Things were going so well. After a fire tore through the Sydney Building in 2014 and shut it down for months, The Phoenix Pub reopened to general acclaim, rising from the ashes like its namesake.
Yet, at the beginning of this year, the Phoenix came perilously close to closing again. The reasons, as reported in The Canberra Times last month, relate to commercial disputes ultimately stemming from the 2014 fire. While patronage at the venue remains high, the financial pressures caused by the terms of the pub's rental arrangements have resulted in debts of $75,000, which could cause The Phoenix to cease to exist within weeks.
There is some hope. Canberra's music community responded passionately to the threatened closure and have donated thousands of dollars to help the pub meet its debts. Within less than a month, The Phoenix was well on the way towards its $75,000 target and its owner are increasingly confident that one of Canberra's last live-music venues might not need to close its doors for good.
But how did we end up in a situation where the closure of one venue could toll the death knell of live music in Canberra?
Canberra only has a handful of small to medium-sized live-music venues. If The Phoenix was forced to close, only a few venues would be left in Civic. Considering Canberra has hundreds of active musicians and regularly hosts musicians touring from interstate, The Phoenix's potential demise would not only be a tragedy in itself, it would dramatically reduce the remaining opportunities for local musicians to perform.
The relative lack of pathways for emerging musicians to perform in Canberra is confounding. In the past 10 years, the city's population has increased by nearly 20 per cent and the town centres, particularly Civic, have become densified. You would think this would lead to an increase in live-music venues and nightlife, yet the opposite has occurred.
A decade ago, you could spend a Friday night at music venues from one end of the city to the other. A night might start with a gig at McGregor Hall near Marcus Clarke Street, move on to the nightspots in the Sydney Building and then end at the Toast Bar near Allara Street. These venues have all disappeared. While no one expects venues to remain open forever, the conspicuous lack of new venues emerging to take their place underlines this trend of decline.
Discussions about the causes of the decline have taken place for years, including in the Legislative Assembly in 2009. The issues raised in the nearly decade-old "inquiry into live community events" are still so pertinent that the inquiry could have been held last week. Nothing's changed.
While the pressures on music venues are multifaceted, there is one main factor: noise restrictions. A predictable consequence of densifying the inner city is the construction of residential apartments near music venues. This leads to tension between live-music fans and inner-city apartment residents, and results in protracted disputes over noise complaints. It has contributed to the closure of venues and led to highly publicised disputes, such as in 2014, when Friday afternoon live jazz sessions in New Acton were threatened with closure after nearby residents complaints about the noise.
Given all this, would you want to open a live music venue in Canberra?
There are options for addressing these issues. One option is the "order of occupancy" principle, which helps with noise disputes by determining that the business or apartment building that moved most recently into the locality must take into account existing businesses' rights. Alternatively, the government could help new and existing music venues provide soundproofing and noise attenuation services, or ensure that proposed housing developments in mixed-use zones include suitable soundproofing as part of their development applications.
In its response to the 2009 inquiry, the ACT government noted many of the recommendations on noise restrictions and undertook to investigate others further (while rejecting measures such as the order of occupancy principle). Yet the government hasn't really followed through. Incidents like the New Acton afternoon jazz saga demonstrate that regulations are still insufficient for balancing the interests of live-music venues and residents.
The ACT government clearly cares about Canberra's live-music community. This was demonstrated in its 2017 decision to reduce liquor licence fees for smaller venues, which are the businesses most likely to host live music. However, there's clearly much work that still needs to be done to address these venues' long-term decline.
There is a growing urgency. As the trend of building apartments in the city centre continues (and indeed accelerates with the coming light rail), conflicts between live-music venues and residents will increase unless the regulatory issues are addressed.
If this decline isn't arrested, then the end of The Phoenix will not only be a tragedy for music fans, but a milestone in the diminishing of Canberra's live-music culture.
Chris Finnigan is a Canberra musician. You can donate to the Save The Phoenix appeal on GoFundMe.com