How much is enough: The Annandale’s sad decline

Former Annandale owner Dan Rule has been laying low since his pub was put into receivership in February, but in an exclusive interview with FL, he opens up to DARREN LEVIN about the grave fears he has for the Parramatta Road institution and Sydney’s live music scene as a whole.

Dan Rule sounds surprisingly collected for a guy that’s just lost his pub. After 13 years of ownership, Dan and his brother Matt made the heartbreaking decision to place The Annandale into the hands of receivers in early February. Since then the venue has received the “unqualified support” of Leichhardt Council and its Mayor Darcy Byrne who approved a late license just days after it was put into receivership. That U-turn prompted an angry attack on Facebook by Matt Rule, in which he labelled the council a “bunch of c**ts”. But when FL contacted Dan Rule yesterday he was hurting, but far more contrite.

“My brother reacted with that Facebook post and I support him 100 percent,” he said. “You can take it either way – you can spin the story how you want to spin it. But from my point of view it was a culmination of things. Council was but one of them.”

[ Clarification 12/4: Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne said no late trading licence has been approved. “I have invited the receivers to submit an application which they have yet to do,” he told FL in a statement. “I have been very clear that I will judge that application on its merits.” He also claimed he reached out to the Rules after he won unanimous support at the NSW ALP conference for the Labor Loves Live Music campaign, prior to becoming mayor. “After becoming Mayor last year I invited them to a forum with other live music licensees which they didn’t choose to attend.”]

The Annandale’s battles with Leichhardt Council stretch back to 2004 when the Rule brothers applied to extend their trading hours until 3am. Despite positive recommendations from their own officers, council’s decision to overturn the application resulted in an ongoing battle in the Land and Environment Court that cost the Rules in excess of $200,00 and the council a reported $100,000 in fees.

The pub has been treading water since.

In 2011 the Rule brothers started a buy-a-brick campaign, which saw patrons, supporters and local businesses dig deep to help keep the Annandale afloat. It raised more than $50,000 for renovations, including a revamp of the hotel’s ageing facade and a spruce up of its toilets, and while Rule was buoyed by the community support, it was too little too late. When the bank forced them to pay off debts in installments they couldn’t afford, the Rule brothers decided enough was enough. They gathered their friends and the venue’s supporters for a low-key, behind-closed-doors gathering and handed over the keys to receivers.

The Rules’ reign may be over, but live music will continue at The Annandale until at least June. After that, is anyone’s guess. The pub was put on the market last week, but Rule isn’t confident it will go into the right hands. Either way, he said he’s proud of the legacy he and his brother have created since saving it from the pokies rash that swept through Sydney at the turn of the century. Since bringing music back to The Annandale in 2000, the Rule brothers have hosted memorable sets from Kings Of Leon, Silversun Pickups, The Sleepy Jackson, The Bronx, You Am I and Dallas Crane. And who could ever forget that infamous set by The Vines back in 2004, during which Craig Nicholls trashed the stage and called audience members sheep?

How have the past few weeks been for you and Matt?

It’s a very, very difficult time, no doubt. Something that we’ve put a lot of effort into is gone to some extent. It’s been hard. But people have been in worse situations than us, and you’ve just got to roll with the punches.

Are you involved in the pub in any capacity at all now?

We’re helping to book the bands that play the hotel now. All the staff that were with us have stayed there, and we give advice on booking the venues and helping keep the shows going for as long as possible.

What’s the status of the pub now?

It went up for sale last weekend. The receivers have appointed someone to sell it, Knight Frank, and they’ll be dealing with it now. I spoke to the receiver recently. They’ll now run a campaign. I think the boards out front will be changed to “for sale” and it’ll be advertised within the hotel industry, and outside the industry. Expressions will close on May 8. Then after that there’ll be a 60 to 90 day settlement. It’ll be business as usual for the next two or three months, but they’re hoping for a sale as quick as possible after the expressions of interest close. It’ll be up to the next owner whether they will continue with the live music strategy, or whether they want to change it.

Do you feel confident that the pub will go into the right hands?

Oh, no. Not at all. I’d love to think that, but it’d be naive. There’s not many people that would want to do live music on the same scale as The Annandale. I hope there is. I’m not sure if that’ll happen. All I can do is hope. We’ve been entrenched in it for so long. I don’t know if there are other people that want to operate a venue on that scale. I don’t know is my answer. I can only hope that someone does.

Do you think the council’s U-turn has made the climate better for someone to buy The Annandale?

I hope it has. I don’t know what the changes are … Any developers look at square metres, rather than what’s going in there. If it’s going to help The Annandale continue to put on live music, that’s fantastic. I just don’t know if it’s a bit of rhetoric though.

The pub was “up for a sale a couple years back. Was there interest then, and are those people interested again?

At the end of the day it was more developers interested … We were always looking to keep it as a live music venue and there weren’t people out there willing to jump on board at the prices that we needed it to happen.

Have the receivers been sympathetic?

They’ve been very sympathetic. They’ve kept music going there and they want to continue it. Unless there’s a business running in there no one will buy it. People will be interested but I don’t know what the buying patterns are. Lending criteria is tough out there for pubs. This isn’t just about The Annandale. There’s a lot of pubs that are going to the wall right now at prices that are half of what they were valued at four or five years ago. It’ll be interesting to see who buys it and what they do with it.

What’s the worst outcome? Could someone come in and bulldoze the place, put apartments in?

That’s a definite possibility. It’ll be help to Leichhardt Council if they’ve got a heritage listing and whether that makes it hard for developers come in. I’m not sure of the heritage listing. I know there wasn’t one on when I was there. That said it’s a possibility. They [the new owners] would have to do a feasibility study, and a business would have to go in at the bottom, with flats above it. But that’s up to the buyers. They’ll have to crunch the numbers and work things out.

What’s the general feeling? Are you angry at council? Do you feel resentment towards them?

Council is one of many battles we fought over the years. There were mistakes that we made, and mistakes that the bank made. Of course I feel angry over what happened with the late licence in 2004-2006, but that was eight years ago. GFC, the change in the lending criteria of banks, and decisions made by us and the banks together [have played a part]. I’m not one to single out the council.

Of course, my brother had a big rant at council, and rightly so. He voiced both of our opinions on that. The week after we walked out the door they [the council] said they wanted to keep The Annandale there. Well, that’s a bit like shutting the gate when the horse has bolted. They never came and approached us and that’s what hurt the most … It had to get to such a distressed state that after 13 years, two guys that have supported live music over hill and dale had to say, “We’re bankrupt, we’re walking out the door” … And then coming out a week later and saying we’ll give you a 3am licence that’s very hurtful. My brother reacted with that Facebook post and I support him 100 percent. You can take it either way – you can spin the story how you want to spin it. But from my point of view it was a culmination of things. Council was but one of them.

“Three residents can make a complaint, yet thousands of people enjoy the venue.”

Was there a final straw? What made you say, “Enough is enough”.

After 13 years of working 70 hours a week and seeing the bottom line – the writing was on the wall two years ago. It was a culmination of things: The bank wanting us to amortise [to pay off debt by instalment] at a rate that was nearly impossible … The last two years I’ve put on some of the best shows I’ve ever put on, things were going better than they had been. But it was a culmination of what the bank wanted us to do and what we could possibly do. The final straw was when they asked us to start amortising at a heavy rate that we said, “We can’t do this anymore.”

[Given the economic situation] can we expect a few more venue closures coming up?

I don’t know. You’re going to see a lot more closures of a lot more businesses – that’s just the business cycle. Pubs have been struggling for a number of years now … When the banks are asking you to amortise at stringent rates there’s a lot of people finding that difficult. Whether the banks just want to sell them and get them off their books, or whether they want to work with those operators, I’m not really sure.

Buy A Brick campaign

Was the buy-a-brick campaign a success in your eyes?

I think it was a great success to be honest with you. We did the renovations [to the bandroom] we wanted to do. What it also showed was there was a community that wanted to keep The Annandale open. We stopped that campaign in November and there was a lot of interest over Christmas to continue. But we weren’t sure how we were going to react over Christmas – we weren’t sure which way it was going to go – so we didn’t allow people to get involved at that time because there was pressure from the bank to start amortising.

But what it did show was that people wanted to get behind The Annandale – from buying a T-shirt to a $1000 plaque, and there was even more from companies … We renovated the pub as best we could; we kept up the council regulations with warnings and structures that we had to do to keep the place open. What we got was a great database of people that loved coming to The Annandale … Forming that sense of community was what we wanted to do. We might not have lasted, but it [the campaign] kept focus on The Annandale. People were saying, “You can’t let this place close because it’s so iconic.” From the $50 person buying merch to the $150 plaque to the businesses in the area, there was so much love for the place.

I know the circumstances are different than they were with The Tote, but are you disappointed people didn’t take to the street like they did for the SLAM Rally in Melbourne [in 2010]?

I don’t think we gave them a chance. People wanted to … After 13 years, Matt and I knew it was a story, but at the end of the day we didn’t have the energy to marshal any more ways to keep the place alive. Walking down Parramatta Road [wouldn’t do anything] when the banks don’t really care about live music in that sense. Big business don’t care – they just see the bottom line. I understand that as a business person, an unsuccessful one [laughs], but I understand it. If it closes there’ll be a massive void and I’d hate to see that happen.

What the banks actually want you to do?

They needed us to start paying down loans at rates that I couldn’t sustain as a business. The more that I looked at it, the more I couldn’t. I just said, “I can’t do this.” It took them by surprise – they’re going to lose money in the deal – but I also know I did the best I could after 13 years. The bank and me made bad decisions over the years, so if they want to hang me out to dry they’re more than welcome to. I couldn’t amortise at the rate they wanted me to, so it was time for me to raise the white flag.

Going back to the community support, I’m just curious as to why you decided to have a farewell behind closed doors?

I didn’t want people in the music industry to panic … I don’t think it was an intentional thing [to have a farewell]. It was something that evolved. There were a lot of people we invited around for a drink and due to social media it got much more publicised than I wanted it to. It wasn’t a last stand. I wanted to keep music at the hotel and we achieved that. Since we’ve left live music has continued. We’ve got some great shows coming up: The Bronx, Superjesus, Northlane, Flamin’ Groovies and Kim Salmon. There are some good shows coming up and you don’t want to jeopardise those shows by announcing a last stand.

If it gets sold, will there be a last stand?

That’ll be up to the receiver. At the end of the day, all we can hope for is that someone within the music or hospitality industry sees it as a viable business and they continue live music in some form, hopefully the form we created … Perhaps they’ll talk to us about continuing to do music there, but that would be completely up to them.


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