Hope and music: Being a musician in the era of pokies and Sydney’s lock-out laws (23-6-18) (Music In
Originally published on Music Insight, 23rd June 2018
It’s a Saturday night in April and I’m travelling on an old train to the NSW Central Coast. Sitting next to me is a fresh-faced bloke in a well worn leather jacket, anxious to get off at Tuggerah station.
We’re on our way to meet my brother Alex Wasiliev, known to most in the Australian music landscape as Alex Lloyd. The reason? To talk music, and a particular topic of importance for the city we all grew up in.
The man with me is Jeremy Costa, a young musician who had grown up in the music landscape of Sydney’s lockout laws. Over this decade, he had gone from a muso scraping by and struggling to find gigs in Sydney to play at, to opening for Sergio Mendes at the Sydney Opera House concert hall. Yet, with such a big gig lined up, he is still to have released a single song commercially.
It was the same a few decades ago for four-time-ARIA winner Alex, who started playing pubs and clubs in Sydney’s inner west in the 90s, before finding success on the national stage. Yet, the Sydney music scene Alex experienced could not be more different from the one Jeremy now faces.
In February this year, Sydney’s cultural landscape came close to losing of one of its most important venues, The Basement. It has been bought out by Bird’s Basement in Melbourne, but is looking for a new home.
The Basement is not alone in its predicament.
According to a submission by lobby group Keep Sydney Open to the Inquiry into the Music & Arts Economy in New South Wales, since the introduction of the lockout laws in 2012, more than 30 live music venues have closed their doors.
In addition, the federally funded Live Music Office found that between January 2013 and February 2015 live music ticket sales have dropped by over 40 percent. It seems, on the surface, that the lockout laws were single-handedly responsible for killing the live music scene in Sydney.
Yet, here is Jeremy. This young artist, who started in Sydney, went from struggling like many musicians today in Sydney, to working with the likes of legendary producer Henry Hirsch and Lenny Kravtiz’s guitarist Craig Ross. Now he has added the Opera House to his growing list of venues played. How was this possible?
Alex picks us up from the station and drove us to a beautiful restaurant overlooking Terrigal Beach. The conversation is muted at first, as Jeremy and Al suss each other out. The waiters bring us a bottle of Tempranillo, and we order our meals.
Alex is currently working on a new record, his first since completing his Acoustica tour (which included a gig at The Basement), and supporting The Whitlams on their national tour earlier this year. His relationship with the venue, however, goes much further back.
“I can’t exactly remember when I started playing The Basement, but I know it was a long, long time ago,” he laughs.
“I remember seeing Ben Harper there, and his show at the time was Fight For Your Mind. It was such a beautiful album to hear, up close and personal. For me, The Basement had fantastic sound throughout the venue for both the punter and the performer.
“It has history as well. So many musicians have come through it: up-and-coming musicians, prominent musicians, overseas musicians. It was always a place for everyone.”
“I haven’t played The Basement, but I’ve been there,” says Jeremy excitedly.
“I can tell you right now, there are three venues in Sydney that every musician dreams of playing: The Enmore, the place where you see so many bands – a beautiful venue – you want to rock out there. Then there is the Opera House, where you can tell a story and people will listen.
“But lastly, the Basement is where people go to be surprised. They are there to discover something. Of those three, The Basement would be the biggest loss: so many people were discovered there.”
Alex spent much of the 90s in Jeremy’s shoes, learning his craft at the many venues in Sydney and playing in bands like Double J favourites Mother Hubbard. That was before he found success as a solo performer with his breakout record, Black the Sun.
“In the 90s there were so many venues,” he reminisces, as our meals arrive.
“There were gigs to go to every Friday and Saturday night, without fail. There were all sorts of different bands and different walks of life. It was culturally diverse, and very beautiful.
“In those ‘olden’ days when you finished a show, you could then go on to a club and watch a DJ.
“It’s unfortunate that there’s less places these days for musicians to hone their craft.”
“Musicians have changed since the lockout laws,” Jeremy shakes his head.
I hesitate as I’m pouring wine. How so?
“As an example, one of the best rehearsal studios is Zen Rehearsal Studios, based in St Peters,” Jeremy explains.
“The owner has put his entire life and money into creating a rehearsal space, so people that don’t have a lot of money can record music professionally.
“The moment the lockout laws kicked in, he started seeing less people in there. His Friday nights would be quiet. He says to me that musicians always wanted to rehearse because they want to go and play a show.
“Now there are less venues and more restrictions. Many musicians are saying it’s too hard just to rehearse. We’re not talking about playing a show or making a career. What are we rehearsing for?
“If you can’t play live and see that very first amazing moment people engage with your music, and what songs work and what songs don’t work, how will you be able to get to the second step of putting music out there? We do this out of love and passion, and hope. Right now, here in Sydney, there is little hope.”
Is the ‘easy’ option, I ask, to leave? Go to places like Melbourne, Perth, even overseas?
Jeremy smiles, shaking his head.
“No way, man. There is opportunity here, if you know how to take advantage of it.
“Between August last year and February this year, my band and I played about 30 shows: in Sydney, a lot in Melbourne, Byron Bay, Gold Coast, Newcastle and Canberra,” he explains.
“I found the most receptive venues are places in Melbourne, mostly because they take the time to read about you and find out who you are, like my favourite venue there, The Night Cat.
“There are still a lot of similar experiences in Sydney. You play The Townie, that has music there four nights a week due to Sally, the engineer there. Then you’ve got Frankie’s Pizza, a fantastic venue, a great vibe and built-up a community.
"Hustle and Flow, a little bar in Redfern is one of the most amazing venues in Sydney.
“The majority of venues in Sydney are smart, they have good attitudes. They respect musicians and more if you promote them and bring people to your shows.”
Jeremy’s optimistic tone fades for a moment.
Some venues let you down, he says. After playing the Jam Gallery on a recent tour and bringing 30 mates to the venue, Jeremy is still waiting to be paid months later.
“Venues like that ruin it for all the other venues,” Jeremy laments.
But he soon perks up.
“Most venues and promoters work so hard, and are actually doing right by the artists. Even with all the restrictions, that’s fantastic to see,” he adds.
I can see Alex processing a lot of Jeremy’s thoughts. I ask him what his opinion is.
“I agree, I think there are venues struggling to turn a profit. But I don’t think lockout laws have played a role in it.
“I lived in London for over five years, and there are lock out laws [there]. They called them Lock-In Laws, where you had to be in the venue past 11pm.
“Yet, the music scene is thriving. From my perspective, what venues did to turn a profit was get bands to come in, which would get more people to come, have a drink and have a good time. But those places also had stricter laws on pokie machines.
“[In London], they don’t have pokies in (music) venues. If you want to play a pokie machine, you go to a place like a TAB. But, if you put pokie machines in places where people are drinking, they have less care factor.
“In my opinion, I think pokie machines have hurt society and culture. I know they’ve done well for some venues’ profit and bottom line. [But] ultimately pokies don’t contribute to culture at all. At least music contributes to society. It gives something back to the person who paid $25 or more to see you play.
“It gives you emotion, gives you feeling that you can take home, live with, go and buy the album, listen to it and enjoy the music all over again. Pokie machines just take from people. It might give you a good feeling at the time, but ultimately it makes you sad.
“I think The Whitlams had it right when they said they should blow up the pokies. I think they have killed live music culture in Sydney.”
A moment of silence passes between us. I ask them both where they see this going. Do they see more venue closures? What hope is there for live music?
Jeremy sees a long road ahead for the Sydney music scene, but he hopes musicians and bands will adapt and learn how to tough it out.
“There always needs to be an element of hope in everything,” he says.
“Musicians need to work with venues, encouraging people to come out again, investing in yourself and working towards your goal.”
“The government needs to address the pokie epidemic in our country, the fact you can put $100 within 20 seconds into a card machine and blow it all,” says Alex.
“Maybe then venues will be forced to have live entertainment to draw people in.”
Ultimately, they’re both right.
People have a right to be angry about government policy that is killing live music venues. But despite the new barriers, there still opportunities for musicians to carve out their own futures.
This is the new normal. We need to learn how to work with it, and around it.
Lying down and giving up is not an option.
Music Insight contacted Jam Gallery for a comment, but they are yet to respond.