How better planning can save Sydney’s music scene (and its mojo)

Good planning and governance has the potential to breathe life back into Sydney’s music scene, writes James Hulme from independent think tank The Committee for Sydney. Sydney should consider dedicated music zones, he says, and think outside the box to keep neighbours of noisy venues happy.

Music makes a city. Or, to be more accurate, there are certain pieces of music that define and encapsulate a city. Think George Gershwin’s “Manhattan’ for New York, or The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” for London. What would be the equivalent song for Sydney? Perhaps “You Gotta Love This City” by The Whitlams, or Midnight Oil’s “Bus to Bondi” (feel free to continue this debate in the comment section).

Music is in the news with the publication on Thursday of the NSW parliament’s inquiry into the music and arts economy. A true cross-party effort, the inquiry’s report points to a declining music sector across the state, with has had an impact far beyond music venues, pubs and clubs. Music is not merely important for its cultural offering, it supports a creative sector that represents over 5 per cent of NSW’s total workforce and an industry that exports over $1.5 billion worth of goods every year.

A great music offering is also vital in retaining and attracting talent to NSW. As the Committee for Sydney’s recent Benchmarking report sets out, Sydney’s reputation for culture and destination appeal has slipped against other global cities, in part due to a perception that our night-time offer could be improved. Sydney’s economy relies on access to a bright, creative, skilled workforce and offering diverse night-time activities will help keep talent in the city.    

Moreover, a vibrant scene will keep our most talented musicians, who like many skilled employees are highly mobile, in Sydney. Access to proactive space and smaller venues for musicians to learn their craft is imperative for supporting the artists of tomorrow. This is also a global challenge. Indeed, visiting Sydney this week, Detroit’s night time economy ambassador, Adrian Tonon, spoke of his city’s rich musical heritage – from Aretha to Eminem – and the consistent challenge of retaining new artists who might otherwise be attracted to New York or Los Angeles.

How Sydney’s music scene can be revived

Like so many areas of public policy, solutions to saving Sydney’s music scene can be found in good planning and governance. The inquiry describes a mosaic of regulation and governance for the music sector in NSW and a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities. Being clearer about where the buck stops and adopting a light touch approach to regulation would help to cut red tape and lessen the burden on music providers. Venues must be seen as part of the solution, not the problem, and be allowed to curate their own musical offerings without wading through reams of paperwork.  

Planning for precincts where live music takes place is also vital, including innovative approaches to noise mitigation to protect venues and residents alike. The City of Sydney’s “Agent of Change” model could help support existing live music venues. Based on a similar scheme in the UK, it encourages councils and developers to work together to address noise issues to protect both music venues and their neighbours, allowing bands to play on and residents to sleep.

Look to music-loving cities such as Tokyo, Berlin and London

We should also look to create new cultural areas led by music, such as Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighbourhood the Friedrichshain suburb in Berlin. As new urban centres are created across a growing Sydney, why not make access to live music and other arts a central part of their design? The mayor of London has championed “music zones” for grassroots music activity – why not embed these in plans for new urban precincts, particularly in Western Sydney?

The night-time economy needs coordination

The parliamentary inquiry also concludes that greater coordination is required across the city. There are many actors and agencies involved in the night-time economy ecosystem, but a lack of a coordinating figure to bring different parties together under a shared vision. While initiatives such as the state government’s Night-Time Economy Roundtable Action Plan have been welcomed, a whole-of-government approach is also required to deliver an overarching night-time strategy.

Earlier this year, Ed Sheeran played to approximately 225,000 people in Sydney over three days, which suggests an insatiable demand for music in our city, albeit of questionable quality. How we tap into this demand and use it to support music across Sydney will be crucial to enhancing a sector that clearly needs support. A smart approach to regulation, coordination and place-making will be key. If music be the food of love, plan on.

James Hulme is director of advocacy at The Committee for Sydney.

The Fifth Estate invites other thinkers to contribute to this topic. Send articles or flag ideas to

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Hi James,
    I tend to agree that: “…solutions to saving Sydney’s music scene can be found in good planning and governance.” However Sydney has never seen good planning and governance and insurmountable forces (money power, corruption, inter-agency conflict, the built environment, greed, etc.) act against both. So, that solution is a ‘pipe dream’.
    Good land use planning and governance depends on respect for each occupier’s right to ‘quiet enjoyment’ of their land or tenancy. Any derogation from this is a form of cost shifting, i.e. corruption, but derogation is endemic in NSW Planning Law, isolated as it is from other local authority land management functions (roads, rates, services, health, public transport, safety, policing, gambling, liquor vending).
    This won’t change (the NSWG won’t let it) so better to look at what sort of ‘solutions’ have worked here. There are quite a few. Most involve purpose built facilities at suitable scales, in suitable locations, isolated from ‘residential’ premises by fate or good planning. Places like the Enmore Theatre; the City Recital Hall (a gem); the Factory in Marrickville, and so on. Sadly, there is a cost – who pays?. Sadly, there is a choice – who pays?.
    Lots of work to be done. Hope you are having fun.

  2. The “agent of change” philosophy is a cop out; not about good planning at all. That ‘who’s in first’ principle is ridiculous. Every resident anywhere is entitled to a decent and uninterrupted sleep if “live music” all night and into the wee hours of the morning is not one’s preference. Using the ‘agent of change’ excuse, a venue can make as much noise as it likes if it is there first. Where does that leave residents who do not or cannot afford or who do not believe in energy consuming air conditioning? It leaves them with no fresh air option!

    1. It would be good to hear what other readers think. We recently carried a story by Sarah Hill, CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission who called for retention of industrial spaces for manufacturing and creative processes. No-one complains about noise in solid old industrial buildings, I’m thinking. But that’s not always convenient, especially as Sarah said, when so much high-value residential development ends up swallowing up any site in its path. We need to crowdsource some solutions here. Win-win anybody?