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Why Sydney’s weekly club scene is worth fighting for

Even after living with lockouts for more than two years, Sydney’s club scene has managed to keep the party going. JACK TREGONING finds out how the promoters and venue owners fighting the good fight do it. 

You can usually gauge the mood of a protest march by the homemade signs. At last month’s Keep Sydney Open rally, which saw thousands of protesters take to the city streets, the signs said a lot. This was the second Sydney rally against the New South Wales Government’s lockout laws, following a rousing march from Central Station to Hyde Park back in February. While the rallies were separated by eight months, the sentiments printed onto cardboard or scrawled in permanent marker stayed consistent.

With a tone somewhere between good humour and exasperation, the main target of banner wavers remained NSW Premier Mike Baird, whose favourability rating is apparently on par with Sydney’s bin-diving scourge the ibis. In amongst the calls to Make Sydney Late Again and Set My City Free was another sign with a simple grievance: All My Mates Are Moving to Melbourne.

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As reported by Jim Poe on inthemix, the thriving nightlife of Sydney’s southern neighbour was a recurrent theme at the second Keep Sydney Open rally. In their speeches at the event, Haley Mary of The Jezabels and hip-hop MC Urthboy touched on the gulf between the two cities. Both artists pledged to stay and fight for Sydney’s culture instead of following their friends to Melbourne – a message the crowd rightly cheered on.

What’s striking, though, is the resilience of Sydney’s club scene even under these conditions. While September’s Callinan report suggested the lockouts could be relaxed by all of half an hour, for now the laws remain steadfastly in place. As Keep Sydney Open’s Tyson Koh put it on Facebook, a 30-minute extension would be a sidestep, not a backflip. The government’s response to alcohol-related violence has unquestionably hurt small businesses and brought an untimely end to several late-night venues and parties. But there’s a flipside to this gloomy story, and it’s happening week in, week out on Sydney’s dancefloors.

Then and now

There’s a telling parallel between Sydney right now and a decade ago. 2006 was a boom year for weekly club nights. Chinese Laundry was nine years in, the Bang Gang crew loomed large, Kink had its Saturday night stranglehold at The Arthouse Hotel, YU’s Sunday kick-on After Ours morphed into Next, and trance diehards knew Sublime could be found every Friday at Home. In 2006, you could still buy records at Spank! on Bourke Street, make friends on Myspace, and wear fluoro without irony. A lot has changed since those neon-tinted days, but several of the challenges of running a club in Sydney are the same now as they were then.

“Lockouts aside, Sydney’s club owners and promoters have never had a sure path to success. For a population that loves to party, the city’s dancefloors can be fickle”

Lockouts aside, Sydney’s club owners and promoters have never had a sure path to success. For a population that loves to party, the city’s dancefloors can be fickle. This isn’t a new phenomenon.

Bringing international DJs to Australia has always been expensive, temperamental weather can upend the best-laid plans, and some nights, for no apparent reason, Sydney just decides to stay home. Then there are those weekends with three or more parties – whether intentionally or not – competing for essentially the same crowd.

As a result, Sydney is largely a town of monthly or every-so-often parties, with crews favouring particular venues but remaining mobile. Often that venue is a pub, wine bar, restaurant or bowling club that resumes its regular business during the week. (Not to mention, of course, the warehouse spaces and residential buildings dispersed around the Inner West and beyond.)

This intermittent approach is very different from getting people to a club every Friday or Saturday. Surviving as a weekly destination, especially under Mike Baird’s rule, takes a special kind of tenacity. At lot has changed since 2006, but Sydney has shown it still has that hustle.

Making Fridays Great Again

One of the city’s newest weekly nights is Peoples Club, every Friday at Goodbar.

The close-quarters club and cocktail bar, which reopened back in September after a decade-long closure, falls just outside the lockouts zone at the Paddington end of Oxford Street. This gave Peoples Club ringleaders Davi Bangma and Nergal Youkhana a unique opportunity to showcase good music in the basement until 4am each week. Seekae, Lucy Cliche, András, Simon Caldwell, and Detroit Techno Militia were all guests in the first two months, with Sampology and Max Graef still to come in November.

“The biggest obstacle we’ve faced is getting people out of the mindset that there aren’t any weekly club nights in Sydney now”

As the pair tell inthemix, it’s all about curating a night they’d want to attend. They’ve learned a few fast lessons in the process too.

“The biggest obstacle we’ve faced is getting people out of the mindset that there aren’t any weekly club nights in Sydney now,” Davi says. “Since the lockout laws came into place, it seems a lot of people accepted that Sydney just isn’t a clubbing city anymore and would end their fun around midnight or one. Even now when we have a packed club and it rolls around to 2am, you can tell people aren’t used to being out that late.”

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Operating outside the lockout zone is both “a good and a bad thing” for a weekly club. “It’s great that we get to run late and there are no stresses of rushing to beat the dreaded 1:30am gate closure,” Nergal explains. “That said, it’s a bit tough at times, as people will take their sweet time coming down, which can be hard on the opening DJs.” Both guys quit their full-time creative jobs to concentrate on, as they jokingly put it, “Making Fridays Great Again.”

The biggest thrill of their hard work is seeing an “awesome booking” connecting with the crowd: “There is no way we could stay up until 4am each week in a loud nightclub if we weren’t genuinely passionate about what we do.”

Sticking around for the long haul

That passion for music also drives Sydney’s longest-running clubs. Chinese Laundry, the dark and sweaty institution under Slip Inn, is now 19 years old—an increasingly rare milestone in the cutthroat world of clubs.

It’s significant that there are both 35-year-olds and 18-year-olds in Sydney whose formative clubbing experiences happened in the same underground rooms. The club helped foster some of the city’s best DJs early on, including Ajax, Phil Smart, Sugar Ray and Illya, and music has remained its primary focus. Even with the inevitable changes in management and artist bookers over the years, Chinese Laundry lineups have consistently hit a balance between new names and established pros.

“It’s significant that there are both 35-year-olds and 18-year-olds in Sydney whose formative clubbing experiences happened in the same underground rooms”

Just a short walk from Chinese Laundry is another veteran with real staying power. Home Nightclub has weathered periods of boom and bust with notable durability, finding new ways to fill a big room every weekend. The club has hosted towering sets from the likes of Jeff Mills and Sasha & Digweed over the years, and trialled not-so-towering weekly residencies like the indie night Rebel Rebel in 2006. (There’s that year again.)

In addition to Sunday session S.A.S.H., the current ace in the club’s deck is Voodoo Fridays, run by trusted trance promoters Genesis. The team identified a gap in the market for a weekly trance and progressive night with superclub production, and the gamble is paying off.

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For Pacha Sydney, which takes over Ivy every Saturday, the conditions are different again. The club night falls squarely inside the lockout zone, but that hasn’t been its only challenge. As Promotions Manager Matt Johnson tells inthemix, a successful weekly club needs to be amenable. This is particularly true for a party brand synonymous with big-ticket DJs. “Booking international acts has become more expensive with the weakened Australian dollar,” Matt says. “The EDM bubble bursting also meant we had to innovate and vary the music more than we had before.”

While upcoming headliners Tommy Trash and Nervo neatly fit the big-room Pacha mould, the club is also “opening up to new markets” with trance bookings like Giuseppe Ottaviani. Lineups are just one part of the “constant battle to improve and innovate” so crowds keep coming each week. Pacha Sydney has tailored four distinct vibes across its rooms, bringing in a festival-like stage and an upgraded Funktion-One sound system for the main dancefloor. Running a nightclub, Matt says, requires passion and business sense in equal measure. “If you don’t have that love for nightlife and music, people will see right through it and you won’t last.”

Pubs, clubs and versatile spaces

Given Sydney’s current stalemate, the scarcity of full-time nightclubs is no surprise. To survive, venues have to cater for more than weekend dancing.

With its immersive sound system and sleek basement vibe, Pitt Street stalwart Civic Underground has long been a favourite of house and techno promoters, with past weekly residents including Sweetchilli and Future Classic’s Adult Disco. While C.U Saturdays now fills that niche with the likes of Spice and Charades, the space also hosts Reggae Mondays and the occasional live show. (It helps, too, that the adjoining Civic Hotel operates all week as a CBD pub.)

“The scarcity of full-time nightclubs is no surprise. To survive, venues have to cater for more than weekend dancing”

Meanwhile, Cake Wines Cellar Door is a wine bar and the spot to catch Moodymann this month, Bondi’s Jam Gallery welcomes both live flamenco and Sydney disco authorities Picnic, and Freda’s in Chippendale does food, drinks and dancing with a midnight curfew. In this town, adaptability is an all-important asset.

The pub-slash-club model presents its own challenges. Because of its Oxford Street location across from Hyde Park, The Burdekin Hotel sits inside the CBD lockout zone. (There has always been a watering hole at the Burdekin’s address since the 1840s.)

While you can still roll up for a quiet beer after work, the venue also hosts the house and techno night Something Else on Saturdays. Last September, the party’s resident DJ Dave Stuart told Resident Advisor that the lockouts had resulted in a 20- to 40-percent dint to their revenue. To the credit of both the venue and the party, Something Else remains on its game over a year later, with international guests this month including Tom Trago, Marcel Fengler and Jewel Kid.

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A few suburbs away in Newtown, SLYFOX is also navigating Sydney’s nightlife clampdown. S.A.S.H. ringleader Kerry Wallace bought the pub with a few friends last year, enticed by its 24-hour license and loyal neighborhood following. Since the overhaul, it’s become the kind of Inner West local where you can dance to techno DJs on Saturday night, then come back for pizza and $10 jugs on Tuesday. While it operates outside the lockout precinct, the SLYFOX was warned in February against playing amplified music after 3am; doing so would result in a $3000 on-the-spot fine. It was exactly the kind of punitive curveball that the city’s dancefloor operators have come to expect.

There’s a lot to admire in Sydney’s club survivors, but the ongoing impact of the lockout laws can’t be discounted. The NSW Government’s freeze on liquor licences stands until February 2017 for both the CBD and Kings Cross precincts, which is discouraging news for any would-be club entrepreneurs. While venues closed around it, The World Bar and its Saturday club night Cakes have defied the transformation of Kings Cross from an entertainment hub into a playground for property developers. There’s no telling, though, when new late-night neighbours will be allowed to move in.

Sydney’s lockout legislation has been entrenched for over two years, long enough for it to feel like the new normal. The risk now is resigning to the idea that, contrary to the evidence, “Sydney just isn’t a clubbing city anymore.” The fight to keep Sydney open needs its believers to stay angry, inspired, and out on the dancefloor every weekend.

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer from Sydney but based in New York. He is on Twitter.