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skyscraper connoisseur
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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Sydney's Live Music Entertainment In Decline

Red tape, among other things, is robbing artists and audiences. John Shand reports.

Drums thud, guitars snarl, heads bang and beer flows. It could be a snapshot of any of a hundred metropolitan pubs in the 1980s, but no longer. The Sydney live music scene that spawned INXS and Midnight Oil and such jazz artists as Dale Barlow and James Morrison has shrivelled to almost nothing.

In the early 1980s some 15 pubs on the Balmain peninsula had live music. Now it is five. Across the city in the past decade those to close or ditch music have included such crucibles of new Australian music as the Strawberry Hills Hotel, the Harbourside Brasserie, the Sandringham Hotel and the Side On Cafe.

Blame flows fast and free: poker machines, noise laws, increased urban density, Place of Public Entertainment licence red tape, paternalistic liquor laws, home entertainment, DJs, lack of music education, and so on. The reasons are as manifold as venues are now sparse, and the impact has been devastating for both the artistry and income of musicians. Finally, however, pressure is on to unravel the labyrinth of state and council legislation before more venues are lost.

The process clanked into operation when the Australia Council and the NSW Ministry of Arts commissioned a report on the lack of performing opportunities, Vanishing Acts, by Professor Bruce Johnson (University of NSW) and Dr Shane Homan (Newcastle University). This was published two years ago, the same year Homan released a superb account of the relationship between rock, politics and the police called The Mayor's a Square: Live music and Law and Order in Sydney. The NSW Premier's Department has been looking at ways to redress the situation.

Enter John Wardle, a 35-year-old guitarist who teaches at the Conservatorium Access Centre. He is trying, in conjunction with a small group of players including Craig Scott, Jackie Orszaczky, Arne Hanna and Dale Barlow, to persuade the Government to frame more sympathetic legislation. This is happening even as the Department of Gaming and Racing is rewriting the liquor act in response to a National Competition Council ultimatum that it iron out perceived anti-competition practices or be heavily fined.

There is plenty of scope for change. Anomalies include the fact that a pub with 100 patrons watching State of Origin football does not require an entertainment permit, while one with 10 people listening to a pianist does. This means, among other things, it needs more exits to comply with fire regulations. Licences lapse and must be renewed, and, as with obtaining one in the first place, the process is complex, lengthy, expensive and can be negated by only meagre opposition.

"The regulatory environment in NSW is a morass of red tape," says Wardle. "There's been Band-Aid solution on top of Band-Aid solution. Ultimately this has just been putting out spot fires. There's no vision there."

Similar laws apply outside of pubs and clubs, so that if a Lebanese restaurant just wants to have a solo oud player to add atmosphere, it is faced with bureaucratic complexity and thousands of dollars outlay.

Such laws place NSW at odds with other states, and in glaring contrast to other countries. In New York a licence for entertainment is not required unless capacity exceeds 200 people.

That residents who complain about noise are able to readily close venues has been addressed in Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide, but not here. Brisbane's Fortitude Valley has been declared an entertainment precinct in which venues are protected. There has been talk of something similar here, with Newtown/Enmore the obvious zone. The idea appeals to leading soul musician Orszaczky, who remembers when Kings Cross was one of several areas in which music was concentrated.

Yet the establishment of such a precinct will be an uphill struggle, even opposed by the Australian Hotels Association. The entertainment permit for Newtown's Town Hall Hotel expired, and when the publican tried to renew it, Sydney City Council said it was not in the public interest to have live music there.

"If it's against the law to play guitar in a bar in Newtown with a railway station on one side and a shopping centre on the other, then where is it going to be feasible?" asks Wardle, who points the finger at some of those moving into the inner suburbs. "If they stop bands at the local, their place is worth more," he says. "Councils are complicit in this because if the properties are worth more they can charge more in rates."

Meanwhile the state government has benefited with the revenue from hotel poker machines. The effect of these machines is epitomised by the Strawberry Hills Hotel, where the music room simply became a casino, and a seminal space in the development of Australian creative music was lost.

With publicans' profits having dramatically increased, it has become common to reinvest revenue in renovations to minimise tax, and any structural change automatically voids an entertainment permit. Elsewhere a percentage of poker machine revenue is sometimes directed towards entertainment, but not NSW.

"The best advice the older musicians can give to young musicians is to buy an air ticket," says internationally acclaimed saxophonist Dale Barlow. "That's a sad and sorry state of affairs, when really we have a great home-grown talent pool here that is not being utilised ... It's a bit like the Australian Olympic swimming team not having their own pool to practise in. I see Australia as being that bad in terms of providing opportunity for young musicians to develop their skills and talents ... You couldn't do a better a job if you deliberately wanted to kill culture and kill arts."

Orszaczky sees a deeper issue of a lack of engagement with music, and also mourns the loss of the chance for younger musicians to serve their apprenticeships. He points out that most other major cities are able to embrace live music. "The crime rate is not worse, there are places open all night, and people seem to survive all that. Why isn't that possible in Sydney? This is totally ridiculous."

Rob Hirst says that Midnight Oil and others honed their act by playing night after night. "That's why bands like ourselves were so match-fit by the time we started doing international touring, and why Australian bands overseas always had a good live reputation, even if sometimes their recordings weren't up to scratch," he says.

Wardle believes that if the regulatory environment can be made fairer, there is scope for appealing to a wider audience. Children should be able to encounter music more easily: he has accomplished 15-year-old students who can't attend gigs with their parents because of licensing restrictions.

An older generation of music lovers who may be reluctant pub-goers should be able to find it at restaurants and elsewhere. "Between ages there is this iron curtain, and it's a cultural illness," Wardle says. "We need to question this." He offers the Cockatoo Island extravaganza as an example of the wide appeal of live music, given the opportunity. "It lit up this city for a whole weekend. We need to look at other options, for families."

Wardle wants to see the term "live musician" written into the liquor act, so there is legislative recognition of the relationship between the regulatory environment and working opportunities for musicians.

"Additionally the Local Government Act is so absurd it cannot tell the difference between Slava Grigoryan and Angus Young," he says. "To put on an acoustic classical guitar-player and a raucous heavy-metal band requires the same permission through council. However, we can still sit there passively and view Mike Tyson biting someone's ear off in Las Vegas on screens as big as my bed, and there's no requirement there. This is anti-cultural, anti-family. It's absurd. We can do something about it."

skyscraper connoisseur
6,206 Posts
Discussion Starter · #2 ·
This is gettting rediculous. Why can't bars/pubs and other gatherings be subdued with high licencing cost? Sydney is going downhill...where many bars have stopped DJs playing at their bars and pubs just for pure entertainment.

I hope the NSW gov't does something about it. Sydney is well known for it's art culture around the world...don't let it tumple!
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