Mad Racket’s Simon Caldwell On How Lockout Laws Have Stunted Sydney’s Cultural Scene

A veteran of Sydney’s nightlife industry, Simon Caldwell has witnessed the city’s late night culture rise and fall over the years while serving as one of the driving forces of iconic Sydney dance party Mad Racket. An internationally recognised DJ and seen by many as one of the godfathers of Sydney’s dance music scene, Caldwell has two plus decades of experience promoting and playing the city’s parties.

It also means he has seen first hand the effects of the lockout laws on Sydney’s late night economy since their introduction almost two years ago. With many businesses closing their doors and an estimated loss of over 500 jobs within the nightlife industry, for many who once relied on late night trade to survive, the immediate impact has been devastating.

Authorities hold up the 32% drop in assaults in Kings Cross as evidence of the success of the lockouts, however many critics maintain that with a 80% reduction in a foot traffic as well, the proportional rate of assaults relative to population is higher than before the lockouts. This is all while property prices in Kings Cross are rising, mind you.

Having been on the front line of a lot of this activity, performing at Reclaim The Streets rallies recently, Caldwell understands the struggle better than most.

Following on from our Q&A with Keep Sydney Open campaign manager Tyson Koh, we spoke to Simon Caldwell to get his opinion on the lockout laws and how Sydney has changed because of them.

Music Feeds: When did you first start throwing parties in Sydney and what brought you here?

Simon Caldwell: We started Mad Racket in late 1998. In the earlier ’90s I was part of a crew called All Funked Up, putting on more jazz/funk/beats events.

MF: What was it like back then out on the streets? Was violence ever a problem?

SC: Well I’ve been going out since the mid/late 1980s, and the streets have always felt relatively safe, including now. Over the years I’ve witnessed violence during the day (a homophobic attack), and occasional scuffles at night. I’ve never been involved in any violent incidents. But I also understand that there are idiots out there, and try to avoid them.

MF: Compared to that time, how had the city changed around 2013 just before the lockouts came into force?

SC: I think that Kings Cross did get somewhat out of control a few years back, with thousands of people milling around on the streets and little police presence (apart from in huge, at times aggressive, packs). I think that’s when the issue got a little out of hand, and then a few random attacks were all that was needed to make lockouts seem necessary to some people.

In my opinion, the police dropped the ball in Kings Cross. There should have been more street patrols in pairs, proper implementation of existing licensing laws, clamping down on clearly violent venues (many stabbings at Trademark, for instance) and the projection of a sense of pro-active harm reduction, not anti-people, policing.

Instead, some venues with violence issues continued to trade, seemingly with impunity, and police were either hassling punters in packs or mopping up the mess. Improving public transport in and out of the city would also have helped, but was implemented way too late in the piece. So yeah, I do think there was an issue, but lockouts were the wrong response.

MF: How about after the lockouts were brought in?

SC: While the statistics show a reduction in violence, particularly in Kings Cross, it’s hard to not see the drop in problems as directly linked to the huge reduction in people in the area. So the statistics don’t mean very much. The main change has been the massive reduction in options for going out late. And people who are going to be violent are probably still going to be violent.

MF: Did you feel there was a problem with violence in Sydney that needed to be addressed?

SC: I think violence in our entire society is definitely a serious issue. I feel that it’s largely linked to a culture which celebrates men doing “manly” things, like tackling and/or punching people, and still sees fighting as a legitimate form of resolving a dispute. Clearly this is also linked to the serious domestic violence issue in our society, which needs to be addressed.

Violence, whenever, wherever or against whoever it is committed, is wrong. It’s simple really. Guys need to understand and believe this. While alcohol may exacerbate people’s bad behaviour, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse, and it certainly isn’t the root cause. Plenty of sober people are violent idiots as well. So I think it’s a society-wide issue and blaming it on a few drunk fools in Sydney’s CBD doesn’t really address the core issue at all.

MF: How would you respond to people who claim the lockouts are needed to keep our streets safe?

SC: I’d say that the streets aren’t really any safer, apart from perhaps Kings Cross because it is now a ghost town with property developers circling, and that the city as a whole is less culturally vibrant.

Watch: Sticky Fingers – Ghost Town (The Specials Cover)

MF: Mad Racket has always had a reputation of throwing civilised events, how do you avoid issues with violence?

SC: I think that at most events that are actually focused on people appreciating music, there is virtually no violence. Not at dance parties, not at heavy metal concerts.

Mad Racket has always been about music and dancing. We’ve had a couple of incidents over our 17 years, usually people arguing with their friends a little too passionately, but all have been defused before they got too nasty. We have zero tolerance of violence and harassment at our events, and will happily eject anyone if required.

MF: Considering your history of promoting and your record for safety and non-violence, did the government ever seek out your consultation on how you did it?

SC: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? No, the government is seemingly much more interested in the uninformed opinions of readers of certain low quality newspapers. The same readers who probably haven’t been out of their house after 9pm for about 20 years, but still have an opinion about what other people might be up to at these terribly late hours. The government is always most interested in getting re-elected.

As far as I know, there has been next to zero consultation with industry figures, and the Australian Hotels Association has hardly been vocal in its criticism of the lockouts.

MF: What would you tell them if they asked?

SC: All the above. That people will go out and want to party, whatever the law says about it. So, people will most likely party more in unsupervised spaces or at home when the parents are away. This leaves them open to greater harm, not less.

To combat violence, you need a society-wide approach with no subjects off the discussion list. And yes, a culture of binge drinking, which is partly fuelled by our prohibition-based licensing laws. All of these things are worthy of discussion.

MF: How do you feel when smaller venues like The Marrickville Bowling Club face ever tougher restrictions while violent mega-venues like The Ivy and The Casino are still allowed to trade?

SC: I have no problem with Ivy or The Star being allowed to trade. Of course it is ironic that Sydney’s most violent venue is exempt from lockouts. It might, possibly, have something to do with State gambling revenue, but I don’t want to seem like a cynic.

MF: Do you feel like there is a double standard when it comes to venues in Sydney?

SC: Think about why a bunch of venues with zero record of violence get put in the same basket as a handful of very violent venues (particularly a few pubs near George St and a few venues in Kings Cross), and are sent out of business as a result.

It feels like there is a great lack of understanding in the wider community, and among politicians and police, about the role that music events and venues play in society. Rather than being hotspots for trouble, they are almost always sources of positive social interaction and creativity. These things should be encouraged, not treated as problems.

Of course there are always a few exceptions. Nobody enjoys seeing shirtless, muscled-up blokes punching on at a festival (or anywhere), and those people should be thrown out of events, probably not allowed entry at all, and barred. As a promoter, I would happily refuse entry to such people, and refund their ticket money. They can go back to the gym.

MF: How does putting on parties here compare with say London or other European capitals?

SC: Obviously places like Berlin are much freer when it comes to opening hours, etc. London is a bit tighter. Both cities do respect the late night culture, and there is a great deal of energy in both cities around music and creative late night things. It would be nice to have a bit more positivity in Sydney, there are lots of people doing awesome things here, too.

MF: Does late night culture get the same respect from government here as it does over there?

SC: I don’t think so. There’s always been a lack of respect for it in Sydney, I think. Look at how much more seriously it is taken in Melbourne. As with Europe, it’s seen as being an integral part of the city’s culture. Events are held in public spaces and there are rules to stop people moving next to a venue and then start complaining about the noise. Here, a single person can complain about (chilled) music in the afternoon and basically get entertainment stopped, at a location in the middle of the city. This is a real story.

MF: What do you think about the recent proposal to elect a Night Mayor of London to advocate to government on behalf of late night culture?

SC: It sounds like a good idea to me. Giving the entertainment/late night sector a voice in the mainstream would be a positive step. Legitimising the industry can only be a good thing, so the people who do the right things can have a sense of stability and the ability to plan properly for the future and build good things.

MF: Do you think something like that might work here in Sydney? Would you run if nominated?

SC: I suppose it could work here, but I don’t think it’s politically likely for anyone to be divesting any power any time soon. Yeah I guess I’d think about it haha.

If you want to join the fight against the lockouts remember to like Keep Sydney Open’s facebook page and sign their petition and if you’re in Sydney come along to Reclaim The Streets Saturday 12th December.

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