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Hope & Music II: How Musicians and Punters can change the Sydney music landscape (Music Insight)

Originally published on Music Insight, September 10th 2018


Music is an empowering entity. It is one of humanity’s oldest forms of creative expressions, and its why, whenever it comes under an aura of controversy, people often react so emotionally.

In the previous article of this series, I spoke with the likes of ARIA award winning singer-songwriter Alex Lloyd, and up-and-coming musician Jeremy Costa, who both grew up within the Sydney music landscape in different decades.

While they acknowledged that political pressure and public issue of the lock-out laws were a contributory factor for the state of music in Sydney, it also came down to musicians themselves, how they engage with venues and put themselves out there. And critically, it comes to punters and whether they want to discover artists that they might never had heard of.

Following that article, I was lucky enough to speak to many amazing musicians who echoed Jeremy and Alex. Throughout this conversation, I began to question: how can musicians stem the tide of venues being closed down? Are promoters and venues doing enough? And do Sydneysiders themselves want to support their own homegrown music and nightlife?

A musician named Xan Müller, and a promoter, named Louise Palmer, got in touch, and invited me out to a place called the CoWork Newtown, for a beer.

When I arrived, I was stressing from coming straight from work, and keeping them waiting. However, I was quickly put at ease when I met them, standing outside and enjoying a cigarette.

Xan, originally from Brisbane, works with Bondi Beach Radio and comes from a similar radio background to me. He is about to release a brand new EP, Disconnex, which he made through recording sounds from the construction of the WestConnex project.

Louise was originally from the UK, having got into music at a young age through grunge music.

We crack open the beers, and it’s not long before our conversation shifts to Sydney’s music scene. I tell them about my conversations with Jeremy and Alex, and mention their conclusions about the issues around the lockout laws and musicians themselves.

“I came here in 2015 [from London],” Louise explains.

“What’s happening here, it’s kind of mind boggling. You have a major, world class city, and it’s got lots of cool eclectic creative people here. In my opinion, it feels like you’re getting stifled, you can’t express yourself because all these venues are getting shut down and haven’t been able to do business.

“It affects the musicians as well… It’s the case that there are so many musicians, but not enough venues…”

So is it a case that this issue is isolated specifically to Sydney? Or is this part of a global trend of music?

“I think Sydney might be the canary in the coal mine,” Xan admits candidly.

“Music is heavily tied to social culture, and if there’s any imbalance or erosion of the musical element, you can cause a feedback loop where you’re eroding your culture. There was a big heyday of music doing well in Sydney, extending probably from the Nineties to the Sydney Olympics.

“But, after that event things started to die down. There was not much reinvestment in people making original music, but there was big investment in bringing imported music from overseas.

“It can be negative when, as a culture, you’re not creating something for yourself. It also comes down to Australia’s unique challenges, the way we see success.

“We’ve got tall poppy syndrome, we got hometown cringe. We don’t necessarily value [musicians] from our hometown until they get big in the States, the UK and Europe.

“When I see DJs who are born in Sydney doing ‘Berlin Night’, that’s when I cringe. I think the lockout laws are definitely bad. But, our problem started when we stopped believing in local music.”

I hesitate for a moment. It explains why artists like Pink, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay can sell out stadiums, but local artists struggle to get people in through the door. So does it come down to the venue?

“We need to stop blaming the venues,” Xan emphasises.

“It’s not the venues fault. Musicians need to start stepping up to the plate, making new music. And people have an open mind and go watch it. People will go to see new music from an artist that is already famous.

“But, they wouldn’t even think or consider the idea of saying: ‘I’m going to go to a random venue and find a band that I’ve never ever heard of.’ No one is willing to just go and discover it, it doesn’t happen anymore.”

“[It’s the same when] the big name bands that come here,” adds Louise.

How so?

“Look at it like this,” she explains.

“The first support act plays before a big show, but most people don’t know who they are, and so nobody turns up until the main act turns up. And that is wrong as well, it’s just the mentality of people…”

What does it come down to then? It’s hard to get people to change their minds. Does it maybe comes down to a case of letting people know the opportunities that are out there?

“When I’m promoting, people say, ‘you’re a promoter, you should do the bulk of promoting’” begins Louise.

“But honestly, [it only works when] everyone really gets around it, and get that word out there. I think most musicians are kind of scared to put their name out there, in case it’s a failure. They shouldn’t do that.

“You’ve got to give people a reason to go out and see you, you’ve got to give a reason for people to engage.

“It actually genuinely hurts me when I put something out, and the musician doesn’t do anything about it. Because, I’m promoting this for you. I believe in you. Surely you should believe in yourself as well. Will people listen to it if you don’t even believe in it? It can’t be all down to the venues in the promoters putting it out there and doing all of that work…”

“If any musician complains that it’s too hard and they give up, I’m fine with them giving up… and I’m not being pessimistic when I say that,” laughs Xan.

“Because if you’re not in it to win it, get out.”

I take a sip from my beer. So, is this the endpoint?

“We need to start recording music and we need to start making changes,” proclaims Xan.

“We have to stop this adversarial view that there’s a war between the artist, the venues and all that crap…

“You just need to keep going and keep creating and collaborating. You need to work hard and get creative. Involve everyone: the visual arts community, the theatre, anything you can to get involved…”

“You can’t do it half-arsed,” adds Louise.

“It’s a lot of hard work and you have to want to do it. We should all stand together: musicians, venues, promoters. I think you’ve got to put in that hard work and you got to show that you’re willing and able to do it.”

In the end, what struck out to me is the mentality, of musicians and the public.

Sydney has an amazing creative community, with venues, promoters and people who want to see musicians succeed.

So for all those reading this, worrying about the future of music in Sydney, I set you a challenge:

Go to a live venue one night. Frankie’s Pizza in Wynyard. The Townie in Newtown. Hustle & Flow in Redfern. Any bar that does live music. Discover someone you’ve never heard of before.

I guarantee, with so many amazing musicians in Sydney, you will find something you’ll like. Just go out, and discover.


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