It seems that Sydney’s culture is in a serious state of flux. Not just the live music scene, which has been struggling against the ongoing closure of venues, most famously the controversy surrounding the battle for The Sando and its struggle with the banks that placed into receivership.

Combine that with the NSW State Government’s tightening restrictions on the CBD, with plans to roll out mandatory ID scanning and sniffer dogs on city streets, and a proposal which includes a 1am lockout and drinking prohibitions, and it paints a sorry picture for Sydney’s night-life.

Following on from the news that Lord Mayor Clover Moore and Sydney Council were drafting a new cultural policy, seeking public input on ways to improve Sydney’s culture and night-life, a report from the Sydney Morning Heraldnow shows that the Lord Mayor has begun overseeing the development of Open Sydney, a comprehensive after-hours plan for revitalising the CBD that will begin implementation from next year, while new legislation and laws have passed through parliament.

Open Sydney aims for diversity in the CBD’s after-dark activities and areas, including late-night shopping, eateries, more roving police, better facilities, and even the introduction of more pop-up shops and venues, similar to Mumford & Sons’ impromptu saloon/venue to promote their new album and Australian tour.

Moore also promises that there will be an increase of late-night transport, including train, bus, and taxi services, as demonstrated by the recent crackdown on cab policies and services in the Sydney CBD. All of which are positive changes for gig-goers and music lovers wanting to make the most of Sydney’s night-life, which have felt the negative effects from the fall-out of the death of teenager Thomas Kelly in a senseless attack in Sydney’s Kings Cross in July.

The issue of alcohol-related violence becoming a political platform for pokie-lined pub venues and politicians alike, while the increased security measures that have been introduced to ensure late-night safety have hurt live music venues by association.

Bar owners in Kings Cross have also raised their voices against the Premier’s targeting of smaller venues, and refusal to make public the ‘secret evidence’ he claims validates his actions, while the venue owners claim the liquor licensing crackdown will cost them over $1 million a month in lost revenue; a move that live music activist John Wardle describing the plans as “actively killing local subculture.”

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, the City of Sydney’s late-night economy manager, Suzie Matthews seems to agree that the expenditure on security to curb late-night violence is having adverse effects. “For nearly 10 years we’ve been focusing on the hole in the doughnut,” she says, “The hole is just focusing on alcohol-related violence but after 10 years we thought we needed to ask some different questions, and when we did we changed everything.”“For nearly 10 years we’ve been focusing on the hole in the doughnut… alcohol-related violence… we thought we needed to ask some different questions.”

Matthews and the City of Sydney’s new Open Sydney plan has been developed from a year’s worth of community consultation and market research, proposing nearly 300 new initiatives that aims to double the late-night economy’s annual turnover to $30 billion and increase after-hours jobs by 25 per cent by 2030.

More than the business acumen that will please the economists, the cultural plan is being implemented to help revitalise the lifestyles of Sydney-siders. “It’s about more than whether you can get a latte beyond 11pm,” says Jess Scully, the director of Vivid Ideas who has helped host Sydney’s growing Vivid LIVE music festival. “It’s about the kind of lifestyle and city we want.”

“What we have more than any other place I’ve been is a huge culture of fear of new things and a lack of co-ordination between different levels of bureaucracy,” Scully says. “If you want to stage an opera in the subway, the number of bodies you have to go through is startling. I don’t understand the need to control every single thing. I think the most interesting things happen when you break the rules a bit.”

Those who make the rules are supportive of the Open Sydney plan, with state government bodies such as the Police, NSW Transport, and the Department of Planning and Infrastructure, all offering their assistance while maintaining a level of scepticism.

Particularly Les Wielinga, General Director of Transport for NSW who says that the increase in ferrying late-night gig-goers would need to be justified by increased demand, yet – in a chicken and egg scenario – won’t provide figures to demonstrate patronage numbers. It’s a faltering criticism that echoes that of Peter Ramshaw, the chief executive of NSW Taxi Council who bemoaned the proposed increase to the fleet to provide concert-goers with more options to get home.

Meanwhile John Lee, the chief executive of the Tourism & Transport Forum is worried that it reflects a greater concern, that Government and council bodies will not be able to co-operate on the larger issues.

“If I was to look at history I would be sceptical of co-operation between different levels of government,” says Lee, “Sydney has fallen behind, especially when compared to the way Melbourne activates its CBD at night… Sydney has been good at one-off events but we need to try this new frontier.” “It’s about more than whether you can get a latte beyond 11pm… it’s about the kind of lifestyle and city we want.”

The issue of alcohol-related violence, which has been the major platform for NSW Government, remains the major roadblock to maintaining a cultural voice and developing Sydney’s live music scene. The recent introduction of liquor licensing laws in Kings Cross, such as the introduction of plastic glasses after midnight, a mandatory alcohol-free hour before a venue closes and ID scanning, is supposed to help rather than hinder.

The Shout reports that Australian Hotels Association (NSW) CEO Paul Nicolaou reaffirmed the positivity of the new regulations, saying the changes were “simply empowering the Government to introduce the strategies it announced several weeks ago to deal with anti-social behaviour.” Nicolaou added that patrons and venues “are starting to see the results of that. AHA is having on-going dialogue with all Government, police, council and the local liquor accord on the issues relating to Kings Cross,” says Nicolaou.

Many would argue though that its the pubs and pokie-lined beer halls, sanctioned by Nicolaous’ association that are encouraging the drinking culture that leads to alcohol-related violence. “If you have a late-night pub where it’s just about getting $3 schooners then I can kinda understand why people get restless,” says Jimmy Sing of popular Sydney live music venue Goodgod.

Sing reasons that the vibrancy of smaller, local establishments and dedicated live music performance spaces like Goodgod provide a vibrancy that ensures the spice of life, variety. Noting that boredom is a major factor of excessive drinking, and by association, violence. “We try to have different entertainment each night – whether it’s a DJ or a garage rock band – so that people are actually engaged and there’s a certain bond between them,” says the Goodgod proprietor.

The recent developments over Sydney’s culture shows that at least the issues of not only live music venue lovers, but of the broader cultural community, are being voiced to those who are beginning to actually listen to their growing concerns, or as Lord Mayor Clover Moore previously put in piecing together the new Open Sydney Cultural Policy,: “It’s so important for the soul of the city… We need to do more.”

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine