Alison Avron talks about the state of Sydney as her live music venue The Newsagency returns bigger and better

Amidst all the talk of venue closures in Sydney in the past couple of years, there have been a couple of bright lights in recent weeks, one of which is been the return of the Lansdowne Hotel, which originally closed in 2015 after almost 90 years of live music.

Another venue which recently closed, The Newsagency in Marrickville, is now also set to reopen its doors in a brand-new venue that’s double the capacity, offering new opportunities for local and touring artists. Shortly after the original Newsagency closed, and then again after the news that the venue will be returning to a new location in Camperdown broke, I sat down with venue owner (and acclaimed musician in her own right) Alison Avron to learn more about how the new venue came about, why the original venue closed and what it all means for the state of the Sydney night economy.

Did the lockout laws affect The Newsagency at all?

The laws don’t directly affect the Marrickville area, however I think as a general blanket rule for the city, I think it’s an overtone for people’s outlook on going out. So while it didn’t directly affect my business, it’s got a ripple effect. But at the same time, I don’t think it necessarily affected me that much, but I didn’t like to see my neighbours struggling. And it put a lot of pressure on the venues in Marrickville.

I think that’s a strong point to consider – this idea that it isn’t even the lock out laws by themselves that have been a struggle for the city, but this culture of negativity that has come out of it. People just aren’t going out.

I remember moving to Sydney, and seeing there was all this underground stuff happening, and I loved that. And that carried on for about five years and then it sort of turned into this negative thing. Instead of being this cool thing that you had to find out about, which might be a bit annoying from an outsider’s point of view, but once you’re in it, it’s amazing and there’s so much going on underneath the surface. Where as now, it’s really a crap outlook of things that have the potential to be cool. And it’s just not. The lockout laws stuff has just made people afraid to do that anymore. That’s really disappointing.

You think if someone was looking to create something like a Newsagency today, you think they wouldn’t do it because of the state of the city?

Yeah… It’s interesting that I’m not only the venue to be closing. It’s almost cool to be closing. Which is crap! That’s not okay. It’s kind of the thing to do now, because why would you open a venue in a city that, from the top, it’s discouraged. I know I shouldn’t say that when I’m about to re-open a new space… but it seems like our leaders want us to go to the casinos and the horse races, and look at the Harbour Bridge. It’s a really interesting time to be in Sydney. A challenging time.

That’s putting it mildly. And as someone who is not running a venue, but still involved in events, seeing the lack of interest just generally is palpable. But that said, the size and boutique nature of your venue, ensured that you still had full rooms with plenty of shows over the last five and a half years. Do you have some standout moments from over your time running the space?

I think the Elana Stone and Ngaiire Wednesday nights were a highlight for sure, they really kicked off the venue. They are two of my favourite artists ever, and approached me to run the nights, and I was like “of course!” They were some really memorable moments. Sarah Belkner’s Wednesday nights, too, who carried on after Elana and Ngaiire went off to do other things.

Having Marlon Williams’ first Sydney show and Lanie Lane… that was a pretty great gig as well. Cosmo Jarvis from the UK… he was great. The more I talk about it, the more I remember – there were just so many.

So why did you end up closing? Were there constant issues with the landlord?

Well, no! This is what’s really bizarre about the whole situation. Last year I really was at a crossroads with the venue. I was like “This is really great, I love the community, I’m so proud of myself for keeping it running for this long.” But, I had to think for the future, and running a BYO space in Sydney, with rental prices as high as they are, does have an expiry date. I want to see the culture and the community grow. I can’t do that within the restraints of the BYO nature of the space, and the tininess of the space.

So, my lease was up in July technically, and my landlord had said to me, “Look, your lease is almost up, just letting you know that in case you want to move on… don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy with you being my tenant and with what you’ve done with the space, you’ve turned this dull old Newsagency into a hip happening place!”.

So I was like, “Okay this is awesome,” and I applied for the AMP Tomorrow Fund Grant. I felt like it was the thing that I needed in order to move forward within my thinking of extending the space. So I applied for the grant to renovate the old Newsagency, and got the grant, thankfully, and then I approached the landlord, and he didn’t want me to renovate. So it was this really strange change of mind within six months, as soon as I wanted to earn some money and actually make the space up to code. As long as I was not pushing any boundaries, he was okay with it. But I don’t think a good business can run without pushing boundaries. And wanting to expand and grow. I think that’s a normal thing of every business person’s mindset. Maybe he’s just not a big as a risk taker as I am.

So where does that leave you now, with the grant?

I approached AMP after the landlord told me I couldn’t renovate… at first I was really devastated. But then I was encouraged to look for a new space to expand for The Newsagency 2.0, and still do everything I wanted to do with the grant… still keeping it small, I don’t want to lose that grassroots thing. And I know I’ll be able to transfer the energy from the old space into the new one.

Well now you’re finally able to announce your new venue – Newsagency 2.0 as it were – which is soon to open its doors in Camperdown. How did you find the space?

Through the AMP grant, they said you should contact your local member (MP Albo) and see if you can get any support, because they’re supporting live music at the moment. I was diverted to Darcy Byrne, who wanted to help out, who found my project manager (the town planner) and then Bob and Dylan (actual names), my new landlords, are really supportive of the arts. It was a bathroom supply warehouse beforehand, then developed into an artist space where they did some pop up stuff for the Sydney Fringe. It’s where the Fringe hub was last year.

How will it evolve from what you had before?

We’ll still have the  same indie artists, singer/songwriters, but now there’ll be cabaret, burlesque, full bands and more comedy. After going to the Fringe, I realised there’s so much art out there that needs a stage. It’s still going to be a BYO space, and we’ve got Waywards downstairs and a pizza store around the corner, as is the Lady Hampshire and Grumpy Donuts – so it’s in a great spot in Camperdown. And its double the capacity from 50 to 100. There’s also rumours that we may be able to get our hands on a baby grand piano.

When are you launching?

22nd July will be the first gig, with Taryn La Fauci. Sarah Belkner will be returning to the venue from August 16th to do her Wednesday at the Newsagency sessions, which I mentioned before as a popular event in the old space. We’re treating the 16th of August as the official opening.

What do you hope the venue will bring to the city?

I want to encourage listening environments, not just “get drunk and ignore the band” environments. I want to build audiences for both the venue and the artists performing, and the city in general. The more venues, the more artists, the more audience, the more money for the creative economy.

The great thing about starting again, too, is that now I’m going to be able to give first dibs for tickets, and discounts to my Patreon supporters. Due to the size of the venue I couldn’t do it in the old space, but now I’m looking forward to putting on more “Newsagency Presents” shows and really look after the people that have kept us alive all these years.

With Staves, Lansdowne and now us coming back into the fold in the area, it finally feels like it might be trendy to open a venue again.

So what does needs to happen for Sydney to return to the sort of city we once had… for that trend to continue?

God that’s a loaded question! It’s so hard isn’t it? I hope we get back there though. I just think we need to relax. We need to trust our people. I think there’s been this real, like “let’s focus on the minority”, the people who king hit – let’s focus all the laws on how bad a couple of people were. We need to focus on the community. I think if people want to go out and trust their city again, we need leaders to say “hey, you guys are alright! Let’s actually make a vibe here again”. We need the relaxing a few of those laws.

The Government also needs to understand that sometimes culture exists and starts without throwing and injecting money in things. Sometimes their focus is creating Barangaroo and all this redevelopment shit and then neglecting the things that matter, the art and culture. They can get so caught up on their treasury and how much money they’re making from these big developments, they forget about the people at the heart of it. The people who are creating the culture in this city that makes people want to go to those places and spend money in their town. They misunderstand that they just need to let us be, let us do our thing. Let’s keep the vibe going, not charge a venue $20,000 on a noise complaint and see them get shut down.

For a city so diverse and full of multiculturalism, it’s a bizarre approach. Even being at the Perth and Adelaide Fringe Festivals, they’re doing it so much better. It’s so depressing to think that we’re not being a world leader in coming up with creative ways to present live music and arts and performance and all of those sorts of things. It’s really weird.

I definitely feel a cultural responsibility. After five and a half years, I really feel like I have to do something about it.

The Newsagency will open its doors later this month. Go to the official website for more details on how to book the space or to see what’s coming up.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.