Thriving or surviving? Sydney’s live music scene on a knife’s edge

By Bernard Zuel

Just a handful of the artists who have performed, or will perform, in Sydney this year.Credit:Illustration: Kathleen Adele

Looking around, I’m clocking the scene. Masks? Some. Beers? Plenty. A merch stand to one side doing a brisk trade in records and T-shirts? Correct. Sunday evening in Sydney and I’m standing among a group of people who I don’t know, while music is coming from the stage in front of us, and things feel … strange, very strange. But also strangely familiar.

Is it? Can it be? Yes, it’s a gig. I’m at a gig. And it’s my third this week. It’s like nature was righting itself, as if saying to us all, “Hold on to your tickets, your proof of vaccination, your knowledge of the best place to park in Newtown on a busy night – we’re not dead yet.”

Ask Brisbane musician Hatchie, who had her own “totally electrifying” return to live music in Melbourne, and then a show at Mary’s Underground last week. “[It was] even better than I remembered,” she says. “The Melbourne show we did before the Sydney ones. It was just after restrictions eased and people were allowed to stand up and dance, and it was honestly so amazing. Even better than they have been before, because everyone was so excited and ready to go out again.”

The enthusiasm and the hope – touch wood, fingers crossed, salt over the left shoulder, god willing, oh please – in the music industry after virtually two years of lockdowns, restrictions and cancellations, is palpable. And real.

“There is a lot of great energy around – people are really happy to be out and supporting live music again,” says Tyler Dombroski of Leichhardt’s Crowbar. “Sometimes they’re seeing artists they may usually see two or three times a year for the first time in two years. You can see a sense of relief for audiences and artists that the shows are finally going ahead without restrictions.” It’s not just the small bars.

“We’ve got an incredible second half of the year planned. We are really excited,” says Sam Nardo, chief operating officer of the family-owned Century Venues, whose four main rooms – the Enmore Theatre, the Metro, Manning Bar, and the Factory Theatre – are the backbone of Sydney’s music circuit. “And I hope people are missing live music and performance enough to come out and see maybe one or two extra shows.”

Australian singer Hatchie performing at Mary’s Underground in Sydney earlier this month.Credit:Nic Walker

Why wouldn’t there be some enthusiasm? Especially when you consider that, according to Music NSW, between March 18, 2020 and February 18, 2022 there were only 12 days without restrictions for venues. And those 12 days were the brief burst between the so-called “freedom day” of December 15, 2021 and when the Omicron surge forced restrictions back on December 27.

International acts, including Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran, have announced tours that are already selling out. For better or worse, Michael Buble is coming, and Courtney Barnett has been. The Kid Laroi will start his first Australian tour in Sydney in May. Wolf Alice will do two nights at the Big Top to close out April, warming up the room for Spiritualized who arrive at the same venue in June, with former One Direction hunk Louis Tomlinson following in July, and (one version of) UB40 due in October.

Meanwhile, the unlikely combination of 1970s power pop band Cheap Trick, mid ’90s grunge acts Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, turn-of-the-century indie noise group Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and venerable pub rock outfit Rose Tattoo – the show billed as Under the Southern Stars – have only recently been playing arenas. Seriously.

Benee performing at Luna Park’s Big Top last week.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Local singer-songwriters Julia Jacklin and Grace Cummings, as with American singer-songwriters Courtney Marie Andrews and Erin Rae, last month pulled audiences to the City Recital Hall, which came back earlier than some venues because its all-seated structure allowed for distancing, and it’s now reaping the benefits.

Having taken time during lockdowns to rethink its orientation outside the solid bloc of regular users such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and introducing a greater contemporary music program, the Recital Hall’s programmer Stuart Rogers happily notes that two-thirds of the audience for Jacklin had never been to the venue before. “We’ve been on the front end of taking a bit of artistic risk, if you like.”

Big festivals including Bluesfest, which returned at Easter, and Vivid Live, which is scheduled for May, are back, with Splendour In The Grass also locked in for July. Smaller festivals are being held from Parramatta to Bondi and, courtesy of the state government-backed Great Southern Nights, a variety of mini-festivals are happening throughout Sydney and NSW.

Julia Jacklin performing at the City Recital Hall in late March.Credit:Jess Gleeson

Elsewhere, Genesis Owusu filled the Enmore twice (admittedly after his first sold-out show was cut short by a collapsing floor. But hey, they all came back didn’t they?), with King Gizzard playing in between those two shows as a warm-up for a longer run later in 2022. Baker Boy reclaimed the Factory Theatre, Benee made two trips to the Big Top, northern beaches dreamy stoners Ocean Alley took over the Hordern Pavilion for three nights, and Flight Facilities moved their mini-festival show to the nearby Entertainment Quarter showground after their original park venue was washed.

It’s enough to have Emily Collins, managing director of the industry body Music NSW, talk about a recovery, not just survival.

“The last few years have been tough for live music, but I am endlessly heartened by the resilience of venues, artists, industry workers and audiences,” she says. “We’ve seen things start to come back blazing the last few weeks since restrictions lifted: sold-out shows, eager crowds, and world-class talent. Not to say we won’t have some bumps along the way, or that things are perfect, but anyone who talks down Sydney’s live music scene clearly hasn’t been out recently.”

Even some of the bumps, or more accurately, the depressions, haven’t deterred planning or slowed the shows. While those of us who attended the Genesis Owusu show the night the floor sank beneath the now-undulating carpet, making it look like a lurid water bed, might have expected the venue to be out of action for months, it was operational in days.

Indeed, the carpet, installed just before the first lockdowns of 2020, is a sign of one of the few benefits of the long periods when the Enmore was dark. Some “serious upgrades” to the venue were made in that time, and this is probably the best the room has looked since opening 115 years ago.

Genesis Owusu performing at the Enmore Theatre (post carpet cave-in) in March. Credit:Jordan Munns

And while the principal focus was on the Enmore (which has a capacity of more than 2000), Century Venues took the opportunity too to begin developing an oft-neglected second space at their CBD venue The Metro (capacity of 1200 in its main room; 300 in the new space), and confirm two extra spaces at their Marrickville mid-size room the Factory (whose main area can take 800, while 1200 could be accommodated including the smaller spaces), all helping to fill some gaps in Sydney’s gig circuit.

“We stopped and reflected on what’s needed at the moment. There are a couple of venues [in the 300-700 bracket] but a lot of venues that just aren’t there,” says Sam Nardo. “It has been really difficult to make that capacity work from a financial perspective, Sydney being what it is with the cost of living, and one of the ways is if you have a site with more than one venue and you can try different costs to make that work.”

This connectivity is something highlighted by Mark Gerber, who runs the Oxford Art Factory (490 in its central room, another 120 in the side bar), and believes, or wants to believe, that “we’ll see another revolution happening” in coming years as artists and audiences begin to reconnect.

“For Oxford Art Factory to function well, it needs venues like the Lansdowne, for the same reason the Metro needs the Oxford Art Factory,” Gerber says. “It’s an ecosystem, a landscape [bands] can traverse. It’s absolutely crucial that you have these small to medium venues where a particular scene can gather and they can exchange ideas and philosophies are discussed. And they become catalysts for all manner of things.”

As someone who has been bouncing between these various venues for decades – from the days of long-gone rooms like the Trade Union Club, Strawberry Hills Hotel, Evening Star and various basements on Oxford Street, to the rise and fall of the Hopetoun, Annandale and Sandringham Hotels, and the wholesale disappearance of suburban live music rooms – I’d like to believe in Gerber’s vision too.

Following a band as it moved up the line from the Lansdowne to the Oxford Art Factory to the Metro and then to the Enmore, or chasing an act from the Civic Underground to Goodgod Small Club to Home to the Hordern Pavilion wasn’t just a musical journey: it felt like being connected to this city. But, as those who limped through the years of early closures and lockouts know, and as those who watched music room after music room disappear during the poker-machine takeovers of pubs and clubs remember: it’s not like the music industry was exactly thriving before COVID-19.

The artists

As the first wave of COVID broke in 2020, Sally Seltmann watched a tour with Seeker Lover Keeper, her award-winning trio with fellow Sydney songwriters Holly Throsby and Sarah Blasko, swiftly shut down. In March this year, she supported Augie March at Sydney shows where the Melbourne band was forced to perform without their regular sound and light crew, who were ruled out because of COVID, and had a friend step in to replace the guitar tech who had reluctantly taken another, more secure, job.

Yet Seltmann remains “fairly optimistic about this year”, in which she intends to release an album and support it with her own tour, which she knows could be derailed at any point if someone in the band or crew contracted the virus.

“I have to be optimistic,” she says. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation in playing live, for musicians, but there’s also the whole financial thing, the scheduling of crew, so it’s such a mammoth amount of energy and people that it is affecting. That disappointment, that big feeling of disappointment, has made me appreciate how great it is that we can usually just play shows.”

It is not just the shows, though. While she was able to make use of the two years of lockdowns to write and record in her home studio, with husband Darren Seltmann producing, what she missed most was rehearsing and preparing and connecting with other musicians.

Jess Ciampa understands that all too well. A percussionist and vocalist who performs in multiple genres, from the Australian Chamber Orchestra to small pub bands, from traditional South American and central European bands to classical choirs, Ciampa has long been one of the most in-demand musicians in Sydney.

When COVID hit, he went from not having had a night off for six months, to having virtually no gigs for much of the next 24. Then, when restrictions were first lifted and a long run beckoned with the theatre show Come From Away, the second lockdown shut it down almost immediately.

“It was brutal, absolutely brutal,” he says. “We’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it turned out to be an oncoming train.” And while he was financially secure thanks to JobKeeper, practising at home alone just wasn’t going to cut it for him. “I realised that music-making for me is about being in a room with other musicians, playing together. I’m one of those guys who really enjoys rehearsing, and I was missing being with other people, and that was pretty devastating.”

Even as he was going into rehearsals with the ACO for a tour that has been to Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney before finishing in Wollongong, Ciampa was wary of building up any expectations, and has recent good reason.

“I was going to be on a mini-tour with Mara Big Band: 11 musicians, years in the planning. One member of the band tested positive on Friday morning, tour’s off. That’s three theatres, tickets sold, four rehearsals,” he says. “So we are nowhere near being out of the woods, and it’s hard to be optimistic. I’ve got really exciting projects in the diary and I have to think now, well, I just need one member of that orchestra to get ill and we are all close contacts. And if it’s key people, the gigs are off. Every time someone talks about a new strain [of COVID], I just think ‘Here we go again.’”

By 2015, it was easier at times to list the venues that no longer existed than the ones operating (check how the gig listings went from multiple pages to several columns). It wasn’t just the pokies and the early shutdowns, as a cultural change had made live music only one of the ways we socialised and identified ourselves and our tribes. So-called golden years of music such as the ’80s (when overcrowded firetraps and diets of beers and rum seemed normal) and the ’90s (when dance and rock and pop seemed in balance) got smashed by cultural, political and OH&S revolutions.

The good news was that Marrickville became a hub for small venues alongside the city itself, Newtown survived, and some parts of Parramatta Road showed life. The bad news was that was pretty much it. That’s why, as genuine as this enthusiasm is in 2022, not even the most cockeyed optimist could pretend there isn’t an equal amount of trepidation and, in some cases, despair about a still-precarious present and very uncertain future.

For a start, not every venue that was staging gigs in early 2020 will be around in 2022. Jazz-focused the Old 505 Theatre and alternative arts room Giant Dwarf shut during lockdown, while the operators of the Lansdowne Hotel, the Mary’s Group, announced that the music program was ending in May (though rumours, or maybe wishful thinking, persist of a replacement operator stepping in before then).

There’s talk of a new venue to be set up by the media company The Brag Media in Marrickville, though that’s only a real estate deal so far. Even those who have returned aren’t all necessarily on board the thrilled train, with Alison Avron, owner and director of the boutique The Great Club in Marrickville, pointing to a run of gigs that went from “a killer week to being killed” as a dangerous sign.

“We are back, but this is an example of how we are not exactly totally back,” says Avron. “It was going to be our busiest week back: we had five gigs Wednesday to Sunday, which is the dream. And well-attended gigs, too. But then three out of the five gigs were close contacts or got COVID, so we had to postpone them. We are really finding as well that while things are open, consumer confidence is still down.”

Avron points to a drop-off in presales, which used to make up the majority of tickets sold, as people now are making last-minute decisions out of the quite reasonable concern that a COVID-19 infection in the band could mean the show won’t go on (as happened to Midnight Oil in Melbourne, Darwin and Cairns, while the whole Hoodoo Gurus tour was postponed due to a potential infection) or they themselves may not be able to attend. Century Venues puts the change in presales at between 60 and 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

Alison Avron, owner of The Great Club in Marrickville. Credit:Steven Siewert

This doesn’t take into account nature wreaking havoc, which saw the organisers of the Yours & Owls Festival in Wollongong announce “with total exhaustion and sadness” its cancellation, only days ahead of the event, due to flooding. As Hatchie says, “It’s a much harder to plan in advance now. I don’t really believe anything, particularly shows, will happen until the day of.”

Meanwhile, venues such as Marrickville’s Camelot Lounge, with two performance rooms, have been cancelling shows if presales were insufficient because of the risk nights would operate at a significant loss due to fixed costs, including staff and food and drink. “We are treading water, I would say,” says Avron. “This week our head is under the water, and maybe it will bob up again next week. It’s really hard.”

What about government funding – can that help? During the first two years of COVID, the NSW government operated several programs, such as the Live Music Support Package (for venues), the Festival Relaunch Package (for established festivals), the Arts Rescue and Restart Package (for regional events and organisations) and Create NSW’s Arts and Cultural Funding Program (for independent contemporary music organisations), as well as grants to Support Act (providing relief to individual workers), Make Music Day, professional development provided by APRA/AMCOS and Music NSW, and for individual musicians and venues presenting music in the Play the City program.

Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, the duo behind Mary’s Burgers, Mary’s Underground (the former Basement) and, for another month, the Lansdowne Hotel, are among those who credit local and state government support for keeping a number of venues and organisations operating.

Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, the duo behind Mary’s Burgers, Mary’s Underground and (for now) the Landsdowne Hotel. Credit:Steven Siewert

“The City of Sydney council has been exceptional, the state government has been very good,” Smyth says. “We’ve never seen more support from the Liberal government for the arts community, ever.”

Nardo, who in late 2020 warned that “if the government doesn’t act soon to help save our live music industry, we’ll see more venues forced to close”, says the various packages “definitely helped keep our venues alive and operating”, and Crowbar’s Dombroski says “we wouldn’t have survived without the government support of the last two years”.

But, she adds, “we hope that can continue in some form, as our recovery isn’t over yet”. The reality is that most grants are being phased out, and as Amy Curl, head of the jazz organisation SIMA, points out, this is happening in what is “the make or break year for lots of people and lots of venues”.

Oxford Art Factory chief executive Mark Gerber.Credit:James Brickwood

“The small business support that we received was really, really welcome in the last couple of years,” Curl says. “Just over summer I used some of that to employ about 170 artists for the February summer program, which was really big. We faced a new variant and I suppose a lack of public confidence in attending events, particularly indoor events … [It’s] very frightening for a producer and a presenter to not have any idea if people will come or not.”

Worried that experienced crew and technicians left the industry for more stable or secure work, and experienced musicians have contemplated leaving altogether, Curl argues that “what we need right now is a long-term strategy by the government to support the live music sector”. “This is a race and there is a sense of urgency,” she says. “People in our industry are physically and emotionally fatigued, and this is the year we really need that support.”

It’s a point emphasised by John Wardle of the Live Music Office, in a speech he gave to the Night Time Industries Association in March, where he said, “We don’t need further reviews, papers, committees … just the collective co-ordination to join the dots across agencies, tiers of government, and grants to make it happen.” His point is two-fold: that the grants are not being targeted in key areas such as the Inner West Council which includes Enmore and Marrickville, two of the most active music hubs in Sydney, and need to be continued.

We are treading water. This week our head is under the water, and maybe it will bob up again next week.

Not surprisingly, Inner West Council’s Labor mayor, Darcy Byrne, agrees that “this would be exactly the wrong time to withdraw support altogether from the government” and, if the plan is to get the music and arts sectors back on their feet permanently, “it needs a massive injection” over the next 12 to 24 months.

“There are a lot of people who have had to leave to work in other industries just to make a living, and there are a lot of venues and creative businesses that have taken on huge debts to stay afloat,” Byrne says. “And those debts aren’t going away.”

Enterprise, Investment and Trade minister Stuart Ayres acknowledged that COVID-19 had been devastating for the live music and performance industries and health restrictions had significantly impacted many businesses and artists.

“The taxpayer has invested billions to support businesses through the pandemic but what businesses need now is customers,” Mr Ayres said when the Old 505 Theatre closed. “They are the ultimate form of business support.”

With or without further government assistance, building on the optimism that’s there will involve “putting live music back into people’s vision”, as Curl puts it, maybe with outdoor shows that have the benefit of relative COVID-19 safety. “People have to find ways to remember what that experience [of live music] is like.”

That may already be happening for the crew at Mary’s – with Mary’s Underground booked through to July, three or four nights a week. “And that’s a huge reason why we are so positive,” says Smyth. “We are not scrapping week-to-week to get shows in last-minute; these are established bands, these are up-and-coming bands.”

Tell ’em they’re dreaming? “Our optimism isn’t Pollyanna-ish, it’s better, it’s reality,” Smyth says, letting slip that they are close to finding themselves a new music venue in Sydney. “We see the appetite [in audiences] and we see the hungry young bands and promoters as well.”

His partner Graham adds a personal note. “I got a notification from Spotify the other day, an American artist I listen to has got a gig coming up, and I thought ‘Why are you telling me about a gig in Chicago or wherever?’ , but she was actually playing at the Recital Hall in Sydney. I thought ‘It’s coming back, so quickly’.”

It will happen faster than we realise, says Hatchie, who has an American tour starting on her birthday, May 4. “I intend to hit the ground running now,” she says, “and not even take a breath in case something happens again.”

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