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Rave against the machine: Sydney’s DIY party scene

The besieged rave scene gets a voice

Photo of a rave in progress Photograph by Chris McClymont

In November 2018 police shut down raves at a pair of warehouses in Marrickville that have become iconic ‘venues’ for Sydney’s Gen Y ravers and creatives. The NSW Police Force projected a message that they were monitoring Sydney’s rave scene. Initial anxiety amongst the rave community means that warehouses are no longer made as available to  crews desiring to host events.

The sudden clamp down may seem surprising given Sydneysiders have raved in the inner west and inner city from the late 80s largely without major disruption. But the increasing popularity and lack of secrecy surrounding raving has undoubtedly contributed to the police crackdown. This impediment also has to be understood within a broader systemic assault on live music venues and festivals following recent, highly publicised, drug overdoses within these spaces. Tyson Koh, founder of Keep Sydney Open, believes the timing of the crackdown is entwined with a looming state election. We have a “particularly anti-nightlife and anti-fun state government.”

In addition to police vigilance, the construction of WestConnex, the improvement and expansion of light-rail infrastructure, the sale of both disused and used public spaces to private developers and increasing gentrification in the inner west — Sydney’s rave belt – all signify a reduction in industrial space for partying.

It is easy to assume that this is a hopeless time for Sydney’s nightlife. In Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2018, thousands of protestors raved outside parliament across multiple days in defence of progressive western values and free speech following armed police raids on two renowned LGBTQI+ clubs. Watching music scenes flourish overseas can be disheartening for Sydneysiders.

However, recent developments herald evolution, rather than demise, for Sydney’s urban rave scene. Ironically, rather than scrubbing away the aural graffiti of raves with industrial solvent, police have brought mortar to a construction site. Forget the graffitied wall, the state government and NSW Police Force have themselves laid the bricks for a mansion of dissent. They have brought a tight-knit, rave community closer together. Attempts to mute the relentless bass of Sydney’s rave scene have further inflamed passions in a youth subculture that was already fiercely anti-establishment.

Sydney is still pumping if you know where to look. Events, such as the 15 hour “Community Chest” party at the Bridge Hotel in January, are a response to changing circumstances in Sydney’s alternative club cultures. DIY open-air parties in secluded areas of bush, still within Sydney’s urban labyrinth, appear to be an increasingly appealing alternative to the warehouse. These are halfway between a warehouse party and a bush doof.

Max, a part-time DJ who recently organised his first two raves, showcases a healthy optimism. “The more the state government clamps down on regulated nightlife, the bigger this underground scene will grow. There are always two sides to every coin.”

Another crew, who have organised raves in Sydney for over seven years, went even further. “Sydney has an amazingly vibrant scene considering the endless amount of limitations… the promoters are creative and the punters are willing to pay more and go further… [they] are, in my mind, more committed than punters in other cities. The artists that we host at our events frequently mention that the Sydney show was the best of the tour. This probably wouldn’t be the case if we had a good club scene.”

DIY outdoor raves do bring their own difficulties.  With less of a capacity to regulate attendance, these parties — often free, donation entry or cheaply ticketed — can attract outsiders unaware or disrespectful of the ethics and logistics of raves. This code includes a BYO policy, a green “leave no trace” ethos, respect for all genders, sexualities and races, a ban on anti-social behaviour and an awareness not to loiter in the areas surrounding secret rave locations.

Largely though, these raves remain a safe space for all. While not perfect, they offer an escape from the alcohol-fuelled violence that has plagued the CBD in recent years. Promoters preach acceptance and tolerance. For  non cis-men and queer ravers, this safe space is vital, especially as Oxford Street declines as a gay space and night-time violence increases in queer-friendly suburbs such as Newtown and Erskineville. While the lock-out laws have decreased rates of non-domestic violence in the CBD, violent incidents have proliferated in surrounding regions. These laws have not so much solved violence as displaced it. A 2017 study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found that non-domestic violence had increased between 11.8 and 16.7% in suburbs like Newtown since the introduction of the lock-out laws.

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Raves bring together musicians, performance artists and visual artists. The sensory overload is entrancing, intellectually stimulating and creatively inspiring. Raves allow attendees and performers to engage with music that is quite often more experimental than late-night sets in licenced premises. Sydney bars do not offer adequate variety to those who appreciate niche genres such as breakcore, jungle and hard trance.

My discovery of the underground rave scene has been life-changing. Raving offers a sense of belonging in a gentrifying inner city belt catered to yuppies and the elderly, an inclusive zone for self-expression, a healthy avenue for letting off steam and some of the best music you can find in Sydney. I treasure the familiar faces I see at raves. There is a like-mindedness that transcends class, race and gender. It doesn’t matter if, post rave, you return to a double bed with Yves Delorme sheets or a mattress on the floor.

When I rave I feel like I’m part of something special. I don’t see myself surrounded by degenerates but rather bright, intelligent, creative, young people.

Tyson shares this optimism. “A lot of people who came out of the warehouse culture of the 80s and 90s — notable artists — have positions in government and are in positions of influence. They work for major art institutions….These nightlife spaces to a very big degree are almost like a ladder on which people are able to gain experience putting on events, working within networks and working on designs, promotions, social media, staging, décor and sound and lighting tech. The experience they’ve gained from doing parties can then be used elsewhere professionally.”

Rave organisers often throw parties at a financial loss or with slim profits. Proceeds go to local charities or to future events. It is love for the music that keeps Sydney alive at night. Some crews donate to Aboriginal-focused organisations to promote awareness that we party on stolen land. They take up the slack among youth who have arguably ignored broader issues in NSW with their focus on fighting the lock-out laws.

 

Kal, the founder of a Sydney-based music syndicate, believes that the anti-commercial underground is “a place where people can properly escape authoritarian control or social constructs reinforced in capitalist society.”

This passion fosters unrivalled innovation in local dance music. As the panellists at the recent Sydney Subcultures and Club-cultures talk at UNSW explained, the innovation of music within Sydney’s LGBTQI+ community bloomed because certain party organisers, club owners and DJs like the Glitter Militia and DJ Gemma fought to make a space for themselves in the face of marginalisation – even from within the queer community itself. While bars on Oxford Street in the 80s and 90s played popular dance music — techno and Hi NRG, for instance — alternative clubbing cultures promoted more experimental performance. The speakers at Sydney Subcultures and Club-cultures, Justin Shoulder, Jonny Seymour and DJ Gemma, demonstrated that in contests over Sydney’s soul, resistance always seems to organically emerge.

I have witnessed two police helicopters and a wall of police cars arrive to shut down a public rave at which not a single fine or arrest was made. The crowd dispersed respectfully. It seems that those in power fundamentally misunderstand what the underground rave scene stands for. They underestimate raving’s self-regulating nature. Young people will never stop partying. No government or police force can prevent that. Issues only arise when police try to force young people to party in increasingly hazardous spaces. Thankfully, despite ongoing attempts, they have not hindered a vibrant rave scene. They never will.