On the Road to the Wollongong Live Music Taskforce

14 March, 2013
Earlier this week Wollongong City Council voted unanimously in favour of establishing a Live Music Taskforce, in addition to preparing a new Cultural Plan for the city. Dr Robert Carr, who spearheaded the push for a Live Music Taskforce in Wollongong for more than a year, says that it comes on the back of a long history of advocacy within the local community. Here, Dr Carr – historian, musician and long time music advocate - gives us an insight into this legacy, its achievements, and what happened in Wollongong Council on Monday night when it all came down to a vote – and a packed public gallery.

Jessie HuntMonday night was a great success for Wollongong’s musicians. Twelve months ago stories began to emerge about an increased presence of police at live music venues. There was a feeling among musicians and venues owners of disappointment, of being let down by local government, and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Incidents ranged from reports about a small bar with a capacity of 50 or 60 being occupied by 16 police officers with sniffers dogs; to just a few weeks ago, at the much larger venue The Patch, when a single complainant living in the hotel next door has been the catalyst for the cessation of amplified music for the first time in decades.
John Wardle, who has been instrumental in advocating for live music across Australia, told Wollongong's local press recently that, out of all the case studies he’s seen, over-regulation in Wollongong was possibly the worst; ‘we’re seeing an approach from licensing [police] that is much more hardline.’ At this week's Council meeting, which saw the establishment of a Wollongong Live Music Taskforce, Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery expressed a deep concern about the policing of venues, stating he believed police had not handled recent matters with venues ‘appropriately or sensitively’. Most Councilors supported the Mayor’s position in their own ways; all agreed that something has to be done.
While political support for musicians is gaining momentum, live music advocacy is not new to Wollongong, a city with a history of community members fighting for live music much more extensive than has been acknowledged. There are a few milestones in particular that are worthy of note. But where do we start? And who or what episodes epitomise live music advocacy in Wollongong - the youth workers, promoters, venue owners, independent street press/e-zines, music stores, the musicians themselves?
Wollongong music advocate Rob CarrSomething is definitely in the water in Wollongong. It could be our strong working class roots. Dissent and organising to face the struggle have a long standing tradition here. This includes two of Australia’s largest mining disasters in 1887 and 1902; following each disaster, the community rallied to help each other and the union movement grew stronger. Although Wollongong’s employment base is changing towards services, education and health – and manufacturing is no longer the largest sector in the area – tradition seems to die hard when it comes to community advocacy.
Countless community members have worked towards supporting the survival of live music in Wollongong. Zondrae King’s role in fostering live music culture in the 1960s has been noted elsewhere: ‘The Wollongong music scene is forever indebted to Zondrae whose dedication to local youth culture in the sixties was unprecedented.’ Advocacy by a local aldermen played an important part according to Steel City Sounds, which describes how in 1970 the Festival of Rock almost didn’t happen due to much of the same issues we hear today -‘potential noise complaints, parking problems, police concerns and that the park would be needed for a weekend cricket match.’
In regards to some of the more recent advocacy efforts, in the late 1990s a cohort of musicians met regularly at the Oxford Tavern as part of the Wollongong Original Music Industry Association (WOMIA), convened by Dillon Hicks, the former booker of the North Gong Hotel and Oxford Tavern, among others. A later incarnation of this musicians’ association in the early-mid 2000s was the Wollongong Music Round Table (WMRT), which was facilitated, to start with, by youth workers from across the Illawarra. The group applied for and received thousands of dollars in funding grants, worked with Council in developing all ages live music culture, and produced a legal poster walls proposal among other initiatives.
Another notable case of music advocacy was that undertaken by Kristy Newton who led the charge in 2005 to save the Oxford Tavern from development next door, fighting the eight-storey residential and retail complex planned for 53-61 Crown St for over a year. (Illawarra Mercury 5/4/13) Newton spoke passionately in the Council Chamber in opposition to the development, and while the issue fell on deaf ears as far as Council’s General Manager at the time was concerned, it received national coverage on the Triple J radio network.
Nathan Burling’s film The Occy: A Doco (2012) is an important work advocating the community’s mood and strong ties to music spaces. Burling conveyed the tragedy of the closure of the Oxford Tavern, a sentiment that is part of the much longer, continuing saga in which musicians have had to struggle to retain access to sustainable live music spaces.
Throsby MP Stephen JonesMore recently the State of the Music Scene Forums (which I had organised in partnership with the Music in Communities Network) held at Music Farmers in 2011 and 2012 have opened the way for dialogue between police, council, musicians and non-local music NGOs, and subsequently for implementing the Wollongong Live Music Accord (now Protocol) and the Live Music Taskforce which was voted for on Monday night.
While Councillors on Monday night praised – quite deservedly - the efforts of young people involved, many of the “old hands” were in attendance as well. Some of them have moved into jobs and bureaucracies which have invariably opened new avenues for advocating and lobbying. There is a growing body of literature produced by the “old hands” which will hopefully shape and inform the role of the Wollongong Live Music Taskforce. Academic writingpolicy development, a music scene history website, and advocacy writing by outside experts – among other works - are all concerned in their own ways with a broader discussion about why live music and night life spaces are important, how people use these places and the need to sustain them in Wollongong.
As noted, a continuity in Wollongong is that live music has always had to fight for a place in the city. Many local musicians still remember when Former Lord Mayor Alex Darling criticised local bands in the media, promoting a punitive approach to those found putting up gig posters by police. (Ironically, a short while later Darling’s own election posters could be found across the LGA affixed to street poles, fences and the like.) Darling’s was one of many media campaigns over the years which have worked to label young people, including musicians, as deviants and criminals – a popular mainstream media narrative which is only now beginning to be disputed in the public arena.
Encouraging is that it is young people themselves who are fighting to reclaim their integrity and dignity - as musicians, as people, as creative and enterprising. The recent approach to policing venues, as Jessie Hunt’s film points out, has generated resentment towards authorities from Wollongong’s burgeoning, well-educated and creative student population. On Monday night this was made astoundingly clear, and articulated so well by Jessie Hunt and Jack Tickner to a full house capacity inside the Council Chamber. Their views were echoed by Councillors and a thunderous applause from the gallery. Hunt and Tickner were not just heard but they were engaged and taken seriously - all councillors voted unanimously to adopt Hunt’s last minute suggestion for an Amendment to the Motion which will now see the establishment of a Live Music Taskforce in Wollongong.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon BradberyThe Taskforce embodies a new kind of partnership between musicians and Council. Instead of being told what to do by authorities, we finally have a way to move forward together - working alongside Council, Councillors and police not to mention national and state level music advocates who are raring to go.
The role of the Taskforce, although yet to be determined in detail, is likely to facilitate the growth of live music culture in Wollongong in a very broad sense. This is nothing new as evidenced by advocacy efforts throughout Wollongong’s music scene history. In lieu of the recent push, a Taskforce of sorts has emerged in the community during the past 12 months but what is needed now is strong action involving key stakeholders including Council, venues and police. A Live Music Office (LMO) must now be created in Wollongong to grow the sector and to seek out and obtain the funding to make it happen; to broker tours and organise a major regional music festival; to foster employment opportunities for local musicians; and, advocate when issues arise.
What is new is the active role of the city’s officials in advocating the music scene’s interests. We will now hopefully, finally, see some formal action by local government in terms of changing the way venues are regulated and supporting cultural life in the city more broadly. This will undoubtedly include lobbying state government for new legislation and clearer guidelines on policing.  
There is a need and indeed a push from within Wollongong Council for the entertainment and cultural sectors to grow in the city centre area. The name of the strategy is twofold: “Activation” and “Revitalisation”. It makes complete sense for Council’s Cultural Plan to consider the economic benefits of cultural industries including live music, which is what the successful Council Motion on Monday night entailed.
The Motion, which delivered the establishment of the Taskforce, was not swimming against the tide; to the contrary, it was heading in a direction in which the city’s leaders already desire but had been unable to find a way to drive this forward with grassroots community support. The Taskforce, built on a years’ worth of grassroots community consultation mainly by myself, Alex Masso and several others, is set to become a flagship for driving these changes forward at the levels of both policy and economic development.
Dr Robert Carr is a musician, academic, and community advocate living in Wollongong, NSW. His "State of the Music Scene Forum" initiative has been named previously as a finalist in the national Music in Communities Awards. He is also the founder and editor of Illawarra News.
Top (right): Jessie Hunt persuading a packed Council meeting of the need to support live music in Wollongong.
Middle (left): Dr Robert Carr sitting among the 100+ community members at the Council meeting
Middle (right): Federal MP Stephen Jones (Throsby), a well known supporter of live music in Wollongong, at Monday night's Council meeting.
Bottom (right): Lord Mayor of Wollongong, Gordon Bradbery, speaking in support of the Live Music Taskforce.
Photos by Tim Dennis.www.timdennis.com.au
Photos pubished here courtesy of Tim Dennis, Illawarra News and Wollongong City Council.