Good planning and governance has the potential to breathe life back into Sydney’s music scene, writes James Hulme from independent think tank The Committee for Sydney. Sydney should consider dedicated music zones, he says, and think outside the box to keep neighbours of noisy venues happy.
Music makes a city. Or, to be more accurate, there are certain pieces of music that define and encapsulate a city. Think George Gershwin’s “Manhattan’ for New York, or The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” for London. What would be the equivalent song for Sydney? Perhaps “You Gotta Love This City” by The Whitlams, or Midnight Oil’s “Bus to Bondi” (feel free to continue this debate in the comment section).
Music is in the news with the publication on Thursday of the NSW parliament’s inquiry into the music and arts economy. A true cross-party effort, the inquiry’s report points to a declining music sector across the state, with has had an impact far beyond music venues, pubs and clubs. Music is not merely important for its cultural offering, it supports a creative sector that represents over 5 per cent of NSW’s total workforce and an industry that exports over $1.5 billion worth of goods every year.
A great music offering is also vital in retaining and attracting talent to NSW. As the Committee for Sydney’s recent Benchmarking report sets out, Sydney’s reputation for culture and destination appeal has slipped against other global cities, in part due to a perception that our night-time offer could be improved. Sydney’s economy relies on access to a bright, creative, skilled workforce and offering diverse night-time activities will help keep talent in the city.
Moreover, a vibrant scene will keep our most talented musicians, who like many skilled employees are highly mobile, in Sydney. Access to proactive space and smaller venues for musicians to learn their craft is imperative for supporting the artists of tomorrow. This is also a global challenge. Indeed, visiting Sydney this week, Detroit’s night time economy ambassador, Adrian Tonon, spoke of his city’s rich musical heritage – from Aretha to Eminem – and the consistent challenge of retaining new artists who might otherwise be attracted to New York or Los Angeles.
How Sydney’s music scene can be revived
Like so many areas of public policy, solutions to saving Sydney’s music scene can be found in good planning and governance. The inquiry describes a mosaic of regulation and governance for the music sector in NSW and a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. Being clearer about where the buck stops and adopting a light touch approach to regulation would help to cut red tape and lessen the burden on music providers. Venues must be seen as part of the solution, not the problem, and be allowed to curate their own musical offerings without wading through reams of paperwork.
Planning for precincts where live music takes place is also vital, including innovative approaches to noise mitigation to protect venues and residents alike. The City of Sydney’s “Agent of Change” model could help support existing live music venues. Based on a similar scheme in the UK, it encourages councils and developers to work together to address noise issues to protect both music venues and their neighbours, allowing bands to play on and residents to sleep.
Look to music-loving cities such as Tokyo, Berlin and London
We should also look to create new cultural areas led by music, such as Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighbourhood the Friedrichshain suburb in Berlin. As new urban centres are created across a growing Sydney, why not make access to live music and other arts a central part of their design? The mayor of London has championed “music zones” for grassroots music activity – why not embed these in plans for new urban precincts, particularly in Western Sydney?
The night-time economy needs coordination
The parliamentary inquiry also concludes that greater coordination is required across the city. There are many actors and agencies involved in the night-time economy ecosystem, but a lack of a coordinating figure to bring different parties together under a shared vision. While initiatives such as the state government’s Night-Time Economy Roundtable Action Plan have been welcomed, a whole-of-government approach is also required to deliver an overarching night-time strategy.
Earlier this year, Ed Sheeran played to approximately 225,000 people in Sydney over three days, which suggests an insatiable demand for music in our city, albeit of questionable quality. How we tap into this demand and use it to support music across Sydney will be crucial to enhancing a sector that clearly needs support. A smart approach to regulation, coordination and place-making will be key. If music be the food of love, plan on.