Once Upon A Time In The West
When a corporation wanted to stop live music at Perth’s Hyde Park Hotel it appeared a done deal
We were gathered in the Rosemount Hotel beer garden for what was supposed to be a rally. The call had gone out a couple of days previous to all interested parties: “Come to the Hyde Park Hotel to speak to a representative from ALH about the changes being proposed.” People were either eager to protest, cynical about what protest might accomplish, or a bit of both, but there seemed to be some genuine momentum behind the meeting. Even the cynics said they’d show up, almost as insurance against the eventuality that it might accomplish something, and they, in their cynic-dom, might look foolish. Then ALH (what that stands for, we’ll come to in a minute) realised that the meeting, far from being a quiet exchange of ideas, was primarily an opportunity to get yelled at, and withdrew their commitment to address the public. Then the Hydey, perhaps showing support for their owners, ALH, or perhaps because they didn’t like the idea of a large, miffed crowd stuffing their pub, withdrew their interest in hosting the meeting. The Rosemount Hotel, having nothing better booked that night, a Monday, and being just a short walk down Fitzgerald Street, offered to act as substitute. All right. If MySpace bulletins and threads on perthbands.com were anything to go by, there was going to be a rumpus.
Then, in the afternoon on the day of the Rosemount meeting, the gas got taken out of the righteous indignation-mobile. ALH (seriously, I’ll explain in a minute) decided to reverse their announcement of a week earlier. The overwhelming response to the news was, “Really? They caved?” followed by a hearty, “Woo!” followed by, “Uh, so is that Rosemount meeting still on?” Most people stayed indoors on that chilly July night, safe in the knowledge that live music at the Hydey had been saved, but a few headed down to either the Rosemount or the Hydey to celebrate. So there we were, gathered at the Rosemount Hotel beer garden for what was supposed to be a rally, trying to understand what the heck had just happened. What follows is as close a narrative as I can venture from speaking to some of the central characters.
Though [ALH] correctly predicted a public backlash, they did not correctly predict its scope. They seemed unprepared for a coordinated reaction from the music industry, the music media, music fans, and lastly, perhaps most importantly, the state government.
In autumn 2006, the Hyde Park Hotel, Perth’s grubby, beloved local music hovel – every city has one – was bought by ALH, the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group. ALH is the part of Woolworths that manages its pub and liquor shop interests. To most this was a death knell for the venue. The Hydey books live music seven nights a week and is where a lot of new bands cut their performance teeth. Snowman, for example, rated it as their favourite venue in Perth in August’s jmag, stating it hosted the majority of their first 100 gigs. Until that autumn it was an independent, family-owned venue, and the family owners couldn’t quite be arsed maximizing the money making potential of the hotel, its two bars and its drive through bottle shop. So, if four noise bands made an unlistenable racket on a Sunday night and the only people watching were the bar flies that never left the place, they didn’t mind. They made their money back on the bains-marie in the back room on Sunday, and from the bottle shop. At the time of the acquisition people realised that Woolworths, an actual business run by actual business people wanting to conduct actual business, might do things a little differently.
For a while things remained the same. The most significant changes appeared to be the fixing of a perennially broken toilet in the men’s room and the replacement of an old main door with a new main door. Considering how much of a squat the Hydey was, these changes, though counter to part of its charms, were actually welcome.
That was until July 2 of this year, when the grassroots punk paranoia that long dogged Woolworth’s takeover of the Hydey seemed to finally be legitimised by a statement from its manager, Mark Walker.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you that the Hyde Park Hotel has been forced to effectively cease all amplified musical entertainment at the venue as of the end of Sunday 29th July 2007,” it said.
“Recently, the venue has been made aware that a number of local resident complaints had been raised as to the noise levels, specifically with live entertainment, emanating from both the front and lounge bars.
“The venue has spent considerable time investigating the situation, employing the services of a sound acoustics specialist to evaluate the sound levels, and have looked into means and methods to overcome the issue.
“Subsequently the venue has been left with no choice but to cancel all amplified music for the immediate future, as of Monday 30th July 2007.
“This is a major blow to the venue as well as the Perth music scene, and is sadly unavoidable given the current noise restriction rulings and local resident complaints on file. The staff and management at The Hyde Park are most disappointed that these actions are required, and hope that everyone involved will be patient and understanding during this period of change.”
It was a statement met with a contradictory reaction of shock and apathy. People were outraged that ALH was doing this, but resigned to the fact as inevitable. The kerfuffle fell into a reverse David and Goliath narrative in which, not only would Goliath likely win, but David never had a chance. Plans were made for a goodbye gig without considering the potential for protest. I-told-you-so’s were being dished out in fistfuls.
However, this air of defeat was eventually met with a wind of not-necessarily-defeat. Some local music fans proposed grassroots activist tactics to convince ALH not to go ahead with its changes. Some of these tactics fell into the realm of probably a bad idea, such as finding out the personal mobile numbers of Woolworths shareholders and telling them what was going on. Others, like expressing concern to and asking questions of the West Australian Music Industry Association (WAM), the Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA), the Department of Liquor, Racing and Gaming (DLRG), and the Town of Vincent, under whose jurisdiction noise complaints about the Hydey may fall, seemed less crazy. However, WAM was already on the case. In a stroke of blind, incredible luck, Paul Bodlovich, the head of WAM, was due to attend a meeting of the Sound Attenuation Support Program (SASP) panel the day after Walker’s statement was released.
SASP is a DCA initiative designed to prevent forced closure of music venues due to noise complaints, exactly the scenario the Hydey was describing. They provide figure-matching financial support up to $50000 to live music venues to reduce their noise emissions. Not only is Bodlovich on the SASP panel, but so are two principle promoters of the Hyde Park Hotel and representatives from the Environmental Protection Authority, who set noise limits, and the liquor licensing branch of the DRGL, who have the ability to apply penalties to the Hydey if noise-related breaches of their license occur. At this panel meeting WAM and the Hydey promoters turned to the EPA and Liquor Licensing and said, “So, been receiving any noise complaints lately?”
The answer, basically, was no. None had made it through to Liquor Licensing or the EPA, the two bodies that regulate gig noise. Complaints may have been made to the hotel directly, but these would have been powerless, unless the Hydey relayed them to Liquor Licensing, effectively dobbing themselves in. The hotel management eventually claimed that the “complaints” were comments from residents that had been canvassed by real estate developers building offices and apartments across the road from the hotel. Though those residents had not complained themselves, they may have mentioned that music from the hotel can sometimes get very loud. All it takes is one complaint to incur a fine from the EPA, which can be steep, so ALH pre-emptively and voluntarily removed live music themselves. A legitimate, if sucky, move, but one that raised questions about the wording of Mark Walker’s media release.
Whatever specialists in sound attenuation the Hydey had employed, whatever “considerable” research into the “methods and means” to overcome excess noise that they’d conducted, they had failed to uncover the relatively high profile, quite obtainable $50000 SASP grant.
Following the publication of these details in The West Australian it became consensus that ALH and the Hyde Park Hotel’s intentions were murky. While ALH may have had some semi-legitimate reasons for removing live music from the Hydey, they were far from being forced to, and some perfectly viable options were still available. Music fans, music industry figures, and local media were left to ponder this partly encouraging, partly enraging, partly confusing news for the weekend.
Chief among this stewing was the question, why put out this half-baked press release? To most observers it made ALH look like bald-faced liars. It fit neatly into the company’s Goliath role in the story that had been transposed over these events. Liars may be pushing the truth, but it’s fair to say they were being misleading, perhaps deliberately. So, why?
Their motives are hard to discern, but it appears that someone in the ALH organisation sensed that the Hyde Park Hotel’s function in Perth’s community was beloved by a significant number of people. It also seems that this person knew that instituting these changes might make them look like jerks. ALH apparently had a public appearance they didn’t wish to besmirch. They were aware of, and cared about, their esteem in the eyes of the hotel’s music and liquor consuming clientele. This does not quite mesh with the soulless, cutthroat corporate pirate image that critics of the changes painted.
However, though they correctly predicted a public backlash, they did not correctly predict its scope. They seemed unprepared for a coordinated reaction from the music industry, the music media, music fans, and lastly, perhaps most importantly, the state government.
On July 6, the WA Minister for Culture and the Arts Sheila McHale released a statement declaring that ALH’s decision was shocking and disappointing. She said that it lacked vision, that the Hyde Park Hotel had an international reputation as a nurturer of new talent (a bit rich, but we’ll let that slide), and that she had “doubts as to the reasons given for this change”. Her involvement leant the backlash a legitimate weight, and media interest from ABC radio, TV, Triple J, even Nova FM followed. The proceedings at the Rosemount meeting on the Monday after the weekend, though absent ALH and Hydey representatives, appeared as they it would be heavily covered by media. That afternoon, a different statement from Colin Gourdis, WA’s manager of ALH, defused the situation.
“ALH State Manager Colin Gourdis is pleased to announce today that live music will continue at the Hyde Park Hotel.
“‘Our decision to retain live music at the hotel comes after our consult with a number of stakeholders,’ he said
“‘The Hyde Park Hotel has a long and proud tradition as one of the states leading live music venues. The support we have received recently to retain live music has been overwhelming.
“‘In particular, support has come from the State Government and the Minister for Culture and Arts Sheila McHale, Department of Racing Gaming and Liquor, the Town of Vincent, and local music organisations.
“‘This invaluable support has strengthened our resolve to maintain live music at the venue as part of the ongoing refurbishment to the hotel.’
“Mr Gourdis said he looks forward to seeing the Hyde Park Hotel continue its important role in the community as a major live music venue in WA.”
Given how impossible the previous release made the continuation of live music at the Hydey appear, the rapid turn around after only mild pressure was, of course, read as disingenuous. The non-specific overuse of the word “support” felt particularly hypocritical. However, in the two months since claiming to welcome live music back into the fold, the Hyde Park Hotel appears to keeping its word. Some financial squeeze has been felt – the promoter of popular Wednesday new music night Knackers had to quit after Hydey management canceled its band retainers – and ALH are attempting to rebrand the place in a way that aligns it with tacky cover band night spots, which is a bad omen at worst and annoying at best. But inroads are reportedly being made into noise-reducing renovations. It seems unlikely that ALH would go ahead with such costly renovations if they didn’t intend to keep booking bands at the Hydey. Local music analysts are saying that, unless something drastic happens, gigs will take place there for at least the next 12 months.
But what struck me most at the Rosemount Hotel that Monday night when we gathered for a seemingly pointless victory drink – Sheila McHale dropping by in her David Bowie haircut and dangly earrings – was that it had been done. For all the melodrama of the phrase, the Hydey had indeed been saved, and what did it say about us that we were so keen to let it go? Many if not most of us had preferred to knowingly declare that the cause was lost, that community interest was necessarily subordinate to big business, and we seemed pleased by the idea that events would prove us right. Many if not most of us cared less about the Hydey than we did about correctly predicting its fate. Optimism and activism were both ridiculed. When things unexpectedly turned out for the better, the pessimists found a way to deride the optimists during the celebration.
The answers to the questions – does the Hydey deserve to be saved? And does Perth music deserve to have the Hydey? – are unequivocally, yes. It is harder, however, to come up with an answer to the question of do we deserve the Hydey or Perth music, in light of all this schadenfraude? Some perceptions need to change, some attitudes need to be renovated, for the answer to be yes.