Poll: Newcastle looks to Wollongong's example to safeguard live music's future

PARTY TOWN: Punters lapping up the festivities at Wollongong's Yours & Owls last year. Picture: Georgia Matts
PARTY TOWN: Punters lapping up the festivities at Wollongong's Yours & Owls last year. Picture: Georgia Matts

WHEN Lass O’Gowrie Hotel publican Ian Lobb fronted the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into the Music and Arts Economy in NSW a fortnight ago, his emotional submission clearly identified the threat being posed to Newcastle’s live music scene.

A $70million two-tower residential block, known as Railway Lane Apartments, is due to begin construction at the boundary line of his Wickham pub in January 2019. When complete, it will feature 150 residential units across 10 storeys.

It’s expected to attract hundreds of new residents to the Lass’ doorstep and potentially noise complaints that could silence the historic pub, which has been synonymous with helping to foster the local music scene for more than two decades.

It’s known as the place where any aspiring muso can earn their chops. But notable artists such as Kira Puru and Mojo Juju have also graced the Lass’ grungy stage before finding national acclaim.

“I think you will find if that happens the hotel will probably have to be gentrified and that would change its dynamics. You would have your coffee shops in, instead of bands,” Lobb told the Inquiry.

The Lass O’Gowrie isn’t alone. Established live music venues like the Cambridge and Wickham Park hotels also face uncertain futures as the revitalisation of Newcastle continues to create a residential building boom in the city’s inner western suburbs.

The fear of potential noise complaints inspired the creation of the Newcastle Live Music Taskforce in April, which is comprised of musicians, promoters and government officials. That has since led to a Newcastle City Council-run community survey, an industry workshop and a forthcoming live music strategy.

It has also encouraged the council to cast their gaze south to Newcastle’s rival steel city, Wollongong. To the surprise of many, the Illawarra capital has transformed itself into a musically-rich city.

The music scene in booming. Venues like the University of Wollongong’s UniBar, the Rad Bar and Wollongong North Hotel have become crucial stops on the Australian touring circuit and homegrown acts like Hockey Dad and Bec Sandridge have exploded out of the scene to build national profiles. 

RED HOT: Hockey Dad have arguably been the biggest act to emerge from Wollongong's growing scene: Picture: Sylvia Liber

RED HOT: Hockey Dad have arguably been the biggest act to emerge from Wollongong's growing scene: Picture: Sylvia Liber

The Yours & Owls festival has also become a highly-popular event, selling out in less than a day in June.

“We’re super proud of it at the moment,” says Jimmy Sherley, founder of Wollongong music collective Strawberry Visions. “There seems to be a lot of new bands coming through again, we’ve got a quite a few different rooms.”

According to Wollongong City Council, 65 new small bars and cafes have opened in the CBD over the past three years.

And just like Newcastle, it’s experiencing a massive redevelopment. In the last six years $1.3billion in investment has poured into the city and a further $600 million is in the pipeline.

It was like waving the flag and saying this is ‘danger, danger, danger’ or ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity'

Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery

At the heart of managing Wollongong’s transformation has been their council’s implementation of the Cultural Plan 2014-18. The most important component of the plan, in regards to live music, was the change to the section 149 planning certificate.

Wollongong Council reworded the certificate to identify the CBD as an entertainment precinct between 5pm and midnight, meaning any new residents should expect noise within those hours.

“It was like waving the flag and saying this is ‘danger, danger, danger’ or ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity’,” Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery says.

LEADER: Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery. Picture: Sylvia Liber

LEADER: Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery. Picture: Sylvia Liber

“When I first came to the council I used to get a lot of letters from people complaining about the noise at night. We didn’t want our CBD and the precincts around it to be considered a retirement village.

“We had to indicate to anyone that was going to buy an apartment in the city that it had implications and you must expect to be caught up in the nightlife.”

Bradbery says the change to certificate 149 has decreased noise complaints, despite the rise in the inner-city population.

“I think it was one of our masterstrokes in terms of saying this is what comes with the package of living in a precinct around our CBD,” he says.

Bradbery recently met with Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes to discuss issues relating to the two cities, which included growing the nighttime economy.

“I think it was one of our masterstrokes in terms of saying this is what comes with the package of living in a precinct around our CBD,” he says.

Bradbery recently met with Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes  to discuss issues relating to the two cities, which included growing the nighttime economy.

Live Music Office policy director John Wardle has worked closely with both Wollongong and Newcastle’s live music taskforces and welcomes the collaboration between the two regional cities.

The Live Music Office was established in 2013 by the Federal Government in partnership with Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) to safeguard the country’s music industry.

“I think a lot can be learnt from Wollongong,” Wardle says. “There’s a great baseline in which to build an evening and night economy and a fun, creative and diverse place.

“Newcastle has had a great legacy of contributing to Australian music and this is really encouraging to see the commitment from local members and council.”

ICONIC: The Rad Bar is credited for kick-starting Wollongong's music resurgence.

ICONIC: The Rad Bar is credited for kick-starting Wollongong's music resurgence.

Collaborations are also happening between Newcastle and Wollongong at a grassroots level.

Newcastle’s No-Fi and Wollongong’s Strawberry Visions music collectives have promoted the Steel City Of Origin mini festivals together, and regularly book each other’s acts for shows.

Strawberry Visions celebrated its third birthday with a sold-out show on August 24 and have developed a weekly Strawberry Boogie night, which showcases local, national and even international acts.

Sherley says the city now boasts three separate scenes situated in the CBD and university, around the northern suburb of Thirroul and in Port Kembla, where a former petrol station has been converted into a venue called the Servo Food Truck Bar.

Once some bands see Wollongong isn’t the big bogan hick place, that word spreads and other bands are willing to come and try it out.

Jimmy Sherley

“People are really proud of the area too, same as Newcastle,” Sherley says. “I think there was a bit of stigma around it.

“Once some bands see Wollongong isn’t the big bogan hick place, that word spreads and other bands are willing to come and try it out.”

Both Sherley and Bradbery agree that homegrown promoting company Yours & Owls have been pivotal in Wollongong’s transformation as a music and entertainment hub.

In 2010 three friends Ben Tillman, Balunn Jones and Adam Smith opened a coffee shop called Yours & Owls in Crown Street. It quickly became the epicentre of the city’s music community, who were reeling from the closure of the popular Oxford Tavern.

Tillman, Jones and Smith sold the cafe in 2014, which became the Rad Bar, to diversify into gig promotion and management.

These days Yours & Owls book around 600 gigs a year for venues like the UniBar, North Wollongong Hotel and Rad Bar as well as promote the city’s biggest music festival, Yours & Owls.

Yours & Owls festival, scheduled for September 29 and 30 and headlined by Angus and Julia Stone and Peking Duk, has also become a clear tourist attraction.

More than half of the punters this year will travel from outside the Illawarra, a dramatic change from the years when Wollongong music fans were forced up the Princes Highway for entertainment.

BRIGHT IDEAS: Yours & Owls' Adam Smith, from left, Ben Tillman and Balun Jones have been at the forefront of the city's transformation. Picture: Sylvia Liber

BRIGHT IDEAS: Yours & Owls' Adam Smith, from left, Ben Tillman and Balun Jones have been at the forefront of the city's transformation. Picture: Sylvia Liber

“When we first started, the whole aim was to provide something,” Tillman says. “Everyone was, not scared of Wollongong, but thought it was this gross place and we’ve lived here all our lives and we knew there was this cultural wealth.

“When we were 18-year-olds we’d go out in the city [Sydney] because there was nothing we wanted to see in Wollongong.”

Wollongong City Council have understandably been keen to take credit for the success of the city’s booming nighttime economy. 

However, Tillman believes much of the positive change was coincidental.

“While that has been good to get it on the council’s radar, most of the work has been done by actual people who have been doing it off their own back because they care and they’re passionate,” he says.

“That’s where 90 per cent of the stuff has come from. But that does get consolidated and reinforced when someone like the government starts to recognise it and make things a little easier in terms of different legislation.”

Newcastle City Council is expected to follow Wollongong’s lead in the next six months by endorsing it’s own Live Music Strategy, which local stakeholders hope includes changes to planning regulations and the creation of entertainment precincts to protect venues from noise complaints.

They are also hoping for legislative changes at a state government level once the Parliamentary Inquiry into Music and Arts Economy in NSW make their recommendation early next year.

These could include the “agent of change” regulations introduced by the Victorian Government four years ago, which forces developers to install soundproofing measures in new properties.  

Only time will tell whether it’s enough to save venues like the Lass O’Gowrie.