City Conversation - Live Music

(6.30pm, Wednesday 26 June 2013, Lower Town Hall)

Thank you, Zan [Rowe, MC]. Hello, everyone, welcome to Town Hall. I'd like firstly to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional custodians of our land, and to pay my respects to their Elders. I also acknowledge the people of 200 nations who live in our City.

I also welcome our keynote speaker, Dave Faulkner and our panel here tonight, and I thank Bernard Zuel for his introduction.

The numbers of you who have turned out tonight suggest the level of concern that exists in Sydney over the future - and the present state, too - of live music in our City.

For at least the last sixty years, it's been a vital part of cultural life in Sydney. We all have our memories still vivid of that special gig or that special place we went to share the vibe with a room full of people.

For me, it was climbing out of my bedroom window at Gordon to skive off to a night of listening to jazz in the El Rocco Room at the Cross. There was nothing like it!

And every generation will have their own memories: decades ago it was Johnny O'Keefe, the "Wild One" here at Town Hall; bands like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs in the 1960s; Radio Birdman at Paddo Town Hall, AC/DC and Mental as Anything in the 1970s and 80s; You Am I, Cloud Control and The Jezebels in more recent years.

And there is still a huge audience. In 2011, APRA commissioned Ernst & Young to survey the live music scene across Australia. It showed that live music remains Australia's single most popular live performance activity.

There were an incredible 44 million attendance across the country in 2009-2010, four times greater than the total attendances at our major performing arts companies and our major arts festivals combined.

The report also established that its contribution to the Australian economy came in at just over $1.2 billion - and that NSW is home to one third of the venue-based industry and has the highest level of industry employment.

All of which might sound healthy enough - but there is a wealth of research showing that the live music scene has in fact come under immense pressure in the last 20-plus years.

A time-honoured venue like the Annandale has now been saved from closure, but only after the previous operators went to the wall through a long, bitter and for them ultimately unsuccessful battle to keep it going.

Meanwhile the Hopetoun has closed, leaving musicians without the venues that built their reputations and their fan base, and leaving audiences with diminishing choices.

The reasons are complex and multi-faceted.

There are certainly a raft of regulations venues must conform to: there are the impacts of environmental protection laws; there is the gentrification of some areas and the densification of others; there were previously the POPE laws which require a bar to have a license for live entertainment but not for a room full of poker machines or a big screen blaring the footy or the races, to name just a few.

In fact, 69 per cent of the live music venues surveyed for the Ernst & Young report nominated the regulatory environment as the chief barrier for owning and operating a live music venue.

The feedback for our Late Night Economy strategy and for our recent draft Cultural Policy Discussion Paper confirmed the need for regulatory reform. It also confirmed people's sense of loss, with a significant proportion of the thousands of suggestions, tweets and Facebook comments calling for more support for live music in Sydney.

We have already set up our Live Music Task Force, which we appointed in January and I'm sure its Chair, John Wardle, will talk about some of the issues that they've been looking at.

The group has formed four working parties to look at four significant problem areas: the building codes; the regulatory environment; the existing licensing and liquor laws and the area of audience and sector development.

We've asked the Task Force for a Live Music Action Plan that will set out short, medium and long-term actions for the City. In addition, the plan will outline opportunities to co-ordinate with the State Government to encourage the growth of the live music industry, avoiding regulatory duplication or contradiction, and protecting remaining live music venues of long-standing cultural significance.

If you look at the astonishing growth of our vibrant small bars scene over the last few years, I think you'll agree that with the same level of focused energy, and a committed partnership with the live music providers and you, the audiences, we can help foster a similar renaissance for live music in Sydney.

Thank you all for coming here tonight, and I look forward to hearing from the Panel, and from you.