When former premier Gladys Berejiklian announced in late 2019 that the wildly unpopular, economically ruinous and reputation-denting lockout laws were to be repealed, many operators in the nightlife sector felt certain that this would herald an after-dark renaissance for the city. Indeed, the state government’s move to soften noise pollution regulations, slash licensing red tape and appoint former Time Out managing director Michael Rodrigues as Sydney’s first ‘night mayor’ set the stage for a post-lockout boom for the nighttime economy. However, as fate would have it, another major challenge, arguably even greater than the six-year battle to end the lockouts, would deal another devastating blow to Sydney’s nightlife. Just as lockouts eased, lockdowns took their place, with businesses not just limited in their offering but shuttered altogether.
Those venues that were able to weather the storm are now adjusting to the ‘living with Covid’ new normal, with every health restriction now lifted across the hospitality industry but the lingering impacts of a reduced workforce and community spread remain an issue. And it’s not just staffing headaches that are proving problematic for the hospo sector. The fallout from the two-years of on-again-off-again density limits, dancefloor prohibitions and home-delivery pivots continues to prove a sticking point to many businesses, particularly in the live music scene, when it comes to getting paying customers through the door.
Now that people can finally go out again, why aren’t they? This is the question that venue owners across the city are asking themselves, so to help them answer this conundrum, Time Out in partnership with the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) conducted research to find out why consumer behaviours have changed and what venues can offer their punters to encourage their return.
Hearteningly, the majority of respondents said they felt positive about getting back out on nights out, and 31 per cent said they attended live music events a couple of times a month. The granular data on the kinds of events that are most attractive leaned towards underground-style events like raves amongst the 18-25-year-olds surveyed, while older respondents said they were most interested in small, intimate and local gigs. Respondents aged over 25 were mostly looking for rock and electronic music gigs, while 18- to 25-year-olds were more interested in alternative and hip-hop gigs.
When asked about their thoughts on the live music scene in Australia, there was a call for more opportunities for bands. “So many bands, so few venues,” said Elizabeth, 31, from Sydney, while Dennis, aged 24 from regional NSW, noted, “We need to give more up-and-comers a better chance rather than artists that are becoming bland and have been around for a while.” Michael, from Sydney, said, “A live music scene is like an ecosystem and it depends on years of favourable conditions,” adding, “There are too few small independent venues, I think because of over-regulation and the introduction of pokies onto pubs… I think we need to make live music as easy as possible for artists to play, and punters to get to.”
Echoing the sentiment of several respondents, Tara, aged 30 from Sydney, said: “It's really sad to have lost so many good venues over the years between lockout laws and the pandemic. Now that we have fewer venues you can't choose where to go based on crowd/vibe, because everyone has limited options. I don't go out as much because of this. Would be so great to get back to more choice, so everyone has a venue for them and the vibe they're after.”
Other accessibility, many respondents also commented that gig tickets are too expensive and that a lack of small venues has made it nearly impossible for lesser-known acts to find a stage, which has impacted genres that might be seen as more niche like the indie, punk and prog scene.