Closing The Gate
Back in 2006, almost everything was different. Facebook was just a glimmer in the eyes of a Harvard Cockless Pair. MySpace was still the top dog, safely enclosed in Tom's Bedroom, years from being dragged out against it's will by J "The T Is For Takeover" T. And, in Sydney, you would throw a blanket over those who owned "blogs" defined by Altavista as being in the "music" category.
Over the years, I would routinely meet up with my fellow web-blogging comrades for doona-tossing activities and musical discussion. Sean loved Radiohead. Wayne loved Portland. Angus loved Weezer. Geoff hated Email. Joe didn't update enough.
But the contribution from Joe Hardy was something else. He rallied ideas, attempting on several occasions to establish something bigger and better than what we all had, but constantly hit brick walls of insecurity and unambitious shrugs. Years later, long after our regular catch-ups had diminished, Joe spoke to me about how he was planning something new. Something different, something offline. Backyard shows.
In May, 2010, Joe hosted the first (test) show — featuring Garage Hymnal and Telafonica. For the second show in July, he asked me to help organise the line-up. I booked in Betty Airs (RIP), Border Thieves (RIP) and Yae!Tiger (RIP?). Hardy dusted off his Wordpress login credentials for a post-show gush of Border Thieves. He's spot on, they were a fucking great (unappreciated) band.
Over the next few months, The Gate moved forward with great momentum. Countless articles were penned in online and offline publications, praising the new initiative. Team Gate formed, with Joe's wife, Carly, and a small gang of loyal helpers, also getting involved with the planning and logistics involved with hosting a gig. Whilst significant as part of the "show" from the very beginning, the entire production — lighting, sound, quality of the coffee — became increasingly more professional and well-honed.
In 2011, possibly as a pre-emption of reaching the limitations of their co-operative neighbours, Joe decided to evolve The Gate, taking it out of the backyard. Throughout that year, shows were hosted in a variety of other locations, including a cafe in Epping, a warehouse in Artarmon and even in other people's lounge rooms, as part of the No Fixed Address series.
Of course, amidst all this, there were the performers themselves. Collarbones, Guerre, Seekae, Jamie Hutchings, The Townhouses, Bearhug, Charge Group, Guineafowl, Alps, Aleks & The Ramps, Bon Chat, Bon Rat, The Paper Scissors, The Laurels, Step-Panther, Loon Lake, Fishing, Tim Fitz. They all got a run. And that's not even everyone. Seriously, look at those bloody names.
Collarbones, Pablo & Rusty's Epping, June 2012.
From the start, this was one of the most encouraging elements of The Gate — the support of the artists themselves. They genuinely wanted to get something new and different going, obviously keen to break out of the usual bar, bouncer and booking agent Triangle Of Turmoil.
In mid-2012, The Gate once again transitioned. This time moving from their safe NorWest enclosure to the heart of the city — the Anglican Church on York Street. The appropriately titled, Sound/Light/Stone series showed an even greater focus on the presentation itself, utilising the uniqueness of the surrounds — not just as an unusual space — but as atmospheric device.
But, like all decent things in this world, there was an expiry date for The Gate. The large amount of work involved was obvious, even from an external perspective. An increase in real life commitments and the financial stresses connected with regularly booking and organising shows, two factors that routinely suffocate any form of ambition. Pre-empting this, last month The Gate announced they were calling a day...
It's sad to have to write that, but at the same time it's not really. Things come and go and at this stage I feel we've had a wonderful run, been supported by a vibrant and incredible community, helped bring exposure to some amazing music and enjoyed some great gigs. In all sincerity, thank you. The Gate is but one of many projects of its kind, and they always have and always will continue to happen.
As is often the case, the reason for this development is money and energy. The Gate sprung up as a passion project started by my wife Carly and I, in our backyard. It's always been a hobby. Along the way we've had numerous passionate people get on board with what we're doing and help out in a variety of ways, and without them The Gate would be the lesser for it.
As an extension of this eulogy — which I plan to ceremoniously delete in front of a crowd of patrons at The Gate's Reunion Show in 2014 — I decided to chat to Joe about his thoughts on the success of what The Gate did, as well as his perspective of the current state of the Sydney live music scene.
Always best to start at the start — a backyard in Ryde. I know the initial idea behind The Gate was to bring music out into the suburbs and to showcase it in a different environment (ie. away from the regular inner-city pub scene). How did this evolve over time into the production of the Sound/Light/Stone series in York Street in the city?
Yeah, I think there's been a slight mutation over time of The Gate's central goals and ideals, and a lot of that has happened due to a mix of opportunities and limitations, and probably also partially responding to the following we built over time.
The Gate's goal was pretty simple when it launched: put on shows in the suburbs and see what happened - the hope being that we'd facilitate the growth of a musically minded local community out there. We weren't expecting it to appeal to the rest of Sydney to quite the extent that it did. Something about the atmosphere of The Gate's events seemed to click for people, and the ball started rolling pretty quickly to the point where attendees to the gigs were more in the majority of non-locals to locals.
Border Thieves, The Gate, July 2010. Photo by Gem Gem Gem.
When we decided to move on from the backyard — mostly due to the aforementioned momentum and us not wanting to overwhelm our neighbourhood — offers started coming in for various spaces, so we ran with the idea of jumping from place to place. I think it was a good concept, though it was a lot of work devising a new approach to production for every space. And the production was already starting to get more complicated... lighting became a pretty key interest, partially because I felt like it got overlooked so much in many other gigs and venues.
At the beginning of last year we took stock of where things were at and asked a variety of people that had become close to The Gate what they perceived the primary goals of the project as being. Surprisingly, all of the responses we got had nothing to do with geography — it was all about championing emerging music, providing high quality production values compared to other shows operating at our level, making live music accessible to all ages and revitalising a community atmosphere in live music. They were all things we'd developed a strong passion for, but I didn't realise to most people those things had come to define The Gate more than the actual location. At around the same time, I started to realise that in some senses we were actually hindering a lot of people that were excited about what we did by putting the gigs in relatively hard to reach places for them.
Around March 2012 we had someone suggest we should investigate putting on gigs in York Street Anglican. It was a pretty right-place-right-time kind of thing: aside from the fact that we'd sort of run out of places to do gigs out in the 'burbs, I was beginning to seriously consider de-emphasising the local focus of The Gate, and the guys at York St turned out to be really enthusiastic about the idea of hosting some gigs. As it turned out, the room was an incredible place for music and the idea gelled really well as a continuation, or evolution, of what The Gate was all about.
But I guess like most things, there's an obvious limitation to the evolution process, is that where it got to? Or were there just compounding costs etc that forced the decision?
There were limitations in the way it was built, certainly. It grew pretty steadily right from the start, but as that happened we never properly scaled the size of the team up to match that progress.
So as far as the actual gigs went I ended up, stupidly, with my finger in almost every pie: doing the PR, promotion, bookings, technical logistics + planning, transport, setup oversight... as things started getting more involved I discovered it was difficult to extract myself from any of those roles and hand it completely over to someone else. It's probably the biggest thing I learned about myself — that I have control freak tendencies. "It's easier if I just do it myself" — which is stupid thing to believe.
There were two aspects I sucked at — the financial aspects, and the hospitality — which fortunately Carly had covered. The latter was pretty huge in defining what The Gate "felt" like: from all of the catering decisions like coffee, food, smoothies and desserts, to so much other non-edible detail — she spent a lot of time thinking about and enacting ways to make the shows warmer and more inviting.
But yeah, to go back to your question: "compounding cost" was basically it, but it was less related to the show costs themselves, and more about the expense of time. Around all of this activity, the increasing Gate workload meant my day job was getting more and more neglected. Being self-employed, that means that around busy show periods (they came in bursts), things got pretty tight...
The realisation came around the start of this year. We'd always considered The Gate to be something worth taking a financial hit for, but we started to realise that it was never going to become more sustainable continuing things the way they were.
If The Gate ever gets another shot at life, I've realised it'll have to be with the operational structure designed around a team, both because it would benefit substantially from having a more diverse range of input, and because adding all the jobs together is definitely, I've discovered, a lot closer to a full time job than I ever expected.
Do you feel if you could "let it go" a bit more, it would have been able to continue? With yourself and Carly just overseeing the operation (making sure it kept to the initial blueprint) instead of physically being involved in all aspects. Was this something you considered?
I certainly thought a lot about this. Potentially could have, but I'm not sure how smoothly. I think the issue was more finding the right people, and getting them integrated into the project. We'd tried to give people permanent roles in the past, but it didn't work out so well — mainly due to fluctuating ability to contribute, perhaps not enough time to start with. Sometimes you create more work in the process of doing that, and I was concerned that I was already hitting my limit. It's certainly bad when you start dropping balls on the run.
Obviously, it would require additional funding for this "manager" role, but I saw that when you floated the idea of a donations and/or Kickstarter program you got an incredibly positive response?
Yeah we did get a positive response to the concept of a fundraiser, but when I drilled into it more almost everyone said that equipment and recurring costs would be the things we would have to raise the funds for. Raising funds for a person's role - especially for my role, wasn't something I felt comfortable with and no-one thought it would gain much traction when I pitched the hypothetical at them.
Unfortunately the idea of fundraising for gear wasn't feasible — I worked out that to maintain The Gate's standards of production we'd need to spend $20,000 on a sound system and about $10,000 on lights. It would take a *lot* of hire fees before we reached those kinds of figures — and then we'd need to worry about maintenance, and do we hire out the system when not in use? I'd be terrified of looking after that kind of gear. We were incredibly lucky to have the suppliers that we did. The project wouldn't have succeeded without them.
York Street Anglican Church, as part of the Sound/Light/Stone series.
Did you ever consider taking the plunge and setting up your own permanent venue? I know it's maybe not the best time to do this in Sydney (RIP Annandale etc) but you've got the kind of momentum most venues never start with. Again, a huge leap of faith and a fair bit removed from what The Gate was initially all about.
All the time, we never stop! Actually that was probably one of the ongoing frustrations — that any potential for accruing enough capital to put into a venue was being thwarted by the Gate costs I've outlined above. But Carly is frequently emailing me Domain listings for commercial and industrial leases; the dream never dies!
The current venue climate is disheartening, but I'm far from thinking that there's no life in that universe. My dream would be to create a multifaceted space that succeeds on a number of levels - day and night trading, food, coffee and alcohol, with and without live music — but with a strong musical identity at its core. I think with the right number of partners - each able to specialize in each aspect — that could be a really exciting approach.
On that, and slightly away from The Gate now, is that where you see the future of live music in Sydney? Whereby venues become multi-disciplinary avenues? I know this is something tried-and-proven overseas, but just not sure how it would fit amidst our own often frustratingly culture-crushing laws.
I think so, partially. The council aspects are frustrating, but that's not what closes down every venue. I know it created significant problems for the Annandale, but let's be real: their business model wasn't flawless either, far from it. It may have been a contributor for the Hoey, but the owner clearly didn't care enough to fight either. On the flip side, Sydney City Council defended the Oxford Arts Factory vigorously.
I'm, perhaps naively, an optimist when it comes to setting things up. I've been to plenty of backyard shows that had the police arrive halfway through the first set — we managed 7 (loud!) shows because we exhaustively letterboxed the entire neighborhood and tried to include them in the event. Some venues constantly struggle, others don't. I'm speaking very conscious of a lack of experience, but I'd want to take the approach of proactively interacting with the council and community and trying to work together — working towards a healthy relationship right from the start.
Aside from community hostility, I think live music just isn't the reliable cash cow it was in the 80s and 90s. Partially I think it's been cannibalised by festivals and large tours, partially I think other forms of entertainment have taken precedence. Our job isn't to bitch and moan about that circumstance, it's to create something even better that swings the balance in the other direction!
If there's something I'd see as unifying the Gate's vision and the goal of a fixed venue, it would be the whole concept of building community — that would be pretty intrinsic in the DNA of anything we tried to create.
In regards to getting as many different people involved within the venture itself, or just co-operating with the surrounding businesses/residences? Because, I do often think that's where venues run into the most problems — noise complaints etc — and then I guess its how these are handled, not with an us vs them approach, but more as a negotiation. That's what Ianto Ware discussed a bit when I spoke to him — that there needs to be more of a reasonable halfway point.
The latter, yeah — proactively getting neighbours onside. Involved, even! You wanted it to be inclusive.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently with The Gate? Aside from maybe no trying to do everything yourself?
Yeah the need to make a team essential to the operation is definitely a big part of what I've learned. As a part of that, I think involving someone who's a bit more fearless about pursuing funding and support, that's probably something else we needed from early on.
If I had my time again I probably wouldn't have used the RSVP approach that we used at the start, it meant the artists got paid a lot less than they should have due to people not making good on their RSVP, despite the list technically "selling out". Pre-sales are a much more sensible way to go.
And I would have liked to have more opportunities to put on full bands. Due to the limitations of the spaces we were using, that was always hard after the backyard. Would have been really good to be able to support that whole spectrum of louder music, hear some more live drums and the unpredictable chemistry of a bunch of musicians making chaos together. That said, thanks to places like Black Wire Records, that side of things is wonderfully well supported. So chances are we weren't needed in that sphere so much anyway. Hopefully they survive the current batch of challenges.
And the future? You've touched on the possibility of not completely giving up on the idea, but do you think, for now, the project is buried?
For now, yeah. I think letting some time pass and then seeing whether it's worth bringing back - perhaps there won't even be a need for it to come back. I don't think I would if there wasn't a gap for it to fill. I certainly wouldn't want it to be persisting just for the sake of it, or overstaying our welcome. So it'll be good to see how time affects the perspective of that. Maybe we'll end up stumbling across another way to achieve the things we were hoping to do, and come back in a completely different form. Maybe we will manage to open a venue!
What are you going to do with all your free time? Return to the Blog World?
For now, I'm just looking forward to enjoying some extra time for a few minutes. Fix up my cashflow, go on a holiday, hang out with my family. After that, maybe contribute to another project, maybe do some lighting design if there are opportunities, might even finish some of my own music and play a few shows. Who knows? With writing, I kind of feel like there's an abundance of phenomenal writers already, so I'm not sure I need to add to the noise.