We’ve been doing live sound for venues for almost 20 years.  Sometimes we’re contracted by the venue, sometimes a promoter, sometimes the band.  Other times we have actually run the live music portion of a venue for them, including booking the bands, handling the promotion, dealing with the ticketing and, of course, lugging in the PA and running it for the shows.  At a couple of venues we redecorated their performance spaces, built stages and installed light shows as well as all the above.  At one point we were seriously considering setting up our own complete venue.  We raised a heap of money and found a disused function centre and were all set to move in and turn it into what we believed would have been the best live music venue the Northern Beaches had seen in a very long time.  That wasn’t to be.  It got all too hard very quickly.  (Actually, it wasn’t that quickly.  We’d spent almost a year in the planning of it.)

You would be amazed at the amount of things you need to do to get a venue off the ground in Australia.  From impact statements to liquor licences, hiring staff, dealing with security and the endless paperwork and forms to fill out from council and other government bodies, it’s akin to climbing Mt Everest to get things off the ground and the bills keep mounting.  It was going to cost close to half a million dollars before we could open the doors and put our first act on the stage and that didn’t include any of the fit out or gear, let alone advertising the opening.  Let’s just say that it wasn’t “encouraged” by anyone except the bands wanting to play there.  Finally, after a very long and stressful period of planning, we had to back away from it purely because the numbers just didn’t add up and our backers got “nervous”.

When you look around at the venues that are out there, the ones that have closed down or been squeezed out by noise complaints, licensing issues and other red tape, it’s little wonder there is anywhere left to play or hear live music at all.

Clover Moore and the city’s Cultural Committee has seen fit to create a Live Music Taskforce designed to come up with an action plan for alleviating some of the roadblocks for venue operators and the bands who work in them, at least for the Sydney CBD.  Melbourne is doing something similar in its bid to become the “cultural capital of Australia”.  The truth is it won’t be enough to make setting up a new venue a realisable dream for anyone who doesn’t have a shit load of money to back them.  And, even with said shit load of money, it’s pretty hard to see a justifiable return on investment (outside of the obvious cultural one but people who want to make money rarely see this as a justification).

The truth is it doesn’t make a lot of money.  Selling beer makes money, poker machines make money.  Publicans tend to feel that bands are a pain in the arse that is unnecessary.  It doesn’t bolster their profits enough.  Logistically it’s hard work and sometimes it can drive customers away rather than attracting them.  For instance, if you put a band on that people don’t like, they’ll leave or not come at all.  A particular style of music may bring a particular crowd and alienate another one.  In the publican’s view, no music is a better solution as it alienates nobody.  People come to drink and socialise or drink and play poker machines.  No expensive PA systems to maintain, no messing around with bands that may or may not be good or attract a crowd, no advertising expenses that may be hit or miss, no noise complaints from neighbours.  Yes, they are possibly missing out on that big crowd on a particular night where there’s a band on that everyone wants to see but they figure that a steady flow of customers that aren’t interested in live music shows a better return over having a big night one night and a flop of a show that cost them money to put on the next.  Stands to reason when you think of it from their point of view.  Sadly though, it means that there is little to no live music for us to see as a result.

The Sydney City Council’s taskforce spent a year researching, consulting and developing this action plan for the city.  They spoke to venue operators, musicians, government agencies, audiences, students and hundreds of Sydneysiders apparently.  It was an 11 member taskforce and was chaired by the co-director of the National Live Music Office, John Wardle.  Presumably the funding for this came out of ratepayers’ pockets.  And, given what they came up with, I wonder whether Sydney ratepayers would consider it was worth the effort.

Here are the key recommendations that were outlined in the Live Music Matters Action Plan (and my feelings on each point):

• Simplifying the approval process for low impact live music and performances.

            Can’t argue with this one.  As I said, this process is bloody hard work and you can be assured that you will be buried under a mountain of paperwork to get it off the ground and, even if you complete all this paperwork, you may not be approved.

• Providing financial help for infrastructure and capital costs to encourage new and existing venues to present live music and performance.

            Hmmm, grants from ratepayers’ pockets.  Sounds good in theory.  I wonder who’ll they’ll go to, how much they’ll be and whether it will have a genuine impact.  My feelings are that there’ll be some publicans who will stick a band on once a week, on their quietest night, for no money, in the corner of the room and tell them every five minutes to turn down the volume whilst they pocket the cash.  I may just be being cynical of course.

• Using  indoor and outdoor City properties as live music and performance venues by improving sound, lighting and seating.

            I like this idea but I can’t see the implementation of it happening on any grand scale and, after a few little performances, the noise complaints will shut them down one by one.

• Making City-owned community properties available as rehearsal space.

            To be honest, as a rehearsal studio owner, I’m not really happy about this one at all.  Sure, stick a knife into a bunch of small businesses that are genuinely struggling to pay the enormous rents and electricity prices to keep their doors open by offering a free alternative to their customers.  Here’s a better idea, how about subsidising the already existing rehearsal studios across Sydney so that they can afford to stay open.  Rehearsal studios don’t make a lot of money folks.  The bands that rehearse in them keep them open… barely.  I can tell you that I don’t know of too many studios that are at capacity.  We don’t need more rehearsal spaces, we need to ensure the ones we have survive.

• Working with neighbouring councils and the NSW Government to establish a new major outdoor event space for the Sydney area.

            Don’t we already have a bunch of these?  And what is considered “major”?  I would think that means the likes of another Acer Arena or something.  Just seems a little unnecessary.  What we need is small to mid sized venues for local talent to play and get their start.  We don’t need another space for Pink and U2 to play.  We have those already.

• Creating the role of a City of Sydney live music and performance liaison officer.

            Okay.  Not a bad idea.  Not sure who they will liaise with.  Sounds like creating a position for a paid fat cat that will do very little but I’ll be keen to see what the job description of this person ends up being.

• Exploring changes to the liquor freeze for venues that have live music and entertainment as their primary purpose.

            Ahh, this will be the kicker.  The back door around Barry O’Farrell’s lock out laws.  This may well be the enticement for publicans to bring back their live music.  Of course, then the problems that those laws supposedly solved just might rear their head again and the state government wouldn’t like that.  I’d expect this one will probably not be in the final draft of the plan.

• Setting new sound proofing standards for new residential developments.

            Also, in theory a good idea, although it will not benefit those in existing buildings and it will skyrocket the price of building new dwellings.  Trust me, sound proofing is labour, cost and space intensive.  Those two-bedroom units might have to become one bedroom units to make up for the space that will be lost by properly insulating against sound.  Developers are not going to like that and those in the market to buy a residential property are going to find the price goes up for the new places.  The old places next door will follow suit even though they won’t have the new sound proofing and the market will creep beyond affordability in these areas.  That will of course mean that only the rich will be able to live there.  Rich people won’t like the noise even with the sound proofing and the whole cycle will begin again.

• Amending parking rules so musicians and performers can unload equipment regardless of vehicle type.

            I admit I love this one.  Maybe we’ll all get stickers like disabled drivers do.

• Meeting the increased demand from young people for live music by increasing the frequency of all ages events.

            I have no problem with this one either.  However, it’s a well known fact that infrequent gigs mean a bigger audience than frequent gigs.  If the kids only have one event to go to a month, they’ll all go.  Once a week and all you do is spread the audience from that one gig over the whole month.  The reality is that it costs you four times the amount to stage a weekly show and you still only get the same return.  Sorry but that’s the truth of the matter.  As much as I’d like to see this happen, I think it will probably be short lived.

• Finding better ways to deal with complaints from neighbours including mediation.

            A noble idea but what if the complaint can’t be mediated to a conclusion that results in both parties being able to co-exist?  It really is only adding another step into the equation.  Eventually, the same end result will come about.  Ie: venue closes or has to operate under restrictions.  It might buy some time but it doesn’t solve anything.

•  A formal mediation policy to be set up to offer free independent and confidential mediation for resolving noise complaints.

            The only way to resolve noise complaints is by either forcing the source of the noise to stop or be attenuated or for the complainant to stop complaining about it.  Once again, how would this “formal policy” help?

•  Developing information guides that provide specific information on the processes for setting up temporary and permanent venues in the City of Sydney.

            Couldn’t hurt.  It’ll be a bloody long brochure though.

•  Hosting a public symposium next year in partnership with the National Live Music Office to investigate compliance and affordability issues in small and medium size venues.

            Would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  It isn’t the 80’s anymore.  Regulations for compliance put affordability out of reach with small and medium sized venues now.  The nanny state has run amok with OH&S regulations and you can’t get away with things that you used to be able to get away with when you run a venue.  It’ll be a shouting match for sure.

•  Undertaking research into design and construction standards to reduce low frequency or bass noise in residential buildings and advocating to the Australian Building Codes Board for an Australian standard.

            See above.  My parents just did some extensions to their home.  The cost blew out by hundreds of thousands of dollars because of the new requirements for “fire safety” because there are some trees behind their house.  Costs that didn’t exist before.  Existing houses in their area have not been made to become compliant.  Only new builds.   I know my sound proofing.  It’s incredibly expensive.  It will definitely add very big costs to building new dwellings.  I’m sorry but that’s not good for anyone except the tradies who put it in and the companies that make it.

• Ensuring City staff who take enforcement action against live music venues are experienced and trained to assess and determine offensive noise.

            What exactly is offensive noise?  That can be anything.  I lived in a unit block once and the people downstairs were doing a bathroom renovation.  I was working late and trying to sleep in the morning whilst there were jackhammers going downstairs from quarter to eight in the morning.  I was told that they were perfectly within their rights to do that and I just had to suck it up.  It was suggested that I either got some ear plugs or moved out for a while.  I can tell you, a jackhammer in a bathroom directly below you is pretty offensive.  A rock band in a venue across the street every night may also be.  I couldn’t say for sure.  Like beauty, it’s in the eye (or this case ear) of the beholder.  I wonder how they train them.

•  Working with other agencies to gather data on alcohol consumption and behaviour in live music and performance venues.

            I can tell you the answer to that straight up just from my own personal experience.  People will consume alcohol at gigs.  Some less than they would if they weren’t at a gig, some more.  Generally, people will be better behaved at a live gig but it will depend on the type of music played and the crowd.  You can get all the facts and figures you like on this, it really doesn’t explain anything and therefore serves no purpose in my opinion. (89% of people know this!)

•   Coordinating administrative approval processes with the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing to make it easier to establish venues.

            That makes sense. … Haven’t we done that already??

•  Conducting annual surveys of venue operators to understand their experience dealing with the City of Sydney.

            Okay… sounds a bit redundant but if you think so..

•  Working with the Department of Immigration and promoters to develop new models to help international visiting artists play with local musicians.

            WTF?  How does the Department of Immigration factor into anything?  Yes, international visiting artists should play with local musicians either as their backing band if applicable or as their support acts.  That’s a good idea.  Not sure what immigration has to do with that and I don’t think it’s the council’s place to work with overseas promoters to do anything.  They should really leave that up to the industry.

What we really need here is to back track to the good ol’ days and relieve the pressure on venues that exist today.  For starters, let’s try telling people who bought residential properties near existing venues that they should have known that there would be noise issues when they bought the place and, if they wish to continue living next door to a venue, they will need to put up with it.  “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”  (Thankyou Mr Spock)  Property values in those areas will then drop to an affordable amount and those residences might get filled with people who enjoy going and seeing live music.  A win-win for everybody.

Lighten up on the paperwork.  Music entrepreneurs rarely have a team of lawyers and a bucketload of money.  Help them to create venues instead of making the task insurmountable.  Perhaps this is something that “liaison” character could do.

There’s a million other things I could suggest but this blog is already way, way, way too long as it is so I’m going to leave it before I rant on for another ten pages.  Instead, I’d be interested in hearing your views on what you think councils should do to bring back the scene.

Meanwhile, I’ll look up how I can apply for my Musician Parking Permit.

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