BY KIERAN ADAIR
For the students, creatives and musical misfits bouncing around Sydney between 2005 and 2010, life revolved around Friday night. Each week a party called Purple Sneakers would sound its siren call, luring crowds to the sweat-filled dance floor of the Abercrombie Hotel.
Sneakers was an institution, one fuelled by a decade-long promiscuous relationship with guitars and dance music, cheap beer and liberal closing hours. It was the stomping ground of The Rubens, RÜFÜS, and Cloud Control, a cultural epicenter that would inspire a generation, a church of sticky shoes and dark corner pashes.
“We pushed that place to its limits…” Martin Novosel, founder of the club night, wrote recently.
“Putting bands on the roof, pushing into abandoned levels of the building, putting bands on at 2am and 3am in the morning, projecting visuals onto the side of the old brewery, often times running well into daylight hours, and doing pretty much whatever we could to make Sydney’s nightlife that bit more interesting.”
When its final night came, the line for the Abercrombie stretched all the way to the Central station. Right next to it, on the side of a thin construction fence, hung posters promoting its replacement: Central Park shopping centre and a batch of new luxury apartments.
While it’s easy to blame the lockouts for the current spate of venue closures, the Abercrombie’s demise shows this isn’t the whole story. Years before the lockouts, the forces of corporatism were already at work dismantling the city’s nightlife.
Forgotten alongside the debate over closure times and alcohol-fuelled violence, these forces have continued to work: turning student bars into gastro pubs, nightclubs into apartments, and live music into noise complaints.
While the former’s unique to Sydney, the latter has taken its toll around the world.
In London, a recent report found that the number of clubs in the city had almost halved between 2005 and 2015. Like here, the redevelopment of nightlife districts was largely to blame.
As luxury apartments replace existing developments, rents go up and so do business rates. Councils have to juggle the demands of their new residents with those of the existing nightclub ecosystem – when in trouble, they prioritise residents, and the clubs vanish.
You can see this in Kings Cross, where residents voted overwhelmingly in support of the lockouts. You can see this on Oxford Street, where Q-Bar and Spectrum have been bought and turned into office space. And, you can see it in Glebe, where a single noise complaint recently forced the Harold Park Hotel to suspend its live music.
When the scale of venue closures in London became known, former-Mayor Boris Johnson established the city’s Night Time Commission, tasking it with finding ways to protect the city’s nightlife. The bulk of its recommendations are now being put into place by his successor, Sadiq Khan, and being met with success.
As well as 24-hour tube lines, Khan appointed a “Night Czar,” who works to bring together businesses and authorities to make sure nights run smoothly. The Czar also chairs a new Music Development Board, which was set up, along with new planning guidelines, to assist those wanting to establish new music venues and nightclubs. Importantly, the new Mayor has implemented an Agent of Change principle, which stops residents challenging noise that predates their arrival.
As a result of this program, last year saw the fewest club closures in London in a decade – with a new venue opening for each venue shut.
With a change in Premier comes an opportunity for the City of Sydney to put its own roadmap to recovery into action. In 2014, the council released its Live Music and Performance Action Plan – sadly just nine of its 60 recommendations have been implemented.
“We made a policy recommendation that the City should change our development control plan, that we should change policies, that we should change procedures so that live music venues didn’t get fined and threatened out of existence because of one upset neighbour.” Linda Scott, Labor Councillor, and live music activist, recently told The Music.
“That plan hasn’t been implemented, the policies haven’t been changed. In fact, the plan hasn’t even been budgeted for in the city even though it is over three years since it was released.”
Across the aisle, Liberal Councillor Christine Forster has also argued in favour of acting to restore the city’s nightlife.
“Dominic Perrottet [deputy leader of the Liberals]… vowed to tackle the issues important to his fellow millennials, and pointed to lockout laws being raised at barbecues with his mates. He and his Premier now have the perfect opportunity to listen and act.” she wrote in a recent Daily Telegraph op-ed.
Though, she did note, regretfully that “the lockout laws have changed Kings Cross forever. It will never be what it was before.”
Maybe not, just like there’ll never be another Abercrombie – and maybe that doesn’t matter. Venues and memories change with each generation, the lesson from London is that Sydney can do this better.