The future of Sydney live music: King Street Crawl and the inner-west

September 2015 marked a milestone for the revival of Sydney’s bedraggled music scene: the King Street Crawl.

On Sunday the 6th, the inner precinct of Newtown banded together for a day that, amongst so much darkness and vapid determination to stamp it out, actually celebrated the potency and virility of Sydney live music.

I don’t want to rant on about lockout laws and demonise politicians who seem to be making it their life quest to destroy one of Sydney’s most precious and valuable cultural resources. What I do want to talk about is the positives.

Because in the face of adversity, there are people out there still fighting the good fight, people who understand the fragility of live music, and people who are making it their quest to make sure it sticks around.

the future of Sydney Live music
Photo Credit: Tim Da-Rin

Battered and bruised from a rough couple of years, there is an air of hope stirring around Sydney live music, and it’s blowing from the West.

While combing social media in the days following KSC, I noticed multiple references popping up likening the humble street party to the mammoth SXSW festival that takes place annually in Austin, Texas.

The differences between the two events are tangible but, in light of the preceding flood of social media activity surrounding Brisbane’s own take on SXSW, BIGSOUND, it became clear that Sydney is missing something. Or perhaps now we aren’t.

King Street Crawl nailed it in many respects. It was pretty meticulously planned out (except maybe the part where Sticky Fingers and The Preatures played to 150 capacity rooms in the middle of Newtown – that was fucking sweaty).

Bands (lots of really, really good bands) were well spread out meaning congestion was pretty low and there was a solid chance you could see everyone you wanted to. Co-operation between police, venues and punters seemed unnaturally good, considering Sydney’s reputation; but most of all there was an undeniable community vibe that laced the entire day.

Matt Rule is the man to talk to if you wanna chat Sydney live music. Once-owner of iconic Annandale Hotel, the man is a veteran of the Sydney pub rock scene. He is also a fighter.

Upon losing his beloved Annandale, alongside his brother Dan, after a decade-long legal battle with Leichardt Council over myriad problems that would be enough to crush the spirit of any mortal man, he’s kept the motor running, working with the folks at Vic on The Park and The Lord Gladstone, upholding the time-honoured Sydney pub rock ethos wherever he could.

He also spearheaded King Street Crawl.

“Newtown and Sydney’s inner west has always been this city’s cultural heart in my opinion,” says Rule. “There is an incredible support network in the inner west which is very unique, which encourages not only musicians but artists of all walks of life to be drawn to this area to ply their trade and collaborate with other like-minded people.”  

The Preatures King St Crawl
Photo Credit: Jeremy Dylan

It seems a no-brainer that Rule would choose King Street as his locale of choice for a community-based, street-style music festival, akin to something like SXSW. Not only because there are few locations left in Sydney that could foster such a festival, but also because community spirit is the creative life blood of the inner west. “The melting pot that is Newtown, and its acceptance of different points of view, allows for a creative freedom that encourages artists of all walks of life to explore and grow artistically,” says Rule.

Festivals like SXSW thrive on convergent, community-based culture, where a variety of media, artists, tastemakers, filmmakers, music businesses / businessmen / buisnesswomen and punters can make pilgrimage to in order to learn from each other, perform for each other, and celebrate their art in a supportive environment. In this respect, there is something that Sydney is direly lacking.

The NSW Government’s lockout laws have completely defragmented Sydney culture, chipping away at cultural hubs – be it Kings Cross or Oxford Street – until they have become virtual cultural ghost towns.

It’s naive to think that lockout laws are entirely to blame for such decline in Sydney’s live music, it has long been a fragile thing, but what is clear is that without complete and active support from governing bodies Sydney’s culture will simply cease to exist.

Rule, however, is optimistic. “It’s been said many times over that the state of live music in Sydney is pretty dire, and it’s hard not to agree with at some level that when you see the difficulties in keeping live venues open in this city,” he says. “In saying that I do have a very optimistic outlook on the potential of this city to reverse that trend. I think Sydney is currently producing some of the most exciting artists in the country, and that is without the strong network of venues that Melbourne and Brisbane have.”

Melbourne has long-since thrived on a iron-clad live music scene, something that is actively assured by the Victorian State Government. Brisbane also has a small yet thriving music scene, centred around a bunch of great venues in Fortitude Valley, the home of BIGSOUND.

A little like 6th Avenue in Austin, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley comes alive in September for BIGSOUND. The mammoth event focuses on praising Aussie music as a precious cultural resource and international export, something Rule believes is lacking in Sydney. “A higher value on creatives and artists on a government level is extremely important,” he says.

High Tails King St Crawl
Photo Credit: Tim Da-Rin

It’s undeniable that Sydney is producing troves of good musicians – more than we can keep up with – and thankfully, besides Rule, there are a bunch of killer record labels, venues, independent radio stations and festivals, doing their part.

“The Visions guys who are doing great things,” says Rule. “The Sounds of the Suburbs guys have really done a fantastic job of creating a scene down in the Sutherland shire and put on a cracking underground festival each year, James Spink and the team behind the recent Volumes Festivals on Oxford street did a killer job and I really hope we see that event continue to thrive and grow, and I think the Young Henry’s guys need a mention.

What’s consistent about all these projects – Visions at Waywards, Sounds of The Suburbs in Cronulla or Young Henry’s Small World in the inner west – is that they centre around some sort of community, feeding off a host like a venue, a scene or a street that frequently provides the platform for live music to thrive.

Nic Mckenzie from Visions has made himself pretty at home at Waywards, perched above the Bank Hotel in Newtown where he puts on monthly parties with local bands. “It makes sense that Newtown and the bars on King St should become the major hub for live music,” Mckenzie says. “Newtown, with better accessibility for patrons than Surry Hills, Annandale and Kings Cross, seems to attract a tolerant and open minded audience for a local music scene.” 

It’s clear that Newtown and the inner-west are where the future of Sydney live music lies. The lockout laws have done irreversible damage to Kings Cross and the inner city as music hubs, pushing punters to the fringes of the lockout zone.

With few other places to go, Newtown venues have seen an obvious surge in patronage, which puts the area in a very delicate position. On one hand, it risks being pummelled into the earth by legislation that will seek to stamp out any risk of the debauchery and violence that made Kings Cross so infamous. On the other hand, it has the potential to provide the platform for the epic revival Sydney culture and live music.

What we need is co-operation and community action to ensure at the cultural bloom is nurtured rather than decapitated before it had a chance.“This area has a long history of supporting the arts and both Marrickville and Sydney City councils have great attitudes currently in realising how important the arts are to creating a great city,”says Rule. “Newtown is and will continue to thrive, and with some great industrial areas in Marrickville and Sydenham on its doorstep, I think we will see those creatives pushed out of the more expensive inner city area making great use of these space in the future. Exciting times.”

King St has the potential to rival Austin’s 6th Avenue, or Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, as a internationally recognised hotspot for live music. It seems absurd that Sydney, with a reputation as one of the world’s most liveable cities, and as a prime tourist destination, hold its music scene in such little esteem.

Despite a rocky couple of years, hope still resides in a few salient part of our city. “We need to focus now on building that momentum,” urges Mackenzie. To punters, music lovers, or anyone who hold value in live music as a vital piece of our cultural landscape, “This place [the inner-west] should be the magnet: the place they remember they started out, and the place they want to come back to.”