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Behind The Scenes At Phoenix Central Park: Australia's Most Unique Live Music Venue

10 November 2022 | 2:56 pm | Parry Tritsiniotis

Phoenix Central Park is a philanthropic focussed, one-of-a-kind performance space that places artists and audiences at the centre of its creative vision allowing fans to see their favourite performers, no matter their size in a deeply intimate and unique format.

(Image via Phoenix Central Park Facebook)

Phoenix Central Park is one of Australia's most unique live music venues. Nestled in the heart of Sydney's inner south, Phoenix is a live music venue that is architecturally stunning, highly accessible and always free.

Phoenix Central Park is a philanthropic focussed, one-of-a-kind performance space that places artists and audiences at the centre of its creative vision allowing fans to see their favourite performers, no matter their size in a deeply intimate and unique format. Their curation is second to none, hosting some of the biggest artists in so called Australia to some of of our most unique ambient producers to create a melting pot of culture that showcases the breadth of talent that our shores have to offer. 

Fans are offered tickets via ballot across a range of seasons, within a format that is truely unique. It is two tiered with various seating formats, and allows the artist to perform their music with total creative direction. The space presents fans an opportunity to see their favourite artists from a mere few metres away without any commercial distractions. 

The venue is the singular vision of philanthropist Judith Neilson AM with the aim of revitalising inner-city neighbourhoods with new cultural beacons. They've hosted/are hosting the likes of Sampa The Great, Courtney Barnett, Jon Hopkins, Agung Mango, Skeleten and many many more.

In the near future they're hosting a range of acts as a part of their 6th season which features an all-femme lineup spanning diverse genres across local and global talent. It features the likes of rising star Ashli, Kyoshi, MOD CON, a huge Milk! Records 10th Anniversary Showcase featuring Courtney Barnett, Hachiku, Lily Morris, Jess Ribeiro and Kee'Ahn and many more. You can head to their website  HERE to enter the ballot to be a part of these shows. 

To get to know the brains behind the venue, we chat to their creative director, Beau Neilson about the venue's distinct ethos, its dedication to excellent curation and the state of live music culture across the globe. 

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I’d love for you to expand on the idea that Phoenix Central Park is a “philanthropic” project over a commercial one. While it is obvious as to why that’s a great thing, it’d be great to hear the direct opinion from the curator on what that truly means for the venue, maybe for someone who has never heard of the space?

We are in a fortunate position to run completely philanthropic funded. We don’t get government money so we don’t need to charge for tickets or for drinks. In fact we are a dry venue, there is not a bar in sight. For all the shows we book we pay the artists, we manage all of the production costs and we also give the tickets for free. We have a ballot system that you can enter at the beginning of a season and then 7 days out we release the tickets. We have people come who are deeply interested in a particular act or in the venue to give them a beautiful experience.

When you go to a show there are so many distractions. There’s a bar, a merch desk, there’s a line, there are so many distractions and commercial distractions. The corporate and commercial world wants to support artists, but once the lines are blurred between product and art it can be immediately compromised. 

Phoenix Central Park feels like a space to watch live music with close to no distractions. Commercial distractions. Was that always an objective of the venue and how do you think that the lack of distractions effects the way people engage with the artist?

The venue has been called a listening room over a venue, because that’s what it is. When you arrive you are very present, you are around the artist in a half seated half standing setting and viewing things from very close quarters from 360 degrees. It is a very different experience. A lot of the artists have commented when they come through that it is so heartening to perform without your value being assessed against alcohol sales. That does make us very different from other venues. 

The performance space is extremely unique and gorgeous. It brings the artist closer to the audience than ever before. What aspects of the space do you think makes seeing an artist at Phoenix Central Park so unique?

I think the proximity is especially unique. The volume of the space being almost church-like gives it a certain reverence to the art that if you saw the same performer in a warehouse, or in a pub, or another performance space it wouldn’t be the same it wouldn’t even be comparable. The way the sound bounces off the walls it has a gentle and warm sound. With or without amplification it still performs beautifully. Those things are quite distinct and make the space quite special. As well the architecture is just gorgeous, it’s like a giant nurturing bee hive.

Giving emerging artists the space to perform in a space like this is such a unique opportunity.

The blend of different performers is special. It’s that creative tension and allows them to support one another with the more well known acts alongside the ones that are just starting out as well as those performers who have been around for decades that perhaps haven’t released an album recently. They’re all different careers and they’ve all got different audiences and they’re stronger together. Instead of types of genres of music being highlighted, or different types of fans being highlighted there’s a lot to be gained from sharing those experiences and taking those risks. 

One thing I love to think about is this idea of diverse offerings in the way we engage with art. Phoenix Central Park is the definition of that, you engage with music in a totally unique way and it provides a completely different live music experience. How important do you feel creating spaces for these different offerings is in pushing the boundaries of music or just art in general?

It’s incredibly important to platform diverse types of music and diverse types of places to experience it in. Some people are really intimidated by a standard concert. Having something that is different, that is an entry into a new type of music or a new type of experience allows them to look out for those opportunities more generally. Also, it’s important to have a vibrant music and arts scene with a lot of variety in it. There are different things for different people and we need them all to be side by side. I want all of the surrounding places to do as much with music as they can and not as competitors but as friends and supporters and to understand not just the value of music and musicians but all the supporting teams in production and management that go to make that special.

Giving offerings in diverse space to artists is so good for the performer as well. There is so much work that goes into becoming a good performer and it is that diversity of experiences that helps strengthen that. When you start out, hardly any artists are big enough for a regular performance space, so what are these other experiences we can give them to be more skilled and to give them time to develop or test work or even decide that’s not the way they want to be involved in the industry as a performer. There still need to be opportunities they can test and learn from. 

What sort of feedback have you been getting from artists? What is the main takeaway?

Amazing feedback. They love the space, they love the team. Consistently we get such beautiful comments from artists and visitors alike about how cohesive and caring the team is which is hugely important to me. They love that it is diverse and that we take chances and that we give them creative freedom to present what they want to present. 

We want to properly work with artists and continually help them get other opportunities. We don’t have exclusivity clauses so that we can encourage them to take up the best opportunities that are there for them. That’s something we heavily focus on.

On the accessibility front, talk through the decision of using a ballot system for people to grab tickets.

IT’s accessibility, but there are a few reasons. When we started we looked at a few different options. At the start we used a first in first serve basis with people just reserving free tickets and we found that there was some resistance. People would drop out, so if we have a significant drop out rate as such a small venue it changes the experience of the show for artists and visitors. From then we tried the ballot system and it's been a really interesting way to engage people from everywhere. Signing up for the ballot is a lower entry point, you’re not necessarily committed but you're dipping your toe in, so people can be more likely to do that than to organise tickets to a particular show. 

People have responded really well to the ballot so we’ve stuck with it and been really delighted by it. 

It’s great you’ve found a way to battle the way in which commitment levels can vary so much for a free show.

A lot of venues have reported that something like 5-10% of people that have bought tickets are no shows since COVID but not wanting refunds. That’s been a big change in the way audiences are engaging. 

Australian music is at an extremely interesting turning point. Emerging and diverse voices that were not allowed to be given space 10 years ago are now emerging as some of the most powerful and dominant figures in Australian music. Phoenix Central Park aside, how have you as someone with a keen eye for music seen the way in which Australian music narratives changed over the past 5 or so years?

The last few years have been particularly interesting having lost that opportunity to perform live. It means that there’s been huge investment in the work you can do from home or collaborating digitally. I think there’s been a big shift in people taking those risks and emerging at the end of COVID and meeting an audience that they’ve never met before or never encountered. It’s the most bizarre thing that was unheard of before. That’s been a big shift, so there’s a lot of movement in electronic and experimental sounds via technology. The younger generation of people starting out in music are far more open minded about different sounds and approaches. They tend to be less rigid in their perception of the type of music they make. I think that agility is really fresh. There’s also a lot of nostalgia in a lot of the sounds that’s coming out. 

Do you see Phoenix Central Park as a reflection of that?

We’ve tried to maintain a balance. It’s important that each of our seasons that we do we have representation across a range of styles and perspectives. From location and age and also some performances being aesthetically beautiful and others being more challenging. There’s been so much exquisite ambient work created that technology has ramped up and people have a desire for being calm and present in a way that they may not have appreciated a few years ago. So we tap into those performances which are so beautiful. 

There’s definitely been a strong vibe shift towards being present while watching music. 

We’ve noticed a shift in consciousness, there’s a greater appreciation for being present rather than running around which was maybe not that way 20 years ago. 

How, as a music curator do you ensure that you don’t have too much personal bias over the curation of the venue? Or is there a point where you need to be a bit selfish and trust your gut to get it done?

It’s a combination of both, you need to respect the music even if you don’t like it. You can love it and not personally enjoy it. We have discussions with our team who are exceptionally well informed about their personal expertises in music. They’ll discuss how we all think about what would be the strongest and how that works as a package and as a whole. It is a challenge and I find now the more music I listen to the more my taste changes. 

Having criteria around it for us is really important as well. We get a lot of submissions but we also reach out to artists. The first question always asked is, Is This Excellence? Is this person an amazing musician? It doesn’t matter what genre it is, are they fabulous? 

Now half way-ish through the 6th season. Reflecting on the space and the curation, what do you feel most proud about in the ways in which Phoenix Central Park has presented live music?

I’m really proud of the volume of artists we’ve had through. I’m really proud of the shifting perception of space. Initially when we were programming it was difficult to get people to engage with us. Now as we continue we get these excellent recommendations from artists we’ve already worked with and all different managers and that shows that we are doing something to write. It shows that the artists are appreciating the space and that we are also extremely appreciative of them. Seeing the audiences continuously entering the ballot as well, they have trust in what we deliver whether they’ve heard of the artist or not they’re going to have a good experience. 

How would you describe the service that you’re operating with an artist based approach?

We have a people focussed approach. We’re here to offer a service, it’s to care for and elevate artists and encourage them to be brave. It’s also to help audiences access those artists and have a tremendous experience and that’s what the whole team is committed to. It’s a part of everything we do and every interaction we have.