The Sando: What Went Wrong
Sydney booker, bartender and musician ANDY CALVERT looks for answers following the collapse of the current incarnation of iconic Newtown venue The Sandringham Hotel.
Psychics, astrology and fortune tellers, stock brokers and financiers – they’re all still around despite the fact they have a shitty track-record of predicting the future. That’s because our desire to know doesn’t diminish with the failure of anyone to routinely forecast it. And we are exactly the same with blame - we’ve got no idea if it does any good but we are compelled to lay blame anyway.
With another live music venue in the shitter of course fingers are being pointed. Those that play in bands and watch them are our shareholders so long as they pay the door and buy drinks. Of course they have opinions. In a recent article for FasterLouder, musician Brendan Maclean said he wouldn’t miss the Sando, which announced it had gone into receivership this week. He’s been rather roundly shot down by many people on Facebook and labelled as a ghoul, hipster and diva. Notably very few of the people in that particular FB stoush are forthcoming with what their credentials are to talk about live music (scroll down for mine).
My experiences as a musician at the Sando have been mixed: playing to an admittedly small 77-payer crowd one Thursday night after an unexpected event and party-filled Monday long weekend. We got slapped with the $300 production fee. We were ready for that eventuality but what I was astounded by was the fact we had to ask around to find owner Tony Townsend to ask him where the mixer was at 15 minutes to the open of doors; go down ask him again to turn the lights on so we could see enough to set up; go down ask him again to open the mic cabinets so we could set up the mic stands for the mixer; and go down again and find him to get the air-con turned on (this room is hot in any weather).
When the mixer did show up at five minutes to opening I asked him how much he got paid. He said $129. I asked the Sando door person: $40. These costs are not unusual and I would never complain about paying them and think it’s very generous that Tony waives them for good nights. But when the $300 production fee apparently entails $131 in electricity costs – hey, I was never given a breakdown of costs - and the venue, for all appearances, comes on like it’s never hosted a band before in its life you get a definite sense, if not of musician bashing, then of a lack of a welcome. Smiles and competence cost nothing. Unfortunately a lot of musicians spend a lot of money drinking beer at venues not dissimilar (well a little dissimilar) to the Sando and that night gave many musicians a sour taste that outlasted the beer. But pissing off a few musicians doesn’t bankrupt a venue.
From a punter’s point of view I fall in with Brendan on one important point. Yes, I’m sad to see that top room go - it’s never good to see a good room with rock-band-in-full-flight production capabilities. Yes, I appreciate the efforts of the bookers and as one myself I don’t rate the lazy rhetoric of “book good bands and people will come”. Yes, I’m sorry that Tony and the staff and the residency bands etc will lose a living out of this. But I will not miss the place. And I was there a week ago buying beers and paying to see a band, as I was the week before that and the week before that. The band I went to see last week I couldn’t hear because the nominally attended and free “Punk Rock Karaoke” downstairs was louder than the reasonably well-attended band I’d paid $10 to see upstairs. I swore to myself I’d never go back to that middle room, as I had a 20 times before. But I’ll save my personal diagnosis for the conclusion.
Bottom room, middle room, top room, it’s all a bit confusing if you haven’t been there. So let’s start at the top, or at least as far back as I go.
In the ’90s the Sando was one, square-shaped room with a large, square bar hogging most of the stage-front. You could order a drink sitting at the bar while looking straight ahead at the band - a friend of mine, during crowded nights, valued his position at the bar so highly he ordered Coopers Green in a bottle so he could piss in the empties and keep his spot. The stage was plywood and milkcrates and you could listen to a local noise band on the jukebox. It was dingy, yes, but architecturally it shared the same art deco elegance that many of the pubs in the area originally possessed before that ’90s renovation apocalypse that the inner-west is still recovering from. And the room just fucking worked then. You could walk in off the street and get served a beer by Davis Claymore from Front End Loader, who to an 18-year-old at that time was FUCKING ROCKSTAR FAMOUS. Hell, he even remembered what you drank and had it on the bar before you finished the last one to save on yelling over the band, who were literally two metres away.
Before I was 18 and when I was lucky enough to sleep over at my friend’s house in Stanmore we’d just stand out the front and listen. That was the Sando. That was the place I, and so many others, miss. Like the Hoey it had a sense of community that so few other venues possess simply because it employed musicians to work the bar of a venue and that made musicians want to walk in any day of the week - not rocket science. Then came the renovation that never happened. Then came the maverick new owners. They started cutting the place up into shitty corridor-like shapes and put a pokie room directly where the stage was. They also used to mail-out $10 vouchers for the pokies to all the surrounding suburbs. Whatever you might feel about the way the place now, Tony Townsend delivered us from that hell-hole. And he put a hell of a lot of live music on in the seven years since then.
To my recollection Sando II’s (I avoided typing Sando 2.0 for a reason) first room was the middle room. At the time it had reasonable production specs, but a dB meter linked to a power-cut on the PA made it a hard room to play even for an “acoustic” act with a drummer lacking in subtlety. It was a weird shape and once it was at half capacity you couldn’t see the band. Sydney was used to that and I have no complaints about the sound or treatment playing that room. But hell, at that time, we’d all rather play the Hoey or ’Dale. Then the front stage went in. Cover act central, seven nights a week. I know a lot of people who love and respect the music this stage has hosted but besides the odd act it has never been my thing.
Then we heard rumblings of a purpose-built band room. It was just after the Hopetoun closed so every musician I knew was talking about it with a cautious - very cautious - optimism. Could this be it? An actual venue in the same area we all actually lived in? Imagine! Once it opened it became obvious that the kind of 20- to 30-something indie crowd was not on the booker’s agenda (sure indie is a huge umbrella term, but basically a good deal of the sub-genres M+N reports on). It was ’80s revival, punk and hard rock that no-one even realised was a significant presence in the area. Sure the odd gig with a solid line-up every couple of months would entice you in but we all realised it wasn’t going to be the pub for us. When you walked out of the top room having paid $10-15 for a good line-up and were faced with anything from a blaring techno DJ to Gunners and ’80s spandex turned up really loud you got the fuck out of the place before you spent another dollar.
In the simplest terms: I miss the old Sando (’90s to ’00s) and the Hopetoun because I loved going there and I went there all the time, quite often not knowing who was playing. I miss these places both as a punter who spent way too much of his income on beer and music and a musician. I won’t miss this version of the Sando because while I did go there quite often it was purely to see a friend’s band and I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.
But you’re still reading because you want to know who to blame. I’ve tended bar at the The Union - the next pub down the road from the Sando - for six years and the area has changed. But blaming gentrification is an oversimplification. Yuppies make noise complaints? No, the old working-class couple behind The Globe (a neighbour and contemporary of Sando I) and the local council were the ones who hamstrung that venue into oblivion. Ever since I worked at The Union we had to shut our courtyard at 9pm just from the noise of two to 10 people talking and smoking. That was an old biddy too. She moved out and hey presto we are free to open it till 11.
Rents have soared in the area and our new “yuppie” neighbours have not made a single noise complaint despite us beginning to host live music two nights a week a year ago. Noise complaints are Satan and it’s down to each venue’s luck and the Government’s absolute failure to address prior-usage issues. I, for one, welcome our new yuppie overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted booker, bartender and musician, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil for their entertainment and tell them what records to buy and what beers to spend their money on so I can pay musicians their cut of the fat Australian dollars they put over the bar assuaging their stress and guilt working for the man. Unfortunately these people were never going to walk into the Sando no matter who was on the bill. It is simply invisible to a large swathe of the local population.
“Probably the greatest tragedy of the Sando II is that is spent its last dollars on live music when some interior design was what it needed.”
I think you get where I think the blame lays. I’m not sure how relevant the $2 shop imitation Ken Done furniture and the music aesthetic favoured by the venue was to local punters seven years ago but they certainly don’t attract locals now. Cocking the boganity of the place off a notch via bookings and in-house music choice would have cost nothing and maybe attracted a few more local music fans. But nice interior design and a bistro, the things that please the local masses, costs money and it’s clear the Sando was in restrictive debt at least as early as the top room renovation but probably since the $3-million-plus debt the place was reportedly bought with.
The Annandale Hotel’s Rule brothers learnt a long time ago that music – even seven nights a week – is only about 28 hours of a bar’s trading time. They did something about it a long time ago. Probably the greatest tragedy of the Sando II is that is spent its last dollars on live music when some interior design was what it needed. It’s hard not to admire that fact. What BankWest, who it is now in the hands of, do with it is anyone’s guess, but its facade is heritage listed making it a tricky apartment development. Hoping that bankers invest in interior decorating for a defaulted business is probably too optimistic, more likely they’ll sell of the PA equipment off, sell it for a song (pun intended) and let Townsend fly on the bankruptcy. My fingers are crossed that Tony overcommitted the place to music to a degree that even the bankers can’t extricate it from that fate for years to come. I wish I’d said something about those Ken Done tables earlier.