This blog is now officially dormant.

Hi All,

Apologies to anyone who has been waiting for updates here, or trying to contact me via this site. As may be obvious, this site is now dormant, although I’ll leave it up in case anyone has a particular interest in the various enthralling regulatory reforms I wrote about. You can visit my new website here:

The new site also includes details on my book, Twenty-One Nights in July, and other projects I’m currently working on.

Thanks to everyone who read, comment and wrote to me about the posts on this blog over the years. Whilst running Format and Renew Adelaide, I found it an invaluable way of both thinking through the issues I noticed impacting on Adelaide, and getting feedback on those thoughts.




Comment on the Reverb Report

Over the past week a number of people have asked me for a comment regarding the Dunstan Foundation’s Reverb project, written by Thinker in Residence Martin Elbourne. Unfortunately workload has delayed my response, for which I apologise. It is a report worth spending some time reviewing as there’s many good things within it.

I was pleased to see a number of recommendations that reflect those from the Raise the Bar campaign and my final report to Renew Adelaide, Regulatory Barriers to Creative Enterprise, which was  released by Renew in January 2013.

For those interested in this area, it’s also worth looking into Elizabeth Raupach’s 2010 Theatre Spaces and Venues Audit and earlier reports on the music sector, such as the 2005 Creative Industries strategy or the work undertaken in 2001 by former Arts Minister Diana Laidlaw. It’s admirable that Mr Elbourne’s community engagement has led him to many of the same conclusions as these earlier works. This is particularly impressive given the policy environment he was asked to comment on was both new to him and extremely complex.

There are some points of particular interest:

(1)  The Adoption of a NSW Building Code Variation to make it easier for live performance and cultural activity. This matches the Renew report. Notably, State variations do not require Federal government involvement. This could be achieved fairly easily.

(2)  Of particular importance, Reverb calls for the streamlining the Entertainment Consents process to support live music venues with liquor licensing. This was a core part of the Raise the Bar campaign and is mentioned within the Renew report, so it’s great to see Reverb repeating it.

(3)  Based on that, I strongly agree with Mr Elbourne’s recommendation that local councils should develop their own local music strategies. We’ve seen this process working productively in Sydney and Wollongong, and Melbourne is undertaking similar measures.

(4)  Also in line with the Renew report, Reverb makes reference to both the ‘Need Test’, alcohol related violence and Victorian licensing systems from around twenty years ago, and suggests the removal of the test. This is very good to see. The other States removed this element from their licensing systems several years back, opting to control the volume of licenses issued through local environmental plans and similar mechanisms.

(5)  I note Recommendation 15 contains reference to Creative Hubs, and mentions Renew Adelaide. This reflects the comments in the Renew report on “South Australian Independent Creative Hubs”, and it’s good to see they’ve drawn attention to the same issues pertaining to Building Code approval.

On a final note, I was pleased to see Recommendation 1 of the report calling for the establishment of a music advocacy body called ‘SACMAC” which “should have strong links to the National Live Music Office, and its manager […] in order to capitalise on its knowledge base”. Whilst I now live in Sydney , I hope my work as Co-Director of the National Live Music Office can support those in my home state working to make the South Australian music scene great, and I apologise for the delay in getting back to those of you who have kindly asked for my thoughts on the Reverb report.

So What Exactly Is ‘Vibrancy’?

In a couple of days I’ll be back in Adelaide to sit on a panel as part of the Festival of Unpopular Culture called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Vibrancy Forum.” I thought that was as good a reason as any to post a few comments on this long neglected blog and float a few ideas about prior to that conversation, which you can read more about here.

The Vibrancy Agenda is coming under a lot of fire lately, not just in Adelaide but internationally. The three major criticisms of it are:

(A)   It confuses effect with cause, assuming that giving a city some of the features of places like Melbourne, Copenhagen or Portland it will attract the creative class that fuels the knowledge economy in those cities.

(B)   Particularly in regional cities, government funded activities clustering or ‘activating’ fairly specific areas tends to produce a false boom in land values and rental rates that paradoxically scales out smaller scale and innovative activity, as well as existing residents and businesses. This is a critique Richard Florida has famously made of his own work, albeit after pretty vicious duress from other researchers.

(C)   The term ‘Vibrancy’ itself is so ambiguous it often leads to confused policy directions that aren’t adequately grounded in local conditions. There’s a secondary element to this in that the indicators of a successful ‘vibration’ are often so broad they conceal poorly performing agencies and individuals. In other words, those who are unable for whatever reason to engage in more substantial reform will tend to fall back on token placemaking gestures safe in the knowledge that this often all that’s required to declare their city ‘vibrant’, even when their work has no lasting impact.

I’ve been thinking particularly about the last point – the ambiguity of the term and the impact it has. To my eye, it often means good strategy at a higher level often dissolves into bad tactics for delivery because there’s not enough clarity as to what the final outcome should look like. That, in turn, creates a tension between those in government and those in the community or business sector.

As a case in point, a couple of weeks back I got a call from the managers of a creative hub who’d had their development approvals jammed by the Adelaide City Council. This meant lost income as they’d been forced to cancel events. In trying to figure out what Council actually wanted, they’d been bounced between nine different staff who all said different things, none of whom seemed to have the power to make a decision. They’re exactly the kind of young, creative entrepreneurs the ‘Vibrancy Agenda’ aims to support, yet like so many of the creative enterprises I worked with back in Adelaide, active disincentives were placed to prevent them from succeeding. As Elizabeth Raupach noted back in 2010, “Artists report that they don’t mind complying with appropriate legislation if only they could work out how to go about it.” Raupach’s Theatre Spaces and Venues Audit for Arts SA noted Council was intending to review By-Laws in relation to its handling of creative spaces. Three years later, that hasn’t happened.

A couple of hours later I got a call from a friend in State Government who was upset that, after years slaving their arse off to force change through the system, all they ever heard was people whinging about how ‘vibrancy’ is a waste of time. He felt, quite rightly, that the complaints derailed the agenda for change and allowed the status quo to reinforce itself.

My friend has worked hard and done great work and pushed through real reform. But if a creative hub is having to deal with nine different staff and losing business because a local government agency can’t figure out a basic temporary use approval or provide adequate small business support, then the heavy work in strategy isn’t producing tactics that deliver for their intended targets.

So what exactly is Vibrancy meant to achieve? The State Government Strategic Priority around ‘Creating a Vibrant City’ offers a clue:

Many of our young people are still leaving our state. If we want people to stay here we must show that we can accommodate more lifestyle and career choices.

To achieve this, Adelaide needs more people living, working, investing, visiting and spending time in the city.

That frames it as something to do with the link between economics and demographic. South Australia wants to encourage people to invest their time, energy, money and labour in the state. Sounds great. Although The Thirty Year Plan for Greater Adelaide puts it more bluntly:

If no action is taken to increase the working-age population in Greater Adelaide, the ratio of dependent people will increase from 49 per cent at the 2006 Census to 66 per cent by 2036.The large majority of this increase is projected to come from the aged population. This will have a significant impact on the capacity of future generations to provide health and related services to an ageing population.

So that would suggest the issue is, “If we can’t get more people to invest more time, energy and money into South Australia, we’re going to have trouble paying the state’s health care bills.” That makes Vibrancy sound a little more pressing. There’s an added weight to with the loss of the AAA credit rating, with Standard and Poor commenting on the “state’s weak budgetary performance, rising debt burden, and modest budgetary flexibility.”

Of course, these aren’t new problems. A while back my friend Jane Howard pulled together a couple of graphs for me. I think I posted these a while back, but they’re worth revisiting:


I’d asked Jane to chart the State Final Demand after reading this article from 2012 by the Economic Analysis Department of the Reserve Bank, which recommend Final Demand was a good measure of the “growth in consumption and investment spending by the household, business and governmental sectors combined” or, in effect, all the economic activity within the state.

I chose to track it from 1984 because I wanted to see how things changed after the Australian dollar floated and the nation entered the global economy. What this graph suggests is that most of the states experienced two periods of growth, with an initial rise after the dollar floated, a dip caused by the recession in the early Nineties, and then another rise around the turn of the century. But overall, Australia’s done pretty well. Except for South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra which all stayed pretty much on the same trajectory.

One of the suggestions we can draw from this is that those three states didn’t enter the global economy. They stayed doing what they were designed to do: acting as primary industries portals, manufacturing hubs and, in Canberra’s case, a government cluster. This is often why regional cities have adopted a ‘Vibrancy Agenda’. With manufacturing moving to the cheap labour of the developing world, many first world cities can no longer do what they were designed to do. They’ve suddenly got to shift to a knowledge economy, which is a hard transition.

So what about the population stuff? Does SA need more working aged people? Well, Jane dredged up some data on population and growth for the same period. Particularly I wanted to look at Qld and WA. My rationale for this was that NSW and Victoria had already been linked to the global economy after the dollar’s ‘soft float’ in 1973, where as SA, Qld and WA were all more or less in the same boat. Here’s the results:


Notice right at the start of the graph, SA is on par with WA. Certainly the state’s population is growing at a much slower rate. But does that mean the population of people above working age is greater than the working age population? Or does it just mean we have a peak population or something?

 Way back when I started this blog in 2010, I wrote an article on this very topic after looking at the State of Ageing report from 2009. You can read my summary here.

The report includes the following graph:


Note the drop-off at ages 25 through to 34. This is the decline in working age population the Thirty Year Plan mentions.

There’s a truism that this generation will ‘move back when they want to have kids.’ I’m not so sure. Compare this generation’s age to the economic shift evident in the above graphs. Those aged in their mid-thirties and below would have been entering the workforce from about 1995 onwards, at which point the comparative strength of SA’s economy to its interstate neighbours was increasingly non-competitive.  On top of this there’s the dual impact of the casualization of the workforce and negative gearing on pathways to home ownership. Those things are likely to mean more people will stay interstate where the work force is bigger and the drive to come home, get a stable job and buy a house will potentially be less powerful.

So in this light, the Vibrancy Agenda takes on a different hue and you can see why it’s a State strategic priority. The problems it faces aren’t new, and the decline of the State’s credit rating seems more like a long term decline that’s come to fruit under the current government rather than something they’ve caused. Indeed, to their credit, I think one of the reasons these issues are now gaining more traction and being debated with greater passion is because they’ve been pushed into the public eye. So potentially, we could say “Vibrancy” is a non-frightening way of saying “Shit, we’re about to go broke” and thus acts as a sort of feel good mandate for change.

But this brings us back to the disparity between strategy and tactics. If we accept that the State Government’s strategic priority around ‘Vibrancy’ is actually to do with unsustainable demographic trends and the struggle to retain viability in a global economy, then it should shape how we define ‘Vibrancy’, the tactics we use to achieve it and the way we measure its success. Personally, I think disparity between my friend’s great work in State Government and the reality experienced by those running the creative hub suggests there might be something missing.

Time permitting, I’ll have some more on this topic in the next couple of days.



More on the Jade Monkey: In response to Ian Horne’s comments in InDaily

I’ve just been reading an article in the May 20th edition of InDaily, in which the AHA’s Ian Horne discusses the Jade Monkey’s long delayed license application. I quote:

Hotels representative Ian Horne says the struggle by live music venue the Jade Monkey to get a liquor licence isn’t evidence the system needs reform – and he’s working with the Jade’s owners to help them secure a licence.

Horne, the general manager of the SA branch of the Australian Hotels Association, also told Indaily he didn’t believe a small venue licence would have helped the Jade Monkey, even if the live music venue had been eligible to apply for one.

It’s great to see the AHA’s Ian Horne offering to help out the Jade Monkey as it wades through the regulatory process. I know Ian’s a big live music supporter and its worth noting the hotels sector in general is a major driver of the live music sector, particularly in SA with the Metro, The Grace, Exeter and Ed Castle all hosting live music regularly. It’s also worth noting that the AHA has a strong record for supporting its members to wade through the labyrinthine networks of red tape and has done a lot of great work. So, Ian, if you’re reading this – don’t take it as a personal attack. I know we have a lot of common interests and I appreciate the immense work the AHA has done for the live music sector and for the pubs that host it.

But I’m also pretty bewildered as to why Ian and the AH don’t see this as proof the system needs reform or how you could think the Small Venues License wouldn’t work for a venue like the Jade Monkey. If the Jade was operating at a capacity under 120, the conciliation process it is currently unable to negotiate would have been subject to a final decision by the Commissioner, who would have weighed up the concerns of local residents and businesses, compared those options back against the planning approvals, and made a decision. This is basically what happens in every other state.

It doesn’t happen like this in SA because, despite two reviews strongly suggesting its reform, South Australia has the most outmoded licensing laws in the entire country.

What does that mean in practice? SA is the only state where a larger pub can object to a smaller competitor based on the grounds that they compete for a ‘social need’. It is also the only state where it is possible for a single resident to use the conciliation process to override development approvals. So, what’s meant to happen is that a new licensing applicant is meant to prove there’s a social need for them to serve alcohol, and they’re meant to sit down and talk to all their neighbours. Fair enough. Except no one neutral, including the Commissioner, has the power to say, “Okay, you’ve all had your say and this is the best option for all of you.” Instead, it’s possible for an objector to simply keep objecting and drag the conciliation process out until the new licensing applicant either takes it to court or gives up.

Which has what has happened to the Jade Monkey.

Now, there’s attempts at the moment to portray the existing licensing conciliation system of ensuring residents aren’t overrun with nightclubs playing drum and bass till 5AM. That isn’t the licensing system’s job – that’s a planning issue. Look at it this way:

The Jade Monkey’s location was chosen because it was zoned within the State’s Capital City Development Plan – which is basically a piece of planning law built through community consultation. People said they wanted the City of Adelaide to be a mixed use zone with certain levels of acceptable noise and certain activities allowed – like running a music venue – and their elected members responded to that demand. Thus, the Jade is legally allowed to operate provided it works within the parameters set through that planning law. It has attained ‘Development Approval’, which means it is legally allowed to operate provided it doesn’t breech the noise levels or amenity requirements that are set by law. If it did, then it would be the subject of legal action under those laws.

To that end, the Jade could open tomorrow. Its noise, amenity and planning approvals are all in place. Provided it didn’t leave rubbish on the street or breech noise levels set within planning law, it’d be fine. The only issue is that it doesn’t have a license to serve alcohol and, for better or worse, music venues make their money through alcohol sales.

And this is where things get problematic. Because South Australia’s licensing law is ten year behind the rest of the country, it is possible for one complainant with deep pockets to force the issue into court because they don’t like the idea of a music venue in their street. They can do this because licensing law has retained the conciliation process associated with the above mentioned ‘Need Test’.

This system provides a mechanism whereby other stakeholders within the city, such as local businesses or residents, can drag out the conciliation process until a new applicant either accepts outrageous conditions that go well beyond their planning approvals, or simply give up and move to Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane or a city where this legal glitch has been removed.

This isn’t about conciliation or being good neighbours. Amenity is a planning issue. The planning system dictates what noise levels can be made and what the amenity requirements are. Notably it also responds, more or less, to democratic process. Licensing is a separate process that is, in this case, being used by a single objector to over ride planning laws introduced by elected members. Essentially, this is a mechanism whereby the minority who want Adelaide to go home early can override planning law and continue to drive Adelaide’s descent into a glorified suburb.

Of this situation, Ian’s noted that “I can’t see what law you can do to overcome it.” With all due respect, perhaps he should visit every other state in Australia, where the decisions of the electorate on things like Mixed Use zoning are less subject to the complaints of individuals who don’t like competition or simply don’t like the idea of a city with music venues.

If I was a suspicious person, I would suggest that the AHA’s claim that there’s no legal reform that could help the Jade Monkey is potentially driven by the knowledge that if the Liquor Licensing Act came under full review, we’d see the removal of the anti-competitive clauses that allow larger competitors to object to new licensees. Which is why the AHA objected to these reforms in the other states, a fight they ultimately lost.

It’s strange. Whenever I’ve talked to Ian we both agree that pubs in SA are doing it tough. Our difference seems to be that I think Adelaide needs to allow business flexibility and encourage a greater degree of diversity, for the fairly simple reason that without flexibility and diversity there isn’t enough of an offering to get people to turn off their televisions or log out of Facebook.

Ian’s position seems, and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m wrong, that we should maintain the status quo and leave the laws as they are. If you think Adelaide’s night time economy is great, and you think larger beer barns, pokies and televised sport is the best SA can hope for, then by all means, don’t reform the laws and enjoy your next night out on Hindley Street. I hear the mechanical bull at the Woolshed is particularly good at this time of year.

On the other hand, if you think South Australia should have a fairer, simpler system for small businesses like the Jade Monkey, the current system pretty clearly doesn’t work. If it did, the Jade Monkey – an enterprise focused on live music with ten years of responsible service of alcohol to their credit – would already be open. Ultimately, the goal shouldn’t be just to alter the licensing act to help small bars. It should be to make a fairer system for everyone, including the numerous pubs – particularly those that are owner operated – that struggle in the face of a regulatory and licensing system that simply doesn’t work anymore.

An update on the Jade

Most people are aware of why the Jade Monkey closed. After ten years in its current site, the building owner ended their tenancy using a Development Clause within their lease so as to develop the site into a hotel. There’s nothing hugely abnormal about that – except it marked another phase in which Adelaide’s smaller and older building stock disappeared in favour of larger buildings and car parks.

After that, Zac and Naomi looked at over thirty buildings, finding only two that might be useable. This is largely because (a) most smaller and older buildings have been turned into car parks and (b) those that remain are frequently non-compliant against current regulation.

Of the two sites that might have worked, one would have required at least $50,000 in upgrades and the other $100,000. For a while they were looking at the former Chesser Cellars site, which was a small wine bar with an entertainment consent. Unfortunately, the shift from being principally a bar with jazz bands, to principally a music venue with alcohol sales meant they’d need to upgrade the building to meet the same regulatory standards as the Festival Centre, which wasn’t achievable. This is because our regulatory system sees entertainment as more dangerous than just sitting around drinking.

As the Save the Jade Monkey petition had shown strong community support for the venue, it was good to see the Premier committing to support it, as well as senior staff from the Department of Planning and ArtsSA. Both through my time with Renew and after taking up my job with the National Live Music office I’ve seen this process and I can’t fault the State Government. They helped find the building the Jade is now trying to set up in, they’ve helped broker the lease, and they’ve been following the process through the Liquor Licensing system.

The Adelaide City Council is another story.

But the main problem has been that South Australia’s licensing system is a total mess. Even before we get on to the planning and building issues, the licensing system is such that the only way to get through it is to have very deep pockets and very good lawyers. Which is essentially why the Jade isn’t open.

After working with the State Government to gain access to the back section of the former St Paul’s site, Zac and Naomi lodged for a license application. The lease costs of the site are market value – which is four times what they were paying in their old site – and, like virtually every other building in the city, there’s a development clause in the lease, which means any investment in building upgrades on the Jade’s part would could disappear should development proceed. Thus, there is a limit to how much they can afford to spend trying to get this site operable and the higher rents dictate a need for a higher capacity.

That’s unfortunately taken them above the 120 capacity allowed in the new Small Venue License.

If the Jade was under that level, they’d already be open under that license as it removes the glitch that’s held the process up. Notably, that’s the same glitch that was declared in breech with the National Competition Policy and has long since been removed in every other state. And it’s the same glitch that the Liberals defended when they tried to block the Small Venue License. This isn’t standard Liberal policy. In general, the Liberals I’ve met nationally are interested in the removal of red tape and the allowance of healthy competition. I’m not sure why that attitude hasn’t filtered through to SA.

The answer to fixing this problem in the long term would be to remove this glitch for all the other liquor licensing categories. Unfortunately, that would require bipartisan support in the upper house, and most people think the Liberals would block those reforms.

But herein lies the rub. Because the SA licensing system is the only one in the nation to retain the glitch, to gain a license you need to go through a ‘conciliation process.’

Theoretically, what this process does is give the licensing applicant a chance to sit down with local residents and surrounding businesses and talk through their differences with the aim of finding a happy medium. If they can’t find a happy medium, the case then goes to court.

In practice, what they are is a mechanism whereby anyone from the police, the council, local residents and businesses, as well as other licensees, can refuse to provide their approval until an applicant has accepted a wealth of spurious conditions in their license. This is why you see licenses with conditions like ‘Cannot sell Australian beer on tap’ or ‘Only two piece jazz bands’. Essentially, someone applying for a license in SA either has to accept whatever  conditions their objectors propose, or take them to court and argue it out. Most smaller businesses can’t easily afford to do that, particularly if they’ve been unable to trade due to a conciliation process that has, in the Jade’s case, lasted for three long months.

In this way, the conciliation process undermines all other approvals. For example, planning approvals, which are produced by elected members and responsive to democratic process, set things like noise levels and legal land use. But even if your elected member supports a mixed use zone in which music venues can begin legally operating, or even if an entire government supports it, a single complainant can bypass that approval and drag things out indefinitely through the liquor licensing conciliation processes. The process is not outcomes based. It can go on indefinitely.

To that end, for smaller businesses, the usual tactic of objectors is to (a) drag the process out as long as possible, delaying the granting of the license and making sure the applicant is making no money and then (b) eventually force the applicant to take the issue to court, knowing they won’t be able to afford a protracted court battle and will either give up or go broke.

This is, either deliberately or otherwise, what the objectors have done to the Jade. Those of you who know the Jade guys will know they’re pretty amicable people, and they tried hard to talk to their would be neighbours and find conditions they could all live with. For the bulk of objectors this was fine; after all, most people don’t want to stop people enjoying music.

Unfortunately, some people do. And they’ve used the process to push the Jade to the point of simply running out of money. The most recent episode involved appearing to agree to conciliation, and then – at the final moment of issuing the license – to re-instigate the entire process. This jam alone took up three weeks. The re-instigation of conciliation could take several more months – moreso because it now appears the objectors have stepped away from either conciliation yet haven’t announced whether they will take the issue to court. This leaves the Jade in a legal no man’s land; neither conciliating, nor seeking a final decision through the courts.

The difficult thing about this is that there’s not much the government can do in the short term; they can’t simply wave away an existing legal process, even when it’s obviously not working.

In the long term, provided there was support from the Opposition in the Upper House, South Australia could reform the entire Liquor Licensing Act to bring it into the 21st Century and alter the use of this glitch to block up reasonable applications for a license. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the Opposition don’t support those reforms. Thus, in the long term, if SA wants more cultural activity – not just music but arts, community spaces and things aimed at cultural rather than alcohol focused  – it’ll need to alter its laws. The current system is only surmountable by larger players with the cash for lawyers, which is why Adelaide has a disproportionate amount of booze barns and big night clubs and not that many small venues.

In the short term, the only option is, realistically, for the Jade to find a pro bono lawyer and take the issue to court, or for community support to reinforce the social need for the Jade and work with the objectors to encourage them to withdraw their objections.

There’s also a bigger issue here as to what kind of city Adelaide wants to be. I wouldn’t say the complaints being lodged against the Jade are necessarily vexatious – although they are, to my eye, taking a suspiciously convoluted approach to the conciliation process. But they are an indicator that, even with mass community support backing the Jade, even with the State government backing the Jade, there is a process in place that privileges those who want the city to shut at five. If Adelaide wants to be a creative, active city, it needs to revise its processes to give the will of the four thousand people who signed the Save the Jade petition the same weight as those who want the place to go to bed early.

On Warehouses, the CWA and Regulation.

Some time back I was talking to one of the members of the Country Women’s Association. For those not familiar with the organization, the CWA was founded in 1922 to support women in regional areas by providing common meeting spaces, cultural activity and emergency accommodation. Today they’re one of the largest advocacy bodies in the country, and one of the most successful community run not for profit groups in the country.

Core to their strength is that, back in the day, they set up halls and meeting spaces in every country town. They didn’t have a lot of money – the spaces were often built through the sale, quite literally, of tea and biscuits – so the buildings are often a bit ramshackle, made of weatherboard and brick. But those spaces have been serving their communities, independent of government funding, for 90 years.

I was interested in the CWA because I’d run an independent art space, Format, in Adelaide and I wanted to know about their business model and structure, how they’d remained sustainable so long and how they built such a powerful advocacy organization. But also in whether they’d encountered the same issues with regulatory bodies telling them their halls were non-compliant we see in running independent arts and community spaces.

And, oddly enough, they had. It turns out buildings built in the twenties and thirties on a tight budget don’t conform to building classifications designed for the construction of 21st century buildings.

When the CWA formed, Australia had a very different approach to building compliance. After the Second World War those systems started to tighten up. This was largely because there was a high volume of low quality building stock in the inner city, a huge problem with slums and tenement blocks, and massive overcrowding. In cities like Sydney, where fully plumbed houses didn’t become universal until the 1970s, that overcrowding combined with poor building conditions to produce very real sanitation problems and pretty regular fires.

So, after the war, and with car ownership on the rise, state and federal governments did two things. Firstly, they zoned a lot of outlying land for residential use, thus setting up the groundwork for contemporary suburbs.

Secondly, they altered their building and planning systems to make it harder to adapt an existing building than to simply knock it down and build a new one. This was designed to (a) encourage the demolition of subpar inner city building stock and (b) make it cheap and easy to build a lot of suburban housing very, very quickly.

This worked really, really well. People moved away from cities, drove their cars and lived in the suburbs.

Then we started running out of oil, the suburbs got so geographically broad the costs of maintaining key infrastructure started to get a bit pressing, and the economy shifted from manufacturing towards knowledge and creative industries. So the need was less for a whole bunch of people to go to one big factory and make cars all day,  and more for lots of smaller enterprises to be operating in close proximity so they could interact and share ideas.

And all the planners started reading Richard Florida and Jane Jacobs, but that’s another story.

What does this mean for the Marrickville warehouse scene? Well, firstly Marrickville was an area formerly driven by a light manufacturing sector, which is why it has so many warehouses. The manufacturing sector has drifted off shore because the global economy is so reliant on 2nd world sweatshop labour, so they’ve been vacated. When Australia decided to follow the US abandonment of the Bretton Woods  agreement in the Seventies,  float the dollar in 1984 and undo the Menzies era trade tariffs protecting our primary and manufacturing industries, it hurled itself into that economy at full force. Like it or not, Australia now competes on an economic footing reliant on ideas. That, and mining. Obviously.

By and large Australia’s ascent from colonial outpost to global nation has been pretty successful. But the shift in resources, away from manufacturing centres and regional production, produced a corresponding population movement whereby people wanted to live in cities again.

This put a couple of major pressures on our building and planning regulation.

 Firstly, people stopped moving to green fields development and building suburban houses – and they started moving back into cities that already had a lot of buildings. But the regulations remained designed to facilitate urban out-fill, not allow people to repurpose inner city buildings.

Secondly, areas that had previously been driven by manufacturing economies hollowed out by the shifts in the global economy.

The building code and planning systems made it too expensive to adapt all those existing buildings easily. If you wanted to move into the city itself, you either needed to have the money to renovate an old terrace house or to be a major developer. If you had that cash, you moved into places like Surry Hills after the Olympics and you probably did so because you had the capital and the motivation to want to be near a major centre of global economic activity.

Areas with a slightly lower level of demand, like Marrickville, worked slightly differently. The demand isn’t quite enough to attract major developers, and if you’re looking to renovate a terrace house you’re more likely to go somewhere with lots of terrace houses, not a former manufacturing district. But for what could be called the Educated Poor (aka university students and hipsters) or families headed people working in the knowledge and creative industries, it’s a pretty good location.

Hence, Marrickville is currently home to two major assets/liabilities:

(1) A growing population of people who can’t afford to or don’t want to live in higher priced inner city accommodation, but also don’t want to live in the suburbs.

And a (2) lot of excess, older building stock (aka warehouses) that aren’t currently of interest for major redevelopment, can’t attract new manufacturing tenants, but can’t be easily adapted for re-use as anything else because the building code and regulatory framework is still tightly geared to facilitate suburban sprawl.

The combination of those features means that you have a high concentration of a well educated population drawn back to the city by its increased creative and knowledge activity, who need spaces to meet, work, think, perform and do the things communities do. And you get organizations setting up to meet that need, following almost exactly the same basic model as the CWA: occupy a building, and use it to provide common meeting spaces, cultural activity and, on occasion, affordable housing.

Whilst the basic drive is similar to that of the CWA, there’s two differences. One is that the focus for community in Marrickville is on creative and cultural activity rather than a common experience of gender and rural isolation. And the other is that instead of building weatherboard houses out in the country in an era when regulatory activity was far less stringent, they’re trying to adapt the buildings that are affordable to lease, which tend to be old. Indeed, the tend to be the exact same old buildings the regulatory system is designed to destroy so as to encourage suburban out-fill.

There’s one other difference between the CWA halls of the 20s and the community run warehouse and independent spaces we’re seeing today. When the CWA set up, they were written off as silly little women and no one really paid much attention to them. Until they became one of the largest lobby groups in the country.

By contrast, the ‘warehouse’ spaces are now being portrayed as ‘illegal parties’ and ‘raves’. Their key role as sites for rehearsal, gallery, studio and cheap office space, as places for communities to meet – in short, their role as the modern, hipster version of the CWA – is routinely sidelined by portraying community activity as a bunch of stupid kids who want to have wild parties and don’t understand the incredible importance of building safety.

This is a stupid argument that serves to justify a regulatory system that simply doesn’t work in the 21st century, and which can protect itself by portraying creative communities as degenerate hipsters. But the core problem isn’t just about warehouse spaces, it’s about how we ensure our built environment is regulated to support, rather than destroy, the agency of citizens living within a particular area. The hipsters might be the more vocal group, but I spent most of my days watching small businesses beaten into the ground by regulatory systems.

For some reason, people some people think I care about regulation because I want to support new venues. My interest is drawn as much by working with existing businesses, like Suzie Wong’s Room owner Nina Jeribca in Adelaide. Nina ran a small restaurant and wanted to host music and art, partly because she loved music and art, and partly because just selling food wasn’t a big enough appeal to compete with people’s desire to stay at home staring at Facebook. As soon as she tried to get the necessary regulatory approvals,  the City of Charles Sturt and the local licensing cops used an array of convuluted, nonsensical regulation to grind her and her business onto the cusp of bankruptcy.

And I think that’s wrong. I think it’s a stupid way to get individuals to invest in the geographical environments they live in, I think it prevents the necessary diversity of activity to help our high streets and city centres compete with online entertainment, I think it limits opportunity for performance and exhibition of locally made culture and I just think it’s morally wrong to make a regulatory system you need a small fortune to negotiate.

Other countries have dealt with this far better than Australia. The UK and much of the European Union have developed alternate building compliance guidelines for existing buildings. Without these systems, it would be nigh on impossible to adapt centuries old buildings for new uses, or do things like rejuvenate places like East Berlin from a former industrial slum to a thriving creative city.

The US, which is more comparable to Australia in that it tried to discourage city growth and encourage suburbanization during the Fifties, has had a similar problems, most evident in places like Detroit, whereas it has been basically unable to adapt the built environment to deal with either different economic drivers or the way people live in the 21st century. Except unlike Australia, it started fixing the problem in the late nineties.

That movement began in New Jersey, which needed to open up a lot of inner city housing  to deal with a shortage of affordable housing and the costs of urban sprawl, but couldn’t do so because it had a lot of old terrace houses with stairwells that weren’t compliant by modern standards. They weren’t compliant because modern stairwells were meant to be about half a foot wider. The cost of knocking down all the internal walls to extend the stairwell outwards half a foot was more expensive than simply building another house out in the suburbs. So the government looked at the pros and cons, decided a half a foot of extra stairwell was less objectionable than a city full of vacant buildings, and built a new section of their building code – the New Jersey Rehabilitation Subcode – to handle existing buildings, developing a series of alternate methods of ensuring fire and safety methods.

Not having these systems in Australia doesn’t stop communities from trying to occupy space. It just means they can’t do so legally unless they’ve got the kind of start-up capital to undergo pretty major works. Which very few community groups do. This leads most to do it under the radar and, instead of engaging with expert regulators to find alternate methods of achieving safety, they muddle by as best they can. This isn’t because people running community spaces don’t value safety; it’s because they value their community.

I’ve been thrilled to see Marrickville, Leichhardt and the City of Sydney’s adoption of live music accords extend outwards to look at independent spaces and the regulatory issues that impact upon them. But I’ve been disappointed that those spaces are portrayed as trying to legalise ‘illegal parties’ as if that was all community run spaces do. My experience of these spaces, as both a punter and a former manager of one, is that events might make up part of their income, but they’re equally focused on providing studio, rehearsal and general work space. For the most part, they’re not a direct competitor for the local night club, so much as the place where that club’s bands are going to practice, where people might go see a gallery opening before going to dinner or where people spend the day working in an affordable studio space before wandering down to the pub after knocking off.

If they don’t exist, the bands don’t practice so they’re no good at the club, people don’t go to the gallery opening so they don’t go out to dinner afterwards, and people are working in their bedrooms and probably won’t wander down the pub after work. Those people who might otherwise engage with other businesses in the area stay at home with their cat memes and Facebook, and have the occasional house party. That isn’t a system that’s either economically or socially that great.

Altering regulatory systems to meet the needs of the citizens they ostensible serve isn’t about wacky illegal parties. These systems have been adopted elsewhere to facilitate affordable inner city housing and allow existing, older building stock to be adapted to suit modern needs at a cost that makes it economically viable for non-millionaires. Adapting regulatory systems to allow former warehouses to house creative activity isn’t about giving illegal house parties a leg-up; it’s about making it easier for all small and medium businesses to access lower rent, older buildings.

I can see two reasons why you’d object to regulatory reform. One is a simple failure to understand how mal-functional Australian regulations are.

The second draws from research conducted a few years back and probably explains why community spaces are portrayed as ‘raves’ and ‘illegal parties’. At last night’s Marrickville Council meeting, I cited a quote from a 2006 Allen Consulting report to the State Government of Victoria:

The Competition Authority has claimed that the high cost of entry hamper the viability of smaller operations. Licensees are effectively encouraged to maximize the value of their license by creating larger venues that focus exclusively on the sale of alcohol and not the sale of alcohol in conjunction with other activities, as is more common in countries with less restrictive licensing practices.

(Allen Consulting Group, ‘Assessment of the Impacts of Licensing Reforms: An Australian Experience”, 2006, p.14)

Their focus was on licensing, but the basic point is that if the regulatory barriers are high enough – if you have to basically build an entire building to host a band or provide a space for people to practice – the only people who make it through are those with fairly large volumes of start-up capital and fairly certain profits coming in the other side. Even then, you’re going to lose a lot of money better spent on running your business but for the likes of the local chapter of the CWA, or the Red Rattler or Dirty Shirlows that system is virtually insurmountable.

More live music venues than ever? Really?

Some time back I posted figures estimating a 70% – 80% decrease of live music in the CBD. I came to that figure through two methods. Firstly, I posted an estimate of live music venues, their capacities and frequency of live shows in 2009, and then a similar estimate today. That looked like this:

Venues 1999 Estimate Capacity in band room 1999 Estimate Frequency of Live Music per week 2005 Est Cap 2005 Est Frequency
Austral 100 3 n/a n/a
Exeter 100 3 50 3
Madlove Bar 100 3 n/a n/a
Rhino Room 100 3 100 3
Gate 1 Bar 75 1 n/a n/a
UniBar 250 2 n/a n/a
C&A 100 3 n/a n/a
Tivoli 350 1 n/a n/a
Total 1175 19 250 6

I posted this up for public feedback, and the dominant response from those who’ve been involved in the scene over the past ten or more years confirmed my estimates. Sometime in the early 2000s, we started losing a lot of venues.

Secondly, one of Renew Adelaide’s volunteers, Simon Amber, went through every gig guide in the Adelaide Advertiser over a ten year period, and noted a decrease in both the number of venues and the amount of bands they were hosting which, like the above figures, equated to about a 75% decline in the number of bands playing, and had the same time frame of the early 2000s as the tipping point, just prior to the major cinemas shutting down.

Right after that, figures and statements started coming out from certain government agencies declaring that there were “more live music venues than ever before”, which have been added to in recent weeks by claims that Adelaide has more live music venues in its CBD than any other state.

In correspondence with one of those foisting the ‘More venues than ever!’ line it became apparent they were citing stats from SAPOL’s Alcohol and Crime Report, which claimed a 62.5% increase in Entertainment Venue Licenses (EVLs). That sounds great! 62.5% more venues! Except then you look at their data:

LL SAPOL Graph.jpg

See the little pink line down the bottom? The one that almost disappears around 2001, and then slowly picks up to just above disappearing? That’s the EVLs. SAPOL goes on to detail that, as of 2009, there were a whopping 29 EVLs in the Adelaide CBD, a 62.5% increase. On top of that, the problem with using EVLs as a measure of live music venues is that it doesn’t take into account the other regulatory approvals required to host live music – like noise restrictions, Class 9B approvals, DDA access and so forth. Given how blatantly unreliable this data is, I’m continually baffled that relatively senior bureaucrats and elected members are still citing it.

Assuming there’s more data out there I haven’t seen, I still don’t believe Adelaide has either more venues than other cities or more than it had ten or fifteen years ago. That’s not just because it goes against my estimates, but it also contradicts the sparse research conducted in Adelaide, and the better studied national trend.

The most solid piece of analysis is APRA’s Economic Contribution of the Venue Based Live Music Industry in Australia, conducted by Ernst and Young in 2011. Whilst it doesn’t offer city by city break downs, it undermines the idea that South Australia has more music venues than elsewhere, listing a total of 8.7% of the national total, putting the state fifth, behind NSW (32.1%), Queensland (23.6%) and Victoria (22%) and WA (9%).

Music venues by state.jpg

Broken down per capita, you could argue SA isn’t doing so badly. Based on the ABS stats, SA makes up about 7.3% of the total national population, which means we have more music venues per capita that most other states. But those figures don’t measure either the frequency of performance, the nature of the venues, nor do they take into account the relatively large geographical spread, whereby every country town with a pub hosting cover bands once a week would show up.

That data might, however, explain Ryan Winter’s recent claim in InDaily that:

The reality is that Adelaide has more venues within its CBD than any other capital city in Australia. Opportunities to play live are provided in abundance, and have been for several years now, despite the closure of some named iconic venues.

Whilst SA might have more venues per capita, the claim that the Adelaide CBD has more venues is spurious. Indeed, it is directly contradicted by Deloitte’s report for Arts Victoria, The Economic, Social and Cultural Contribution of Venue Based Live Music in Victoria from 2019, which notes:

Melbourne has more live music venues than any other Australian city, including around 370 hotels, bars, nightclubs and restaurants featuring live music.

Sorry Ryan, but I trust Deloitte’s research more than either yours, SAPOLs or, indeed, those City Vibrators who took the 62.5% at face value, and it’s counter productive to see that claim now being repeated further and further up the policy chain.

Although I should point out, Ryan’s redeemed himself in my eyes by working on the upcoming SLAM campaign.

More generally, claims that Adelaide is some kind of glut of music venues tends to go against national research by people like Shane Homan and Kate Shaw noting a gradual decrease in the face of increased noise restrictions, tighter regulations, licensing laws and local government behaviour throughout the 1990s and 2000s. That’s reflected in both the Ernst and Young and Deloitte reports, with the former finding 69.1% of venue managers cited the “impact of the current regulatory environment for live music venues” as a major concern, and the latter noting “property rights and amenity” as a common reason for venues limiting live music or not hosting it entirely.

Closer to home, there really hasn’t been any serious research for quite a while. Elizabeth Raupach’s Theatre Spaces and Venues Audit in Adelaide from 2010 does, however, tend to suggest South Australian venue based creative initiatives have suffered, finding:

This audit has found that at present there is a lack of suitable spaces to house international artists during Adelaide Festival and Fringe periods. Equally, there is a lack of suitable and affordable venues in Adelaide for the local theatre community to make and present work.

She also noted the issues with regulation:

Artists report that they don’t mind complying with appropriate legislation if only they could work out how to go about it.

Interesting, that reflects one of the recommendations Charles Landry made during his time as Thinker in Residence, writing in his 2003 Rethinking Adelaide report that SA should:

Make sure world class knowledge sector industries such as health and well being, the creative industries, the green economy, the learning sectors and advanced manufacturing are supported by world class regulations rather than forcing them to struggle through dated legislation.

We’ve started to see reviews of the 1997 Liquor Licensing Act. It’ll be interesting to see if those flow through to the 1992 Development Act, the 1999 Local Government Act and 1998 City of Adelaide Act.

On the whole, I find it difficult to believe that Adelaide has more live music venues than ever before or even that it has a greater concentration in the CBD. There simply isn’t a body of evidence suggesting those claims are true, and there’s a reasonable body of evidence suggesting the opposite.

Overall, my sense with these claims is that they’re a product of a particular way of viewing the culture of cities that values traditional top down mechanisms of government. This is ideological in nature. I’ve said this before, as have numerous other people including the Premier, but South Australia has an entrenched (to use Jay Weatherill’s term) ‘paternal’ approach to governing, and when it comes to handling cultural and creative enterprise, it bears witness to the top down ‘culture of excellence’ established under Dunstan. Tim Horton discusses this in his recent blog post here.

From that position, the perspective is that (a) the problem for smaller cultural enterprises, like music and arts venues, is basically market failure, or simply that “people just don’t like going to live gigs anymore”.  So (b) as the market has failed, SA should avoid allocating resources to it and should continue focusing resources on major flagship projects with clearer outcomes. And (c) ,as the current system works for top down projects, there’s no need to take responsibility for the regulatory issues that have crippled the smaller end of the creative sector or the structure and staffing of the agencies that have overseen it. After all, it was market failure that made those smaller venues fail, not lack of investment and hostile bureaucracy.

The alternate perspective is that small scale, grass roots enterprises are important to the State’s cultural and economic regeneration, things like music venues are a vital part of that, and SA needs to take heed of the existing research and begin revising the decidedly unglamorous torrent of regulatory and legal frameworks that prevent such ventures succeeding. And it needs to take a good, long look at the agencies that enforce the current system, given they’ve had a negative impact upon it.

Six months ago, I would have said I thought there was real value being given to the smaller scale activity in Adelaide, and things like the Small Venues License and the recent ArtsSA review of live music funding, seemed to flow out of a  desire to move away from the Top Down approach.

But that was six months ago. At the moment, it seems like it could go either way.