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From lockout to lockdown: The fight for Sydney’s nightlife

From lockout laws to CODI-19 lockdowns, Sydney's night time economy has struggled to survive. Photos: Sharen Samson, Inner West Council, DJ Levins & Keey Sydney Open

By SHAREN SAMSON

The streets of Sydney are hushed on a Friday evening.

A queue of traffic illuminates the footpath on the corner of King Street and Missenden Road.

Each set of car headlights passes by with varying degrees of brightness. This is only one reminder of being in a club: to be blinded with golden flashing strobe lights, entranced by the DJ on deck, packed like sardines you can almost taste the sweat on the dance floor.

This is a distant memory during COVID-19, a fierce challenge to the night-time economy.

Few young people roam the strip of pubs out in Newtown. Some dawdle into queues marked by fluorescent orange cones. Others walk right by, unphased by the stillness of a pub on what’s meant to be one of its busiest hours.

Stickers on the pavement show guests where to stand. The word ‘SAFE’ is made bold, reminding guests of the risk of being outside.

Going out on a Friday night has lost its buzz. There is a clinical energy that comes with going out during a health pandemic. The queue is being watched cautiously. The security guard paces back and forth asking guests to scan the QR code for entry.

Anyone who lines up past these cones is told to take a walk. Stringent capacity rules are enforced during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The night-time economy has suffered immensely during the health crisis, slowing the city’s pace, putting people on edge in fear of the unknown.

Sydney’s nightlife has been put to a halt and now resumes at a slow, almost eerie pace. Its impact has stripped business owners and artists of making a living, as nightlife is far from an essential industry in a time like this.

This past year, health orders have strangled Sydney’s nightlife in its already fragile condition.

This is a Friday night during a period of lockdown.

But lockdown wasn’t the first blow to Sydney’s nightlife which was only just beginning to recover from lockout laws.

Death of the dance floor

From lockout to lockdown, the industry has been begging for help.

Before the pandemic, the night-time economy was worth $27 billion. This figure could have reached a huge $43 billion without the constant red tape over the past several years.

A report by Deloitte Access Economics revealed that Sydney’s night time economy is worth over $27 billion every year, supporting 230,000 Australian jobs. The report also estimates the night-time economy could be worth up to $43 billion. A $16 billion annual deficit is the result of the underperforming night-time economy in New South Wales.

The blows of lockout and lockdown are deeply felt by those whose lives are built on the night-time economy.
When you step into the Marly Bar a small amount of light dimly illuminates the room. The doorway lets in a glimmer of light each time a car passes by. At 11P.M. on a September night, the room is stagnant. Tables are stretched two metres apart. Bodies are tightly huddled side-by-side upon high stools.

Tucked far away in the left side corner of the Marly Bar is nightclub DJ Andrew Levins. He bops his head to and fro to the sounds of the night’s mix. He looks down at the Pioneer DJ controllers in front of him, arranging his set for his audience all seated at their tables.

Dancefloors are dead during COVID-19. It is forbidden to get up and dance. The floorspace is a passageway to the bar, or a means to find your way in or out.

Living in a health pandemic, Sydney has no dance floor.

The current restrictions indicate that pubs can only operate with strict seating and capacity rules enforced.
Andrew Levins has been a DJ since he was a teenager scouring through council pick up scraps for used vinyl equipment.

Now, he’s played at Splendour in the Grass and supported artists like Flume on tour worldwide. His love for the arts can also be seen in the music charity Heaps Decent which he co-founded alongside Diplo and Nina Las Vegas.

The DJ was the in-house chef of GOODGOD small club, a victim of the first challenge to the night-time economy.

GOODGOD was home to those starting out in the music industry. The intimate underground setting is known for pushing the growth of artists and collectives like Flume, What So Not and Cloud Control. The small club’s sticky dance sessions also delivered international acts like Toro Y Moi, Mount Kimbie and Diplo in the early 2000s.

Now, GOODGOD’s doors are shut for good.

Live performance, theatre, music, festivals, retailers, hospitality and transport are all part of the night-time economy’s spectrum. The tight regulation of Sydney’s night-time economy has resulted in loss.

Lockout laws were delivered in 2014 in response to the tragic deaths of Thomas Kelly and Daniel Christie. The two young men died only nine months apart for the very same reason- one punch assaults in Kings Cross.
Violence fuelled by binge drinking urgently needed to be addressed. Lockout laws were the result.

Now, as the Marly Bar night continues, DJ Levins lip-syncs to Rae Sremmurd’s synth heavy, tropical sounding track ‘Guatemala.’ The rhythm is laid back, the type of song you’d listen to on a tropical beach soaking in the sun on your skin. The Latin style song sings of taking a private jet out for a romantic getaway. Warm red and orange spotlights rotate counter-clockwise upon his small, cornered workspace.

His eyes move from his laptop to the controllers as he selects the next track for transition. ‘Guatemala’ is upbeat, booming through the speakers guarding DJ Levins from the rest of the guests on a night out, tethered to their stools.

Posters and stickers are sprawled across the walls with edges lifted and ripped from past shows. “SAFE IN NEWTOWN” “AFTER PARTY” and “FREE ENTRY” are some of the words in bold block letters on A4 sized posters on the wall. Rainbow postcard-sized flags are hung as a banner above the bartender as they serve Hawke’s Patio Pale on tap to a young man who patiently waits, staring and scrolling on his phone.

From lockout to lockdown, the industry is begging for help.

The importance of nightlife

Alex Greenwich has fought for Sydney’s nightlife for over ten years. He dreams of the city to be alive at night.
Greenwich explains that the nightlife arena has always acted as a sanctuary for the LGBTQI+ community.

“As a gay person […] the gay bars have always been a safe place and it’s a space for our community to come together.”

The symbolic importance of gay bars has been a haven, often one of the very first places someone can feel safe and truly themselves.

A bar or club can feel like a homely sanctuary to subcultures like the LGBTQI+ community.

Greenwich is a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly proudly representing the city of Sydney.

For several years he has championed nightlife spaces as crucial build the richness of a city’s culture.
A lively city looks like a 24-hour city: 24-hour transport, open restaurants, live performance, museums, galleries, alive at every hour of the day.

Alex Greenwich explained that “it’s critically important that this isn’t all just about drinking. It’s about live performance, dining arts, museums, galleries getting there, getting home, the whole diverse mix.”

Nightlife is being watched like a hawk. Today, bars and clubs are heavily regulated, with streets far from vibrancy and high energy.

Police presence in Sydney’s clubs

The regulation on Sydney’s nightlife has stripped the industry of its vibrancy.

A sense of uncertainty exists for artists, business owners and venues in how the night-time economy can be brought back to life after the scrutiny of its regulators.

From restrictions on when you can enter to where you can sit or stand, Keep Sydney Open’s Director Tyson Koh has felt frustrated for the past six years. He is concerned about all the regulations on the city’s nightlife.

“Whether it’s where you can stand or where you can drink, it’s quite maddening. It’s something international visitors remark upon a lot, the feeling of being constricted when you’re trying to do the most basic thing.”

Phillip Wadds has dedicated his life’s research to the crossover between nightlife, violence, policing and the study of alcohol and other drugs. Now a Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Wadds is passionate about the vibrancy of a city’s nightlife.

The lively energy is not something Sydney has been carrying through the industry’s archaic rules. Frustrations over the night time economy have boiled over as the city only had two months of eased lockout laws before New South Wales was sent into lockdown.

Wadds has felt the frustration firsthand, and now plays a crucial role as a member of City of Sydney’s Night Time Advisory Panel. The academic is a key advocate in explaining the importance of movement in nightlife precincts like the Marly Bar.

Andrew Levins has experienced life as a DJ before, during and after lockout laws were introduced. Now stretching to lockdown, Levins explains how clubs don’t need a DJ like they used to, yet when an opportunity arises, he “totally appreciates being thrown a bone.”

A majority of Levins’ income came from his life as a DJ. Each announcement by Sydney’s regulators to tighten the rules held Andrew Levins back, working to support his wife and two children. The war of lockout and lockdown has devastated businesses and artists in the night-time industry.

“I do know I have no money now,” Levins explains in frustration.

“DJing is 80% of my income, probably more.”

The road to recovery is uncertain for Sydney’s nightlife. There are still many questions about how the industry can be revived and what the government is going to do for artists like DJ Levins.

DJ Levins senses that people don’t let their hair down in Sydney because of the overpowering presence of police on a night out. He thinks the presence of the police demonstrates the lack of dialogue between club owners and state authorities.

“There is a safer way for police, DJs and clubs to be safe together. But I don’t think intimidating people by walking around looking for people causing trouble is the way to go. It’s awful.”

DJ Levins said that even during lockdown, at roughly 75% of his gigs, “cops come in and they just ruin the vibe.”

“They will maybe do a funny dance move and someone will go, oh, that person’s intoxicated. And then the security guy will talk to them and the cops will come in and then suddenly they’re out of the club.”

Phillip Wadds urges Sydney, both regulators and patrons of the night-time economy, to learn lessons and strike a balance of what matters most.

Wadds believes that Sydney can’t have safety with vibrancy in its night-time economy. He believes this is key for regulators to remember moving forward.

On another side of Sydney, situated to the right of Regent Street is Chippendale pub The Lord Gladstone.

Director Benjamin Johnson purchased The Lord Gladstone due to its exemption from Sydney’s lockout laws.

He hoped to garner community spirit in a suburb many Sydneysiders rarely visit for a night out.

When the lockout laws were introduced, the pub was a sensation.

“This pub used to do astronomical numbers. People would go out till 12AM in Kings Cross and say, lets go to the Gladstone and stay out till 3AM.”

Despite its early success, Johnson says the impact of lockdown has been devastating.

With the restrictions and cautiousness of the public, Johnson explains that “people aren’t leaving their postcodes like they used to.”

Can Sydney’s nightlife be revived?

In late September 2020, the NSW Government announced more than 15.7 billion dollars in health and economic support measures during COVID-19.

This includes significant assistance for small and medium sized businesses, including those in the night-time economy sector that are among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The ‘24-Hour Economy Plan’ focuses on grants for live music, licensing trials for microbreweries, less red tape for business and an extension of opening hours.

The night-time economy is now a priority in recovering from COVID-19.

The report looks to the night-time economy’s revival through enhancing the vibrancy of the sector’s core businesses. These core businesses include pubs, bars, festivals, theatres and live music. The report explains that in a post pandemic world, “the conversation must be widened to take on a more forward-thinking and holistic view of the city’s nightlife.”

Sydney’s regulators are at a point of re-thinking how they night-time economy operates. The goal is to enhance the city’s vibrancy of the day all throughout the night.

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet explains that although Sydney is one of the best cities in the world, “we need to continue to do everything we can to ensure the jewel in our crown continues to shine both day and night.”
Nightlife is key to a lively city.

Its ability to bring together culture and subcultures, smoothen social interactions and provide fun and entertainment is the goal for Sydney moving forward.

Dua Lipa’s ‘Break My Heart’ sings of staying at home and doing better alone.

In a health pandemic, social distancing and a revamped 24-hour economy may be exactly what Sydney needs.
DJ Levins dreams of liveliness on Sydney’s dance floor.

The plan for a vibrant city hopes to revive Sydney’s nightlife from its fragile state.

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