The Office Of Liquor, Gaming And Racing (OLGR) said that, "the hotel [had] come under increasing attention by both OLGR and Police due to numerous drug detections, repeated intoxication issues, and ongoing disturbance issues from patrons leaving the venue." They claimed that bar staff had been caught consuming illicit drugs, while patrons were observed supplying and consuming substances in the club's toilets. Others were found intoxicated. A 72-hour, full-venue closure was enforced by the OLGR the following weekend. This was the beginning of a swift end for The Imperial Hotel, one of Sydney's last remaining late-night party spots. After being forced out of the premises, Spice issued a press release that lead with the line: "Today the music really does stop."
The demise of the Imperial is just the latest incident in the ongoing erosion of Sydney's nightlife. In January 2014, the New South Wales state government introduced tough new legislation as part of a public crusade against alcohol-fuelled violence. These new laws included 1:30 AM lockouts—meaning patrons can't enter or re-enter a venue after that time under any circumstances—and 3 AM "last drinks" anywhere within the city's CBD and so-called entertainment precincts. Members of the music and late-night entertainment industries feared the worst, as these restrictions would severely hinder the ability for venues, promoters and artists to thrive. A once-24-hour city now had a curfew.
Some 18 months on, the cultural, economic and social impact of these laws is coming into focus. While the data says assaults are down, clubs and bars are closing at an increasingly rapid rate, and the debate over the real effects and costs of the legislation is ongoing. Many venues that have survived have been forced to cut staff and reduce hours, resulting in hundreds of jobs being lost. It's a similarly gloomy outlook for the city's electronic music community, whose scene has been slowly unravelling. Phil Smart, one of the country's most respected DJs, has been going out in Sydney for almost 30 years. "I've seen it go through a lot," he says, "and this legislation is the worst thing that's happened to our communities and the entire late-night economy."
The lockout laws were a direct result of two tragic incidents that took place in Kings Cross, Sydney's red-light district and biggest clubbing hotspot. In July 2012, Thomas Kelly, 18, was struck by an unprovoked punch, randomly "king hit" at 9 PM by 19-year-old Kieran Loveridge. Loveridge, who committed another four assaults throughout the evening, had stepped out from behind a wall and delivered the blow to Kelly, who suffered critical head injuries from the fall as his skull hit the pavement. His life support was switched off two days later. New Year's Eve 2013 saw a similar scene a few metres from where that attack occurred. Daniel Christie, also 18, was out celebrating with his brother when he was punched around 9:30 PM by Shaun McNeil, a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, 27, who claims he misidentified Christie as another teenager he had an altercation with earlier in the evening. Christie died on January 11th.
The then NSW premier Barry O'Farrell came under extreme pressure to act. The message from the mainstream media, the opposition Labor Party, the emergency services and hospitals, the victims' families and the general public was clear: young men were dying on the streets of Sydney and something needed to be done. O'Farrell had previously said there was no "one-size-fits-all solution" and that, as these assaults happened before 10 PM, lockouts "would have had no impact." The urgency of the situation, however, seemed to change his stance.
Inner-city public hospital psychiatrist, political writer and RA contributor Tad Tietze says, "There was no space for rational solutions or long-term planning," due to what he describes as a moral panic initiated by the major local papers, including the usually left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald, which damned the premier's inaction. "Moral panics demand rapid and heavy-handed action by government to suppress the problem," Tietze says. "And many of the health experts who claimed they were into harm minimisation were really moving much more towards partial prohibition as the only way to reduce harm."
The public's perception was that Sydney's streets were suddenly running with blood, but NSW crime statistics painted a different picture. Up until the end of 2013, alcohol-related assaults across the state had been declining at a steady rate since 2008, totalling a 21% drop and reaching their lowest levels since 2002. The same trend was being seen in Sydney's CBD and, to a more moderate extent, Kings Cross, where assaults within licensed premises had dropped significantly and assaults on the street remained relatively stable. The numbers were at odds with the media's suggestion of a sudden spike in violence.
Three weeks after the assault on Daniel Christie, O'Farrell unveiled his government's solution. The list of strict new laws and licensing restrictions included a statewide closure of bottle shops at 10 PM, a number of mandatory minimum sentences for drug- or alcohol-fuelled offences, and a freeze on liquor licenses for new clubs and pubs within the city. It was the announcement of the 1:30 AM lockouts and 3 AM curfew on alcohol service, however, that proved most controversial. These restrictions, which were at odds with O'Farrell's earlier stance, applied to a newly devised Sydney CBD entertainment precinct. The area covers more than 1000 licensed venues, including popular nightlife areas such as Kings Cross, Oxford Street, Cockle Bay and The Rocks. (The Star casino narrowly escaped these boundaries, despite recording the highest number of violent incidents in the state last year, as did billionaire James Packer's six-star casino development in Barangaroo, immediately adjacent to Cockle Bay.)
Similar measures to those adopted in Sydney were trialled in Melbourne back in 2008 to target binge drinking and alcohol-related assaults. There, it was reported that 2 AM lockouts resulted in a spike in late-night violence, a claim backed by a KPMG report commissioned by the state government later that year. The trial was met with strong resistance from the music industry, with one protest organised by Melbourne Locked Out gathering around 10,000 people at Treasury Gardens in the city's CBD. The initiative was dumped after three months, and the success of the trial was deemed inconclusive by Victorian premier John Brumby, partly because so many venues were granted lockout exemptions. Brumby's senior policy advisor, Nicholas Reece, reflected on the Melbourne trial in a 2014 Sydney Morning Herald article titled "The Sydney lockout: new location, but the same old mistakes." When discussing the heightened assault rates after lockouts were implemented, he says, "There is a common-sense explanation for why this occurs: when tens of thousands of people…surge into the street around the time of the lockout, it creates a violent flashpoint. In Sydney this problem will arguably occur twice, once at the lockout at 1:30 AM and then at last drinks at 3 AM."
A number of cities around Australia have also implemented or proposed their own variations. There have been varying degrees of statistical success and contention. In the case of Sydney, the state government's response was based on the "Newcastle solution." Situated two hours north of Sydney, NSW's second biggest city was experiencing a drunk-violence problem of their own, which, in 2008, was addressed with 1 AM lockouts and 3 AM last drinks. Phil Smart, who moved to Newcastle around that time after two decades at the forefront of Sydney's techno and house scene, was immediately unable to find work. Lockouts "killed any diversity of nighttime culture that you would expect from a city," he says. "Less people are going out and the people who want more freedom tend to leave."
The new measures in Sydney were largely met with praise by the groups applying pressure. Others, however, were critical of the knee-jerk nature of the response and the lack of consideration given to the possible broader effects. The Sydney laws were rushed through parliament with little-to-no consultation with the nightlife industry. Questions were raised about the evidence supporting the lockouts, with some media outlets pointing to the failed Melbourne experiment. Venue owners, promoters, artists, DJs and punters grouped together and voiced their concerns. Organisations like Save Our Nightlife and Keep Sydney Open quickly formed. They arranged social media campaigns, rallies and petitions to spread the message that Sydney's music culture and nighttime economy was in jeopardy. But the resistance was disorganised and lacked strength. "People felt on the back foot when previously rational media, health and political people were basically arguing that not supporting tough laws was tantamount to wanting people to be killed by drunken youth," says Tietze.
"A lot of the most vocal opponents tend to be people who have no involvement in going out in the city areas whatsoever," says Tyson Koh, spokesperson for Keep Sydney Open and a local DJ. "They have their opinions about what should happen, but the reality is that people only really get an impression of what going out is like through little morsels in the media. People are stitching together all the little brawls that occur over a period of several months and they're given the impression that going out is like a war zone."
The new laws were implemented in February 2014, more than a month ahead of schedule. The city was locked out five days before the Sydney Gay And Lesbian Mardi Gras, the internationally renowned Oxford St parade that draws hundreds of thousands of revellers into the city each year for a late-night celebration. Despite fears that confusion and anger surrounding the restrictions would result in violence, the NSW Police—and in turn, the media—called the night a success. But venue owners, promoters and other nighttime stakeholders felt that the real damage was yet to come, and that a blanket solution would unfairly penalise those doing the right thing.
Many late-night venues around the city faced a bleak reality: hours would be cut, jobs would be lost and revenue would evaporate from businesses that had a history of compliance and safety. Tony Niutta, owner of Oxford Street's Burdekin Hotel, which has hosted names like Moritz Von Oswald, Answer Code Request and Max Graef, told the Sydney Morning Herald, "We've never had an incident in 15 years. To work so hard and then be treated like a beer barn is not a good feeling." He told me that, "Most of our artists come from Europe and have a strong European following in Sydney. Europeans have a habit of going out late and staying out late, so the effect has been quite severe in terms of numbers and revenue. Sadly in order to survive we had to let go a lot of good staff members and double on duties ourselves [as management]."
Dave Stuart, promoter of the Burdekin's weekly party Something Else, says, "As with everyone, we have suffered massively from the changes in operating hours. For a venue that did most of its trade between 2 AM and 7 AM, we have been hit pretty hard." He says that they have seen a reduction in revenue of between 20% and 40%, while their operational costs have either remained the same or increased.
Local promoter and DJ Murat Kilic had been hosting his popular Spice afterhours weekly at various venues around Sydney since 2004, before the party found its permanent home, The Spice Cellar, in 2011. Their flagship event ran from 10 PM Saturday night until 10 AM Sunday morning. "Our business model has been completely compromised," Kilic says. "Despite having never had an alcohol-related violent incident at our venue and catering for peaceful, music-focused clientele, we have been hit the hardest by these changes. We have been forced to lay off staff immediately and axe some of our nights to save costs literally just to stay solvent."
The financial pressure continued to build over the next 12 months, and Spice was ultimately forced out of its CBD home and into a lockout-free spot, the Imperial Hotel, which is best known for its cameo in cult Aussie film The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert. The hotel became a popular spot for promoters after the lockouts began thanks to its unaffected 24-hour license and versatile basement space. Kilic and co left The Spice Cellar after Easter 2015 and officially took over the full three-floor Imperial a couple of weeks later, turning the basement into Spice Cellar Ersknvl. The refreshed late-night complex drew large crowds to the relatively quiet suburb and, with them, a large police presence and intense licensing scrutiny.
After only seven weeks, the raid took place and the venue was given its first weekend-long shutdown order. There had been a high presence of both uniformed and undercover police officers at the Imperial in the weeks leading up to the raid. Despite Spice implementing a number of self-imposed measures including their own lockouts (no pass-outs after 1 AM, no entry after 3 AM) in hopes of appeasing the authorities and maintaining control over the situation, the OLGR ordered a second 72-hour closure on July 25th due to further "breaches of the Liquor Act."
The second shutdown spelled the end for Spice at the Imperial, as they quickly announced that Spice Cellar Ersknvl would cease operating in the basement. This was soon followed by the news that Spice Group International had terminated their lease and the doors would remain shut while the owner negotiated with the OLGR. An emotional press release from the club read: "The current climate for late-night entertainment in Sydney has been put under extreme duress. The misconception and lack of understanding towards late-night culture, combined with the introduction of 1:30 AM lockout laws has seen many venues close over the past year, putting a grave future in place for Sydney's late-night entertainment industry. Small business owners lack influence and do not have a voice. The overarching agenda by conservative groups for Sydney is to remove late-night culture rather than acknowledge it as a core part of the cultural fabric that enriches a city. Lockout laws are not the way forward; restricting people's civil liberties and disadvantaging industry causes a negative carry on effect to culture, jobs, tourism [and] entertainment to name a few."
The Imperial Hotel was sold on August 28th to a pair of restaurateurs, who plan to introduce "a custom kitchen and high-end restaurant business" to the venue.
According to a highly anticipated report released in April 2015 by the NSW Bureau Of Crime Statistics And Research (BOCSAR), which evaluated the impacts of the legislation, a 32% drop in assaults in Kings Cross and a "less immediate but substantial and perhaps ongoing reduction" in the CBD of 26% was measured in the first year of the lockouts. The bureau concluded that, "it is not yet clear whether the reduction in assaults was due to a fall in alcohol consumption or a change in the number of visitors to Kings Cross and/or the Sydney CBD entertainment precincts or both." The findings appear to be backed by nearby hospitals like St Vincent's, which continued to report significant reductions in alcohol-related admissions. "The problem with seeing this as an absolute mark of success is that it takes the issue of alcohol-related health problems in isolation from the rest of what's going on in society," says Tietze. "Is government becoming more prohibitive of people's enjoyment—nightlife activities in which the vast majority of people don't get into trouble—really where we want to go in society?"
BOCSAR's statistics tell one side of the story. City Of Sydney, the local council, conducted a survey of the Kings Cross area, and calculated a drop in foot traffic of up to 84% compared with 2012 levels. The CEO of the Kings Cross Liquor Accord, Doug Grand, indicates that more than 500 jobs have disappeared from the area, not including gigs for DJs and musicians. "The effect on the local economy in the entertainment precinct, on a commercial level, has been devastating," he says.
"I think you can mainly explain the drop in the Cross by the fact that traffic is so dramatically down," says Tietze, who lives in the area. "In the end there is no question that drunken violence will decline when hardly anyone comes to get drunk in that locality. I've seen it go from so crowded with intoxicated revellers that you almost cannot avoid bumping into people, to a wasteland on Friday and Saturday nights."
The list of music venue closures has been rising, both in the Cross and around the CBD lockout zone. By early 2015, Sydney had already lost several nightspots, including the Flinders Hotel, which claimed it had lost 60% of its business since lockouts were enforced. "It's been a good run but Barry got us in the end," they said on Facebook at the time. A number of long-established venues have shut down in the last few months alone. In June, Oxford Street's Q Bar announced it would close after 22 years. Soon after, the whole Exchange Hotel complex to which it belongs—including music institutions Phoenix Bar and Spectrum—shut its doors and was put on the market. Daniel Dragicevich, director of the real estate firm that looked after the building's sale, told the Star Observer: "The ability to drive an income has been marginalised to a point that the highest and best use for these properties are now in constant reassessment by the owners."
The most recent closure, and perhaps the most publicised, was Hugos Lounge in Kings Cross. After reducing staff numbers by nearly 100 people due to a reported 60% drop in trade, the bar went into voluntary administration in early August, leaving the remaining 70 workers redundant. Hugos had been operating for 15 years and had never been placed on a dangerous venues list. Owner Dave Evans says, "After the tragedies that occurred, the NSW government's knee-jerk laws were well-intentioned but they were ill-informed. We didn't do anything wrong. But the NSW government not only wouldn't hear us out, they wouldn't even take our calls." The Hugos Group are currently considering a class action against the state government to seek compensation for their losses. "That's 15 years of hard work gone down the drain," Evans said. "It's just so sad and heartbreaking."
The state's Liberal and Labor parties have maintained their pro-lockout stance, although not all politicians share this view. The Greens NSW, along with some independents, have spoken out about the cultural and economic impacts of the laws. "What we've seen in the Cross is that the imposition of lockouts on a randomly drawn boundary of area has basically had a huge impact on the nightlife," says Jenny Leong, the Greens parliamentary member for Newtown. "Were there other ways to reduce alcohol-related violence and keep the Cross open? I would say most definitely yes."
Independent MP Alex Greenwich says his constituents tell him that, "1:30 AM lockouts are having detrimental and unintended impacts on inner-city nightlife, particularly entertainment including live music, DJ and performance venues that provide alternatives to binge drinking. Our laws should encourage venues that help civilise the night-time scene and support more than late-night beer barns and gambling venues."
While inner-city venues have continued to suffer, fringe areas like Leong's suburb of Newtown have experienced an influx of people eager to escape the lockouts. As late-night patronage has increased, so too has the rate of alcohol-related violence—BOCSAR numbers showed an 18% rise in the nine months following the restrictions. Newtown is one of Sydney's most progressive and diverse suburbs, with a large LGBTIQ community. This community was particularly shocked by the bashing of Stephanie McCarthy, a transgender woman, in June of this year. Her band was scheduled to play at the Town Hall Hotel when she was targeted, abused and brutally attacked in the venue by at least four men, who left her with two black eyes. At a protest staged the following week, McCarthy said that the incident was indicative of an erosion of Newtown's inclusive culture as a direct result of the CBD lockouts. She told Fairfax Media that she moved to the suburb from Newcastle "because I knew this was a safe place to be, but it's changed so much. It's scary."
Rumours of an expansion of the city's "entertainment precinct" to include these newly at-risk areas of the inner-west were interrupted in early August when it was announced that ten late-night venues in the area had agreed to voluntarily trial 3 AM lockouts. The self-imposed measures, designed to deter those seeking drinking spots after they've been kicked out of the city, include almost all late-license venues in Newtown and adjacent Enmore. Newtown Liquor Accord chairman Tim Claydon publicly warned punters: "Don't even think of heading to Newtown at 3 AM after a night out in the city as you simply won't get into venues."
"We don't want to shut Newtown down," says Jenny Leong. In an impassioned opinion piece she wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald, Leong says that while "the vibe in Newtown is changing," the approach should be to employ "strategies that foster a diverse late-night atmosphere." Ultimately, she says, "History tells us that prohibition doesn't work," and "lockouts don't stop alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour and violence… Sexist, transphobic and racist dickheads don't magically appear after 3 AM."
The impacts aren't only contained to Sydney. Touring companies in Melbourne and other cities are feeling the sting. Australia's touring scene is often dependent on promoters in multiple cities picking up shows to cover travel costs and artist fees. Sydney and Melbourne are often the key to making a tour financially feasible. Mike Toner runs Thick As Thieves, a touring outfit based in Melbourne that has brought the likes of Carl Craig, Danny Tenaglia and Pachanga Boys to Australia. "None of the smaller cities will fill the void left by Sydney, simply because they don't have the population or demographic of clubbers to do so," he says. "It's difficult to explain to agents why the fees for Sydney shows have dropped from two years ago for artists that have seen an increase in profile. But ultimately the financial limitations of no door revenue from entry after 1:30 AM and no alcohol sales after 3 AM has had a knock-on effect in what promoters can now offer. Clearly a lot of venues have shut down, but the venues that are doing regular events have dropped their offers on acts to reflect these limitations."
A deep feeling of frustration lingers within the Sydney club scene. Many feel unfairly victimised for being involved in a musical culture that thrives late at night. Simon Caldwell has been one of the city's top DJs for more than two decades, and has been running Mad Racket, a Sydney clubbing institution, for more than 16 years. "The sense that police actively target certain music events because of the genres of music being played—and they do—is a dreadful precedent and points to a larger cultural battle about freedom of expression and acceptable forms of recreation," he says. "I certainly don't want the police to decide which kinds of music are acceptable, and I'm deadly serious when I say that house and techno are treated by police as by-words for 'drug parties.'"
Moreover, the fact that venues are penalised because of their location rather than assessed and addressed individually is being seen as inequitable. "Many cities in the world close bars and nightclubs early, but we seem to be putting a handbrake on all cultural growth," says Carly Roberts, the promoter behind Sydney's Picnic parties. "It would be great to see venues rewarded for cultural importance. That's the model we should be adopting."
September 13th marked the most organised and well attended fight-back to date, as up to 2,000 protesters and at least nine soundsystems gathered in Hyde Park for a wandering street party. The event was organised under the Reclaim The Streets banner, and saw a full cross-section of Sydney music supporters dancing through the streets up to Kings Cross and over to Taylor Square by Oxford St—a mini-tour of the spots worst effected by the lockouts. All sections of Sydney's unified nightlife community partied peacefully, waving signs that read, "Unlock Sydney," and "We want our city back," as onlookers responded with grins and plenty of thumbs up.
"People have had more time to digest the cultural and economic damage of the lockouts," explains Keep Sydney Open's Tyson Koh. "They are getting more organised, and are getting over the stigma of being labelled as irresponsible for not supporting this rushed and reckless legislation. Remember, alcohol-fuelled violence was at its lowest in 2013, and young people are really questioning why they have been labelled as belligerent thugs when it seems that the problem was worse a generation ago."
With a parliamentary review of the laws due in February 2016, it's unclear what changes might be made—if any. While the nightlife community is mobilising against the curfew, doctors and police continue to press for the licensing restrictions to be extended and rolled out statewide. Simon Caldwell says that, if the laws remain in place, "It would certainly have a strong negative effect on the legitimate nightclub industry and send even more venues out of business, then having the knock-on effect of putting bar staff, security, DJs and others out of work.
"People will still go out though, so the wider nightlife scene could become more dangerous for punters in a real way, particularly for younger, less experienced clubbers who are exploring their 'limits,'" he says, referring to unlicensed and unsupervised parties in warehouse and residential spaces. "Ironically, these were the people that these laws were meant to protect.
"Personally I sometimes quite value a beer at 4 AM. Don't judge me!"