Sounds of the Steel City

The sun is setting on another typical Friday in coastal suburbia. The migration of work weary, albeit exuberant, residents begins between the two pubs that signify the beginning and the end of the small surf town. Bec Sandridge, the local act performing at the Ryan’s Hotel in Thirroul, has finished up just as the band is about to take stage under a kilometre away at Beaches Hotel, allowing the party to continue for the eager revellers.

An aerial View of Wollongong. Photo: via Pexels

This scene is one that could be found all throughout the narrow beachfront strip of the city of Wollongong. From bars to clubs, live music has a strong foothold in the area. First there was the Manchester sound, featuring the likes of the Smiths and Joy Division and later Oasis and the Stone Roses. Then came the Seattle sound, featuring grunge bands synonymous with the 90s including Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Now as we enter the early 2020s, a new wave of pop culturally significant music is entering the global sphere.

The regional city an hour south of Sydney is slowly but surely establishing itself as an unexpected haven for the musically inclined.

Independent rock is having its moment in Wollongong. The melodic, laid back vocals with catchy jangly guitar riffs is fast becoming a feature associated with the acts from the region and is now gaining international recognition. Acts including Hockey Dad, Pacific Avenue, The Vanns, Tyne James Organ, Clews and the Terrys are just a small handful of the talent that can be found in Wollongong that have successfully made it onto the map in the European and United States music scenes.

This curated sound can be found in many cities and towns throughout the nation, however, Wollongong has positioned itself at the forefront of the Australian indie music scene. The records coming out of the city have made such an impact that a new term has been coined to describe the specific genre of indie rock/pop. Locals now use the phrase ‘steel city sound’ and further north, the ‘coal coast sound’ to describe the type of music being produced.

The fans

Wollongong local and avid indie rock fan Jake Brockbank was spotted at the Midnights Tides show at North Gong Hotel. Standing at the front of the bustling crowd throughout the whole set, Jake danced and sung, supporting the young band. He later gushed over the influx of live music events happening in Wollongong.

“I live five minutes down the road, the fact that I can walk to my local and there’s a new line up of bands and DJs playing every Sunday afternoon is insane, we’re so lucky,” Jake says.

After the set Jake rejoined his friends at a nearby table. They were an eclectic bunch dressed in coastal-meets-inner-city attire, drinks in hand with big brimming smiles. The general consensus from the group is that the indie music scene in the gong (as the locals call it) is alive and well and is on its way to matching the major cities in sound and atmosphere and, most importantly, talent.

The venues

North Gong Hotel is a one of the many establishments that promote live music and local talent. Venues continue to be built purely for the purpose of giving young up-and-coming bands and artists exposure. Every Sunday the pub has a set list of performers taking the stage from 3pm until late. Many of the city’s most successful exports have had their start beneath the shade of the iconic fig tree that towers over the beer garden.

The recently opened La La Las is a small venue in Wollongong dedicated to showing off the talents that the south coast has to offer, even hosting small festivals every few weeks to introduce loyal patrons to new music. This venue was opened by former Uni Bar (the University of Wollongong bar) manager in an attempt to fill the void that was left by Rad Bar’s closure in 2019. The original Wollongong dive bar with a capacity of 80 people, known for its intimate and raucous shows, was where bands would pile on top of crowds and people spilled out onto footpath into the late evening from Thursday to Sunday every week. This was the place where many of the region’s youth were introduced to alternative music. The venue never discriminated and featured artists in all genres from indie rock, hard core punk, metal, rap to EDM, in its prime Rad Bar was as notorious in the South Coast as its famous beaches.

Venues such as La La La’s and the North Gong Hotel have taken the baton from Rad Bar and run with it, creating a lasting live music legacy in the region. The Yours and Owls festival is also dedicated to exposing local musicians to larger audiences and is now a nationally recognised event. The event was originally a smaller festival that began in 2010 and has since transformed into a two day music and arts affair. In its short run it has already been added to the yearly rotation of music festivals along with Laneway, Groovin the Moo and Splendour in the Grass.

The sellers

Event creators, Ben Tillman and Jeb Taylor, started in the industry by opening a small record store Music Farmers in the heart of the city’s CBD. They went on to create Farmer and the Owl record label, signing primarily local artists and have since revolutionised the landscape of the alternative music industry in not only Wollongong but New South Wales as a whole.

In previous years Australian musicians have struggled to breach the international barrier and only did so through word of mouth or scoring a spot on one of the few music based television programs. Social media can be attributed to cultivating the boom in global acknowledgement of Australian music. Sites such as TikTok have helped young artists all over the country gain huge followings – features such as TikTok live now allow audiences access to behind the scenes content and the early stages of songwriting and producing by their new favourite artists, fostering a relationship between fans and musicians that has never existed before.

According to Business Insider, TikTok has become a hub for labels to promote both new releases and back catalog tracks. And a new cohort of social-media music marketers has sprung up to support promotional efforts on the app. Sydney band Royel Otis has received thousands of new fans after their cover of the infamous dance hit ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ by Sophie Ellis-Bextor went globally viral, being used over countless clips on the app. Local band Hockey Dad are now experiencing a similar treatment after their new song ‘Still Have Room’ was picked up by social media users.

The music makers

Wollongong musician Daniel Manzini has spent years playing regional and city shows up and down the east coast of Australia with his outfit Duo Log and, while he is positive about the direction the live music scene is heading in the South Coast, he believes there is still room for improvement in the regional city. “There are so many great independent acts coming out of the area but the fact that most of the local events are ticketed makes it difficult to compete with the exposure artists get when performing free gigs in pubs and bars in Sydney,” he says.

Daniel and his partner Daisy Knight, who is also a collaborator on their side project, Magic Sandwich, are both in agreement when it comes to the failings of the South Coast music industry. Daisy, who also performs in all girl band Dweeb City, started her career performing in pubs in and around Marrickville in the inner West of Sydney. She says there’s a need for locals to champion other music styles that may not fit the “super palatable indie” brief.

However. the couple did have many positive things to say about the future of the music industry in the area. They’ve both watched on and been active participants as the South Coast music scene has transformed. From a small underground punk scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where the likes of Tumbleweed and Shining Bird made their start, to the vibrant and ever growing community of artists that exists in the region today, each bringing something new to the scene. They both note that one of the best features of the Wollongong music community is the diversity that can be found there. The couple have had many conversations with friends and peers in the industry, highlighting the non-discriminatory culture that they experienced when performing gigs in the area.

Daisy makes special mention of the inclusivity for women that has been fostered in the area in the past few years. “The venues booking the shows now make sure that they meet a gender quota, allowing women artists and groups the same equal opportunity to perform as male artists, something that was not the case even as recent as five years ago,” she says. Female representation in the wider music industry has always been lacking in comparison to their male counterparts. According to USC Annenberg, across an 11-year span and 1100 songs, the overall percentage of female artists was 22.3 per cent. This is a ratio of 3.5 male artists to every 1 female artist.

The dedication from local venues to promote female artists is one of the many ways that Wollongong has taken the lead in diversifying the field for musicians in the industry. The reincarnation of Wollongong-based radio station 106.9 Vox FM may be just the thing to alleviate the concerns put forth by Daisy and Daniel. From humble beginnings as a volunteer-run community station, playing predominantly old classics in the region for almost 40 years, it has since undergone a vibe shift. The Illawarra mainstay has recently begun hiring young local DJs and broadened its playlists to include more unconventional artists. Vox FM has helped to expose local music lovers to new musicians that they otherwise may have never come across. Many artists that found their start on Vox FM have gone on to be played on Triple J Unearthed and eventually the parent station Triple J.

Wollongong and the lifestyle that can be found there is the perfect breeding ground for bands and solo artists to prosper. While eras of music come and go, the attitude that spills out of the music being produced in this small corner of the world is a constant. A far cry from the landscape that existed previously, when music lovers had to seek out underground venues in order to see live music. By taking inspiration from Sydney and other major cities around the world, whilst adding its own signature coastal, laid back flair, the Wollongong music scene is thriving and here to stay.


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