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Thursday, March 23, 2023

For Sydney to hear the music, politicians must keep down the noise

Guardian Australia recently reported on another incident in which the City of Sydney warned the Cricketer’s Arms pub in Surry Hills that an outdoor chair had been moved 80 centimetres beyond where it ought to be.

Again, there are two sides. The City says the chairs were blocking the narrow footpath. Thank god we’ve got local government to sort this out. Be grateful for your outdoor dining, but don’t you dare sit beyond your permitted pen or we’ll set the compliance officers onto you.

“We’ll take anything, you start with baby steps”: publican and Odd Culture Group chief executive James Thorpe.Credit:Cole Bennetts

Even in the inner west, which is trying to establish itself as Sydney’s premier home of arts, culture and fun, change is incremental. Last week, the council agreed to make permanent its Enmore Road special entertainment precinct, which among other things allows venues to stay open half an hour longer – yes, half an hour – if they program live music or performance.

One doesn’t wish to be too cynical about it because at least they’re trying. But at the end of the day, 30 minutes is only 30 minutes. “That’s more or less what we all said when it was announced,” Duke of Enmore hotel owner James Thorpe told me. “But we’ll take anything; you start with baby steps.”

Make no mistake, it is a good thing that so many politicians at all levels now recognise Sydney’s struggle with noise, nightlife and live music as a problem. The corollary is they all want credit for fixing it. There’s political capital to be gained. But that means two things. They typically only want to advance their idea or program, and they’re not that interested in one of the key things that would make a real difference: getting out of the way.

You can’t cut a ribbon on getting out of the way. You can’t include a picture of it in your emailed newsletter or your book of achievements. In a civic society that so often looks to government for solutions, it’s harder (though not impossible) to present “less government” as the answer.

Live music at Manly Boatshed in 2021.

Live music at Manly Boatshed in 2021.Credit:Sam Mooy

Last week, the music industry banded together to launch a pre-election campaign comparing the major parties’ music policies. It noted Labor, the Greens and many independents supported the industry’s call for a $100 million investment, but the Liberals and Nationals have, so far, not.

The Vote Music campaign’s three major asks are a contemporary music office to lead a 10-year strategy, significant investment in skills and industry, and infrastructure such as a new Sydney Entertainment Centre in the inner city.

The campaign has big backers – APRA/AMCOS, ARIA, MusicNSW and the Australian Festival Association, among others – as well as the likes of Moshtix, Live Nation and Century Venues.

Sceptical though I am about the idea of “government-driven music development”, as the policy statement puts it, there’s no doubt that if the next parliament acts seriously on the Vote Music agenda, it will go a long way toward repairing some of our problems.

Ghosts of Sydney’s past live music scene remain strewn around the city, such as the derelict Hopetoun in Surry Hills, pictured in 2001.

Ghosts of Sydney’s past live music scene remain strewn around the city, such as the derelict Hopetoun in Surry Hills, pictured in 2001.Credit:Quentin Jones

But it can’t just be about money sloshing around a few established players. There has to be a wholesale shift in people’s attitudes in favour of liberty and permissiveness, and it has to flow right down to the cop on the beat and the council ranger in the street.

It’s no good having, as we’ve had for a while now, politicians bleating about nightlife, live music and a 24-hour city while, lower down the chain, the system makes it next to impossible to enjoy by policing every little by-law and regulation like it’s wartime.


Until Sydney’s zeitgeist is realigned toward fun and not NIMBY neighbours, we’ll still struggle.

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