Live music in Sydney: Is the damage already done?
When gas lamps were introduced to the streets of London in the early 1800s, there was a common maxim, “one gas lamp is as good two policemen.” Meaning, those who feel like they are being observed will act a lot better, and the city as a whole will be safer, and more crucially, feel safer.
While it’s not a perfect analogy, I witnessed the opposite thing happen in Newcastle, where they first introduced the lockout laws in 2008 – a nation-first trial. Instead of reducing violence in the venues, all that happened was that, at the exact same time, hundreds of people spilled onto Hunter Street and all attempted to flag the same half-dozen taxis home. People were drunk and stranded, then drunk and stranded and angry, fights were had over cabs (I was once punched in the face through the window of a moving taxi) and the violence simply moved from the patrolled bars to the unmanned streets.
Then, after a while, venues closed, and the entire CBD took on an eerie, abandoned quality. It was dark and unmanned and it was no longer safe to walk around there. Things moved from drunken fights between idiots, to sinister, sneaking attacks on unwitting people walking to and from apartments that once seemed safe.
Despite the Newcastle lockout laws being a massive failure in many respects, the figures were spun to make it seem like a safe, smart, successful trial, and the rot soon spread to Sydney.
We all know what happened next. Live music venues closed down in rapid succession, followed by the death of those night-economy industries that surround such hubs: takeaway stores, 24-hour grocers, late-night cafes, etc. As the philosophers of old once asked: If a kebab store is open, but nobody is there to stumble in drunk and complain about paying extra for tabouli, is it really open at all? The violence did not end, but simply spread – to Newtown mostly, where fights broke out in once-safe venues where previously the most extreme act was someone playing a five-string bass.
Kings Cross, Oxford Street and those areas that were victims of the lockout laws stopped being thriving, alive areas at night – percentage-wise, considering the tens of thousands of people that poured in and out each evening, the levels of violence were, at their very worst, infinitesimal – and instead became ghost towns. Walking alone in a dimly lit area now only frequented by junkies and those selling junk to junkies is a much more frightening prospect than terrorising your body through hordes of drunk, loud revellers. Now there are no gas lamps, and no police. There is prime real estate to buy and sell though, which is, of course, the real reason corrupt law-makers strove to drive traffic from those areas in the first place…
Today a parliamentary review into the lockout laws was released, and as expected, recommended the abolishing of the law in the CBD and Oxford Street.
Post-midnight shots and doubles will also return, and those thick plastic cups that warm your beer within seconds will also be gone. Finally, we may be treated like grown-ups!
In short, things are set to go ‘back to normal’. The streets will be flooded with life again, the night economy will be bolstered, and live music venues will open their doors, with club nights, and bands who sound like Kyuss, spawning by the dozen. If all is good, there will be a review in a year, and Kings Cross will be afforded the same leeway.
That’s the hopeful plan, anyway. Sydney is often touted as a global city but any traveller spending 24 hours in and around the CBD will think they’ve stepped into a war-zone. At the moment, it is a headache of construction zones, rail work, boarded up storefronts and all that uninviting stuff that isn’t likely to draw the crowds back across from Newtown and Netflix. Every third building abandoned, an isolated city centre, big holes scooped out of the earth, iron fences blocking any obvious route, noise pollution, piles of cement and dust everywhere, and nothing happening after the sun goes to sleep.
Aside from that obvious hurdle, why would we even trust that the removal of lockout laws will be handled with any intelligence or grace?
Sydney does not have the best track record when it comes to smart planning decisions. Note the $2B clusterfuck of demolishing the perfectly functional Sydney Olympic Stadium and Sydney Football Stadium just to rebuild them with better member’s sections. Or the boxy, pointless eyesore of the ICC, looming over the harbour like Trump did Clinton in that televised debate. Or the tram lines that are meant to represent the future of our city, even though Sydney had the exact same system in place until they ripped it out in 1961. Now we’ve been treated to four years of destruction and delays, with budgets blown out to $3B, just to regress 58 years.
The light rail is a good idea in theory, as it was the first time, back in the mid-20th century. It will certainly help in regards to easy transport snaking in and out of the CBD, in a much more elegant fashion than the spluttering trains. But have you been in the city recently, as they’re doing the test runs? Those things are quiet. All it will take is a drunken collision or two and lockout laws will be swiftly reintroduced. The first death to occur by tram/human collision will be seen as another sign of failure. If that person is drunk and leaving a bar, it will be used as an epic told-you-so. It’s been a while since we’ve been allowed to be adults in the city, and whisper-quiet trains hurtling by bars filled with people drinking gin out of teapots might add an extra wrinkle. The lockout laws will be reintroduced as soon as the first sign of violence – no matter how random or isolated – hits the Cross.
So, what will it take to breathe life back in the city? Well, theoretically, we need a cluster of clubs or pubs within walking distance that provide decent live music, entertainment options, and the like. Oxford Street used to be this. It isn’t anymore.
But, while that seems simple, who is going to risk the investment of opening these bars? Of curating and fostering such a live scene? It seems like a silly idea to even try, given the history. At any moment, the lockout laws may be introduced again and all that rebuilding will be knocked down again.
Mark Gerber runs Oxford Art Factory, which is the only remaining purpose-built live music venue on Oxford Street, after over a dozen venues were wiped from the map. I asked him how much damage he feels was done during the five-and-a-half years since the lockout laws were reintroduced. It doesn’t make for rosy reading.
“The extent of the damage will be measured and calculated for years to come, if not decades,” he explains.
“You cannot foist such wide-reaching restrictions on a city and its people, without there being dire consequences impacting both the social and economic fabric of its culture. I suggest we will never really know the true extent of the damage it caused to our city’s music and art cultures.
“It is impossible to know just how many future stars of the music and art world either packed it in, never gave it go, or moved away to continue their careers elsewhere.”
That’s the real damage that has been done. We’ve lost a generation of artists that may have changed the landscape in untold ways. Imagine if similar laws were introduced to London in the mid-60s, Manchester in the ‘80s or Seattle in the early ‘90s. The lockout laws also neatly coincided with the rise of streaming services that could have helped artists reach a global audience while building a local scene. This opportunity has passed Sydney by.
“In the Oxford Street precinct alone we have seen the demise of so many great venues,” Gerber says, “venues that hosted important cultural events for a wide range of demographics from society.
“Before the lockout there were more than a dozen venues hosting live music in the Oxford Street precinct. Now you can count only a couple that are left.”