Nanny State

Published in The Music Network


Weak beer, lockouts, amnesty bins and sniffer dogs are all becoming regular sights and experiences for concert goers. Are the Australian authorities trying to take the fun out of live music?

“First smoking, now drinking… what’s next… a limit on sex?” Heaven forbid a ban on fornication. But in reality, it too wouldn’t get the nod from the authorities who patrol the live entertainment sector. The sarcastic “no sex” comment was lifted from a submission from the Big Day Out earlier this year in response to strict new licensing measures in Queensland. But its message sums up the frustrations of many in the live sector. Tightening rules instated by legislators and patrolled by law enforcers across the nation are annoying the punters, and squeezing the event organizer’s bottom line.

Citing “excessive alcohol consumption” and “unacceptable alcohol-fuelled” behaviour, Queensland’s alcohol licensing authority OLGR tackled the issue head-on when it enforced controversial changes mid-year to the current Liquor Act 1992. Among the policies was a rule, which took full strength beer off the menu at open-air events. Should a promoter fail to meet its guidelines, the event would not be able to obtain a permit.

“It’s an overregulated industry at the moment, and it’s only getting worse,” says Bevan Bickle, managing director of venues operator Katarzyna, whose portfolio of interests includes the Family nightclub in Brisbane. “Now we’ve got binge drinking taxes, increased operating costs due to new legislation. You’ve got to pay for more security staff, and your managers have to do special courses. The government will swear black and blue that the lockout is effective, but it’s a crock. In short, because you’ve got to fight the government on regulation and everything else, it distracts you from what you’ve got to do, which is keeping your business interests running.”

The “Nanny State” culture isn’t confined to Queensland. Go west, and the promoters there are confronted with a new level of regulation. Police in Western Australia have trialled ‘amnesty bins’ outside festivals, in reaction to the death in January of teenager Gemma Thoms, who had swallowed her stash of ecstasy tablets outside the gates of Perth’s Big Day Out in a panic to avoid the police presence. The bins first appeared at the March 8th Rock-It festival at Arena Joondalup, headlined by Kings of Leon and attended by 27,000 music lovers.

“It was a fantastic gig, but (the police) ruined my show,” says Paul Sloan, managing director of Rock-It promoter and organizer Supersonic Enterprises. “You’ve got to ask the question, does having a dog sniff your balls when you come in and be made to line up for two hours, is that respectful of people? None of the enforcement policies around live music are relating to science in any way.”

Sloan organizes 400 shows a year, including 20 outdoor events. And he says his safety and best practice event management record is spotless. “I’ve done Rock-It 10 times, but why is it every time I’m getting more and more regulated. I’ve introduced lots of controls and measures to ensure people don’t fuck themselves up at shows. But I’m still getting 10-20% increase in regulation each time. If I’ve never had a major incident, it doesn’t follow that I have to pay for 100 police to be there.”

One blogger on The West Australian Web site summed up the debate, writing, “The drug bins are a waste of money and resources. Who is going to pay out cash for the drugs, take them to an event and then put them into a bin, please…”

The implications of tightening restrictions are many and varied. Training and policing costs could run into the tens of thousands of dollars, sums which would be absorbed into the ticket and bar price. On the other hand, tough rules on alcohol content and the number of purchases at the bar could sink takings, which for some events can account for well over 10% of revenue.

“Surely patrons attending a concert can decide for themselves what they want to drink and how much”, noted Brian Chladil, the local promoter for the BDO Gold Coast leg. “What happened to personal responsibility? Young people don’t need more controlling – they need leadership, example and guidance.”

Jam Music, organizers of the Good Vibrations festival on the Gold Coast, surveyed its 20,000-plus Queensland member database to draw feedback from its drinking age festival goers. More than 90% of respondents said they would be more likely to consume alcohol before attending a music festival if these conditions were put in place, and 95% felt they were responsible enough to self-regulate their drinking
 at a music festival.

“We question if the statutory objective of these proposed new liquor licensing conditions, that is, to minimise harm caused by alcohol, would in fact exacerbate it,” says festival director Jane English.

Sloan agrees that the real problem is much closer to home. “People go out later and drink more at home before going out,” he notes. “So venues have to deal with drunker people for less return, and then get pinned by the media for any trouble on the street. We’re seeing the degradation of live spaces in favour of bulk alcohol sales,” he says, “and that is a disaster.”

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