Inside Sydney's Lockout Law Showdown: Nina Las Vegas & Future Classic Weigh In

Sydney Lockout 2015
Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images

Keep Sydney Open demonstrators are seen on Feb. 21, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. 

Government efforts to curb alcohol violence threaten the Australian city's cultural identity.

On Feb. 21, an estimated 15,000 people took to the streets in a protest organized by Keep Sydney Open. The target of the demonstration? The city’s lockout laws, which restrict the sale of alcohol and limit entrances into clubs past a certain hour.

“So many of us individually felt the change and how much the lockout laws had affected small businesses and the nightlife community,” the well-known DJ Nina Las Vegas (Nina Elizabeth Agzarian) told Billboard from Australia. She has been an active critic of the laws and served as a speaker at the rally. “I think it’s just the beginning of the community finding a voice,” she said.

Flight Facilities Blast Sydney's Controversial Lockout Laws

The lockout laws were implemented early in 2014 following a pair of deaths in the Kings Cross neighborhood, a popular destination for revelers. One incident took place in the summer of 2012, the other on New Year’s Eve 2013; in both situations, an 18 year-old died after being punched. The government responded with a series of policies aimed at reducing bouts of alcohol-related violence: after 1:30, no one is allowed to enter or reenter a club, last call for drinks is at 3 a.m., and stores can’t sell alcohol after 10 p.m. In addition, the government froze all applications for new liquor licenses for a two-year period.

Australian Nightclub Revenue Expected to Decline in 2016: Report

Earlier this month, Mike Baird, the Premier of New South Wales (the Australian state that includes Sydney), trumpeted the success of these laws, which were introduced by his predecessor, Barry O'Farrell. “Alcohol related assaults have decreased by 42.2 per cent in the CBD [central business district] since we introduced the ‘lockout laws,’” Baird wrote on Facebook. “And they’re down by over 60 per cent in Kings Cross.”

 

Weatherburn, who directs the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, suggested that Baird’s numbers weren’t entirely accurate: “assaults have been coming down in NSW since 2008, so you had this pre-existing downward trend,” he told local news. But Weatherburn also acknowledged that the new polices “accelerate[d] the existing downward trend, so it fell even faster than before.”

How Future Classic Put Australia on the Dance Music Map

The new laws have received some of their strongest backing from the healthcare community. Toby Hall, Chief Executive Officer of St Vincent’s Health Australia, announced his support for the new regulations last year. “St Vincent’s Hospital serves the entertainment district covered by the laws,” he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. “It has within its catchment the greatest concentration of licensed premises in Australia… Talk to any of the doctors and nurses who witnessed the tsunami of mostly young people affected by alcohol-fueled violence prior to the lockout and they’ll tell you the past 12 months have been like working at a different hospital.”

Op-Ed: If Skrillex and Diplo Can't Get Us Off Our Phones, Who Can?

But the opposition from Sydney’s cultural scene has been fierce, and it’s easy to see why. A report from the Australian Government’s Live Music Office finds that live venues’ ticket sales have fallen 40% between January 31 2013 and February 1, 2015. Over the same period, venue attendance dropped 19%, and venues reduced spending on performers by 15%.

Sydney’s “Late Night Management Areas Research Phase 4 Report” indicates that “pedestrian numbers have decreased in almost all precincts.” “The largest decrease was in Kings Cross late at night (12 - 4am),” the report continues. Relative to 2012, the area “observed a large decrease in peak pedestrian counts, with 2,000 fewer pedestrians (-58%) in the precinct at 11pm.”

Flume Knocks Zayn Malik from Summit of Australia's Singles Chart

The gap between past and present numbers becomes more extreme later at night: “After 1am, all precincts observed a decrease in peak pedestrian counts. By 4am decreases of 800 people in Kings Cross (-84%) and Oxford Street (-82%) and 720 people in CBD South (-70%) were observed.” An article in The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “over 30 shops” lie empty in one 300-meter strip, while “as many as 10 well-known late night venues within the lockout zone have closed in the past three months.”

 

widely circulated article by Matt Barrie, the founder of Freelancer.com, summed up these developments in grim terms: “the soul of the city has been destroyed.” It is really a ghost town,” Agzarian explained. “There is no one around. Of course there is no violence if there are no people. It’s like prohibition.” “A lot of the people that are suffering are minority groups,” she continued. “There’s no after-hour shifts -- often students studying in Sydney work those. The immigrant Australians that come in and are cab drivers: no one’s speaking out for these guys that are now losing a shitload of clients if no one is out.”

Flume Teases Upcoming Album 'Skin'

Agzarian also suggested that violence is only being relocated, rather than reduced. “The violence is going to other parts of the city,” she said, mentioning Newtown. “It’s not solving anything, it’s pushing it away.” Hall disputed this claim earlier this month -- “We understand the Royal Prince Alfred hospital, the major public hospital serving the Newtown area, is reporting no increase in alcohol-related presentations and admissions in the two years since the measures were introduced.”

The Guardian recently reported “no significant increase [in violence] in other areas,” aside from The Star Casino, while another report from the NSW Bureau of Crime Research and Statistics determined, “there was some evidence that assaults increased in and around The Star Casino,” but “the effects are not statistically significant.”

Listen to Flume's Remix of Sam Smith's 'Lay Me Down'

The focus on a possible increase in violence at The Star Casino is due to the fact that neither it nor the Bangaroo Casino are subject to the lockout laws, suggesting a possible ulterior motive to opponents of the policy.

Barrie wrote, “this agenda is, of course, being bankrolled by two of the biggest beneficiaries of the lockout, the Star and Barangaroo Casinos, which both have 24x7 licenses and were conveniently left out of the lockout area.” Agzarian declared, “the government has proved, by keeping the casinos open because they need the gambling revenue, that money is speaking louder than our creative community.”  

 

People protesting the NSW government's lockout laws march through Sydney's CBD at the #KeepSydneyOpen rally. Photo by SMH photographer Peter Rae.

A photo posted by The Sydney Morning Herald (@sydneymorningherald) on

 

Baird has dismissed these criticisms, painting his opponents as over-excited, narrow-minded, and possibly unpatriotic. “Some, who wish to define our city by one street on Kings Cross, make the hysterical claim that Sydney is dead,” he wrote on Facebook. “They couldn't be more wrong. This is the greatest city in the world and it is now safer and more vibrant than ever.”

Tame Impala, Flume Clean Up At The ARIAs

But this may have backfired, motivating the opposition even further. He “called our feelings hysteria,” Agzarian recalled. “He sounded totally smug.” “We’re not an anti-social community, which is what the government called us initially,” she added. “We’re a very social, caring, creating, and understanding community. We were never part of the problem. There are things we want to introduce to make the environment safer. It’s literally like Footloose – they think because you can dance you want to hit people.” (Barrie also made a Footloose reference in his article.)

The 25 Greatest Dance Clubs of All Time

In conjunction with the protest, Keep Sydney Open issued a series of demands on Facebook, starting with a request to repeal the various lockout laws. The group is also advocating for better late night public transportation – according to Agzarian, “our government shuts it off at one, so of course you’re going to have people standing around waiting for a few taxies to cause fights” – and the introduction of a Night Mayor to serve as an advocate for nightlife institutions. (Many European cities, including Paris and Berlin, have Night Mayors).

Keep Sydney Open also requested that “police work with, not against, the responsible venues who provide safe nights out in a global city” and invited the “government to discuss next steps in partnership with those whose livelihoods depend on the music and cultural industries thriving in Sydney.”

 

LET'S DO THIS SYDNEY! BELMORE PARK ? 12 noon!

A photo posted by Nina Las Vegas (@ninalasvegas) on

 

Sydney’s musical community has been deeply involved in the protests. Flume (one of Australia’s best known acts internationally) and other artists on the Future Classic label addressed the Premier in a Facebook statement as well. “We are deeply concerned by alcohol related violence and the impact this has on the victims, their families, friends and our society overall,” they wrote. “We want a safe city and absolutely agree that as a community we need to acknowledge this problem and look at initiatives to address it… Not only do these lockout laws not solve the problem of alcohol-related violence, they are destroying the cultural fabric and economy of the city.”

Exclusive Premiere: Listen to Nina Las Vegas' New Mixtape

Agzarian echoed this sentiment: “Australia is a binge-drinking society. It’s a cultural issue. It’s something we need to address from kids in schools to adults. Shutting off an entire community and saying we’re going to solve this by stopping one part of it will never change the way people drink.”

Like the Future Classic artists, she’s worried that the lockout laws are doing irreparable damage to Australia’s cultural output. “The support slots are gone,” she explained. “The small venues are gone. It’s really heartbreaking.” The Future Classic statement noted, “there’s no places for [the next generation] to perform, to grow and develop,” and Agzarian pushed that concept even further: “at the moment, kids turning 18 or 19 literally would never have known the feeling of choice.”

The 15 Greatest Dance Music Cities of All Time

She stressed that the artists and workers in the nightlife industry are not at odds with the medical community. “We don’t want to fight with the doctors and nurses -- obviously less violence is great. We want that too. We’re not a community that wants to go back to the way things were. We’re a very sensitive cultural community that wants violence to totally go away.”

 

21.2.16 15000 strong crowd protest against the NSW lock out laws #sydney #keepsydneyopen

A photo posted by @jhayandrews on

 

This may play a key role in Keep Sydney Open’s next steps to push for repeal of the lockout laws. There needs to be some communication with Last Drinks, the body behind the emergency workers who like the lockout laws to say, we want the same thing,” Agzarian argued. “We shouldn’t be again each other.”

The lockout laws are currently under “detailed review.” “I await this work with interest,” Baird wrote on Facebook. “But as I’ve said before, it is going to take a lot for me to change my mind on a policy that is so clearly improving this city.”

Flume Asserts Himself on New Single, 'Never Be Like You': Listen

“If this industry shuts down it trickles out everywhere,” Agzarian countered. “If this is what happens in two years, I can’t imagine what’s going to happen in another two years.”

“I’m a smart woman who makes good decisions,” she added. “I just happen to like working at night. That doesn’t mean that I’m a delinquent. I’ve never been in a fight. I’ve never witnessed a fight. All my experiences have been nothing but career-building, or life changing, or enjoyable. Where I feel most comfortable is in a nightclub, and they just don’t exist anymore.”

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.