The fight for “vibrant” Adelaide

Last year things were looking very good for the South Australian music scene: Glastonbury booker Martin Elbourne was made the state’s Music Thinker In Residence and the Small Venue Licence bill was introduced to parliament, in a solid bid to support live music.

However, with news emerging last week that the Liberal Party are planning to vote against the pioneering bill tomorrow (February 13) while simultaneously attempting to reinstate draconian licensing laws, the future of Adelaide’s music scene is back on thin ice. DR IANTO WARE, Sound Australia’s recently appointed National Live Music Coordinator, explains just how damaging the decision could be to the future of South Australia’s already reeling music community.

Over the past week, Adelaidians have been getting very excited about something called a Small Venue Licence. Or, more to the point, everyone has been talking about an attempt by the state Liberal party to amend the Small Venue License in such a way as to effectively destroy it. Most other states already have a license like this, so this might seem like Adelaide is behind the times or has nothing more interesting to talk about. But keep in mind that South Australia is the only state that didn’t bring its licensing law into line with the National Competition Policy), and one of the few that doesn’t differentiate between small and large bars.

So in SA, unlike the other states, if you try to open any venue selling alcohol, your competitors – other bars, hotels and so on – can demand you prove there’s a social “need” for your business and exercise a “right to object”. The common objection they raise is that if they’re already selling Coopers on tap, there’s no “need” for you to do so. The aim of that clearly isn’t about “need”, it’s about preventing potential competitors from selling the standard beer everyone drinks in Adelaide.

Secondly, as there’s no license protecting small businesses, they have to go through a process of conciliation hearings with local government, police and other stakeholders before being granted a license. In practice, that means wealthier objectors can drag things out in a quasi-court until the new licensee either runs out of money or accepts all sorts of outlandish conditions.

And the conditions are outlandish. For example, the art space Higher Ground was dragged through the conciliation process until it agreed it would only host 43 “agreed upon” genres of music, such as “classical modern” and “Latin freestyle” but not “indie” or “rock”. The effect was to inhibit Higher Ground’s capacity to host live music in an area where developers were trying to sell newly constructed apartment blocks.

Similarly, Chesser Cellars was a wine bar with a license that specified it couldn’t be used as a “rock band venue” and could only host “solo artists, two-piece jazz bands or similar”. When it shut, a music venue tried to move into the same building but the shift from two-piece jazz bands to indie rock triggered the need for “entertainment consent”. This is a euphemism for a permission slip granted by the Adelaide City Council who, in this case, would only do so if a lift was installed at a cost of $50,000. I’m not sure why indie required a lift if jazz didn’t, but the upgrades were too expensive and the venue in question – The Jade Monkey – still hasn’t re-opened.

“The common objection they raise is that if they’re already selling Coopers on tap, there’s no ‘need’ for you to do so.”

Council’s “entertainment consent” was one of the things the Small Venue License was designed to bypass. It defines Entertainment as a “dance, performance, exhibition or event” as well as a “visual display but not if provided by means of a television screen”, meaning you can watch TV and drink without their consent but performing, exhibiting art, screening films or dancing requires council permission.

When Premier Jay Weatherill and his deputy John Rau took over last year, they figured a licensing system that allowed direct competitors to dictate what kind of beer you could sell, and necessitated council approval for dancing, undermined the state’s efforts to brand itself as “vibrant.” So they drafted the Small Venue License to fix the problem.

Thus, it was a bit of a shock when the opposition, under new leader Steven Marshall, said they’d block the new license unless the right to object was reinserted and the capacity was cut to 80, a limit the music sector in particular had flagged as economically unsustainable unless your business model focuses on selling a lot of booze, very quickly.

But the debate is about a lot more than that. The Small Venue License has brought to a head a perceived fissure within Adelaide. On the one hand, there’s the old guard, who like using the word “vibrancy” but still believe there needs to be a permission slip for those who wish to dance, exhibit, perform or play music. And then there’s people who think that’s a bit of an outrage. The progress of the Small Venue License through parliament has become a litmus test as to which camp now exercises control over South Australia.

Dr Ianto Ware is the Federal Government’s newly appointed National Live Music Coordinator for Sounds Australia.