It was only in late 2017 that the Queens-born, Seoul-raised, Carnegie Mellon-educated DJ, producer and vocalist Kathy Yaeji Lee quit her graphic design job to do music full-time. In the time since, she’s released her EP2 to a warm welcome from fans and critics, and toured around the world. There’s a lot of love for what Yaeji is doing.
That love was present on Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House, for her first-ever Australian show. The fans milling in the lobby were younger and more diverse, and more expressly excited, than your standard Opera House crowd. As they all waited to be scanned into the Studio, a middle-aged white couple dressed for the theatre joined the queue, only to depart after a few minutes exchanging confused glances with one another. “I think we’re in the wrong place,” the man told his wife as they slipped out of line.
Yaeji’s arrival to the Studio stage was greeted with an explosion of applause. The level of goodwill for her in the room was palpable and rarely diminished during her whole set, even through repeated sound issues. Over the course of an hour, she paced the audience perfectly, modulating between slower tracks in her whispered, dreamy style and remixes that showcased her preternatural skill for reworking pop hits—Drake’s “Passionfruit” appeared early, Charli XCX’s “Focus” was her encore.
Among this, “raingurl,” which closed Yaeji’s main set, felt like an anomaly. Rather than obscuring its cheekier themes to her English-speaking listeners via Korean lyrics—as on “drink I’m sippin on”—“raingurl” is so overt. “When the sweaty walls are banging, I don’t fuck with family planning/ Make it rain, girl, make it rain,” goes the song’s chorus. But that’s no complaint; any track that can make a room of 500 mosh to dance music in the basement of the Opera House is perfection.
The raucous audience speaks to the curious spot the Opera House has come to occupy in Sydney’s dance music scene over the past few years. There seems to have been a concerted effort by its contemporary music team to attract a different crowd to the venue, one that could more accurately reflect Sydney. But this has come during a fraught period for the city’s nightlife—one that shredded any trust the music community had in the state—as it was reshaped by the lockout laws and pushed out from the CBD and Kings Cross to a handful of warehouses of Marrickville.
“To be completely honest, it's becoming harder and harder to make a viable career out of dance music in Sydney and there has been a huge trend of late of producers and DJs moving to Melbourne or even overseas,” says Amelia Jenner, music director of Sydney radio station FBi. “Unfortunately, there simply isn't the infrastructure to support the up and coming artists. I think it's slightly easier if you're already established but these last few years have been particularly hard.”
This is made only harder by the closure of the venues that are left. A few weeks ago, two more warehouses—both Marrickville staples—went on indefinite hiatus after being raided by police on the same night. Then, last week, the iconic World Bar closed its doors for the last time.
“What World Bar provided for a long time was a stepping stone… People like me had their very first gigs at World Bar. Those kinds of opportunities are harder to come by after the lockouts,” says Johnny Lieu, Sydney DJ and long-time Resident Advisor contributor. “Since the lockouts, venues are open and busier for shorter periods of time, and so you get less opportunities for greener acts. Or venues respond by become more risk-averse in their music programming. World Bar in its heyday had DJs playing from early in the evening till 5 am, and bands would play until 2 or 3, which is pretty much unheard of in Sydney these days.”
“I guess it's hard for the Sydney Opera House to really foster homegrown talent, given the sheer size of the performance spaces they have available,” says Jenner. “But they are very good at booking interesting local supports, like DIN, when the opportunity arises, although I wish those opportunities arose more often.”
In this, the position the Opera House finds itself in is a tricky one. Striking the balance between raising up local artists and importing name talent that can draw a big enough crowd will never be easy. The Opera House’s move to resurrect Good God, which became the must-attend party of VIVID Live, was a welcome programming choice. But it’s difficult for a one-off event to develop local talent in the same way as an established party, which can be relied on week-in, week-out for gigs.
“The Opera House's programming does really well in elevating electronic and club music to a level that allows it to be seen as legitimate and respectable, especially to the government and outsiders who tend to look down on it,” says Lieu. “But you're only going to see top acts perform there, who have perfected their craft… I don't really see the Opera House filling the space the likes of World Bar had for so long, and it does make me wonder how that bodes for the next generation of artists.”
Then, an international like Yaeji drops in—mere months after “raingurl” became inescapable last summer—and quickly sells out her first Australian show, playing the country’s most iconic venue. It’s an impossibility for a local artist. Even in the most music-friendly city, it’s rare for a young producer to have the charisma to command a stage like that so early in their career, as Yaeji did on Saturday.
But she did not emerge fully-formed. Behind the 25-year-old’s fun, relaxed set were years of work—hundreds of hours on college radio in Pennsylvania and endless DJ gigs, even before Godmode’s Nick Sylvester came across her early tracks. In Sydney, a city with fewer stages and slots every month, there aren’t many opportunities for artists to build up that muscle memory, and, in the vacuum, they are left jostling for space at the extremes—on warehouse party line ups and the Opera House’s stages.
So for now the hope remains that, maybe, in time, the Opera House will start taking chances on booking locals, like DIN. Bump them up from the support to the headline spot. Or it could be Slim Set, or Princi, or Gussy, or Kwame, or Andy Garvey. It isn’t as if there’s a lack of talent.
Maddison Connaughton is the editor of The Saturday Paper.