Crowded house or empty house? Sydney losing the battle for its art

Neil Finn provoked a spat with Sydney's grumpiest man, talkback host Alan Jones, at Crowded House's reunion shows.
Neil Finn provoked a spat with Sydney's grumpiest man, talkback host Alan Jones, at Crowded House's reunion shows.
Crowded house or empty house? Sydney's grinches and the fun police join forces to pull plug on former party town

Sydney’s Opera House is arguably the most recognisable music venue in the world but its days of hosting live outdoor music may be numbered.

That was built into Joel Utson’s design, and the Opera House has been doing it since 1978.

But for several years, the Opera House has been locked in an ugly struggle with residents of the nearby Bennelong Apartments, luxury units frequented by the hyper-rich and powerful better known as “the Toaster”.

Outdoor concerts in the Opera House forecourt attract world-class acts such as Crowded House, Sting, Sinead O’Connor and The National, but they also attract enraged noise complaints from some of the Toaster’s wealthy occupants.

They are the suitably grinchly-titled Sydney Opera House Concerned Citizens Group.

Last week the group took their first win. The Opera House was ordered to pay a $15,000 fine for exceeding noise limits during a Florence and the Machine concert.

But the battle had become headline news three months earlier, when Crowded House’s Neil Finn got into a Twitter argument with a Toaster resident unhappy with the noise down the road.

At one of the four shows, Finn urged the audience to “wake up Alan Jones”, the right-wing radio talkback host (and strong competitor for the hotly contested title of Australia’s foremost curmudgeon).

Jones styles himself as the voice of the common people while living in one of the Toaster’s multimillion-dollar apartments.

He rants that the outdoor concerts turn the landmark into an “eyesore” and a “bomb site”.

The Toaster residents’ attitudes are mirrored in fights that have been playing out all over Sydney.

In 2015 police stormed the stage during an Opera House indoor concert by local rock group Royal Headache after deeming the crowd too rowdy.

In January the Harold Park Hotel, a century-old pub in the rapidly gentrifying inner-city suburb of Glebe, was ordered by the local council to abandon weekend live music following a single complaint from a neighbour.

According to the then-mayor, legal bills from similar complaints sent the Annandale Hotel into receivership in 2013.

Earlier this year another iconic venue, the Newtown Social Club, announced it would be shutting its doors. Owners said, “the current regulatory climate in Sydney and the inherent challenges therein have made it unsustainable”.

Once renowned as a hotspot for international party-goers, Sydney has acquired a reputation as a city ruled by the fun police. Late last year Time Out voters ranked Sydney as the third-least fun city in the world.

Controversial lock-out laws by the New South Wales state government in 2014 have decimated the city’s late-night culture.

Buying a drink in a bar has become an exercise in navigating the state government’s bewildering restrictions on serving alcohol past midnight.

Historic nightlife districts like Kings Cross are steadily being bought up by property developers planning to build apartment towers.

Sydney’s new reputation as the sleepy nun of great cities is now so entrenched that Victoria’s Premier frequently mocks it on Twitter.

In December, a state government ad campaign on the vibrancy of Sydney’s nightlife – showcasing such wild activities as ten-pin bowling, amusement arcades and the theatre – was trashed on social media and became a national joke.

The Opera House Trust, the 10-person board that oversees the House’s operations and decides its direction, is increasingly dominated by people with backgrounds in finance, politics and property development.

Recent proposed upgrades to the House focus on expanding bars and restaurants and catering to corporate and retail functions.

Urban planners have proposed opening historic concert halls to allow luxury sleepovers for well-paying guests with sponsors like Airbnb.

To their credit, the Concerned Citizens Group has railed against this money-driven direction and argued the trust should renew its focus on culture and the arts.

So long as it’s done quietly. One of the complaints from a member spoke with horror of “the post-event noise of patrons leaving the premises drunk and disorderly late at night.”

That’s what happens when you buy an apartment next to one of the most-frequented tourist destinations on Earth.


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