Changes in Wollongong’s live music scene over the past five years have been held up as a shining example of how to revitalise an ailing inner-city nightlife.
This high praise came from the Illawarra’s northern rival, Newcastle, which last week adopted a slew of measures based on policies put in place in Wollongong five years ago.
Like Wollongong, Newcastle has been experiencing a CBD apartment boom, creating a clash between venues and residents and prompting a call for intervention from those within the music scene.
Last Tuesday, to cheers from a public gallery packed with worried musicians, Newcastle councillors voted to adopt “the Wollongong Approach” to transform their nightlife, which they said was recognised by the NSW Live Music Office as “best practice” statewide.
Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery said it was “not surprising that others would want to follow our example”, with Wollongong now boasting a strong “night time economy”.
“Wollongong council is often accused of being behind the times, this is one example of where we’re ahead of the game,” Cr Bradbery said.
In March 2013, Wollongong councillors heeded the warnings raised by live music advocates, who were concerned new apartment buildings and residents’ complaints would push late-night entertainment out of the city.
They set up a Live Music Taskforce – made up of councillors, bookers, bands and venue managers – and developed a 42-part action plan to tip the balance back in favour of live music and night time venues.
“From this process, a range of better regulation approaches were delivered quickly, that also supported associated actions items in preparation at that time, and has been a solid foundation from which the music industry and events are doing well in Wollongong,” councillors at Newcastle City Council wrote in their motion last week.
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Former Wollongong councillor Ann Martin – who was one of several councillors on the taskforce and is now part of a collective which just opened new Port Kembla music venue Servo Food Truck Bar – said the policy “was the first regional live music strategy in the country”.
“The challenge for us was to address the issues that were coming up on the planning side, while also asking ‘how can we support more live music?,” she said.
“There’s now a lot more clarity around council processes… so we wanted to provide a framework to give some of these young entrepreneurs and people who want to open a bar with live music the confidence to go ahead. This has absolutely led to the creation of new venues – including the one I’m involved with.”
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Cr Bradbery said Wollongong’s policy to notify residents buying apartment buildings in the CBD that they are buying into a live music precinct or an area with night time venues was a key part of the live music success.
Additionally, new residential development in areas designated as “mixed use evening economy areas” now need to have acoustic and other design measures to mitigate noise
“We forewarned people, that yes, there are advantages to living here in the city, but also some challenges – namely that you’re entering a space where there’s likely to be entertainment on at all hours of the night,” he said.
“We’ve now turned a corner – there was a feeling we were down on entertainment and live music, now we’re creating and encouraging people to take up more opportunities.”
Liberal councillor Leigh Colacino, who was also part of the taskforce, also said he believed the live music push had led to many other small business opportunities – pointing to the opening of dozens of new small bars.
According to tourism body Destination Wollongong, and the economic development arm, Advantage Wollongong, more than 65 new small bars and cafes opened in the three years between 2014 and 2017.
“It’s really good that Newcastle has recognised what Wollongong has done, and how successful it has been,” Cr Colacino said.
“Councillors and the council are often regarded as being old fuddy-duddies who don’t know what young people want, but they’ve shown they are understanding of those voices.”
New Greens councillor Mithra Cox, who plays in a band, agreed the live music measures had made a difference, but believed more could be done to bring people out into Wollongong and its suburbs after dark.
“It’s not just about having rules that allow live music, it’s also about having a lively main street,” she said.
“If you’re playing at Dicey Rileys and you leave the pub, there’s no transport, nowhere to get a bite to eat, nowhere to wander – whereas in other places, like Newtown for example, about half your audience comes from passing traffic.
“We need to have a concentration of people wandering around the streets – and I would also like to see some of the liquor licencing for small venues in Wollongong be relaxed.”
“Venues that have live music are much less likely to have a binge drinking culture, but our licencing laws are blanket for everyone.”