To say that the last twelve months have been a difficult year for lovers of live music over in Adelaide is a bit of an understatement.

2012 saw the South Australian capital experiencing mixed fortunes, including increasing pressure from licensing regulations during a difficult financial climate that forced venues to close their doors permanently, while the introduction of a draft of tough new licensing restrictions by the SA Government also appeared to stifle the city’s culture.

Premier Jay Weatherill then played the white knight and announced plans to introduce a music expert to work in collaboration with the Premier’s office before naming Glastonbury booker Martin Elbourne as the ‘thinker in residence’ for the SA Government to investigate strategies to work with the Premier and his cabinet to deal with the licensing issues (which he himself imposed), attempting to create opportunities for local performers and musicians.

The other ray of potential hope in the grim atmosphere of the city’s dwindling music scene, was from Business Services and Consumer Minister John Rau, who planned to introduce new, cheaper licenses for venues aimed at creating laneway bars and ‘hole in the wall’ hotspots across Adelaide’s CBD, similar to Melbourne and Sydney’s night culture.

Called the Small Bars License Amendment, the new bill entered the Upper House of South Australian Parliament last week, a proposal which “aims to encourage small venues to host live music. This will encourage business activity and diversification in the liquor market and promote the live music industry.”

There are high hopes for the amendment in the development of Adelaide’s music scene, but as SLAM notes, the bill is facing opposition before it even has a chance to enter through Parliament, pointing out a plan by Liberal Party Upper House members to block the bill; SLAM and another of other groups are already spearheading campaigns against the newly elected opposition leader Steven Marshall.

Marshall, and other Liberal members of the Upper House, want to lower the capacity of the Small Bars Amendment from 120 patrons to just 80, in line with the Australian Hotel Association (AHA) and their bid to avoid hybridised licensing for smaller venues, keeping venue licensing split into beer barns and restaurants, strong profit-makers that the AHA wants to continue owning a monopoly over the market share with.

SLAM Representative Ryan Winter told Tone Deaf that last week, prior to the bill entering the Upper House of parliament, that SLAM learned that Liberal members of the Legislative Council were looking to block the bill. “The only organization who have previously spoken about this is the AHA,” says Mr Winter, who indicates that the Association is one of the major funders of the Liberal Party Nationally. Adding, “it should be noted that the AHA also gives money to Labor, but it’s understood to be significantly less.”

Mr Winter added that while the AHA of SA say they’re not opposed to the new small venue license, “they believe that their members already provide the sort of cultural fare that Adelaide needs anyway, so they don’t see the point in it. Of course, if they did, the small venue amendment wouldn’t be on the table in the first place.”

The AHA have also actively campaigned against Renew Adelaide’s ‘Raise The Bar’ campaign, which sought to find better equality for small venues, a protest that “illustrates how strongly they’ll fight to protect the interest of members,” says SLAM’s Ryan Winter.

The AHA have publicly supported the drop in capacity from 120 to 80 on the new bill, but if they were to lobby for the Liberal Party’s ‘Right To Object’ to the new amendement, “not only would they be exposed as hypocrites for saying they support the small venue amendment but they would be opening themselves up to a huge amount of anti-competitive criticism,” explains Winter.

“So reading between the lines, they want the Right To Object in there, they just can’t say so… And I guess you could infer that because the SA Liberals are so well supported by the AHA, they don’t want to upset their campaign funding.”

Additionally Mr Winter points out that the reduction to an 80 person capacity is already a severe reduction of figures generally needed to sustain a live music venue, financially speaking. SLAM’s statement points out:

150 presents the most likely number for a sustainable small venue so the State Government is already being conservative in looking at a 120 person capacity. To put that in context, 120 was about the capacity of the old Jade Monkey. It’s extremely unlikely that a music venue like that could survive with an 80 person capacity – unless they shifted their business model away from live music and focused more on selling people lots of alcohol very quickly.”

The Jade Monkey of course being one of the first of a number of live venues, that in February 2012, began shutting their doors following financial struggles. Which was also the catalyst for the new small bar revisions, and – in Mr Winter’s words – “made politicians suddenly realised that live music actually brings people into the CBD for reasons other than to get drunk and start fights.”

The new small bar amendment was originally introduced in December 2012 after months of consultation and planning between organisations, including Labor, AHA, Renew Adelaide, and trading practices – providing a new category of liquor license, “the goals of which are flexibility for owners of small venues and to streamline the process for small venue license applications,” says Mr Winter.

The new bill contains a restructuring of the current liquor licensing laws to accomodate licenses for small venues outside of the paramater of operating as a restaurant or nightclub, or a hybrid of both. Under current legislation, even small Adelaide venues are subject to the same conditions as bigger beer barns and nightclubs, which is expensive and unnecessary.

“It means the big beer barns can drag smaller bars and music venues through the courts until they either go broke or accept ludicrous conditions designed to drive them broke,” says Mr Winter.

The Liberal party are claiming their opposition is an issue of alcohol related violence, which became a major political platform and hot topic across Australia’s capital cities in 2012, but as SLAM has previously pointed out, the bulk of booze-fulled violence and anti-social behaviour stems not from smaller, music-focussed venues, but the larger clubs and bars without forms of entertainment to stem the beer swilling culture.

“Local music and cultural venues overwhelmingly have lower levels of violence and, indeed, have been shown to have a positive impact on people’s sense of safety and community,” points out Mr Winter. “So why cap a section of the market that’s a positive influence at a number so low it seems custom made to produce unsustainable businesses?”

Action has yet to be taken to block the small bar amendement, but “specifically, the Liberal Party want to see clauses 2-6 and 9-12 of the Small Venue License Amendment bill removed,” Mr Winter says, noting it will take several weeks of debate before a final decision is reached between the various members of the Upper House.

“It’s simply frustrating to see policy which has the potential to create so many opportunities for small venues and live music in South Australia be opposed at the final hurdle,” said Mr Winter on behalf of SLAM of SA, adding:

However, any demonisation of the State Liberal party and the AHA is not going to achieve anything here. Seeing as the State Liberal Party weren’t consulted in the development of the amendment they have the right to raise their concerns and oppose the bill. But seeing as what they’d like to see removed from the policy isn’t going to benefit existing small venue operators, potential entrepreneurs, live music fans or move SA closer towards a positive change to our night time culture or economy, it’s hard to see why maintaining present license conditions with strong restrictive, anti-competitive undertones is good for anyone.

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