Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent announcement of $560,000 for a National Live Music Office was good news for an industry used to the bad variety.
The forces bearing down on live music had long been identified: the undue weight given to residents’ noise complaints; building codes that lassoed venues into the same category as airports; poker machines’ tsunami of cash versus the tenuous trickle-down of live gigs; council regulations that required security at even the smallest of shows; and threats from developers hunting bigger profits.
Combined, the issues cast a long, cold, capitalist shadow, especially over Sydney. So when Kevin Rudd attended a Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) fundraiser, hosted by author, radio host and live music advocate Marieke Hardy, a few days later tossing out a life jacket to live music from the federal government cruise liner, his sudden attention felt, to many, like a sun-beam slicing through the pall.
The concept of a non-partisan organisation with national co-ordination wasn’t new – peak bodies had floated it for years – but the recognition of live music’s importance from the highest office in the land, was.
Though the shadows, at least in Sydney, had been fertile places. Around five years before, illegal warehouse spaces had begun mushrooming up in Sydney’s outer suburbs. Artist-run warehouses had been offering a gamut of experimental arts in the inner city for decades but the new warehouses were in cheaper, sprawling inner west areas like Marrickville, Sydenham and Tempe, and live music was the main fare.
They weren’t on the streets where residents grew tomatoes on sticks. They were on streets where small-scale industrial and manufacturing businesses advertised anachronisms like ‘Stone Wash and Dying’ on signs that still used seven-digit phone numbers.
Most warehouses had no liquor licence but served it anyway. No one told you where to drink, what kind of cup to use, where to dance or how to exit. Buzz-kills, instead, came in the form of police, whose arrival would cause the bar to disappear … and re-appear when the trouble blew over.
On narrow and nondescript Faversham Street, opposite Marrickville Bowling Club, was – is – The Red Rattler warehouse. It has a high stage, antique couches, beer on tap called Rat’s Piss and a cabaret-style ambiance. Accustomed to leaving warehouses suspecting a dusting of asbestos had settled on my shoulders, I was impressed by Red Rattler’s professionalism and polish.
As the years passed, the stresses of running illegal spaces caused the inner west warehouses to board up or drift into other pursuits. But not the Rattler. It was ‘legit’. It had a liquor license, complied with fire regulations and hired a security guard for events (the controversial requirement that broke the back of Surry Hills venue, The Hopetoun).
The Rattler felt like the other warehouses – grungy, grassroots and exciting – but didn’t operate like them. Its lineage was Sydney’s earlier wave of artist-run initiatives (‘ARIs’) like Lanfranchis in Surry Hills and Space 3 in Chippendale. The five women artists who founded Red Rattler – ‘the rats’ – had enjoyed these spaces’ self-direction but grown weary of the flipside: impermanence and vulnerability.
“We were sick of other ARIs, non-licensed venues, awesome places, closing down around us,” says co-founder Teresa Avila. “We wanted a better venue that wouldn’t be shut down. We thought, ‘We’ll create our own space and do it from scratch because it’s literally a bare warehouse’.” The ‘rats’ took out personal loans, hocked their possessions and mined the goodwill of their networks for help gutting and renovating the building.
Five years on, the Rattler is the only inner west warehouse still open to offer a crammed calendar of arts events: music, film, screen media, performance, talks and social activism. In June its anchor sunk deeper still when its ‘Save the Rat’ Pozible campaign raised $45,000 to buy a share of its building.
“The Rattler will be the first space of its kind in Sydney to acquire partial property since Belvoir Street Theatre in the 80s,” says co-founder Penelope Benton. “The only other space we know of is the Australian Centre for Photography.”
Both Red Rattler and the Belvoir (who raised $50,000 in 1984) received around 600 financial contributions – a collective vote of confidence from an arts community aware it would be lesser without them. “The Red Rattler celebrates all that is good and holy about the arts – a sense of collective excitement, harmonious collaboration and shared projects,” Marieke Hardy wrote.
Yet the achievement barely blipped as news. Though not for lack of interest in the fate of Sydney’s venues – the woes of pub rock venue The Annandale Hotel were reported in each disappointing increment. In May, as the Rattler reached out for pledges, we heard instead that hotel chain Oscars had bought the Annandale after its owners went into receivership. Oscars committed to live music but not original live music, summoning the spectre of covers bands.
The Annandale had extracted cold hard community cash too. Rock stars, media and politicians (including then-federal minister Peter Garrett) had swarmed its 2011 ‘Buy A Brick’ campaign, which raised $50,000. But the sum could never have kept The Annandale afloat. As a commercial operation with staff, constant overheads, and, most vexingly, expensive legal battles to fund, it was a drop in the bucket.
Red Rattler, meanwhile, will use its money to refinance its mortgage and incorporate as a not-for-profit arts association. Seven new directors have already joined the board and it is awaiting Direct Gift Recipient status.
Perhaps it is understandable the Rattler’s ascent is not as newsworthy as The Annandale’s descent. Good news stories rarely are and the venue does tend to fly under the radar as the illegal spaces of its heritage were forced to. But is there a connection between the deterioration of certain commercial venues – including places like Newtown’s Sandringham Hotel – and the consolidation of a space like Red Rattler? Absolutely.
The Rattler prevailed – because of, not despite of, its different operating model and, thus far, has successfully navigated many of the same issues that vanquished other venues. It is a beacon on the hill for other like-minded spaces and the good news story the rest of us needed to hear.
The Rattler’s success is a symptom of its stellar reputation in the community, something that happened organically – but not accidentally. It has a quota of 80% local artists (50% queer), books fundraisers for community radio stations like 2SER and FBi, and courts the loyalty of independent labels like RIP Society and Newtown music store Repressed Records.
It doesn’t advertise – “community networking before social networking” is one of its values – which only adds to its air of mystique, and it has made its location a virtue, instead of the detriment bemoaned by other western venues when noting the successes of inner city venues and clubs.
RIP Society owner Nic Warnock has put on around 20 shows at the Rattler and says the venue is affordable, transparent and excellent to deal with. “It seems like a home for the music I put on, even though it’s also a space for highly-marginalised countercultural and queer culture. And because it’s in Marrickville, not on Oxford Street or in the city, it kind of weans people out who are just going to a gig for something to do. The people who go are there for the music.”
There are no poker machines or agro from security, friendly volunteer bar staff and excellent sound and lighting. It feels safe, yet spirited, and has a shape-shifting ability to assume the essence of whatever event is within its walls (as provocative and diverse as any you’ll see in Sydney). As a non-commercial venue the Rattler isn’t compelled to cherrypick acts that pull sell-out crowds – a dynamic that creates a tension you can feel offstage as much as on – and its steady stream of volunteers keeps fresh ideas, enthusiasm and new contacts flowing through.
These things are important – just as important, even, as rallying the funds and forbearance to hoop-jump the ugly tangle of cantankerous neighbours, council regulations and compliance costs. Yet they are so often overlooked by Sydney venues – one of the reasons inner west warehouses like the Rattler were able to usurp so many of these venues, so fast.
Red Rattler’s principles have a certain sweet simplicity too, reminding me of the Andean principle of ayni – meaning reciprocity, or give and take. Nourish your community and it will nourish you back. The concept is a long, pleasant stroll away from what Music Victoria calls the “complex web of regulation that underpins – and often inhibits – the live music industry”.
Because in this state of live music emergency, one that’s necessitated a new National Live Music Office, were that office to dispatch a triage nurse to assess Red Rattler’s health, she/he would note its DIY resourcefulness, grassroots community ties and, now, its stake in its own building, and promptly eject it from the waiting room in disgust, freeing up resources to look at sicker cases.
Five years into its campaign of retaliation against the vulnerability of its past, Red Rattler looks to be the toughest of the lot.
A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED HERE (GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA)