The Monthly music wrap: February 2019

By Anwen Crawford
On the precarious state of live music in NSW and the impact of proposed festival-licensing laws

A placard at the Don’t Kill Live Music protest at Hyde Park in Sydney. Photograph by Toby Forage / SOPA Images / Sipa USA

There’s less than a month to go until the NSW state election, and the music industry is unhappy. So too the gig-going public. Several thousand people rallied last Thursday evening, February 21, in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and an open letter and related petition accusing the current Liberal state government of “forcing music out of NSW” has, at the time of writing, attracted over 120,000 signatures, both under the organising banner of Don’t Kill Live Music.

The current focus of public and industry disgruntlement is the state government’s proposed reforms to music festival licensing. These reforms have been produced in response to events at last September’s Defqon.1 music festival, held in Penrith, at which a 23-year-old man and a 21-year-old woman collapsed and later died of suspected drug overdoses, and more people were hospitalised for drug-related illness. Premier Gladys Berejiklian responded to these distressing circumstances by vowing that her government would “do everything” to shut down the Defqon.1 festival for good. She also ruled out any change to the government’s stance on pill testing.

Pill testing as a possible safety mechanism was outside the terms of reference for the government’s panel on safety at music festivals, convened in the wake of Defqon.1. This panel, which consisted of NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant and Independent Liquor and Gaming Commission chair Philip Crawford (no relation), published its report last October. Among its recommendations was the introduction of a “two-tiered system of risk” for music festival licensing, with festivals classified as “high” or “low” risk depending on a number of factors, including the duration of the event, the time of day or night it takes place, and any past history of drug- or alcohol-related hospitalisations connected to the event. Earlier this month, Premier Berejiklian announced that those festivals deemed “high risk” would be subject to new, “user-pays” regulation to cover the cost of onsite emergency services.

Notably absent from the panel was any substantial representation by, or input from, festival organisers, musicians, or audiences. Details of the announced licensing reform have not been made available by the Berejiklian government, even though the changes are scheduled to take effect on March 1. The music industry has been effectively left in the dark as to how the two-tier risk assessment system will be applied, and what the consequent costs and compliance requirements of the new regulatory environment will be. “We appreciate there has been some confusion and misunderstanding about the way the new scheme will operate,” admitted the government’s “music festival team” – whoever they might be – in a statement issued on February 13. Yet no clarification has been offered. To date, the organisers of Mountain Sounds and Psyfari festivals have both cancelled their 2019 NSW events due to increased costs, and Byron Bay Bluesfest director Peter Noble has said that he will look to relocate the festival, which marks its 30th anniversary this April, out of the state.

At first glance the issue of festival licensing might appear trivial, and the music industry’s negative response to the scheduled changes overblown, or even insensitive, in the face of people dying. But the repeated sentiment of speakers at last week’s protest was that the Berejiklian government’s response to drug overdoses at festivals has been “knee-jerk”: a policy made on the run, with an eye to gathering law-and-order votes at election time, rather than being any sort of considered or long-term solution to audience safety. The promised “crackdown” on music festivals is the latest in a long line of populist NSW government responses to issues surrounding crowd safety and music, stretching back – at least in my memory – to the moral panic over ecstasy and club venues that followed the death of 15-year-old Anna Wood, in 1995, from water intoxication related to her use of MDMA.

Nobody wants to see any more deaths at music festivals from drug overdoses. And yet the state government’s intransigence over the issue of pill testing – despite support for this public health measure from both the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners – seems likely to result in just this outcome. Drug-checking facilities have existed in the Netherlands since 1992, in Spain and Austria since 1997 and in Portugal since 2001. Research in Europe into the long-term effects of pill testing has shown no increase in drug consumption as a result of testing being available, and a 2017 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction states that anonymous and confidential testing may serve the needs of “young recreational drug users” better than the “simple promotion of complete abstention”. Moreover, the report notes, “government-advocated messages, often viewed as scare tactics, are considered tendentious and untrustworthy, and conflict with the individual’s idea of self-regulation”.

This last point is key to understanding the resistance among some of the public (and not just those who count themselves as drug users) to the enforcement of a zero-tolerance drug policy, in both NSW and beyond. In NSW, especially, changes to music festival licensing arrive in the context of the ongoing lockout laws, introduced five years ago by then Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell in response to alcohol-related deaths in Kings Cross, and the aggressive, legally contentious use of drug-detection dogs by NSW police without a warrant at music festivals and other public spaces.

Even though a NSW Ombudsman’s report demonstrated back in 2006 that the majority of sniffer-dog indications for drugs are false positives, it has become routine in Sydney to encounter sniffer dogs at places like train stations on any given day of the week, at any time. (Or rather, at particular train stations, like Redfern or Sydenham, where the demographic profile of the area seems to fit with a pre-existing police conception of who might be carrying drugs.) The very routinisation of such policing is a problem. This is anecdotal, but last time I tried to give verbal advice about rights to a fellow citizen – a young man – who was being searched by police at a train station, I was quickly surrounded by police myself, and threatened with arrest for hindering a police operation. The curtailing of civil liberties is not trivial: punitive, intrusive policing, when combined with a weak public awareness of rights and strengthened anti-protest laws is an alarming combination. And the combined effect of these policies has been to make people – particularly young people, who make up the majority of music festival attendees – feel harassed and surveilled both in their pursuit of enjoyment and in their ordinary activities.

Nor is culture itself, or arts and cultural policy, a superficial concern, or something that should only be defended once the “real” issues have been dealt with. People express their dissatisfaction with governments when the policies of those governments impact negatively on their daily lives, and Australia Council research has shown that almost all Australians are engaged with the arts as audiences, creators, or both. Music remains the nation’s most popular art form: a whopping 97 per cent of Australians listen to recorded music, and, of 14 million Australians who attended an arts event in 2016, 54 per cent attended a live music performance and 27 per cent a music festival. Close to half of all Australians are creative participants in the arts, whether that be playing a musical instrument, attending a community workshop, performing with their local drama club, or making work as professional artists or musicians. Is it any wonder, then, that popular protest – both in NSW and elsewhere – coheres around arts policy, and particularly the legislation that affects live music? Too often we are told that advocating for or defending the arts amounts to snobbery and elitism. What’s snobbish and elitist – and ignorant – is to dismiss the importance of artistic expression in our lives.

According to the key findings of a cross-party NSW Legislative Council report on the music and arts economy in the state, published in November last year, the state is experiencing “a music venue crisis”. For NSW to match Victoria’s current funding levels for contemporary music per capita, “at least $35 million” would have to be spent by the state government over the next four years. The report also found that evidence provided to the committee “clearly indicates that lockout laws have contributed to a reduction of live music bookings, a contraction of the live music scene and the closure of numerous live music venues in inner Sydney”. The Kings Cross Hotel, for instance, which is within the lockout zone, went from 34 DJ slots per week to 12, and from 12 band slots to none after the introduction of the lockouts, according to evidence given to the committee. Just last week came reports that the same venue has now been ordered by the City of Sydney Council to close its rooftop bar after noise complaints from residents of the neighbouring Omnia luxury tower, which opened late last year.

Some live music venues fight on. A good part of Sydney’s charm – if you can call it that – has always been the resourcefulness of its arts community. Ad-hoc, temporary, or fly-by-night venues come and go in galleries and warehouses and community clubs, and that’s been the case for as long as I can remember. But these are niche spaces, for niche audiences, whereas broadly accessible, popular music venues in Sydney are increasingly difficult to find, and even more so outside of the city. I grew up in the outer west, where the Defqon.1 festival is held. Frankly, there’s not a lot to do out there. A regular music venue – especially an all-ages venue – in an outer-suburban, regional or rural area is a godsend. I wish it were different. The likelihood now is that existing regional NSW music festivals will close in response to increased safety costs; either this, or the costs will be passed on to ticket buyers, making such events even more difficult for young people and people on low incomes to access.

The energy at last week’s Hyde Park rally was muted, considering the issues at hand, and considering the relative youth of the 5000 or so strong crowd. Perhaps it was the rain. Perhaps it was a sense of being beaten down by a city that can be very hard to live in, and very hard to love. But the crowd was roused whenever any of the speakers or performers – including Dan Sultan, Urthboy and festival organiser Adelle Robinson – touched on the issue of community. It is the most intangible aspect of music, this notion of community: hard to measure and impossible to quantify. Nevertheless, it’s real. And in this land it’s ancient and ongoing. Indigenous music and songlines keep country and people alive.

Community exists in the personal connections that people make with each other through music, whether these connections be fleeting or durable; in the collective response of an audience; in the inspiration sparked off in one soul or many by live performance. We take that energy and joy back into our lives, and the potency of joy should not be underestimated. It can fuel things we scarcely believed could have been possible before we found it.

Also of note this month: Local singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin and New Zealand group Tiny Ruins craft careful, pensive narratives on Crushing and Olympic Girls, respectively. Kehlani dives deep into late night beats on her newest mixtape, While We Wait. Nkisi’s 7 Directions is a masterclass in dense, layered rhythms, informed by her Congolese heritage and by her knowledge of contemporary dance music. And in sadder news, Mark Hollis, leader of the brilliant British art-pop band Talk Talk, has died, age 64.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

A placard at the Don’t Kill Live Music protest at Hyde Park in Sydney. Photograph by Toby Forage / SOPA Images / Sipa USA

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