Brendan Maclean: “Why I won’t miss The Sando”

The demise of an iconic venue is never something to celebrate but, writes Sydney musician Brendan Maclean,The Sando isn’t worth crying over.

Sydney’s Sandringham Hotel – The Sando – slipped into receivership yesterday. “It’s sad – it’s sad for live music, it’s sad for me personally, it’s sad for my family” was the cry from owner Tony Townsend, who’s overseen the Newtown venue for the past seven years. It’s disappointing that the legacy of a great venue with deep roots in the Australian music community has fallen by the wayside. It’s disheartening that the spotlight which shone on iconic homegrown acts has gone out. And for the locals and the staff who relied on The Sandringham, this is a blow to family budgets and community spirit. But for anyone who has ever signed up to play The Sando, this isn’t a surprise and to most it’s not really a loss.

Townsend has always presented himself as a battler. His “Sando Mission Statement” opens with the proclamation he “just couldn’t watch [live music] in its death throes anymore”. He was to champion a new generation of venues working with musicians to create a better outcome for everyone, unfortunately these hopes never made it further than the press release. After confirming the date of your gig, the venue would lay down the law with cold authority that if you don’t satisfy their needs you will pay. Townsend’s attitude towards people is summed up in his blog, in which he blames the downfall of local music entirely on the “apathy” of musicians and fans for letting down the venue.

To be fair, Townsend tried everything he could think of, like if you didn’t pull 120 heads on a Friday you would be charged $300. That’s the way to get the community growing, threaten musicians with fines! Any business savvy musician has to admit he’s correct when he says, “A band must know their limitations.” But it’s also the duty of a venue operator to know his audience, to promote it accordingly and to create an environment that drives business. It is not fair of either musicians or venues to place the blame entirely on the other for a failed gig. On the other hand, short of renting it out for ghost tours, I wouldn’t perform at The Sando for $300 if you offered me the entire venue, let alone allow myself to be threatened with that amount as a punishment.

In 2010 I played a headline gig with an acoustic set-up. The room was filled and I paid no fine. That’s the good part. But silly me, I should have known I would be competing with a Cold Chisel cover band downstairs. My second visit to The Sando I was delighted to hear they had renovated. This renovation saw the opening of a large box like chamber upstairs, the sound guy who promised me “he’d mixed for the best of them” couldn’t manage to stop the feedback for a single song, and I was playing solo.

But rather than blaming others for The Sando’s downfall, the venue may have benefited from some serious internal reflection. Let’s compare my treatment at other venues:

– When I was asked to play at The Sando I was threatened with fines

– When I asked to play my first gig at The Oxford Arts Factory they asked, “Is there a way we could help? We could make a poster for you.” And they did.

– When I played at The Sando the sound was awful from opening band to closing band. The sound guy blamed the bands “faulty instruments”. That’s right. All three bands, collective instruments, all faulty.

– At The Standard, their sound guy opened the venue early just because I wanted to test a new microphone.

– Sando: No green room. Beers at the bar.

– The Wharf Sessions: Green room is huge, meals provided, enough drinks to drop a rhinoceros.

See a pattern?

It’s something I said last week at I Manage My Music with Jen Cloher: Perhaps if venues want to thrive in Sydney they need to stop pretending independent musicians will pull capacity audiences with no assistance. A quarter page strip in size 8 Times New Roman listing 140 bands, won’t cut it. Perhaps treating bands with respect will create positive vibes around the venue, becoming more inviting to people who aren’t bikies from the late eighties.

Mostly it’s about not wanting hear Khe Sanh being sung out of tune by a drunken banjo player over the top of a single that I’m trying to launch upstairs.

In a recent interview in Central magazine Townsend recounts a conversation with You Am I’s Tim Rogers, asking Tim why he never played The Sando. Tim replies, “I just thought we weren’t cool enough.” Considering Tim is still considered one of the coolest leading men in Australia, you have to ask yourself what he really wanted to say. I’ve got a feeling that for anyone who has had the experience I did, we already have an idea.

Brendan Maclean is a Sydney musician, actor and sometime triple j presenter. You can follow him on twitter @macleanbrendan.

The Annandale have written an open letter defending The Sando – read it here

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