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Labor promises to repeal Sydney’s ‘archaic’ music bans, but will it actually change anything?

What better way to remind us of next year’s looming election than some broad, empty promises from politicians?

The latest pitch is from Labor opposition leader Michael Daley, who has pledged to get rid of live music bans and restrictions affecting 669 venues across NSW.

Speaking at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre on Wednesday, Mr Daley said that he would put through a single piece of legislation to fix the music industry “overburdened with regulation.”

“We’ve seen over time council regulations and state government regulations put layer and layer on top of this struggling industry,” Mr Daley said. “We need to put the verve back into Sydney’s nightlife.”

The Labor leader was quick to clarify that a balance would be found between allowing venues to play live-music, while preserving Sydney’s lockout laws.

Mr Daley said that it comes down to “helping and rewarding venues that do the right thing”, while avoiding “tearing apart the fabric of the safety mechanisms that are built into the lockout laws.”

Minister Daley even suggested that Sydney’s current laws regarding liquor licensing and live-music venues are more oppressive than those seen in the ’80s classic, Footloose.

“In the 1984 movie Footloose, two things were banned: dancing and rock music,” he said. “Currently NSW has bans or restrictions in venues on dancing and rock music.”

“It also has bans or restrictions on live music, disco, DJs, drumming, four-piece bands, singer-songwriters, the bass guitar, vinyl records, bands facing in a direction other than south and mirror balls.”

Labor’s pledge comes on the back of a parliament enquiry into the music and arts economy in New South Wales released in October that recommended several strategies to fix the dying music scene.

The Honourable Paul Green, who chaired the 331-page report, found that despite its vital role in NSW’s economy, the music industry has been neglected by consecutive governments and is in rapid decline.

Lack of funding and the music venue crisis were outlined as the two major issues. The report suggested that there is potential for a burgeoning contemporary music scene in NSW, seeing that the majority of the industry is based in the state, and grassroots music has grown wildly due to online streaming.

The committee members also found that the New South Wales government would need to spend at least $35 million over four years to match Victoria’s funding for contemporary music per capita.

Sydney dance music legends Rufus Du Sol have been outspoken in their opposition to the lockout laws.

The report also acknowledged that the widespread restrictions on music venues have been influenced by Sydney’s controversial lockout laws. It says that the lockout laws “were a ‘sledgehammer’ to the city’s night-life, and have resulted in the closure of live music venues.”

In direct answer to those that believe live music plays a part in the violent culture that the lockout laws were instituted to combat, the report highlights that there is no research to suggest that music causes, or encouraged violence. In fact, research suggests the exact opposite: music assists in preventing violence.

Inserting gaming machines into live music venues has also been blamed for the demise of live-performance venues. To cover costs, venues choose to replace band rooms with gaming machines, meaning that there are simply less stages available to play on.

The report outlines 60 recommendations, including everything from a dedicated Minister for Music, the Arts and Culture, to promoting all-ages gigs and collaborating with Spotify. As with most things though, most of the recommendations come down to spending more money.

Considering that the current Liberal government has spent $720 million on the contentious new Sydney Football stadium, in comparison to a measly $1 million a year on music, it’s safe to assume there are a few pennies to be spread around.

Perhaps the report’s most interesting findings come in the dissenting statement section, which ensures key issues are being represented accurately. Ms Cate Faehrmann of The Greens party, who wrote the dissenting statement, found two major failings of the report.

She expressed concern that the report ignored the biggest issues affecting live music in Sydney: The NSW Government’s lockout laws. Ms Faehrmann cited evidence from venue owners and prominent musicians, one of which was Isabella Manfredi of The Preatures, who summarises how the lockout laws have changed Sydney’s music scene.

The Preatures began in 2008, and we have cut our teeth playing at Camperdown Bowling Club, Drummoyne RSL Memorial and Community Club, Spectrum, Q Bar, Deans, Candy’s Apartment, Bar Me, The Flinders Hotel, The World Bar, the Gaelic Club Sydney, the Hopetoun Hotel, the Sandringham Hotel, the Lizard Lounge, The Standard, the Hi Fi Bar, Oxford Art Factory, the Landsdowne Hotel and Club 77.

Only two of these places still exist as live music venues. The rest form part of the almost 200 venues that have closed since the lockout zone was introduced in 2014.

It’s impossible to argue with Ms Faehrmann’s sentiment, and the evidence from Isabella Manfredi. While the report acknowledged that “the lockout laws in 2014 had overwhelmingly been a contributing factor to the closure of live music venues”, they failed to make a lockout law-related recommendation among their 60. That’s a big oversight.

Mr Faehrmann also brought to light that the report discounts the harm caused by poker machine gambling, an issue that the Australian government refuses to face. The report actually recommends that revenue from pokies be used to fund music in NSW.

How could one be so tone deaf? The government is seriously recommending taking money ‘earned’ from addiction, loss and exploitation of poker machine users. It might actually be funny if the greed and wilful ignorance wasn’t so horrifying.

Australians lose $12 billion a year on poker machines. NSW has more than 93,000  – almost half the pokies in the entire nation. They create easy revenue for bars. Why open stages and performance areas and go to the trouble of organising live music, when you can open a gaming room and make huge – and easy – profit.

Ms Faehrmann rightfully suggests that implementing poker machines in hotels and bars has been detrimental to the live music industry, as well as communities. She says that poker machines should be phased out of pubs across NSW for the benefit of live music and citizens of NSW as a whole.

The Labor government will outline its full policy sometime before the election on March 23, 2019. Whatever their final strategy is to reinvigorate live music, I have a sneaking suspicion that it will conveniently leave the pokies and lockout laws alone.

[Feature image courtesy of Bobby Hendry]

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