In a room full of passionate live music supporters, legendary Newcastle guitarist Grant Walmsley summed up the mood best.
“My great uncle was a bass player at the Palais in the 1940s – now it’s a KFC,” he told a round-table meeting about the future of the city’s live music scene on Friday.
“That fell on someone’s watch. What’s next? The Cambridge? The Wicko? The Lass?”
Artists, booking agents, pub owners and managers met with bureaucrats and Newcastle’s Labor representatives at The Edwards to talk about how the city’s live music culture had reached crisis point – particularly for artists who play original music and the venues trying to support them.
Walmsley, former guitarist for The Screaming Jets, said unchecked development was the greatest threat to the live music scene.
He said “iron clad laws” were needed to protect the ability of iconic venues like the Lass O’Gowrie Hotel in Wickham, The Cambridge Hotel in Newcastle West and the Wickham Park Hotel to put on live shows without fear of noise complaints from new neighbours.
“I wrote a number one song and I played it for the first time at the Cambridge,” he said.
“Are we just going to knock it down? We know what the issue is. There’s one solution. We need laws at a state level.”
Walmsley said entertainment precincts should be introduced that weren’t simply designated areas drawn on a map, but were protections for established live music venues around greater Newcastle.
His call for planning laws to guard venues against the threat of noise complaints from new neighbours in developing areas – and for developers to provide the appropriate sound-proofing measures if their project was near an established venue – was echoed by many at the meeting.
There were also calls to support the establishment of a new all-age venue, where young musicians could develop skills, not only in playing live, but booking gigs, setting up equipment and managing sound so they could grow into the new local custodians of the industry.
And some spoke about the need to do more to convince the general public that live, original music by local musicians was worth paying for.
Several people put their hands up to be on a new task force to find ways to strengthen live music in Newcastle.
Truman Smith has been playing shows around town for seven years, balancing his love of performing with a sound engineering job and the odd cover gig to help pay the bills.
“There’s no money in original gigs, really, unless you’re a bigger band,” he said.
“I think for the original [music] scene, that’s at crisis point because the number of venues that original bands can play at are dwindling and it’s very hard for an original band to break through and make any money. So you’re not going to be covering your costs.
“As a cover band, you might do alright. But an original band, it’s going to be very hard for them.”
When asked what he thought had changed in Newcastle since the heyday of live music in the 70s and 80s, Smith said: “Basically, I think less people are going out to see live music and a lot less people are willing to pay to see it”.
“I think it’s partly to do with the devaluation of music we’ve seen through streaming services and things like that.”
Ian and Sharon Lobb, who have been running the Lass O’Gowrie Hotel for 26 years, said their venue was the first port of call for many young musicians who were starting their gigging careers.
Mr Lobb said ongoing development and an influx of new residents in Wickham meant the Lass would “shortly be under threat”.
“The Lass is the cradle of original music in Newcastle. That’s where everything starts,” he said. “The venues have got to survive first, then the music flows.”
Get out, go to a show: Lizotte
If you ask Brian Lizotte, a simple thing could help Newcastle’s live music scene flourish – people should go to more gigs.
Lizotte, the brother of the well-known Australian singer-songwriter known as Diesel, has run a live music venue in suburban Lambton for almost a decade.
While he’s seen his fair share of challenges, he says he’s been lucky to have neighbours that know they live near a live music venue and accept that sometimes it’ll get a little noisy.
“I just look at the trials and tribulations of how many venues have come and gone. You almost have to work far too hard to make a music venue work, it seems,” Lizotte told the Newcastle Herald.
“Supporting live, local musicians is what it’s all about – it’s not all just about the internationals and the big festivals. It’s about growing the industry we’ve got here in this town. We’ve got so many great musos.
“Let’s get all the venues going and get the general public off the couch and back into music.”
Music industry’s chance to shape policy
Everyone with a stake in Newcastle’s once vibrant and legendary music scene is being encouraged to jot down their thoughts on how best to bring back the city’s glory days as a hotbed of live gigs.
The call was made to more than 40 pub owners, artists, booking agents and veterans of Newcastle music who met with bureaucrats and Labor representatives from all levels of government on Friday to come up with ways to help make Newcastle’s live entertainment culture thrive again.
While the stakeholders united on a series of ways to move forward, they were also urged to make submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Music and Arts Economy in NSW, through the NSW Parliament website.
The multi-party inquiry was set up in November to develop policies that support venues for music and the arts, reduce red tape for venue managers and artists, provide funding options and come up with “policies that could support a diverse and vibrant music and arts culture across New South Wales”. Friday’s meeting at the Edwards was one of several that have taken place across the state.
Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp said the discussion with industry insiders would help shape state government policy to “ensure the music industry continues to flourish and thrive in Newcastle”.
“As Newcastle evolves, we need to make sure the music industry is not left behind,” he said. “Live music is under threat and we want to support it before it is too late.”
Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said Newcastle’s night-time economy was “nationally significant”.
"We want to ensure that our iconic live music venues remain open and that the Newcastle live music scene continues to thrive,” Cr Nelmes said.