Just because we rock, doesn’t mean we’re made of stone: The future of live music in Sydney’s Inner West.


 Sex in Columbia’s Nath Morrison, far right: I always come out of here (The Annandale) with a ringing in my ears and a smile on my face.”

 Sydney’s Inner West has long been known for its live music scene, but could council regulation and compliance standards be compromising the industry’s future? Hayley Casey stands to find out.

Another brick in the wall. Yes, lyrics from a Pink Floyd classic, also a failed attempt to save the most iconic live music venue in Sydney: The Annandale Hotel. A shabby sweat-box that reeks of stale beer and cigarettes – and the Mecca for live music in Sydney.

It feels like a house party as people weave through its maze-like architecture, each corner less aesthetic than the last. No one seems to notice though as they swarm to the bar. To order a drink best to learn sign language first, which will benefit you tomorrow when you wake to find temporary deafness has stuck around.

Then proceed to sad looking mismatched lounges – god forbid an ultraviolet fluid tracer light shone on them, you’d see them from space – there is more stuffing on the outside of them than the inside.

The PA system is painful in its tune and its level, but the connectedness overrules all technicalities. The intensity in the air moves the crowd further into sonic hypnosis. It’s a beautiful kind of ugliness.

The Annandale was built in the 1930’s, it’s fair to say that 21st century buildings have superseded her. Two years ago ‘Buy a Brick’ was an ambitious attempt to finance regulatory and compliance burdens Leichardt Council had imposed on The Annandale– it failed. Ever since, Sydney’s music media has been awash with headlines from “The sad decline of the Annandale,” “How Leichardt Council sunk The Annandale Hotel,” to “The Annandale Saved: live music to continue.” A hardcore game of Chinese whispers.

This week, Oscars Hotel Group purchased the Annandale. No one knows how to feel about the new step-dad of rock and roll. So much history is at stake.

Bands like Nirvana, The Foo Fighters, Superjesus and The Living End have rocked the stage there. The set lists have always been the perfect mixture of rock and roll legends to up-and-coming artists: a rite of passage for unsigned bands.

Front woman of band Hey Horze: Lauren Azar is sentimental about The Annandale. “The Annandale is the best place in Sydney to play, yes it’s dirty, but that is why I love it, the crowd are here to see you play and it’s a very supportive patronage.”

Over the past five years doors have shut on the Sandringham, Lawnsdowne and the Hopetoun. A domino-effect of closures, but you won’t see any white flags around the Inner West. Musician Craig Lyons feels far from defeated: “We have had to re-assess what is really important, is it the physical building, these industrial models or is it the exchange of ideas and sharing that can be taken into our own hands.”

So the evolution began.

Artist Run Initiatives (ARI’s) are the brain child of ‘taking it into their own hands’. Since 2011, The Newsagency in Marrickville has been a second home to many of the music scenes wayfarer’s. Owner Ali Avron says it is because: “People are attracted to things that are organic and aren’t borne out of capitalism and greed. Alternatives make them feel like they’re contributing to something way more nourishing.”

Musicians not being paid for gigs in licensed venues also fuels the alternative. The risks associated with turn-over and booking agent fees often leads to little or no money being made. Club promoter Siobhan Poynton said, “This means a lot of musicians who could make a living off playing in bands can’t,” because the model has changed. Regardless of artists not being able to ‘give up their day job’ the passion keeps them going. Craig Lyons agrees – “It’s not like it pays the mortgage, or we do it because we have to, it’s because we genuinely believe in self expression and sharing ideas.”

The Annandale’s predecessor Dan Rule is not so convinced about the pilgrimage into the underground. He hopes there will be enough support for unsigned artists on a more commercial platform. “Music is very vibrant right now, so hopefully there will be enough venues to support these guys. They need practice on that size stage before they take that next leap into the bigger venues.” While underground and small boutique venues are a great entertainment alternative, artists seeking career exposure require established venues.

Sydney is rife with initiatives that appear to be fighting for ‘established venues’: Labor Loves Music, Sydney Live Music Task Force, and Save Live Australian Music (SLAM). Sadly, output hasn’t been as sensational as their names suggest, many seem to be driven by political motivations. Being on a task force is the ‘new black’.

Leichardt Mayor Darcy Byrne features throughout the Parramatta Road music initiatives and media. Darcy’s plan is to convert Parramatta Road into a cultural hub for performers: “Where entrepreneurs want to come and invest their money in The City of Sydney, a world where they want to spend their time.” This seems idealistic considering one hotel couldn’t make it through the rigour of compliance. It was his council who offered The Annandale a 3am license one week after owners Matt and Dan Rule surrendered the business into receivership. Dan remembers the pain that came with the decision – “That really hurt us, does it take people to walk out the door bankrupt before the councils will do something?”

Giving further traction to the live music debate last week, Education Minister and former Midnight Oil front man, Peter Garrett reflected: “What’s happened in Sydney over the last decade is that we’ve had less and less places for people to gather and hear the talent and be with community and get that expression, which makes us very human.”

How exhausting all this acknowledgment becomes. It’s hard to associate something so sacred and inclusive with all these feigned political contributions on the issue.

Music blogger and activist Dr Ianto Ware sympathises with the headaches    ‘entrepreneurs’ are put through: “Small business has been beaten into the ground by regulatory systems. I think it limits opportunity for performance and exhibition of locally made culture and I just think it’s wrong to make a regulatory system you need a small fortune to negotiate.”

Well if takes a hotel chain to purchase The Annandale…the devil is in the detail.

If the definition of insanity is to continuously do the same thing and expect a different result, how can we justify the current state of live music venues in Sydney? Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley has pioneered the ideal music model, with a dedicated entertainment precinct, limited noise restrictions, and its purpose built to fulfill music lovers and artists alike. Something Sydney is lacking.

It’s ironic that regulation and compliance are destroying venues that were never intended to meet 21st century building standards. Compliance wouldn’t save anyone if there were a fire at The Annandale. She’s been re-worked, re-touched and re-financed, but like the old saying goes: ‘you can’t polish a turd’. Around every tired corner in these historic venues are more regulatory nightmares. Will it take millions of dollars before councils realise that it’s the models, it would take a rebuild or the cost of one to reach compliance? They need to stop dragging publicans through the ridiculous heartache of compliance when it’s only a temporary solution.

The initiatives and the systems are as tired as the buildings themselves.

All is not lost when you are here, no one appears worried about its future, they’re too busy basking in what it is all about…the music!

As we sit on one of the suspicious looking lounges in the Annandale, front man of band Sex in Columbia, Nath Morrison’s face beams when he remembers: “I always come out of here with a ringing in my ears and a smile on my face…” Good, I think. I’m glad that I learned sign language.


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