’s a lot of people I know, sitting on their couch with their integrated entertainment systems and their apple computer – torrenting their favourite artists latest album, along with Game of Thrones. Basically, they ain’t going outside their front door unless some cool pundit tells them that’s the place to go.
It’s not like it was in our day, there a lot more stuff happening nowadays. We have to present a different menu to get people to come out and enjoy live music or whatever other facilities we are giving them.
I think it comes down to the price. Esoterically, the important thing with this is culture.
If we don’t allow artists to tell their story then this country does not grow. It does not mature. We are still a young nation, we need to tell our story.
I do a fair amount of work with indigenous people, not here in Australia strangely enough – native americans. It’s the telling of the stories. It’s the whole process of putting things into words, music, art and the rest of it. This is so essential to a country maturing. Things of value. It’s the things of value that we stand to lose here. Not just rock n roll, sex, drugs – which are important too – but it’s about the tell of the world. It’s about the telling of your stories.
It’s about moving forward. And that’s what we have to fight for ultimately. That’s what really motivates me.
Australia song lines, culture, technology,.. Why is live music in Sydney such a problem, and perhaps not in Melbourne?
Wimps was the word Stuart used a minute ago and I’m gonna say it again.
There is something about Melbourne. There’s something about the city. People used to wear black skivvies.
60’s in Melbourne. 70’s in Brisbane. Boy what a culture change. Traumatic. A very different kind of lifestyle. Melbourne is a cold place, suitable for huddling around – they go to the pub to do that – it’s a bit like England. My time in England was mostly pretty happy – we just went down the pub. Excellent.
We are talking about culture. Do we need to re-educate ourselves here in Sydney?
Have we ever had culture. Isn’t Sydney just a sunny LA style popular spot. Hedonistic.
Aren’t we supposed to go to the opera house and see the whatever latest fashionable contemporary music thing they import from America for the Vivid Festival which actually has nothing to do with real life music and culture on a street level in Sydney.
Corporate culture. Cultural apartheid.
Yes. The Sydney / Melbourne question comes up now and again. They have a different approach to public transport. Different geography. Trams.
They deregulated their liquor licencing 20 yrs before Sydney did. Through all those changes, the increased urban density, the competition, through digital, the internet, through pokies, through broadcast sport changing, they still had competition.
NSW only had pubs and clubs. When the pokies and the broadcast sport came in we didn’t have that diversified licensing; restaurants, bars, cafes. All our eggs were in one basket.
Victoria’s never required development consent for entertainment. A double layer. Not only did we not have those existing rooms but then we also had a double layer da approval process that didn’t apply to Sport and Gambling in Sydney. When digital came through and downloading all the competition for the entertainment dollar came through. NSW was totally hamstrung. Victoria has had a licensing continuum which allowed for other opportunities.
A strangle hold on policy making. The state. Municipalities. Where to now? Popup Phenomena? Sustainability?
It’s a psychological problem that is inherent to Sydney. Clinton is exactly right.
I’ve done shows with people. We’ll be at the Opera House and we’ll sell out the joint. Put the same artists in Newtown at Notes and you get 150 people. If this person is playing at the opera house well then it must be serious art but they’re not going to move anywhere else to go see them.
Sydney is a callous town. It’s not a town about friendship and support like it is in Melbourne. You go to a show in Melbourne and the music community is there to show it’s support. Everyone else goes to a record launch. The same thing in sydney and you won’t see many other musicians there. They’re all sulking away whining about how they fucked the live scene is. There’s not that sense of community.
We are also lazy in Sydney. I live in Lewisham. The whole idea of going to Bondi is abhorrent. It’s such a long way away. Melbourne people seem to be capable of actually getting on public transport and going 10km to see something.
Brisbane has got it sussed. They’ve got fortitude valley – a bit like a mini austen. If you don’t get your head beaten in you can actually go to about 20 venues. Sydney seems to involve a little bit more of an effort. You can’t be in one area and go and see 5 or 6 venues in walking distance.
Sometimes I think Sydney brings it upon itself. If it keeps getting worse maybe something will happen.
I’d pick up on your earlier point too which is that things are really all that bad. The Green Room, The Newsagency, Red Rattler, Camelot Lounge. There are some great places out there all functioning at different levels. There’s a lot of good live music and other performance art out there.
It really is about getting through that rather hard venier of cynicism in this town. We’ve got this beautiful harbour and people seem to be very inward looking. A lot of navel gazing. Particularly amongst the artists.
We need to get past that cynicism and realise that there are people out there that will absorb what you throw at them as long as you do it with a level of enthusiasm and honesty. People want to be engaged. Sometimes they need a little education along the way.
Let’s talk about the audience. Do you think we are throwing too much at them? Are there too many festivals?
There’s nothing wrong with having festivals. It’s a national thing. I’m all for that.
I do speak about how these larger events do suck money out of the economy. But maybe there is a lack of really exciting live artists around these days. A lot of the time the onus is on the artists to actually get people to go to a show. It’s a little bit harder during festival season.
I’m contradicting myself. If something is really great then you’ll make an effort to go and see it. A special one off event that you probably aren’t going to be able to see again that is affordable will draw a crowd any night of the week. The Petersham Bowling Club achieved this just the other night.
I tell all my artists on Laughing Outlaw… you can do a gig thats fine, it’s not that complicated. But doing a gig that makes people want to get out and not watch Breaking Bad series 4 which is really damn good is hard.
If you can tell me there’s a better band than my favourite TV series on tonight then I’m probably gonna go!
The onus is partly on the artist and party on the venues.
I’m a bit disappointed by the annandale but to be honest I’m not disappointed. It’s a shithole. It was a horrible place to go and see live music. It was not endearing unless you were crammed into one room with 500 people and it was a great show. If you were there with 70 people on a thu night, it was a horrible night out. I’m sorry.
Are we talking about communication and editorial? Where do you go to see good artists play?
You gotta work a bit harder than most musicians do. A facebook event page is not going to do it. My rule of thumb is that if 500 people say they are coming along to your gig 70 may turn up.
I think there is too much reliance on social media. Not everyone spends 18hrs a day looking at twitter. A lot of the stuff that used to be done, grassroots advertising, is not done. People save on posters because they feel as though being on facebook is good enough.
I live on Facebook but you still do posters.
We’re not doing hand bills anymore.
Thinking about more creative ways to promote gigs. I think street press is totally ineffectual. I think community radio is a far better way to spend the similar amount of money. FBI, 2SER and the like. Spend $250 on a drum media ad that no one looks at then you spend the same amount of money on community radio and you get both your editorial across and they get to hear the music.
At the end of the day, you’ve gotta be good. The best advertising you’ve got is the quality of your music. It’s word of mouth. Fundamentally this all works because the artist is good in the first place.
From a venues perspective I’d agree. There are a number of bands that I’m booking that are relying totally on social media. I don’t get posters. The walls of our entranceway are empty. I’ve got two events going on this weekend. 10 bands playing on Sunday. I’ve asked the guys to print at least 10 posters to stick up in the venue that we can tell the story. Give me something I can also stick up on my social media.
And then of course there is the onus of the venue, to create an environment that is conducive. We have a responsibility as venues to create an event ourselves. We also have to make people feel as though they are at home, that they are wanted.
Sydney has a long history of treating punters like they are sheep. They treat the bands even worse.
It’s really important to take a holistic approach to the way you provide entertainment.
There is a huge amount of choice out there. In 1976 there was about 186 bands in Australia. There’s 20,000 yesterday and there will be 25,000 tomorrow.
Why are people likely to go to an event? Personally. I go to see that band because I know that album, I love that album. Deep immersion. A gig. There’s nothing like it. It’s transformational.
I dropped out of arts school and I’m now lecturing at uni. I see these people and deep immersion is not something they tend to do. It’s similar to books and reading novels.
I can honestly say… I’ll go and see Sonic Youth play because I know every note on that record. I have been deep immersed in that record for so long and I trust that they’ll do a good job. It’ll be really good.
Even for me, as a middle aged old fart. Right now. There’s no individual artist that is going to arrive in Sydney and perform something that is going to make me think – I know that artists so well I wanna go see them. I’ve deep immersed at home and now I wanna go to the gig. I’m sold already.
It’s riskier if I don’t know them well. It’s late. It’s across town. It’s at a venue that I don’t like. Bad weather. Risk. No faith.
Isn’t the music about young people? It’s about people who are ⅓ our age and what they want!
Lord Mayor Darcy Byrne has been working on opening up spaces along Parramatta Rd to offer some light. What are your thoughts on this?
Lord Mayor Darcy Byrne has done some incredible work supporting contemporary music. From the margins to the mainstream. It’s great to see people talking about these issues in the daily telegraph. Darcy has done a great job in the mainstream music media. I’ve given him some support with his approach on this.
It’s great to see Marrickville council adopt the adjacent policy for the other side of parramatta road.
I think his principles are essential. a fair go for venues.
If we look at our the process works, you can be fully compliant with a DA, you can have your liquor licence you can be compliant with noise restrictions but still… the offensive noise and the range of pollution noise can still knock you out even though you’re fully compliant. We’ve seen that with the annandale and a number of venues in the city at the moment.
Darcy’s proposal to address this certainly is a great idea. Alongside that his work on promoting more mediation when dealing with complaint is good.
Look at the annandale hotel. There was someone that spent a couple $100,000 in the land and environment court, councils spent $100,000 on that court case as well. The court found that the traffic on parramatta road was louder than the people leaving that venue. With all this money spent the land and environment court doesn’t account for costs when a complaint is not found to have any legs. There’s an asymmetry in the law.
It’s a problem across Australia. This is a main priority of the Victorian Live Music Task Force and something we need to address.
How can you be fully compliant in every other aspect of your business and then have someone come along and say “I think you’re loud.” without any science? With just a perception based judgement.
You’d like to see business invest in musicians, but when there is no certainty there then it’s not a great way to spend a lot of money.
Let’s look towards the future. What is the path in front? Where do we go?
As long as the squares and the suits judge culture in a more open and accepting way – bring into view everything that happens inside and outside the Opera House – I think we’ll be struggling.
What do we feel about live music in pubs? I hear them ask… Yes, of course! It’s got a lot more to do with the way we live than what we learn about at school or uni – e.g. Patrick White courses.
If they continue to perceive live music as scungi bikers selling drugs then and underage teenage prostitution.. it feels to me as though we are still pegged as juvenile delinquents in leather jackets. Or is that just me?
I see arts curators and it has nothing to do with my world whatsoever?!
The sector gets what it deserves because it doesn’t participate.
Who here has ever sent a letter to Mary Darwell who runs arts NSW and said “Why don’t we have a contemporary music policy here in NSW?”
Who here looks at where our arts funding money goes and why it’s not delivering?
It’s election year. It’s time to look at these sorts of policies. What are some forwarding happenings in the immediate future?
It’s a federal election. They’ve been doing a good job in recent week. They’ve tabled ‘Creative Australian Cultural Policy’ and there’s a great deal of very good stuff…
– 75 mill new funding over 4 yrs.
– 15mil a year.
– matched funding opportunities.
It’s up to the contemporary music industry to get involved now, in the structures, in looking at priorities, i’m certainly involved.
One great thing here is creative young stars program. Each elected local representative (in the house of reps) gets $23,000 a year to hand out as arts grants. They can use that to support and organisations or individuals. This all starts a conversation that helps people understand what’s happening in their community for the arts. This is a good idea! There’s a lot of great stuff in the cultural policy. It’s great to see money spent on cultural policy.
Contemporary music policy is not like other arts policy. It’s not like we can just spend lots of money on a building, spend lots of money of shiny people, and then spend lots of money on an opening night. Its’ not like sport with drinks and winners.
Music policy is not like that. It’s about licensing. It’s about competition. It’s about shifting cultures. It’s a much harder thing to pin down.
It still does need to be underpinned by grass roots engagement from the Arts community.
When I was at the Marrickville council meeting they made some changes but it’s very important that young people who are in it for the long haul take these things up and ensure the changes continue to flow through.
It’s important that the people who are making these decision have a ground swell of support. It is about our culture. Its is about our stories. It’s important.
I think they are very well aware that the contemporary music policy is a priority and a genuine issue. These issues apply to small and medium arts sectors across the board. Cross platform work. Cross galleries. Not just performance art but also things like comedy.
All the focus has been on the major performing arts. The small to medium sector of arts has been left on the side of the road.
What positivity would you like to impart as we wrap up this discussion?
It’s about engagement. It’s about people on the coalface maintaining engagement with their local govt and councils. I attended the Leichhardt 2025 think tank recently. I was on a table with a bunch of people over 65. I found a real vibe of people wanting to engage.
It’s about motivating young people. It’s about the future. I think it’s happening. There are a whole range of places that have sprung up. People are providing a platform for live music and all sorts of live events.
I thank John for using that acronym MPG. Major Performing Group. Is the Australia Council just a clearinghouse for money that goes to elites that are involved in redundant art forms that real people aren’t interested in anymore?
We need a fundamental shift that culture or arts is not just the MPG’s. It’s the little people on the corner. And this needs to run through all levels of the govt. These people in power need to understand the arts. It’s not good enough to only know about the footy.
The small arts projects are perhaps more important than the MPG’s.
Grab a friend and go and see some music!
A lot of places have shut down but a good number of opened up too. Venues will come and go.