Sweat dripping onto the sticky dance floors, hair slicked back, feet bouncing, and the feeling of being alive is everything a good night out needs. And, even better, for a long time, one could go see Australia’s biggest stars at any pub, on any night of the weekend. INXS, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil were playing on tiny stages in cramped rooms. It was a place where anybody could be whatever they pleased.
Sydney was the epitome of youth and art mixing to make something memorable…
Today, the landscape is different. It’s still very much hip and happening, just quieter than it used to be. People often complain about Sydney's lack of late-night fun and yearn for the days of lines curling around the corners of every pub on the street. In short, it is believed that Sydney is dead.
However, those lucky few who are in the know will tell you otherwise. ‘Turn It Up: Finding Sydney’s Sound’ is a love letter to the city’s long-lost nightlife, and plants the seed of hope that one day, it will be the norm once more… if only Sydneysiders dare to go find it.
Nathan Richman, co-founder and managing director of the independent creative production agency Elastic, created a documentary tasked with the challenge of proving that Sydney is not dead. Highlighting the hidden corners of the city and bringing them out of the shadows, he spoke to LBB’s Casey about the impact this documentary had on Sydney’s music landscape.
LBB> ‘Turn It Up: Finding Sydney’s Sound’ is a love letter to the past and the hope of a better artistic future. What was the inspiration behind doing a deep dive into Sydney’s music culture?
Nathan> ‘Turn it Up’ was born from the frustration of Sydney's lockout laws that had been in place since 2014. Although they were introduced to curb alcohol-fuelled violence, they had a negative effect on the live music scene and Sydney's nightlife. Venues were also being scrutinised for issues such as responsible service and noise complaints. Sydney had become cold, transactional, and not a great place to go out.
It all came to a head for us when we had one of our infamous Elastic christmas parties at a venue near central. They were fun, loud and always involved live acts and DJs. In 2016 we had a local funk band called Professor Groove and the Booty Affair play. They were high-energy and full of some of Sydney's best muso's - undoubtedly one of Sydney's best party bands.
Everyone was having the time of their life. Dancing, drinking and socialising... all those things you do at a party. That was until the venue owner demanded the music stop at 9:30 pm. This was on a Friday. We couldn't believe it. The owner was terrified of noise complaints and having to deal with council regulations. I then looked over at the band and they were all sitting there, sorely disappointed but not surprised. They turned around to me and they just went, ‘That's Sydney’, shrugging their shoulders. It was then I realised that this was the new reality for Sydney music artists. No fun, and more importantly for musos, no work. They then went on to tell me that their livelihoods had dried up, as venues were closing early or favouring smaller, low-impact acts, or were simply switching to pokies as they were considered more lucrative and easier to manage than a live music venue. The legislation had created an environment of cash-over culture.
Well, at the time, I had enough Dutch courage to do something about it. I proclaimed to the whole party, ’This is bullshit! We're going to make a doco about this and help Sydney find its mojo. Bring back its creative energy!’.
Luckily my colleague, Sam Holder, director of Elastic, held me accountable for my promise to Sydney's music scene. I think I may have come back to the office that week saying ‘I said what??!’. She's passionate about local live music too, and could see that people needed to hear this story so they could understand what lockouts had done to music and culture.
Together, over two years, we interviewed various Australian acts like Flight Facilities, Polish Club, Ian Moss, Tex Perkins and Abbie Dobson, as well as venue owners and politicians to tell a story that was balanced and honest. If venues kept getting shut down, then musicians would have nowhere to play - a disaster considering how important live music is fordriving a city's culture.
In the end, something that started as a ‘fuck you’ to government policy ended up being a positive, informative and enlightening experience. We learned about how and why government policy came about, and heard what the government was implementing to change things. We became more aware of Sydney’s creative culture and spoke to people that were active in the space to make things change. It also changed our attitude towards getting shit done. If you want things to be better, you have to put in the effort… there are paths you can take to make a difference!
LBB> What was the biggest highlight when creating this documentary?
Nathan> There were many highlights in creating this documentary:
- The process of making it was satisfying. We squeezed it in around commercial work. Every gap in our schedules, we’d jump back onto the documentary to chip away at telling the story. Sam was very good at driving this and would make it happen. Our production arm took a lot of pride in producing a story that was making a difference.
- Meeting some of Australia’s best music talent, from up-and-comers, pub band rockers, electronic geniuses, and punks to Aussie legends. They were all approachable, friendly and passionate about the music scene in Sydney.
- Meeting venue owners and politicians. Both parties brought up issues we had never thought of, making the debate more balanced and nuanced.
- We were given the opportunity to debut ‘Turn it Up’ at the Dendy Cinema in Newtown. Michael Rodrigues, the current 24-hour economy commissioner of NSW, headed up Time Out at the time. He noticed what we had done, was impressed at our proactiveness, and thought it was essential this story was told. He invited politicians and industry leaders to the launch, and he conducted a panel discussion to talk about the importance of Sydney's music scene, and what changes were required to improve it.
- It was a thrill for us to learn that the documentary was presented in the NSW parliament when they were conducting a commission into the effect of lockouts on the 24-hour economy. It was referenced when talking about the negative effects on nighttime culture and businesses. Sam and I had the great experience of talking about the documentary at the National Film and Sound Archive.
LBB> What do you believe the turning point was for the lack of live music in Sydney? Do you truly believe Sydney is dead?
Nathan> At the time of the documentary, a few things were working against venues and the live music scene. There had already been a steady downturn in attendance at pubs and venues. Local and state policy, residential development, and availability of venues and poker machines all played a part in impacting the live music scene. There was also a spate of alcohol-related crime which triggered the lockouts. And, government policies meant that it was harder to manage a venue with live music, and easier to make money by having poker machines in-house. There was also changing behaviour, with people starting to opt for the couch rather than going out.
In saying that, Sydney wasn’t dead! Music and culture are a bit like water - it will flow around any obstructions. It will react to the new environment and create new outlets. We discovered new venues in industrial areas, new small bars, warehouse parties, and even shared backyard parties. It even shaped some of the Sydney music styles of the time which were softer, and more subtle. The theory is a lot more people were creating music at home on their computers with headphones on, so a lower noise, more melodic style was born.
On the flip side, a more rebellious punk scene fired up playing in private parties and venues, which had less noise restrictions. The steady build-up of pressure culturally, as well as how it is tied to the healthy economy of a city, influenced new state and local policies to help Sydney's nightlife make a comeback. Organisations such as the Night Time Industries Association gave hospitality, music and arts a voice. It all felt like part of a wave of positivity to bring back Sydney’s nightlife, and now, even post-pandemic, we are seeing an explosion of activity and creativity thanks to the campaigning and lobbying done during lockdown.
LBB> What was the impact of this documentary when it first aired?
Nathan> The documentary had positive effects on Sydney and Elastic:
- First of all, we helped open a dialogue about the value of music, arts entertainment and venues in a city like Sydney. Not only culturally, but commercially. It raised questions of how much we should value the people in those sectors, and how policy can hugely affect people's lives.
- We learned that the health of a city is based on more than its transactions. It is more than its landmarks. People come to a place not only for its landmarks, but for its culture, people, and overall vibe. People like to gather and exchange ideas, and music is a way that people love to share.
- For Elastic, we met some great people in government and industry pushing for positive change - relationships we still keep to this day. We work closely with the office of the commissioner of the 24-hour economy, as well as the NTIA, continuing to work on initiatives to define different night-time commercial districts and help champion policies that are beneficial for Sydney’s night-time economy. Even though our intention for the documentary may have been a hotheaded protest at the start, we certainly had a more balanced view by the time it aired. We realised everyone should be listened to, and that there is always a solution that benefits all.
- The documentary was tabled in the NSW Parliament enquiry into the effects of the lockout on the night time economy. It helped politicians understand that their policies reached further than protecting patrons - they hampered business. Analogies of taking cars off the road to stop accidents started to be raised. The act of trying to protect people made Sydney suffer creatively, culturally and economically… all from its own legislation.
LBB> Do you have any of your own stories that you would like to share about your experiences with Sydney’s nightlife?
Nathan> Ha! I have lots of stories. So many! A lot of them are probably not suitable for this article.
The best stories are from unplanned spontaneous nights where we ended up somewhere unexpected, listening to music we’d never heard before, and having our minds blown at how good it was. One night it was EDM, the next punk, another would be drag queen bingo night, and on yet another, we’d go over to a bar playing metal… all before sitting down to a sophisticated dinner. You'd meet people from all walks of life and share common experiences!
What I can say is that Sydney's nightlife is one of the things that has shaped who I am today, and I know it has been defining for others too. I have been to a lot of gigs - and I mean a lot - over the years… mostly in my teenage years to my mid-thirties. I attended pubs, clubs, festivals and nightclubs in areas of Sydney, from Bondi to Parramatta. I’ve had nights where I’ve met lifelong friends, met celebrities, hung out with like-minded people, and hung out with people I’d never thought I’d hang out with. I’ve been exposed to music I love, and discovered music I never thought I’d like. There’s been the creation of new ideas, debates about everything, and solving the world’s problems. In short, the exposure to different experiences, people and ideas has perpetuated an open-mindedness that I still have today.
I managed to avoid that story, didn’t I?!
LBB> How has this documentary influenced your upcoming project, ‘Neon Streets’?
Nathan> The documentary highlighted to us that content about things you are passionate about can have an impact. It can help you find like-minded people, and motivate them to support causes and/or make changes. We learnt that if you want shit done, you have to make it happen… you can't assume someone else will do it. We also now know that if you want people to be involved, you just have to ask, as they are usually willing to help.
The documentary has also helped us find clients and friends that align with our values, and we now work closely with the 24-hour commissioner, local and state government, and have associations like the NTIA. We also have access to a lot of community leaders, venue owners, restaurateurs, musicians and artists… and everyone in between. We hear and take part in a lot of conversations, and the documentary has helped us have a voice at the table when shaping Sydney’s night time economy.
We want to take that same energy that we had making the documentary, and then overlay it with what we have learnt over the last five years since making it. Sydney has gone through many changes since then, and we feel we’re more knowledgeable and connected than we were then. We’re able to see things from all perspectives.
LBB> What are you hoping to achieve by highlighting all the exciting parts of Sydney in ‘Neon Streets’?
Nathan> This is a big question! In short, we are producing a 12-part online branded content series called ‘Neon Streets’. It’s a love letter to Sydney's nightlife that delves into the cultures and subcultures that power the city. It celebrates all those that participate in the night time economy in all of Sydney’s entertainment and dining districts. We dive into the stories of venue owners, musicians, restaurateurs, bar owners, communities, artists and subcultures that many people don’t know about. We hear the history of what people have developed, what they love, and what they cherish. We see how different communities are connected and lift each other, even if it doesn't look like it on the surface. We experience the emotions and creativity that is present when you’re part of the fabric of the night time economy. This series is a voyeuristic exploration of the colour that exists after dark.
Elastic is a creative company, and we think that the night time economy is the incubator of creativity and culture… And that’s important for our industry when you are always tapping into creative talent and communities. Night time experiences are where people grow, where they bond and where they challenge themselves. It’s a place of conversation and debate. It is a place in which we all learn to interact as humans - especially if you are working in a night time business. All of these things create the scaffolds of experience on which inspiration and ideas build themselves.
Working with the support of the Night Time Industries Association means we can work closely with like-minded people and brands that understand the benefits and challenges of the night time economy. We can help them with their mission to rebuild, protect and grow nighttime experiences. We can team up with them to support hospitality, arts, culture events, performance, and of course, patrons. Together we can help people to understand the overall benefits of a healthy nighttime economy in a way that is fun, unexpected and exciting. We want to show Sydney’s nightlife in a way it hasn't been seen before.
We are really excited about this project, as it will concentrate on the real Sydney - the one that we experience as residents of the city. We want to shine a light on the culture and creativity of the night, and show Sydney in a new way, beyond tourist sites and lists of places to go. The real Sydney! The exciting Sydney that we all love! We noticed when developing this series that Melbournians are very knowledgeable about Melbourne nightlife, and we want Sydneysiders to be just as passionate about Sydney’s nightlife. We want to make every Sydneysider an advocate of night time districts and all that happens in them.