Live Music Exchange Blog

Sydney’s Music Venues: Down but not out Down Under – Martin Cloonan


Our latest post features Live Music Exchange’s own Professor Martin Cloonan outlining recent research undertaken in Sydney on venues’ relationship with the city council.  

In March and April 2016 I carried out research in to Sydney’s venues on behalf of the City of Sydney Council. The research was designed to elicit venues’ views on their relationship with the Council and on a proposal to establish a Live Music Association for New South Wales. It was carried out as part of the City’s Live Music and Performance Action Plan and it can be said that there is a widespread welcome for the City’s proactive approach amongst the venues consulted.

While the research had particular foci, topics discussed with interviewees ranged far and wide. The results of the research were confidential and have been submitted to the Council. However, with the agreement of the Council (and here with special thanks to Hugh Nichols, the Strategy Advisor – Live Music and Performance at the City Council), it is possible to report some general, non-Sydney specific and non-confidential findings and so raise a number of issues which arose during the research which readers of this blog may be interested in as they raise much broader issues. These can be said to be the following – context is (almost) all, live music cannot be reduced to economics and, allied to this, politicians and the public generally have little understanding of the realities of running a music venue. I will take each in turn.

In terms of context being almost all, the first context in which the research took place was primarily that of Australia’s tripartite system of government. In short, this means that Sydney’s venues are regulated by a combination of the federal government, state government and the City Council. Complicating matters is that fact that different aspects of venue regulation are the domain of different layers of government. For example, venues submit their applications for Development (DAs) to the City, but their liquor licence applications to the state. Needless to say both can be costly exercises and the two bodies may impost different conditions meaning that, for example, licences for live music and for alcohol sales may have different terms and conditions.

The second context is the policy context. Here the overwhelming issue raised by venues was that of the New South Wales government’s “lockout laws” which tightly control late night alcohol sales and admission to venues. Introduced in 2014 in order to combat alcohol-related disorder (especially in Sydney’s King Cross area, which had seen two men die as a result of being “coward punched”), the laws impose strict conditions on alcohol sales after 10pm. In addition venues inside Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD) are no longer allowed to allow customers entry after 1.30 am –  even if they’ve just popped out for a fag – and all venues must stop serving alcoholic drinks at 3am (

The lockouts have certainly divided opinion. The opponents, such as many of the venues interviewed, point to the decimation of the city’s Kings Cross as an entertainment zone and the closing of over 40 venues. Proponents point to reduced crime figures and drastically reduced admissions to hospital accident and emergency departments over weekends. Confusing the issue  – and outraging opponents of the lockouts  – is the fact that some venues, namely leading casinos within the CBD, are exempt from the legislation. More than once it has been suggested than for New South Wales legislators the right to gamble far outweighs any notion of a right to party. The legislation is currently being reviewed by the high-profile, retired, High Court judge, Ian Callinan, who is due to report in August (

For this writer one notable aspect of this was that the lockouts not only affected the venues which had closed, but also the programming of those which remained. This can generally be seen as a move towards populism as the need now is to get the punters in and make up for lost revenue. It also might mean that venues which had cross subsidised early evening live music with late night EDM were now moving to dance only. Clearly the lockouts are a multidimensional phenomenon.

A third aspect of the context is current academic thinking about live music. Here members of LMX have been amongst those who have seen merit in thinking of live music ecology (Behr et al 2016). There can be various approaches to this, but one aspect is a sense of interdependency so that problems in one area – such as small venues or a particular district, will impact on other areas – such as arenas and other districts. Venues interviewed both saw the merits of this approach – one owner claimed to have been using the term for years – and felt it intuitively, with one venue outside the CBD lockout zone noting the impact on venues elsewhere in the city.

The venues also reported that live music could not be reduced to an economic consideration. Many commented that there were easier ways to make money and several claimed that the major motivation was to put on the best possible music programme. What that entailed was complicated by issues such as main genre, being presented, location and size. It should also be noted that venues would inevitably want to give a positive account of themselves to an interviewer and that it might be somewhat naïve to suggest that all live music venues are dens of altruism.  Nevertheless, the strength with which venues stressed their cultural value was impressive.

Notwithstanding this, venues had, unsurprisingly, a keen business sense. Just as the first thing a promoter learns is that they cannot just book acts they like, so venues clearly needed to balance their programming so that more populist presentations might be able to balance the small audiences for more left field events. As ever art and commerce enjoy a complicated relationship.

Throughout the research a figure of 80/20 was put forward in terms of other revenue/box office income. For “other” can be read (importantly) food and (vitally) drink sales. Such considerations shaped the venues daily thinking – and, of course, programming. One venue pointed out that the most captivating performers may not be the best for business if customers are so mesmerised by the performance that they make less visits to the bar and so decrease overall takings.

A final finding was that venues felt entirely misunderstood by both politicians and the general public.  It is not, of course, not uncommon for politicians to be accused of being out of touch. But venues did ask how many politicians regularly attended live music and had any understanding of the realities of running a venue. The simple answer is not many at all.

Concern around the public (and, to a lesser extent politicians) focussed on a view that the public sees licensed premises as goldmine and associate live music with glamour, rather than hard work. They might also see live music venues as dangerous, diseputable, places rather than bastions of cultural provision. Also expressed was a concern that a generation was growing up which lacked the passion for live music which had been the very foundation of the Oz Rock tradition. For some observers of young audiences trainers and burgers seem to have replaced rock and roll, with ominous implications for Australia’s musical future. There is doubtless scope for more research here, but suffice to say that venues generally felt at best misunderstood and, at worst, maligned and feared for their future unless a new generation regained a passion for live music.

Overall, this is both a worrying and optimistic time for Sydney’s venues. The vibrancy which marked Sydney during the heady days of Oz Rock has clearly diminished and the lockouts have certainly dampened lots of spirits, not to mention having eradicated lots of venues and jobs. On the other hand, the City Council does have a live music policy and seems determined to improve matters. Importantly the interviewees were never less than passionate and determined. The fact that several of those interviewed seem very keen to organise via a professional live music association for New South Wales at least means that battle will be joined. Having seen these people in action, I wouldn’t bet against them – not even in a Sydney casino with a drink in my hand at 4am.

Martin Cloonan

June 2016


Behr, A., Brennan, M., Cloonan, M., Frith, S. and Webster, E. 2016. “Live concert performance: An ecological approach”, Rock Music Studies, 3:1, pp.5-23.

City of Sydney. 2014. Live Music and Performance Action Plan. Sydney: City of Sydney.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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