Inside the Newtown Social Club
On the eve of the opening of Sydney’s newest venue, the Newtown Social Club, director Ben Thompson tells us about staircases, backlines and friendly doormen.
The Sando is seen as a cultural institution. What reactions did you receive upon news you were reopening and rebranding? Any negative ones?
There was some negativity from people who had been attending shows at the Sando for many years, you know I guess when the owners bought this place, they never wanted to save the Sando as such. Obviously the business model of the Sando probably wasn’t working, hence it went into receivership. So I think what the owners were looking at doing was buying a piece of real-estate that would be easy enough to turn into a band venue and this place made sense. Sydney’s been very welcoming so far so fingers crossed it will continue and people will come down.
You’ve refurbished the band room. What exactly did this entail?
It’s actually been quite a big job which is why it’s taken so long. We actually had to put a hole in the roof and a brand new staircase in to get people up to the bandroom. So work started off with the staircase and knocking out a wall upstairs to extend the band room, making it a bigger place, building an upstairs bar, building toilets upstairs, putting in a wheelchair lift and we finished off with putting in a brand new PA, lighting and backline which we purchased so bands that come through the venue don’t need to bring their own backline, it’s there for them to use and it saves bringing their stuff up upstairs. We’re hoping artists will take us up on that offer to save them from carting stuff in and out of the venue.
How regularly will you stage live music?
It will work as a venue for hire like our other venues. We imagine there will be a volume of 4-5 maybe even 6 shows a week but we’re open to any genre of music here any night of the week. The key, I think, to running a live music venue is being able to have people coming through every night of the week to cover the overhead so we’ll attempt to have music in here as often as we can.
What will the balance be between hosting international acts and showcasing local talent?
Hopefully a good mix. It works out as a good mix at our sister venue in Melbourne, The Northcote Social Club. I think it will be a pretty even mix of local national touring artists and international touring artists. I guess the key to having shows is making sure the acts that you have are at the right level to bring a crowd to the room. There is no point in having acts that don’t pull a crowd, there is no point for the band and no point for the venue. So we’ll be open to hosting any acts that can pull a crowd.
Are you wary of opening a band room when so many venues have been closing?
Yeah, I think there is always a risk in opening a live music venue. It’s a pretty crazy scene the live music scene and a lot of venues do come and go. I guess we’re hoping that our booking model and the experience of the people running the place will help make it a sustainable business. It’s a really big thing for us, we run Melbourne venues and this is our first Sydney venue so we are moving into a new market that we don’t know as well as Melbourne. So far the signs are good. People are buying tickets to the shows but there is a bit of trepidation. We want to make it work and want the place to be profitable so it actually stays open, but it’s definitely tough out there. I think people are going to venues these days, going to sees band, being in a band room drinking for an hour to an hour and a half. I think that’s all venues are getting so it’s really hard for them to cover their overhead with that kind of scenario. I’m hoping that the model of this place, having the front bar, meals and the back area will mean people can come and spend a bit of time here and hopefully it will be more of a destination venue where you might come and have some dinner first.
Are there any significant differences to running a club in Sydney, compared to Melbourne?
Hard to tell at this stage. I don’t think so, my belief is that if you have good bands that people want to come and see then they will travel from wherever to come and see bands and I feel like that should work anywhere.
On that topic, you’ve said that the Newtown Social Club will offer the same atmosphere that’s known and loved at its Melbourne counterparts. What are some of the elements of that atmosphere and do you feel as if it is going to be a challenge at all to replicate that here, in Sydney?
I think that you really need to focus on the patron experience so we’re really focused on making sure people have an enjoyable time while they’re at any of our venues. That’s from when you first get to the venue and dealing with security at the front door, we want security to say hello to people and make them feel welcome and we know that doesn’t happen in a lot of places and we feel it’s really important to get a smile and a welcome when you walk through the door. Bar staff are friendly, give off a good vibe and are happy to be working and doing what they’re doing and I think that all helps with the patron experience. Also offering good facilities i.e. clean toilets, good food, good sightlines and sound in the band room, essentially anything that goes into making it a good experience for the patron. I often feel that if people pre-buy tickets spending $30-50 before they even come into your venue, you know, you need to make sure that those people have an enjoyable time while they’re there and I feel that in the past that always hasn’t happened and it’s definitely something that should always be focused on.
It’s been stated that the Newtown Social Club will be proudly pokies free. Do you expect this to put you under a bit of financial pressure?
We will definitely miss out on some decent revenue that other venues seem to get from poker machines, but we’re great believers in poker machines not being part of a live music venue. We don’t see the correlation there and we’re hoping that we can get by without them and we are definitely committed to never having them in the venue.
Live music kicks off at the Newtown Social Club on Monday, May 12th with the Perch Creek Family Jug Band.
Photo credit: Daniel Respall