Sydney's nightlife, now

Written by
Jordi Kretchmer
Nightlife personalities
Photograph: Daniel Boud
Sydney’s nightlife scene has shifted dramatically since the controversial lockout laws were first imposed in March of 2014. The changes have been felt in a myriad of ways for punters, promoters, partygoers, DJs and musicians and, most visibly, the venues. Since Time Out initially reported on reforms, the Flinders, Soho, Trademark, Q Bar, Hugos Lounge and the Backroom have all closed.
The lockout laws were introduced in March 2014 by the state government in an attempt to curb alcohol-fuelled violence, following a number of fatalities. The suite of reforms mainly have affected the ‘entertainment precinct’, which stretches across the CBD, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, the Rocks, Kings Cross and Cockle Bay, and include 1.30am venue lockouts, the 3am cessation of alcohol service at bars, pubs and clubs and the state-wide take-away alcohol must not be sold after 10pm. As a result the laws have affected the way Sydneysiders go out… What were once bustling nightspots are now much quieter, there’s been as dispersing of revellers to the fringes of the city, and generally there is a lot less positivity towards late night culture in what could and should be a vibrant and functional, 24 hour city.
Tyson Koh is someone who’s entrenched in music and nightlife in Sydney. The producer and programmer of the ABC’s long-running Rage, Koh also DJs and has thrown a few parties in his time. He heads up the alliance Keep Sydney Open, which is fast gaining momentum.
“We’re aiming to get public support, find alternative solutions to alcohol-fuelled violence and we’re trying to educate people,” says Koh. “ “Keep Sydney Open is pushing for solutions that maintain the level of cultural activity, allow businesses to flourish, and have an even better outcome in controlling alcohol-fuelled violence than what we’ve been seeing.” Those solutions range from implementing more effective public transport options to recognising the role of live music and entertainment in mitigating violence.

"We’re aiming to get public support, find alternative solutions to alcohol-fuelled violence and we’re trying to educate people."

- Tyson Koh, Keep Sydney Open

So what about the violence? NSW’s Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research’s latest research (from ambulance and police administrative data sources) reports a decline in late-night assault trends since the lockouts were implemented. However, assaults in 2013 were at the lowest levels in a decade, suggesting a decline in violence was happening regardless of the lockout laws. 

FBi Radio hostAdam Lewis, a former booker at the late-night live haunt Goodgod and programmer of the Secret Garden Festival, has seen the effects on both businesses and the diversity of offerings in Sydney. Lewis tells Time Out: “There’s less room to take risks, because a lot of these venues are hanging on by a thread now. It creates a culture in Sydney that’s just less daring and flamboyant and ultimately, less interesting.
“There are fewer [violent] incidents, and we can’t totally ignore that, but by the same token we’ve lost more audience than we’ve lost amount of incidents.” The downturn in incidences, moreoever, have been marred by the recent death of a man following a one-punch attack on October 6, 2015, outside in Grosvenor Hotel in Waterloo at 4pm – outside the lockout zone, not in a venue, and firmly out of the hours targeted by the laws. “I want to see a more precise and a more measured approach to this,” Lewis says, “Because this shit shouldn’t still be happening.”
“Police and government are aiming for zero incidents on the streets, which is never going to happen,” says Koh. “Their rush to a solution has caused an immense amount of pain to businesses, and also the public.”

“I don’t think there is shame in wanting to dance at 4am – why should you be allowed to do it at 11pm, but not then?”

- Erin Moy, Bad Deep

Erin Moy is one third of Entropico, a production company that works closely with musicians and festivals and hosts monthly late-night dance party Bad Deep, which has managed to flourish despite the lockouts – but it hasn’t been an easy venture. “It’s changed the options for being a party promoter – if you want to throw a late-night party that runs ’til 6am, there’s not a lot of places you can do it,” says Moy. “I don’t think there is shame in wanting to dance at 4am – why should you be allowed to do it at 11pm, but not then?”
Carly Roberts shares this sentiment. Seven years ago Roberts founded Picnic, a touring and events company that specialises in underground dance music. “I have a party in one month that I don’t have a venue for – and that’s a reoccurring theme. Although there is no other choice but to adapt right now, it takes a lot of resources.
“It’s not about money but you have to have a sustainable business. Now we are having to go into venues that aren’t set up for what we do – they aren’t nightclubs.”

"There is no other choice but to adapt right now, it takes a lot of resources."

- Carly Roberts, Picnic

The nature of going out in Sydney has changed. Many parties have shifted from night time to day parties; clubs are no longer the go-to venues for gigs and DJs; and alternatives – pubs, warehouses, beaches, galleries – are being used. And perhaps it is the only way forward. Moy says, “Sometimes it’s good to have obstructions because it makes you think creatively and that results in some of the most interesting work, but it’s also the hardest. And we don’t want to make it too hard for people to be able to create fun.”
This is also where the role of live music and culture steps in. It creates a positive atmosphere, which has a mitigating effect on violence and violent people. There are bars and clubs that have not only live music but also talks, trivia nights, panel discussions, comedy and theatre – venues such as Goodgod, Oxford Art Factory, Freda’s, the World Bar and the Lord Gladstone. “I think they should be able to operate until whatever hour they like because they don’t contribute significantly to the violence that’s been experienced in the city,” Koh says.
So, what are the next steps for Sydney? “At some point it needs to become less about bitching about the lockout laws, and more about building culture and finding new ways to engage people,” says Lewis. The ideas are certainly there – big and small, practical and creative. Moy says, “I’d love to see a nightlife precinct – dining, entertainment, theatre music venues and clubs – not in a residential area. Even if there were opportunities where venues were helped to soundproof spaces or were offered more security.”
The acknowledgement of artistic and cultural spaces as being different would even the playing field too. “The real paradox is that music and entertainment venues, with engaging content, are generally the ones with the least amount of problems.” Lewis suggests a different category of licence for those venues, making them more affordable to open. “In the ideal world this would ensure the longevity of the really great venues that we still have, and also potentially incentivise places that aren’t doing anything like that to bring culture into venues. From a basic safety and engagement point of view, I think would be really beneficial.”

"The real paradox is that music and entertainment venues, with engaging content, are generally the ones with the least amount of problems."

- Adam Lewis

Tyson Koh believes the solution starts with the community of venues, creatives and policy makers coming together. “We all need to sit around a table and come up with solutions. Ultimately we are adhering to a police agenda, which is very valid, but there are other agendas as well.”

With a review of the lockout laws looming, the city is in a state of flux. “We’ve gone through a process of losing a lot of nightclubs and a real downturn in a lot of elements of the culture, and now it could go either way,” says Lewis. “It could continue to be a death-spiral or it could mean innovative ideas and a chance for a younger generation to spring up through the cracks and flourish.
“I feel like ever since the lockouts there’s been this kind of prevailing narrative in Sydney that nightlife is dying, all the venues are all closing down. And no real championing of what’s really happening in the scene.”
Whether it’s imaginative solutions, practical action or the dismantling of the lockout laws, everyone can do something. “We should never ignore lockout laws, especially as a cultural community – but now it’s not just necessarily about overturning them, but just to have Sydney’s cultural scene recognised, and protected.”
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