Peter Garrett Exclusive: ‘It’s Tougher For Venues To Keep Their Doors Open’
Peter Garrett has come out swinging in defence of the Sydney pub rock scene, but says a national body to safeguard live music is not the answer, reports ANDREW RAMADGE.
THE Hopetoun’s boarded up, The Excelsior’s been turned into a trendy taco joint and just last week Sydneysiders found out that another local venue, The Gaelic, would stop hosting bands thanks to a “tough climate for live music”.
But it was the possibility of the famous Annandale Hotel closing that proved “the final straw” for Midnight Oil singer turned politician Peter Garrett, who has come out in defence of Sydney’s struggling live venues and says the problem has more to do with over-regulation than a younger generation of fans preferring music festivals to the pub.
Garrett – a former arts minister, and now minister for school education, early childhood and youth – last week pled with readers of the Sydney Morning Herald to help save The Annandale by supporting the “buy a brick” campaign which has kept the hotel afloat in recent months.
This week, M+N caught up with Sydney’s most powerful rock star to talk about rising security costs for venues, contemporary music in schools and why The Jezabels deserved to win the Australian Music Prize.
First The Hopetoun closed, now The Annandale’s struggling and last week The Gaelic said it was going to stop having music as well. In your opinion, what’s going on here?
Well, it’s tougher for some venues to keep their doors open and I think that’s a real pity because these places that you’ve mentioned – and certainly The Annandale, which has still just got its doors open – have been incredibly important incubators of the live music scene in this city for many years, and they continue to fulfil that function, and it’s a very valuable one for musicians to ply their trade.
The Sydney Morning Herald said that you’d declared a “state of emergency”. Is that accurate?
Certainly it’s something that I think we need to be seriously aware of and get involved in, in as much as live music venues play a really important role, not only in giving people a place to play. Regardless of the music, they are a part of local community and they bring lifeblood to the area that they’re in and they’re one of the things that I think is absolutely essential for a city that’s got a vital live and creative culture.
It is the case that there are opportunities for people to play in different places now. There are many more festivals than there used to be, there’s all the online opportunities – YouTube and the like. But at the end of the day, having a venue that is constantly willing to showcase and promote both up-and-coming and more established groups, regardless of what genre they play, I think is really critical for the long-term health of the music scene.
There have been a few suggestions as to why pubs are struggling. One is that it’s a generational thing, that young music fans want to go to festivals instead of the pub. Another is that live music in Sydney is over-regulated. Do you think there’s any truth to either of those?
More to the second than the first. I think that if people have got a place to go which is somewhere they can be with friends and others that share their taste in music, then a pub’s just as good a place as anywhere else to see a band. And quite often, because you’re up close and it’s pretty intimate, it can be an exciting place, especially when the band’s starting out and you get a chance to see them in a much more intimate environment than a festival.
But it is true that it can be expensive for venues to maintain the level of security that now seems to be a requirement, and certainly there are regulation issues both around that matter but also having appropriate access facilities and the like. I think there’s no doubt that the proper provision of safe viewing conditions for audiences in any place is absolutely necessary, but it may be that the pendulum has swung a bit too far.
Some fans have suggested that perhaps there should be a national body that can oversee live music in Australia and iron out issues like regulations to safeguard the music scene. Do you think something like that would be feasible?
It’s feasible, but I’m not sure that it’s the best way to go about it. I think the fact is that most of the regulations and licensing – you know, the sorts of issues that apply to local venues – operate at either the state government or the local council level. Now, we already have some I think terrific groups, you know, the MusicNSW group is one good example, the people in Melbourne who’ve been organising as well [SLAM and Music Victoria], the people who’ve been putting on the events that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, and the pressure groups that have arisen in different places, I think, have really got onto it.
Obviously the Sydney music scene is something that must be close to your heart, but you’ve been fairly quiet on it until just recently. Was there any particular reason you decided to speak out last week?
I’m not sure I’ve been quiet on it. I mean, I still really enjoy going out occasionally and seeing bands play live – but you’re right, it was a hugely important part of my life as a musician and it’s a fact that generations of bands in the ’80s and ’90s would never have been able to make a living, let alone build a career if it wasn’t for the support we got from playing in live venues. The Annandale was the final straw for me. I think that it’s been such a stalwart venue for people that I wanted that generation that enjoyed the music and grew up listening to it, and it was a part of their younger life, to think about supporting it now they probably have more means to do so.
As you said, you still do get out occasionally to see music. What was the last show you got to catch in a pub?
That’s a pretty good question. I think it was probably The Pigram Brothers up in Broome when they played at a pub there, maybe the end of last year.
And could you tell us maybe one or two of your favourite young Australian bands?
Well, I’m reasonably taken with the kind of music that bands like The Jezabels play. I think that’s got a lot of spirit in it and I think they deserved to win that AMP last week.
A few years ago at the FUSE Conference in Adelaide, you praised New Zealand for the extent it had included contemporary music in the school curriculum. Is that something you’d still like to see happen in Australia?
Yeah, I think we could do a lot more in the music curriculum. When I was arts minister I did persuade the then education minister [Prime Minister Julia Gillard] to include the arts – and one of the subjects in the arts is music – in the national curriculum. This year we will see other first steps taken towards bringing music into the national curriculum. I’m very strongly supporting that.
“It may be that the pendulum has swung a bit too far.”
I did a speech late last week about that, which you might want to check out to give you a bit of an idea of what I’m saying about bringing music into the curriculum. I think there are tremendous opportunities there for us, not only for people to learn to sing and to play and experience it, but also to understand the role that it plays. It is an industry that’s contributing $1.3 billion or so into our economy. It employs people, it’s an expression of who we are as a culture and a nation and it’s played a big part in, in a sense, shaping the “Australianness” of the 20th and the 21st-century. So yeah, I hope there can be plenty of attention given by teachers to music in the curriculum in the coming years.
You know, in Victoria for the VCE, students can choose to study the lyrics of Paul Kelly. Maybe what we need in Sydney is Midnight Oil on the HSC?
[Laughs] Well … Midnight Oil and plenty of others, hey?