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Eight creative Sydney-siders discuss the state of their city

Meet the talented creatives working under lockout laws and skyrocketing rent

Posted by Mitch Parker

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Much like any other city—Sydney is not without its problems. Sydney however continues to grab headlines for its severe nightlife restrictions and skyrocketing cost of living. Young people working, or trying to work, in creative industries are just one of the many communities effected by the city’s current conditions. To find out whether the creative community is dying, surviving, or even possibly thriving, we went straight the source and spoke to eight creative Sydney-siders.

01. Lillian Ahenkan (aka FlexMami)

Age: 23
Instagram handle: @flex.mami
What do you do: DJ, Digital Comms Manager, Writer, TV/Radio Presenter
Where were you born: Sydney
Where do you live now: Alexandria, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: It’s familiar, and my friends, family, and a large amount of my favourite acquaintances are all here. It’s extremely superficial, but I still feel this way despite the fact that I don’t make enough effort to see them.
What’s the worst thing about it: That it doesn’t have any extremely redeeming qualities worth bragging about. Perhaps I’m jaded or alternatively it’s the truth. There’s always somewhere warmer, somewhere cheaper, somewhere more en vogue.
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: From my lens, I believe it’s thriving despite constant critique. There are pockets of extremely talented, young people who’ve realised that the come up is attainable—on a quest to get what’s theirs. It’s these people that give Sydney clout, making it so much more than the sunny city with the Opera House. Of course there’s the issue of over saturation and the fact that “influence” often trumps skill, but that’s another story.
How has Sydney change over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: I guess it’s developed a sense of good hustle through apathy. You know, the understandably selfish need to succeed and make the most of your life in a city that’s perceived to be dying. Creatives give this city flavour. As long as we’re cooking with great spices, it turns the city in an delicious meal that the world wants a serving of.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: I could probably rep it a little more as it’s legit been intrinsic to my success so far. Instead I reward it with the fantasy of escaping to a more happening location.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: *insert meme about rapidly rising cost of living* But it’s honestly an issue. A vast majority of well-paying creative jobs are far and few between, meaning most people are attempting to supplement their ultimate career goal with odd jobs. How are you supposed to nurture your craft when you can’t afford to exist?
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: Not likely. Could be due to a glass ceiling, or rather aspirations to see and experience more of the universe. Either way, the plan is to go anywhere and then return for some well needed perspective on this city of mine.

02. Cass Navarro

Age: 26
Instagram handle: @cassnavarro
What do you do: DJ / Booking Parties & Tours @ LOW TON
Where were you born: South Sydney
Where do you live now: Surry Hills, the Paris of France.
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: It’s beaches, Playing iDarts, Paddys Market.
What’s the worst thing about it: It’s super expensive, most houses cost more to rent than avocado on toast which is saying something because that’s generally around $250.
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: I can only speak to music and the people I know involved in it but the lockouts made things harder. Sydney lost some great venues like my fave—Goodgod Small Club, which was somewhere that so many different scenes would cross paths. Those laws have forced like-minded people to put their heads together to get around it, wether that’s putting on new parties in different venues or crews getting together to organise one-off events, there are people really pushing to make sure we still have stuff to do at night. Plus, there’s no lock out at Golden Century Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown so it’s chilli crab kick ons!
How has Sydney change over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: The Baird government was pretty successful in making less young people want to hang around in the inner-city late at night, making it a nice quiet place to get it on with property developers. Sydney’s nightlife is still adapting to hella venues closing down and lockout laws make it harder to go to multiple venues in a night. The way people are putting on events has changed so you might end up seeing a band at a cinema or clubbing at a Portugese RSL instead of a venue in the city—people are still working out the kinks on how to keep doing their thing.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: There are so many regulations on RSA, licensing, and noise restrictions here that make it super expensive and hard to keep a venue afloat, so I would make that more affordable! Melbourne has so many venues, about a million I heard—really puts our six and a half to shame.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: Staying awake past 3 AM when we visit other cities.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future:  I’ve been here for a long time so maybe not!

03. Joe Brennan

Age: 21
Instagram handle: @joebrennarghh
What do you do: Photographer, writer, and student.
Where were you born: Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney.
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney:  Proximity to loved ones and the people who energise me. I wish I liked the beach more than I do.
What’s the worst thing about it:  The people whose work deserves praise and consideration most—largely non-hetero, non-white, non-cis—are rarely the ones receiving it. Also the obsessive reliance on drinking in social environments. I’m a big narc!
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: I’m super grateful to exist within a friendship circle wherein there’s no shortage of brilliant work being produced by brilliant people—Gussy, Kenneth Pan, Jonno Revanche, and CandleLyte come to mind. The photography scene is particularly healthy in Sydney, especially among queer artists. There is health where there is a sense of community, mutual criticism, and support.
How has Sydney change over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: The increased corporatisation/incessant sponsoring of art events is endless and boring. That kind of corporate investment in contemporary art is obviously valuable in increasing visibility for young artists and democratising public access to “art experiences,” but also has a kind of smothering ickiness that defeats the purpose of emboldening these creatives’ agency.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: That different areas and creative spaces wouldn’t experience such a rapid rise-and-fall in coolness. The city is impatient and eager to proclaim the death of one thing in order to herald the birth of another. I also wish that we could be honest about our past.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: Many things. Trying to remain ambitious while grappling with funding issues. The lack of accessible options in deciding where to exhibit work. The outward-looking, cultural cringe-y obsession with leaving Sydney/Australia. The social insularity of creative groups.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: Yes. A narc’s work is never done.

04. Lucy Smith

Age: 23
Instagram handle: @lcysmth
What do you do: Breakfast Presenter at FBi Radio
Where were you born: Wollongong
Where do you live now: Redfern, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: Dog parks. Never have I ever been more motivated to go for a run.
What’s the worst thing about it: Peak-hour inner-city train stations. Again, never have I ever been more motivated to go for a run.
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: It’s healthy, but money’s tight. Creatives are adapting to the growing notion that people will only put their time and cash towards events that are worth their while—which is fair enough. Lately all bases are being covered with inclusive collectives encompassing music and booze, but also exploring live art, food, dance, and charity.
How has Sydney changed over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: With venues closing their doors and the CBD essentially shutting down relevant late-night culture, its forced Sydneysiders to explore alternative options to keep the live music scene thriving. It’s cool seeing regular gig nights in settings that may not have gotten a look-in a few years ago. Like a Portugese community club in Marrickville or a bowling green down in Wombarra.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: In my most millennial answer yet; I’d say housing affordability and the cost of rent—while this city could be the ideal creative setting, for some it’s just not a viable option. Sydney is the second-most expensive city on a global scale, and hearing of Wollongong pals paying $140/week for rooms by the sea stings big time.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: Keeping afloat while pushing and honing your craft. While Sydney’s a hub of connections and opportunities, it can be super disheartening to miss those because you’re working another job to cover the cost of being here. It can be a gruelling cycle.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: Yeah nah—I’m actually thinking about moving to Melbourne. Kidding! I reckon I’ve still got a few years in me to really tackle Sydney and explore this city, especially when I eventually move on from the 5am wake-up. Mama didn’t raise no quitter.

05. Jazmine Brooking

Age: 24
Instagram handle: @jlow_666 / @paradisedailyrecords
What do you do: I run an Independent DIY Sydney based record label called Paradise Daily Records and I’ve got a second hand shop in Newtown at the moment.
Where were you born: Canterbury, Sydney
Where do you live now: Campsie, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: Friends.
What’s the worst thing about it: Problematic assholes.
How has Sydney change over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: It’s changed in a lot of ways. We’ve lost heaps of venues which is shit for local and touring musicians. All the suburbs and shopping strips are getting gentrified and loosing character too, which sucks. This shit happens and, sadly, is gonna keep happening.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: I’d change a lot of things but having more/better venues and less restrictions would be nice.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: Probably money. It’s hard with rent prices and everything else being so high when you’re getting paid fifty bucks to play a show.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: Yeah 100%. Like most of the people around me. And I hate flying to be honest.

06. Jonno Revanche

Age: 25
Instagram handle: @jonnoxrevanche
What do you do: I’ve been frantically telling people recently that I’m a photojournalist and cultural critic.
Where were you born: Adelaide
Where do you live now: Summer Hill, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: The luxury of choice, resplendent beaches and mountains, constant stimulus and necessary challenges to overcome. Sydney is upfront about its facetiousness—if you like a bit of hedonism it’s a great place to be, and I love a good spectacle. Many of the great things I adore about this city were actually borne out of resistance to the soul crushing corporatism that otherwise defines Sydney, in my opinion.
What’s the worst thing about it: The nightmarish urban planning, crushing physical/social inaccessibility, an all too familiar reliance on apathy and irony that people practice as a form of self-defence. It would be nice to see someone radiating their sincerity into the world without someone immediately conspiring to tear it down.
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: I’ve spent most of my time on the fringes of a lot of creative communities so I don’t know if I can offer a fair prognosis. I will say that it seems to move up and down quite drastically, but I’m super inspired by some very small collectives/movements picking up steam recently, like Subbed In and Down/Under Space for example.
How has Sydney change over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: I’ve been here for two years and I’ve seen some small changes and some really big ones. A lot of people I know are moving away from Sydney in droves and it can admittedly be a bit oppressive, but I love my friends here so much, and I think it’s Rei Kawakubo who said those holes only become “ingredients for creation.”
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: The rampant individualism. There’s definitely a quality that separates Sydneysiders from transplants—they’re hesitant to move outside of their own suburbs, their perception of the world is exaggerated and I find people are more distrustful, requiring a lot more time to warm up to others. Also can someone please get rid of all these “influencers”….they’re hanging around like a bad smell.What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: It’s difficult to answer this without coming back to money. The people with the ability to put on shows, to open galleries, and to practice art in general often have money, if not the privilege of time and association.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: I do but not for too long I don’t think. I have a suspicion I’ll move on at some point, and I do still feel a lot of tenderness for my hometowns (Adelaide/Deniliquin).

07. Vanessa Marian

Age: 28
Instagram handle: @vanessamarian_ / @groovetherapy_101
What do you do: Dancer, Founder of Groove Therapy
Where were you born: Dubai
Where do you live now: Darlinghurst, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: Sydney’s got hustle. Whilst other cities have these great underground communities for pushing creative boundaries Sydney is home to most corporate headquarters so you get paid for what you do. There’s a competitiveness that comes with the turf and people in the dance industry are talented so I can’t just chill and get work. I’m kind of into it. I’ve lived in other cities where the vibe in certain circles is so anti-establishment that it breeds apathy. Or maybe it was just me. Who knows. Also, the beaches are bloody beautiful here.
What’s the worst thing about it: It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, you get paid by corporates but then you get corporate briefs. I can’t say I look at the average piece of corporate content here and feel particularly moved by it. It’s a little painfully commercial at times but also a great way to stand out if you know how to push for your individuality and beliefs with conviction. The aim is to find that sweet spot between authenticity, good creative content and paying your rent—because rent is much, much higher in Sydney.
How has Sydney changed in the last few years: As a dancer I’ve pushed for the visibility of the street and freestyle scene and I’ve watched it evolve into this beautiful cross-genre dance exchange in the last few years. I can see commercial dancers dabble in the cultural roots of hip-hop and other street styles more and it’s incredible seeing the younger generations chase the foundations of these movements. Performance artists are also walking away from the old mentality of ‘fitting the dancer brief’ and embracing their individuality more. All the good stuff is underground and largely underpaid though. You won’t find it too easily on google, but that’s part of the magic. I’m into it.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: Loaded question. I guess I’d love to see people search for the talent they hire more. I feel as though an Instagram following can sometimes hinder the quest for digging deep to find undiscovered creatives and I’d love to see more unknown artists scoring gigs. We have some huge events here so I look forward to hearing some new names repping the decks, mics, canvases, and stages in the coming years.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: Paying your bills whilst maintaining creative integrity. The client has money and the client wants a safe replication of something that has been done before. It doesn’t foster creativity, collaboration or a culture of risk-taking. We need that more, we need more of a platform to push those buttons and show our city things they haven’t seen or experienced before because oh my god the talent here is amazing! Also we need more diversity. I don’t mean the token melanin girl with the afro who is mid-laugh in the ice-cream ad. That’s tokenism. I mean legit diversity. This means people of all walks of life throughout all levels of a production, not just in front of the camera to visibly tick the multiculturalism box. It’s changing, I can already see it and I’m excited for its continued evolution.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: I’m actually moving to Northern New South Wales soon for a short stint, just to see how I (and my business) can cope outside of Sydney before venturing out globally for a while. Sydney is great and Sydney will always be around, but I’m excited to train in a bunch of global street styles from New York to South Africa to Jamaica and beyond. I’ll bring it all back to this wonderful city, I’m sure.

08. Jared Leibowitz

Age: 21
Instagram handle: @jaredleibowitz
What do you do: Music Photographer
Where were you born: New York, USA
Where do you live now: Newtown, Sydney
What’s the best thing about living in Sydney: The variety of culture and different foods is honestly one of my favourite things—you’ve got places like Golden Century then a few blocks down you’ve got some insane burger joints and Italian restaurants.
What’s the worst thing about it:
I hate to be that cliche nowadays, but I honestly think at the moment: the nightlife. I’ve never been one to really go out all night on a mad bender but seeing so many of my friends loosing their jobs bartending or photographing clubs is really upsetting to see.
How healthy are the creative industries in Sydney these days: In my line of work (photography) it’s extremely low. There are maybe a few new kids who are picking up cameras to shoot gigs not just to get closer to bands but for the love of it. Then there’s also the income side of it because very few bands are willing to pay photographers when they know they can get one of those younger kids who are doing it just to get close to them for free.
How has Sydney changed over the last few years, and is that change for better or worse: It’s changed a bit in terms of the number of shows that are going on because so many local venues have shut because of the lockout laws.
If you could change one thing about Sydney what would it be: I’d look at changing noise complaint laws; mostly for shows. For example, Tame Impala playing outside the Sydney Opera House a while back got heaps of complaints then the next night the sound was so low people could barely hear it. I just read an article that a show got shut down which was part of Vivid in Kings Cross before 9:30 pm! That’s absolutely ridiculous.
What’s the number one issue Sydney creatives face: I think the biggest issue that all creatives face is landing consistent clients and getting paid by them without consistently hassling them.
Do you see yourself living in Sydney for the foreseeable future: Maybe? I’ve been thinking about the possibility of moving to Melbourne for a change. I’d also love to go back to the states to New York, Nashville, Chicago, or Austin since each one of those cities have thriving creative scenes at the moment.

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