Five Things I Know: Mark Gerber, The Lansdowne Hotel

The self-declared Boss at the Oxford Art Factory, Mark Gerber announced in May that his team was taking over the storied Lansdowne Hotel months after Mary’s Group, its operator since 2017, said the venue’s landlord had decided to close the gig room to make room for hostel accommodation. Gerber talks to NME about his vision for the Lansdowne, the devastating impact of Sydney’s lockout laws and the enduring importance of the underground to popular culture.

A more inclusive Lansdowne

We’re taking a more inclusive approach to the Lansdowne and more varied approach to venue use: more electronic music and live bands. I see them both as live music entertainment. I think it’s essential for the music industry and community to be one; attempts have been made to divide us over the years, especially during the lockout laws.

I’ve always done that with Oxford Art Factory: I’ve never singled it out to be one particular type of entertainment venue. I’ve always been very broad with what I allowed to occur at the venue, from book launches to electronic music to live bands to cabaret and performance art. These have been critical cultural mediums for people to connect to, and to inspire and disrupt people’s thinking.

Make good use of your 24 hours

You have to think outside the box. You may need to subsidise some artists because they all have to start somewhere, and some start small. I recall seeing Tame Impala at the Oxford Art Factory early in their careers when some members were still underage. You could have counted the people in the audience on two hands. But you look at them and think: these people are talented way beyond the confines of this venue. You bite the bullet on that and bolster it by plugging into a late-night economy involving DJs. So you create a late-night, dance-oriented destination for people to come to after hours. Because, generally, live music is an early event: it tends to start at seven or eight o’clock, and the headline band is usually done before midnight.

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There are 24 hours in a day – you can get promoters and various music worlds together and get them to co-exist. I already had that model running in the sadly defunct venue Spectrum, which was upstairs at The Q Bar at the Exchange Hotel. We would have bands early, followed by PASH DJs, who were more rock’n’roll and sympathetic in style to what was happening before them. They would finish at 3am, and then other notable DJs and I would come in and play house music until the morning hours in a packed room. Spectrum was grand. Across any weekend evening, it went through this whole turnover of people from different backgrounds and intentions, all coming to use that space. Seeing these worlds come together under the same roof was fantastic.

Mark Gerber
Mark Gerber. Credit: Press

In short, it’s not all about profitability; it’s about curation and programming – more importantly, it’s about being passionate and believing in what you do. Having an ear to the ground is essential. It’s about having a personal connection with people and being able to give them a leg up when they need it. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t – but if done right, you have a failsafe. If live music doesn’t always pay the bills as much as it should, get something else to fall back on. All styles of music must be allowed to evolve and prosper.

The lockout laws set Sydney back decades

The six years of the lockout laws was a very frustrating time. It felt incredibly destructive to the culture of the city. Those years were also extremely difficult for The Oxford Art Factory and the Sydney scene. Live music and performance venues and the nighttime economy play a crucial role in building culture – which feeds into the daytime economy. As soon as it happened, I said, “You watch, this will affect everything across the board.” And sure enough, it did.

“I’m forever the optimist: I think there will be a rejuvenation of the Sydney nighttime economy”

After six years, I think the government realised something had to happen. The city’s culture was vanishing in front of their eyes. Culture takes decades to build up and evolve. Before the lockout laws, I sensed that Oxford Street, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills were turning into vibrant, bohemian areas. They reminded me of places like Berlin, New York and London: bustling, active, and super creative. After a few short years of the lockout laws, it all dwindled to resemble a ghost town. I don’t see Sydney anywhere near where it should be. It’s going to take a lot of time to rebuild.

Long live the underground

I’m forever the optimist: I think there will be regeneration and a rejuvenation of Sydney and its nighttime economy. I hope it will be exciting and expand and develop what has gone before. No matter what rules and regulations exist, people will find ways to circumvent them and do something of their own accord. I strongly support the underground: the rave scenes and punk movements where there are no conditions on the art and music they create.

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Since the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, interestingly, I’ve had approaches from people who ran raves and are getting so successful now that they need a space like the Oxford Art Factory. Safety and security come into play when you start dealing with more significant numbers. It’s a myth that these events are dangerous. I see them as more about a love of music, intimacy and experiencing something unique in a crowd of like-minded people. I think the underground scene is vital to developing and growing cultures within a city.

The gov must help

I believe the government should support the music and art cultures all the time, not just during hard times but also during the good times. The arts need government support because it’s not about the money. It’s about creativity, discussion, intellectual thought, and what the landscape will look like for future generations. It’s about giving an essential aspect of our world the right to exist and continuing to invest in it. Talking purely from a philosophical standpoint, I firmly believe that governments need to inject money into music and art as incubators for new creativity, whether it’s artists, actors, writers or musicians. Vibrant music and art cultures deliver a healthy and productive society.

Police outside the Lansdowne Hotel in Sydney in 2021 due to an anti-COVID-19 lockdown protest
Police outside the Lansdowne Hotel in August 2021 amid an anti-COVID-19 lockdown protest in Sydney. Credit: Robert Wallace / Wallace Media Network / Alamy Stock Photo

I’m thrilled that Anthony Albanese is in the top office. Can you believe we’ve got a part-time DJ as the Prime Minister now? How cool is that? And we’ve got an Arts Minister, Tony Burke, who goes out to live shows. Recently Albo and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, exchanged vinyl albums as gifts from the nation. I mean, come on, who would have thought we’d be here? It’s fantastic!

Politics is and must be involved in the arts, but only in that it needs to provide much-needed funding. I don’t think you need to tell people how to ‘do it’. ​​They are born to create. During the lockout laws, we lived under a very authoritarian conservative approach to behaviour. Treating adults like children only induces fear in people. Let people behave like adults and, in turn, start treating other people like adults. Then you might have a desired and altogether different result for all.

The Lansdowne Hotel relaunches Saturday (June 25) with a free gig featuring Donny Benét, RVG, Caitlin Harnett and more – more info here

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