It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because all it does is make music to be enjoyed, but various policies have driven many of Sydney’s iconic music venues to close. Now councils are taking action to reformulate the noise and development policies affecting Sydney’s live music venues. Laura Hedge reports.
For 13 years the Annandale Hotel was one of Sydney’s iconic rock and roll hubs, hosting bands such as the Kings of Leon and the Vines. But when the owner, Mr Dan Rule, handed the keys to receivers Ferrier Hodgson in February, he was sure that reputation would end.
“Unfortunately, I think it will be knocked down and turned into a block of flats,” he said.
But the Annandale Hotel was purchased by Oscars Hotels and a silent partner, who will continue live-music for the foreseeable future. The Mayor of Leichhardt Municipal Council, Mr Darcy Byrne, stated in a media release that the decision to continue live shows marked “the turning point for Sydney’s struggling live music scene.” Both Mr Byrne and Sydney’s Lord Mayor Ms Clover Moore have unveiled plans to reformulate policies with the aim of transforming Sydney into a sanctuary for music-venues.
The past few years have seen many mid-sized venues such as the Annandale Hotel, which holds 400 patrons, struggle to remain open. Prominent closures include Surry Hill’s the Gaelic Hotel and Newtown’s the Sandringham Hotel. The Annandale Hotel was one of the latest venues threatened with closure, Mr Rule said, but it has not been the last.
“So many small businesses have failed recently,” he said, “since we’ve [the Annandale Hotel] leased another 20 hotels have gone on the market or are going into receivership.”
He said he hoped the Annandale Hotel’s receivership would serve as a lesson, encouraging policy makers to revise the regulations which currently do not support small businesses, including live music venues.
Mr John Wardle, a music activist who has lobbied government for a better regulatory environment for live music, said it was natural for venues to come and go over time. The difference is that the Sandringham Hotel and the Annandale Hotel are “venues that people didn’t want to see go.”
Mr Wardle currently chairs Sydney’s ‘Live Music Taskforce’, a group of policy experts and music activists created by Ms Moore in February. The group is tasked with investigating what policy changes can be made to better support musicians and music venues.
Currently, Mr Wardle said, regulations for music venues are “cruel” and “oppressive”, particularly for mid-sized venues such as the Annandale Hotel where live music is the main source of revenue.
“The music sector is still experiencing significant barriers when it comes to regulatory systems, in particular with local government,” he said.
Mr Wardle said the Taskforce has identified a number of out-dated “show stoppers”, including noise, development and liquor laws.
Noise pollution laws are of particular concern, he said. Currently a music venue may be subject to heavy fines due to noise complaints without any evidence.
“It’s not a level playing field,” he said, “a single noise complaint can shut down a room”.
Mr Rule estimates that he and his brother Matt, who co-owned the Annandale Hotel, spent $200,000 in court battles against Leichhardt Municipal Council over noise complaints and extending their trading hours from midnight to 3am since 2004.
Mr Wardle said that though prominent venues have closed, there is more live music now than in previous years. Increasingly, Sydney’s smaller venues are providing performance spaces for local musicians.
“The barriers are being felt by, in particular…primary purpose live music venues,” Mr Wardle said, “but all across New South Wales, from Nowra to Tamworth, all sorts of small things [are] happening.”
Changes to Liquor Licensing laws in 2007 made it easier for small bars to open within New South Wales by cutting licensing costs for venues of 120 patrons or less from $15, 000 to $500. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in January that 82 licenses had been granted in the last five years.
Mr Jamie Wintern from the Corridor in Newtown has local bands perform at the small bar about three times a week. Mr Wintern said he had noticed an increase in the number of small bars hosting live music, most likely for the same reasons as the Corridor, it draws in customers.
Some people come to the Corridor to see a band rather than eat or drink, “but it definitely brings them back afterwards,” Mr Wintern said. Music also attracts casual passers-by.
“The other night some of our friends were supposed to play [at] Vivid [Vivid Sydney] but they got rained out, so they came in here and said ‘oh we’ll just play for free for you guys’… they played out the front,” he said, “that definitely brought more people in which is good for us as well because we were having a really slow night.”
Mr Pete Salas, who owns Blacksheep in Newtown, said “everyone’s sort of caught on to the live music thing.” Noise complaints, he said, do not affect small bars as much as they did the Annandale Hotel.
“Their [the Annandale Hotel’s] whole premise is that they’re working on getting people in because they have live music whereas we’re busy anyway.”
Despite this, Mr Salas said one of his greatest regrets is that Blacksheep isn’t bigger. “Part of going to see live music is the fact that you’re in a crowd,” he said, “if you go to see live music you want to…have at least a couple hundred people vibing with you instead of sitting at a table with maybe thirty, forty other people.”
Triple J host Mr Lindsay McDougall, who used to run trivia at the Annandale Hotel, echoed this sentiment. Smaller venues, he said, would not be able to host live shows on the same scale as the Annandale Hotel.
“[The Annandale] had the ability to seem like the biggest rock and roll venue in the world but also just your local pub,” he said. Though small bars such as the Backroom in Kings Cross were “awesome…the Annandale was a good size rock and roll venue.”
Mr Wardle said he hoped there was a market for music venues of various sizes in the future. This would be investigated by the Taskforce before they submit their proposals to the City of Sydney Council at the end of July or early August.
“I think the city is gonna need to start to look at planning for future character, identifying areas of the city where we want to say in five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, years’ time this is where the venues [are] gonna be, this is where precincts are,” he said.
Mr Wardle said the one thing that “you can be pretty certain” of is that the Taskforce will recommend the development of entertainment precincts.
The Annandale Hotel is currently located in the middle of a proposed precinct.
Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne revealed plans to transform Parramatta Road into an entertainment precinct shortly after the Annandale Hotel went into receivership. Stretching between Taverners Hill and Sydney University, the proposal involves Leichhardt, Marrickville and Sydney Councils reformulating policies to encourage venue operators to setup in the area.
“Parramatta Road could be a focal point of local culture and community life,” Mayor of Marrickville, Mr Victor Macri stated in a media release. “Not just live music, but also comedy and theatre, small bars, and all the associated music industry businesses.”
Mr McDougall said Leichhardt Municipal Council should have begun supporting live music venues years ago.
“The default position needs to be that entertainment precincts are good.”
Policy ideas include extending trading hours and increasing noise allowances. In February, Leichhardt Municipal Council passed the ‘Good Neighbour Policy’ which aims to better protect music venues from noise complaints. The policy involves organising meetings between licensees and neighbouring residents to resolve noise issues before costly legal action is undertaken.
Mr Wardle said he has been in contact with Byrne and helped in drawing up the proposal. The existing entertainment venues including the theatre, guitar shops and pubs, he said, make Parramatta Road “a really fantastic place to be planning for future character.”
Mr Rule, however, still doubts the precinct will become a reality. “Developers aren’t looking at setting up live music venues,” he said.
“If anything comes from wishing and they do change council regulations to encourage live music that’s fantastic…but I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. “Hopefully from the ashes will rise a good era of what we [he and Matt] put on.”