Pokies Have Become a Crutch for Venues in NSW, But This Chain Succeeded Without Them

A red glowing neon sign reading 'bar open' to indicate venues and pubs that can survive without pokies.

In Sydney, in the 1980s, you could wander down to any one of the hundreds of pubs and clubs the city had on offer and walk into brilliant music being played by bands you would now only catch at the Qudos.

But in the 90s, pokies were allowed into pubs, and that decade oversaw the utter collapse of live music in the city. Reports from musicians and journalists throughout the era lament the rise of the one-armed bandit as a necessary evil to keep their favourite venues open.

Much has been written about Sydney’s live music scene and the treasures stolen by decades of financially aggressive policymaking, and it would be wrong to pin the changes on the humble gambling machine alone. The 90s also saw the rise of club music and the city’s prohibitive liquor licensing laws. But, the fact of the matter remains that venues had to think fast, and pokies provided a quick and easy fix to bolster cash flow. It wasn’t realised a the time just how difficult that fix would be to kick.

The NSW state election put the state’s relationship with gambling machines front and centre of the debate — despite not seeming to be much of a vote winner.

What’s more, in opening up that difficult conversation, it has become apparent that the reach and wealth of ClubsNSW, the depths of our problematic relationship with gambling, and the financial necessity of venues to use gaming machines is far, far beyond the scope of what was originally intended seven decades ago when the organisation was given a monopoly on the machines.

Despite being home to just 0.3% of the global population, Australia is also home to nearly one in five of the world’s gambling machines. As the cost of living crisis bites harder and harder, pubs and venues are increasingly reliant on the income generated by pokies, which bring in some $8 billion per year to the Australian economy — $1.8 billion of that coming from losses in NSW.

Kicking the habit will require some assistance, given the vast changes our hospitality and nightlight economy have undergone in the past few decades. Which the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, wants to provide. He announced a $344 million gambling reform package that would see all cash removed from pokies in the state by 2028. As part of that package, small and medium venues will be able to claim interest-free loans and one-off grants of up to $50,000 to diversify their offerings.

It’s something that MusicNSW’s Managing Director, Emily Collins, has said would be the tip of the iceberg if venues were to transition back from pokies to live music. It’s a whole-of industry pivot that we’re talking about, requiring the reanimation of long-forgotten networks of people collaborating to bring music to the public.

Yet, not all venues have succumbed to the neon lure of the jangling boxes. In 2016, the Proudly Pokies Free campaign began shining a light on those rare venues that shunned pokies and helped others transition away from the income they generated.

If the reform package goes ahead, we’re going to need a template. Fortunately though, a template might be found in the workings of one of the city’s most successful hospitality groups: Marys.

Co-founded in 2013 by Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, the pair grew their operations from a single back-alley venue in Newtown to five Mary’s outfits across two states specialising in grungy burgers and beers, alongside The Unicorn, the revived Landsdowne, and the newly opened Liberty Hall live music venue. And they did it all without the help of pokies.

“We made that decision when we first opened The Unicorn hotel back in 2015,” Smyth told The Latch, with every subsequent venue rejecting the gaming industry.

“It certainly wasn’t a financial decision,” he laughed. “It comes from a place of ethics,”

“Core to the hospitality experience has to be one of community. We’ve always felt very strongly that you can’t build a community by ripping its heart out,” he said.

Although Smyth describes himself as “a pretty classic Libertarian in terms of money,” the predatory nature of the gaming industry is something he cannot sanction in his venues. As he says though, this doesn’t choise doesn’t always come easy or painless .

“I might have bought a house in Sydney by now if I had a couple of pokies,” he jokes.

“For us, it was all about making sure our food and beverage and our music and our entertainment was excellent. And we needed to engage with staff and managers who would take the mission, and the idea of what true hospitality is seriously, and apply it to classic Australian pubs and bars to build a community, which is what every great pub across the world has always been, at its core,” he explained.

But Smyth doesn’t begrudge those who have leaned into the pokies route, understanding the economic necessity of doing so. Instead, he argues that venues have not been given the support they need to provide live entertainment and pursue alternative revenue streams by successive governments.

This brings us full circle and back into conversations of what NSW, values and what has been lost in deciding that live music were secondary concerns to profiteering and development.

“[Small independent venues] need support in rediscovering what their community can look like when you take gambling out of the heart of it,” Smyth said

Whatever the outcome of the election, the gauntlet has been thrown down by the Coalition to do more and do better on gambling. Labor has promised a limited trial of cashless gaming cards as well as spending limits on the machines, but they are certainly a less driven set of policies than the Coalition’s attack.

Additionally, while voters appear not to be overly concerned by the harms pointed to by the Coalition, the figures on mental health, financial losses, and broader social harms tell a different story on the importance of this issue.

Australia has always had gambling, ever since its colonial foundation, and is not likely to scrap the entire industry any time soon. But reigning it in somewhat should be more about what we might gain than what we might lose.

Smyth hopes that supporting venues away from gambling would help fan the flames of a resurgence of live music and other entertainment. But whether efforts are focused on music or not, he said, “there needs to be a creative engagement with what the pub of the future can be”.

Related: Australia’s New Gambling Warnings Will Do More Than Just Tell You to Gamble (Responsibly)

Related: The NSW Government Versus the Gambling Industry: Will the House Win?

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