Monthly Archives: July 2016

Strangling Creativity: the cultural effects of the Sydney lockout

Open Letter to the Premier and Deputy Premier of NSW

by Fiona McGregor

Dear Mike and Troy,

I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the deleterious effects of the lockout laws on our city. I’m a born and bred Sydneysider, a writer and performance artist. I was a musician in the prolific band scene of the 1980s; and producer and curator of events in Sydney through the 90s and 00s. I have met your sister Julia several times; she has read my books. I have published five, most set in Sydney. You may know my most recent Indelible Ink, which tracks the creeping conservatism of the early 21st century and how it has destroyed Sydney. It was a bestseller when released six years ago, won and was shortlisted for many prizes, and continues to sell well.

If most of my creative work has been about freedom, most has also taken place in the economies of the night. The economies of the night gave me wages that supported my artistic pursuits; in turn, I made art about them. From the early ‘80s I worked, as so many students and artists must, in hospitality. Glassie, waitress, kitchen hand, you name it. The band scene was huge: from the upper North Shore to the Shire, and west, the most humble band had two gigs a week. People are still listening to INXS, or Nick Cave’s early band Birthday Party, whom my band supported regularly when they were in Sydney. Our scene had a significant population of Brisbane musicians who had fled the Bjelke-Petersen regime, such as Ed Kuepper of the The Saints. They wrote songs about Queensland’s police state that are still being played, and earning royalties.

Such was my education, my formation as a young artist. It continued in the 90s with work in bars and restaurants around the Oxford Street area, home then to the most exciting progressive queer scene in the world. Working late shifts on weekends enabled me to get up on weekday mornings and write. My novel chemical palace was read beyond the queer party culture it paid homage to, by people such as your sister Julia, for whom it was emblematic of their own youthful experiences of a free, flamboyant, fun and safe city. The parties I co-produced in venues in and close to Oxford Street employed four DJs, half a dozen performance artists, a lighting designer and art designer, a cloakroom person, a security guard, and two people on the door. They brought in crowds that gave the bars revenue that paid bar staff, managers, and venue owners, themselves with substantial liquor licencing fees to pay. A portion of the takings always went to charity.

We danced until the sun came up – as humans have done since time immemorial. These were our corroborees. We told stories through song and dance, brought communities together, shared love, expressed our politics. We opened spaces for people to make experimental art that could not have existed in any other context. We lived all those great pop songs you still hear on the radio. Saturday Night Fever, Last Night a DJ Save My Life, and our very own Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. Sydney was alive. People came here from all over the world to participate in this wonderful culture, which celebrated life to its fullest, which valued the ground on which it was made; where genders, generations and races mixed more harmoniously than anywhere else. You would have seen the Mardi Gras parade on television. This was the coalface, where the raw gems got hacked out.

Over the years, licencing and other laws began to strangle this culture. The Entertainment Licence pushed venues already in stress to pay amounts that encouraged corruption. And bands could no longer play as they once had. Musicians out of work moved interstate and overseas. (Subsequently, NSW Government did a $400,000 enquiry into why the live music scene had died … )

 You are putting nails into our coffin. The youth of this city have been robbed; they will never have a fraction of the riches we had. Yet it isn’t just about youth. It is about economies, and culture. We didn’t stop just because we turned fifty. We are still dancing. But we are under siege. We have hardly anywhere to go now. We can’t employ musicians, artists, bar and door staff at even a fraction of the numbers we once did. The destruction is architectural as well. Our venues have closed. Entire buildings have been razed. Sydney, already gutted by Askin’s corrupt pro-development premiership of the 1960s-70s – has lost beautiful deco pubs, most significantly the Exchange Hotel, whose various bars and dancefloors were home to us for thirty years. We are afraid of the police.

We can’t pass our wisdom onto the next generation because this is not a material culture, it is one of ritual and constant reinvention. You have killed Kings Cross and Oxford Street, which lit up the Sydney night for decades, or a whole century in the case of the Cross. You have scorched our bora rings, held up a Not Welcome sign to visiting tribes, and punished us for nothing more than celebrating, storytelling, socialising and loving. Your actions with the lockout laws are stunning in their insensitivity and disrespect. That we pay your wages beggars belief in the way you treat us. What did the people do to deserve this?

I know better than you how violent heterosexual men can become on alcohol. Because these night-time economies I worked in, and wrote about, and still attempt to participate in, were in the frontline of that sort of behaviour. As a woman, I was frequently targeted; even more so as a queer. I saw bashings; many of my friends were bashed. But we would never have relinquished a fraction of our freedom to counteract this; to the contrary. The solution to the problem of violence is agency to the vulnerable, and education to the perpetrators. It was, and still is, punishment given when deserved, according to the law, which at the time was sufficient.

Who will write the songs your children will dance to? A fraction of the artist normally available to a city of this size, because so many have had their livelihoods taken from them. And they won’t be writing pæens to life in the southern Eden Sydney once was to the world, they won’t sing to freedom in the sun, to people who love and look out for each other. They will sing about a city that has become a mausoleum. A people who have been oppressed. A despot in thrall to an oligarch whose casino – the most violent venue in New South Wales – is the only one exempt from the lockout.

What are you going to do, Mike? And you, Troy? Are you even listening?

Fiona McGregor

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