By Rob Carr
Liquor licensing enforcer at Wollongong Local Area Command, Wayne Hadfield, is relatively new to the job. In the past his colleague Paul Hoyer did not seem to have minded, as much, pop up and live music venues in Wollongong city centre.
Liquor licensing enforcement at Wollongong LAC has a chequered record. Last year the LAC was embroiled in the leaking of Wollongong Council’s public surveillance footage to national media, the ramifications of which are still playing out. Public trust was shaken by the deliberate misuse of our local government CCTV system.
Now music fans attending the Good Jelly pop up gallery-come music venue in Globe Lane are outraged about the fines recently imposed by police on the new venue. The fines amount to $1,500, and proprietor Dioni Pinilla says he will likely have to close the venue just when it was starting to gather momentum.
Certainly, before Hadfield’s spell as enforcer of the Liquor Accord, the pop up style venues – Music Farmers, Sol and Yours & Owls – rarely if at all raised a blip on the police radar. Has something changed since Hadfield come on board? Have new orders been issued to crack down on emerging live music venues in Wollongong? Or is Hadfield simply throwing a bit of muscle around?
Perhaps it is because of a lack of violent episodes to occupy the officer’s time. After all, crime rates are down, and NSW statistics show that public violence in the central postcode has declined consistently since 2007.
By all indications music venues are the least of worries for Wollongong police. The culture of live music venues is much different, generally speaking, to that which you’d find at the Harp, Ivory, Illawarra or Abbey’s.
To give credit where it’s due, the police have a role to play in monitoring alcohol consumption, which includes music venues. Saying that, some gigs at these gallery style venues are BYO alcohol, so there is a conflict in terms of what regulations apply for venues – such as what police can and cannot enforce in terms the Liquor Accord and alcohol legislation; dealing with the smaller venues which are not members of the Liquor Accord; and when the venues are not selling alcohol but offer a “social” and “cultural” space.
Most important is the social and cultural role pop up venues play in the rebuilding of the city centre as a hub of activity. At the pop up venues there are now scores of die hard live music fans finally getting a sense that they’ve found a new home since the centrally established venue, the Oxford Tavern, closed its doors in 2010. Two years on, musos and alternative crowds are starting to regain their bearings along with a centre of gravity for their favourite pursuit – a centre of gravity that emanates directly from pop up venues.
Music Farmers, Yours and Owls, and now Good Jelly are heroes to local musos, taking it upon themselves to provide a space for creative activity when the business sector has lost its interest in supporting live music (excepting pubs Dicey Rileys and The Patch).
For the last decade RDL’s control of the nightlife scene in Wollongong proved to be shambolic. Their venues, along with the Oxford, forced musos, many of whom are students and working people on low incomes, out of night spaces. Before its closure, even the Oxford required long-time patrons to pay for entry, to accept gentrification of an important cultural space or go home. That battle was lost, for better or worse.
But where the business sector has failed local musicians, the small, independent pop up venues have taken up the slack. Importantly these spaces are a source of connectedness. To quote Wollongong Council’s 2022 Community Strategic Plan, they are part of the provision: ‘We are a connected and engaged community’.
These venues connect live music fans and performers, in all their diversity, and appreciate the creative economy, which is often financially non-rewarding, but they do it anyway. And now instead of being rewarded for their efforts, the independent pop up venues are being slapped with thousands of dollars in fines for breaches that remain unclear.
Who is to blame? Sure, it’s the responsibility of the venue operators to investigate and look into what activities they are and are not allowed to undertake. There are basic Work Health Safety standards all night life spaces should adhere to like basic fire exits, provision of toilets and the like.
But it’s not entirely the venues’ fault. Good Jelly has been running live music gigs for months without any issues being raised by police. Good Jelly’s operators say they thought they were adhering to their D.A. conditions – a scheme that includes a rent-free space with leeway for live music.
The rent-free scheme is available to anyone wanting to run creative and artistic ventures, but it does seem, at least on the surface, to be vague in terms what operators can and cannot do in terms of live music. Officer Hadfield told the Illawarra Mercury that Good Jelly should have run a proposal for ‘events involving non-acoustic music and alcohol should be arranged in co-operation with police.’
So is Council at fault for the confusion? Not entirely. Neither Council nor the operators should be criticised, not least without some context.
On one hand the rent-free scheme is a relatively new program, and this is a learning curve that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. If venues need specific licenses to run live music gigs that are deemed ‘non-acoustic’, then Council should consider providing this information in briefing applicants for the rent-free scheme.
Moreover, the rent-free program must be better managed, particularly if this is part of Council’s plan to ‘Activate’ the city centre – to light up laneways, alleys and unused business frontages with buzzing, creative, cultural and economic activity at both night and day. That also means bringing police into discussions about the importance of live music in Wollongong, and creating a new consensus between all the stakeholders on issues that impact live music as a whole. This includes recognising the importance of providing and nurturing spaces for live music culture to exist and develop within Council’s broader strategic plan, especially in regards to the ‘2022’ policy.
City Centre management wants the city to recover from what seems to be stagnation in the city centre economy. It wants to ‘activate’ that space and change the community’s perceptions on how it is used and why. Council purports to want community members to feel free and creative, not scared and unsafe. It wants to bring light and synergy to the city centre, and “turn on the lights” so to speak.
Police have a job to do, but I urge liquor licensing to come to the table on this issue. The rigidness of the application of police powers, whether they are justified or not, needs to take into account that Wollongong city centre needs to recuperate, to repair itself. That means allowing members of the community, such as independent venue operators, to try to assist in that task.
Police need to come to new terms with the music scene. Issuing thousands of dollars in fines on emerging, independent live music venues is counterproductive to the bigger task for Wollongong as a whole. Come to the table. Be part of this community, while being responsible contributors to public safety.