By NICHOLAS PIPE
Increased debate over Adelaide’s small venue licensing conditions has put the strength of its grassroots music scene into question.
With the “Raise The Bar” campaign and a packed-out public meeting at city venue The Jade Monkey, the arduous process that small-scale city venues must go through to obtain a license has been put under the microscope.
Dr Ianto Ware, CEO of non-profit group Renew Adelaide, thinks the impact on grassroots entertainment venues is a big part of the regulation debate.
“We waded through all the gig guides from the last fifteen years and noticed a significant decrease in live music in the city area,” he says.
“The current systems (venue regulations) produce such high costs to negotiate, that smaller and lower profit activity – which usually encompasses most creative ventures – simply can’t afford to negotiate it.”
As a result, Adelaide’s music scene is potentially having its growth stunted from the bottom up.
Daniel Randell, General Manager of MusicSA, says the presence of smaller venues is “an essential part of the social fabric for live music”.
“Small music venues have been the breeding ground for some of our best talent over the years, giving artists the opportunity to hone their skills in front of small audiences without the need to fill a 500 capacity room,” he says.
“Playing a small venue in front of 50 – 100 people can create a wonderful atmosphere, which is a key to audience development – providing memorable live music experiences.
“Those same 50 people watching a band in a 500 capacity venue would get nowhere near the same experience, and it is hard for an emerging act to fill those rooms.”
Dylby McCullough is a member of Adelaide-based band Pimpin’ Horus, and thinks smaller clubs provide a crucial foundation for young talent.
“Small venues are absolutely critical to the development of new bands and to the local music scene,” he says.
“I learnt so much by playing small venues in my first few years of being in bands… it gave me the opportunity to develop my playing and showmanship on stage in front of an audience.”
Mr McCullough points to The Jade Monkey as an example of the experience small venues can provide.
“Zac and Naomi (Jade Monkey owners) pretty well give the organising band the run of the place,” Mr McCullough says.
“Rather than just rocking up and playing with minimal promo beforehand, it required us to organise the sound-tech, door person, merchandise desk, and to promote it properly to ensure we got a crowd in.
“The freedom they gave us also allowed us to organise our own band cocktail behind the bar, models giving out tasters, a raffle, plus various décor additions – some of these things which a lot of venues don’t readily allow.”
Live music fan Jennie Lenman attended the Jade Monkey forum, and supports the encouragement of grassroots entertainment venues.
“Those smaller places usually have a nicer feel, and a nicer atmosphere,” she says.
“Quite often they’re not so much about money and numbers, but about getting the right crowd together.”
Small-venue regulations have not only been a barrier to conventional establishments, but also to more progressive ideas.
Adam Daze is the founder of Soundpond, a local online radio station which produces 14 hours of live music every day.
He says the regulations are stopping his project from evolving.
“If we could move into a small venue with a reasonable liquor licence we could be having a different party every night of the week – the people and the culture is there,” Mr Daze says.
“Sadly often the most passionate are the least able to deal with the red tape and high-investment-barrier.”
Nightlife capitals like Melbourne and Sydney reformed their regulations several years ago, to improve their small venue culture – something that Mr McCullough vouches for.
“Musically, I think Adelaide can proudly hold its own with bigger cities like Melbourne and Sydney – but unfortunately the number of quality small venues pales in comparison,” he says.
“Melbourne does seem like it has a stronger local music scene currently… that’s probably down to the number of really cool small venues in and just out of the city.
“If you know where to look in Melbourne, or are happy to explore, you can find some absolutely awesome pubs.”
Mr Daze understands why local entertainers and club owners choose to cross the border.
“The reason they move interstate (or overseas) from Adelaide is purely because there’s a healthier culture there, because these smaller venues do exist to let it come out of the shadows.”
Since there are multiple regulation areas intertwined with each other – liquor licensing, venue purpose categories, building regulations, and so on – a solution may be difficult to engineer.
Speaking at the Jade Monkey forum, Lois Boswell, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Premier, explained that reform will not happen overnight.
“The problems that are experienced in this area are actually quite complex… it’s not a matter of waltzing into parliament tomorrow and changing one law, and all the problems will change,” she said.
“I’ve done a lot in a lot of public policy areas – I’ve never seen an area that has so many interacting regulations as this one.
“All of these things need addressing over time and in specific ways.”
Ms Boswell also acknowledged the efforts of many venue owners who were beaten by the system.
“These people who got there… for every single one of them, there’s a whole lot that gave up, got bled out of money, went away,” she said.
Local bar owner Guy Brown thinks it will take more than just administrative reform to improve the situation.
“This debate is larger than just fixing the ‘smaller’ venues; the problem has its roots in the very fabric of society here, and most of those factors aren’t particularly possible to influence or mitigate, except with the slow passage of time,” he says.
“It’s a war of attrition, and sadly one we all are victims of.
“I did a lot of work fighting the last time they tried to shut all venues by 3am, and realised the whole mess is so interwoven that you can’t just fix one aspect of it, and certainly not any of it overnight.”
Dr Ware also has difficulty explaining how things should be changed.
“The question is so immense I can’t even begin to answer it… the legal frameworks are immense, complex and extremely detailed,” he says.
“All I can say is we need to rethink how we apply these frameworks to small business, older building and innovative activity to ensure they allow us to produce the kind of society we want to produce.”
“The central point is that the current system is virtually impossible to navigate for smaller and lower profit ventures.”
John Wardle, an architect who helped reform Sydney’s entertainment venue regulations, highlighted noise laws as a major obstacle while addressing the Jade Monkey forum.
“There’s Fortitude Valley in Brisbane, where development controls require double glazing… the EPS are raised so you can make more noise,” he said.
“Building controls need to be addressed, and I’m aware that Adelaide is taking some steps to introduce some of those.”
On the other hand, Ms Boswell pointed out that a solution must consider existing buildings.
“There are now new codes around trying to make things much more noise resistant (but it) doesn’t solve the areas we’ve got now,” she said.
“It’s a crime that the Austral and the Exeter have trouble playing live gigs these days.”
Ms Lenman simply thinks loud city concerts should go with the territory.
“If you’re going to move into the city, you’ve got to expect noise, right?”
Despite the elaborate path to a solution, Dr Ware is pleased with the progress being made on the issue.
“There is a huge amount of both community and government interest in altering licensing laws,” he says.
“All we need to do now is figure out what we actually want to replace them with.”
Ms Lenman thinks the Jade Monkey meeting was a significant moment in the ongoing debate.
“There was an optimistic feel in the room… It was a positive sign that so many high-profile people were there for the forum,” she says.
Mr Randell is similarly confident.
“The need for reform is now recognised at a local and state government level,” he says.
“As such this should be a no brainer – reform will happen and it’s a matter of when not if.”
He thinks a solution hinges on giving official recognition to smaller venues.
“The main area of reform as I see it is the need for a specific small venue license,” Mr Randell says.
“I would hope that reform of licensing regulations will make it more attractive for small venues to engage live music, which has the potential to provide more performance opportunities for artists and bring local live music to a wider audience.”