When I meet General Manager Jack Martin at the Newtown Social Club, I can feel change in the air. It’s mid-week when we catch up and the pub, once the site of the infamous Sandringham Hotel, is closed for renovations. Wooden pads protect the floor, plastic sheeting covers the bar area and Triple J blares over the speakers, punctuated occasionally by the roar of construction equipment.
Newtown Social opened its doors last April. The final round of renovations are set to finish in early May and will boast a 300-person capacity band room.
Looking around, the Sando is gone, but not entirely forgotten. The aesthetic is firmly modern – exposed brick, plywood and industrial furnishings – but remnants from the former venue linger. Old tiles pepper the walls and the old steel truss work has been painted black to frame the new pub. Outside, the Sando’s logo and iconic pink facade have also been left intact above the new street level entrance. “The old pub had reached a point and it was run down. We really wanted to give it a new lease on life,” Martin says. Martin comes from the Melbourne team behind live music institutions Northcote Social Club and The Corner. Newtown Social Club is the group’s first venture north of the border.
Martin seems intent on bringing Melbourne’s music philosophy to Sydney. “Melbourne has pubs where you can go, meet up with your mates, see a gig, and afterwards it’s just a pub again. Sydney lacks a bit of that, you tend to go to venues and then to another pub.”
Geography also plays a part. “In Melbourne, the music scene is very much above ground, and easy to find, but I think in Sydney by the nature of its geography, it’s a bit more fractured and split up”. This fracturing, Martin believes, changes the way that Sydneysiders interact with live music. “There is less spontaneity, it tends to be your entire night not just part of your night.”
He posits that this has a big impact on who goes to see what. “People that are really into live music support it whole heartedly, but people that are on the edge really need to be excited about an act to choose to go and see it”.
It is this “social aspect” of Melbourne that the team is trying to recreate – a culture where live music is part of the pub you go to, not something completely separate from the pub experience. In line with this “social club” philosophy, there are no pokies in sight. The food is cheap and cheerful – $20 is enough for two or three drinks and a pizza.
The day the Sandringham closed its doors was an emotional one for the Sydney music community. When it was announced, there was an outcry of sadness and nostalgia. However a few people did admit it was time, including Sydney musician and Triple J presenter Brendan Maclean. In an editorial for Faster Louder, titled “Why I won’t miss the Sando”, Maclean pointed to poor sound mixing, lacking amenities and fines for artists who couldn’t pull enough patrons.
The Sando may be gone, but live music has a bright future in Newtown.