So, you wanna save live music?
The battle for Sydney’s live music is shaping up to be a major election issue in the upcoming NSW State election. Two weeks ago, thousands rallied in Sydney’s Hyde Park to protest the cancellation of the Psyfari and Mountain Sounds Festivals. With the latter event claiming that they were slapped with a whopping $200k fee for extra police presence mere weeks out from the event, all in the wake of a summer of tragic overdoses at various music festivals. (The company has since gone into liquidation, which may or may not have influenced the cancellation.)
Data shows that a significant decrease of foot traffic at venues is a key reason (of course, there are others) for live music being cancelled and venues shutting down. Something that many point the finger at the introduction of the controversial lockout laws in 2014 as the culprit. Which have no doubt played a role in this blow to Sydney’s live music scene. Alongside residents complaining about noise issues after they knowingly moved next door to live venues, too.
While we can definitely blame the NSW government for being stubborn and hypocritical about pill-testing, how much can we accuse them for when at the end of the day, the thing that matters most – the people – aren’t taking the time to get out to local shows? The culture of heading to live shows has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. People are no longer using their most effective voting tool when it comes to live music in venues – their feet. That’s what will really help save live music in Sydney and Australia: coughing up $10 (or a little more) for the local acts, as opposed to hundreds for a mid-tier music festival (regardless of genres show-cased or artists booked).
Local shows determine live music culture:
I myself have been working as a musician, playing as a fly on the wall to background tunes in dozens of venues in Sydney across a variety of styles, including funk, jazz, folk and rock. Yet, what’s the most common answer I give to my wife when I get home and she asks how a three hour set on Friday night went? “Well, there was no-one at the bar, but at least it’s like getting paid to practise!”
I’m not talking about putting on a ticketed show and promoting things poorly. I’m talking about venues that at 8pm on a Friday night, despite sitting on main strips in the heart of the gentrified inner suburbs of Sydney, only have up to 20 patrons coming through the doors. The band’s at these venues are booked under the pretence that they can provide free – yes, free – live music to patrons, and locals in turn have the chance to check out the local talent kicking around. The issue? No one turns up, whether there’s music or not. Honestly, that’s something that groaning neighbours and shitty lockout laws can never be held accountable for.
Of course, many of us have been to a packed out Oxford Art or a Lansdowne gig to see that band that’s built up a large profile with the help of the likes of Triple J and FBI (we’re all eternally thankful to those stations), and these events can give off the impression that live music is alive and well in the heart of Sydney.
But what about the bands that miss out on landing within the quota that the J’s have to adhere to? What about the acts that can hold a candle to any alternative international touring artist, but just don’t get the airtime that makes it easy for a punter to discover them whilst driving to work? Triple J and Triple J Unearthed can’t be the sole place of discovery for new acts. Heck, nation darlings Ocean Alley had built up an excellent following on the local circuit years before they got airtime and a Hottest 100 top spot, but it took punters to come out to shows to give them the revenue needed to tour before that coveted red drum came knocking.
Many will refer to the “good ol’ days” when you could walk down the road and see Cold Chisel, The Angels or Midnight Oil playing at either Petersham Bowlo, The Empire Hotel or the Annandale on Parramatta Road. But those days are gone; time moves on. If anything, nowadays it should be even better given access that music enthusiasts have to new local acts via their phones. Ah yes, the phone.
The Digital Dilemma:
It’s great living in the 21st century where you can access anything you want, be it a band on Spotify or a TV show for a Saturday night Netflix binge. Even as a young man in his 20’s whose about to put on his “old man yells at cloud” hat and trot out an extremely 2010’s opinion, that accessibility leads to complacency. Something that can be the thorn in the side of the local live music scene. We all love our phones, and we all need them, but the tools and platforms that are devices are used for can be a hindrance. While not the ultimate boogeyman so many proclaim them as, they can add to the “perfect storm” of factors that allows people to ascertain their media and entertainment elsewhere.
As entertainment services like Netflix, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, and even dating apps like Tinder are all things placed firmly at the forefront of pop culture. Giving people another reason to stay home and swipe away as opposed to going out to meet new people but also discover new things.
Speaking to Sydney Morning Herald back in 2015, venue owner and music booker, James Young, was adamant about the effect that dating apps had on the nightlife of his hometown, Melbourne, the live music capital of Australia.
“Grindr, the gay dating app, came out about two years before Tinder and has destroyed the gay hotspot [in Melbourne],” Young said at the time.
“That is a textbook, identifiable case. And here we are, two years later, with Tinder following in its footsteps… people are hanging about hunched over their phones instead of going out to bars and clubs.”
Of course, many people don’t necessarily go out to clubs in order to pick up, or even to just have a flirt. However, “bars are fragile businesses” said Young, adding that “what we are talking about is 10 percent loss of business and for some businesses, that’s their profit margin.”
When you combine that factor with the emerging trend of binge watching, music streaming services with the ability to casually hit ‘next’ after only 20 seconds, and an increasingly time-poor economy for many, it’s maybe not surprising that heading out with the intention of seeing local music is a dying activity. Let’s hope it’s not completely dead too soon, however.
You’d be surprised by the quality of local acts:
“If band’s just got better then maybe more people would rock up to their shows” is the (bullshit) response I can hear right now before hitting publish. Yet you’d be surprised how many quality acts, of all styles and sizes, might be playing a show just around the corner from you this weekend that you didn’t realise you loved.
This weekend alone (time of writing, Thursday, February 28th), The Botany View Hotel is hosting a punk triple header with punk legends The VeeBees playing a rare headliner alongside Rocks and Thee Evil Twin. Free entry, of course. If neo-soul is your game then you’ve got three hours of it over at Lazybones Lounge in Marrickville on Saturday with local performer CINTA. Metal is always on the rise, and Crowbar in Sydney got a huge dose, with a quadruple bill of Earthrot (WA), Black Rheno, Gvrlls and Gaped dropping slabs of heaviness. All what was for the price of $12.00. The list just goes on and on!
I’m not predicting that those shows, or all local shows in the general, are going to only have 10 people turn up to them. However, the more support those shows receive, the more you discover new music, the more money the venue makes, the better the bands become because there’s a touring circuit, and so on. It’s a natural cycle that requires action of live music enthusiasts to support things at a base level. It can all feedback on itself and create sustainability.
Don’t kill live music:
Obviously, the cancellation of a festival like Mountain Sounds is a huge loss – both financially and emotionally – for all involved. And my heart goes out to them, turly. As it’s become increasingly apparent over the last year or two that the NSW government and people like Premier Gladys Berejiklian could not care any less about the live music industry in the state. However, the ones that suffer the most from these kinds of festivals going under are the acts that are much further down the bill, acts like Tilldawn, Trouble In Paradise and The Moving Stills; bands that are making waves in their own way but are still on the up.
The silver lining? Those are just some of the many acts that you can see for far more affordable prices at a local level, in a far greater intimate environment, and you can truly feel like actually doing something good for live music in the process. And let’s never forget the local budding scenes happening north and south of the state’s capital either, in both Newcastle and Wollongong, as well.
Lastly, no one wants live music in Sydney or New South Wales to be killed off. However, I simply implore any and all reading to go out to a local show more often when and where they can. No one’s made of endless money or infinite time, but we will see the rewards reaped from the efforts that we all try to sow when it comes to supporting local live music scenes. Festivals come and go, as do premiers once the disgruntled public cast their votes, but smaller music scenes will forever continue on – even if no one’s watching. Rallies, like the one we saw in Sydney last week, are great to see. But why don’t we also try to really inject more eyes onto these local artists and get some more heads into these live rooms? Yeah, let’s.