Live music gigs – providing an alternative to underage drinking in Byron Bay

Today GrogWatch publishes a first-hand account of an alcohol and other drug prevention program in action. Last week in our article Prevention: The key to changing our binge drinking culture we asked GrogWatch readers to tell us about how you are preventing alcohol and drug problems in your community. Nicqui Yazdi, Team Leader at BUDDI (Byron Underage Drinking & Drug Initiative) Community Drug Action Team answered the call and has generously shared her community’s learnings.

After over 6 years of facilitating a ‘youth drop-in’ program on Friday nights in Byron Bay, I think I’ve learned a few of the secrets to reducing harm from alcohol and drugs in the young people in our community. It took a few years and a bit of trial and error, to eventually find a winning formula though. When I first started the ‘Friday Nights @ The YAC’ program, it was initially aimed at young people in the first few years of high school, as they seemed to be the ones who were ‘hanging’ in the local parks and beaches and walking the streets on Friday nights. We opened up the YAC (Youth Activities Centre) from 5-10pm, had movies, lots of games like Wii and Playstation, a pool table, ping-pong, art and craft, a well-stocked music room, free food and lots to do. But, it was very difficult to have all attending to abide by the ‘drug & alcohol-free’ status of our program and the venue.

I consulted with one of the older local police, who many years ago, had run a ‘Blue Light Disco’ program in Byron. He told me that he thought that by running a program for this younger age group (12-15 years), we would actually be ‘enabling’ them to be coming out at night. Turns out, that in a way, he was right.

Over the first few years, we had little to no support from parents, who would either just drop off their kids and never come in and find out what we were doing, or let their kids find their own way there and home at 10pm. Many of these kids would say to their parents, “I’m going to the YAC”, but would then actually go into town, or to the parks, get their hands on alcohol. In a way, our program did ‘enable’ this behaviour. We didn’t have a chance to say to the parents “If you want your kids to stay here and not go into town, then this is something you must talk with them about”, as we weren’t a babysitting service and have no way of physically restraining the kids and keeping them at the YAC. All we could do was give the kids advice and positive messages and hope that they did the right thing. There were also parents who would drop their kids off, go to the pub, then come back obviously intoxicated to collect them at 10pm. Then there were the parents who never came to get their kids and couldn’t be raised on a phone either, so we would be left at the end of the night trying to figure out how to get these kids home safely.

After a few years of struggles over how to manage this younger age group, we decided to change tactics. We changed our program into a music-based program, calling it the YACROCKCAFE and opened up to young bands wanting to come and play for a live audience. This immediately changed the age group that started to come; they were older all of a sudden, more in the 14-24 year-old range, with the average age of 16-17 years. Strangely, this age group are OK with the alcohol-free status of the venue and never break it. This attitude was a bit of an eye-opener and reminded me of the policeman’s comment about aiming the program at a younger audience.

We were now also providing an opportunity for young bands and musicians to have somewhere to play. Their fans, friends and other young people had a place to go to see live music and actually get into using the music as their drug of choice. We supply the basic sound equipment, and work with audio and music students from the SAE Institute and high schools who manage the sound and get great ‘live sound’ experience – so it’s a win for these students too.

It’s been two and a half years now and every week we have on average four young bands from around Australia come and play the YACROCKCAFE. We get about 70 young people a week who come to watch. That’s 70 kids who aren’t doing the street drinking thing! Young people are social creatures too, so they do need constructive activities to do at night. But the older they are, the more they are likely to be responsible with their own choices. And the more respectful they will be with the options that are available to them. We never see the 15 year olds or older come with alcohol or go off into town looking for it. They come for the music, they dance, they mosh, they have fun and then they go home, happy and satisfied. We also give them free food and all of our events are free entry too. There is an old saying, ‘put on some food and the kids will come’, and they do.

It is very hard for young people growing up in Byron Bay not to get caught up in the alcohol culture here, because after all it is a holiday town. Being such a popular tourist destination, alcohol just happens along with it. So the youth growing up here see alcohol as the cultural norm, it’s what everyone does, every day and night of the year, with bigger use during the holiday seasons; but really, Byron is an all-year-round holiday town so it is a daily thing here. We’ve noticed though, that those young people who get into music are in a way protecting themselves from the alcohol-culture. They are busy making music, having band practices and performing… and bringing their friends along too. So even if we are only getting to those kids who love to see a band or are in bands, then at least we are getting to some of the teens here.

Young people coming to our YACROCKCAFE program might not even consider that what we are doing for them is actually a ‘harm-minimisation’ strategy – but it is. It is run as a combined initiative from the BUDDI (Byron Underage Drinking & Drug Initiative) Community Drug Action Team and Byron Youth Service, and it’s our way of keeping kids off the streets and out of the street drinking culture here. Teens need something constructive to do and music is a great distraction. We encourage them to ‘Cringe The Binge and binge on life and music’. It works for us and some of our local youth, and they seem to have not only taken on the alcohol-free status of our program, but take personal pride in it too.

Over the years, we have held a number of ‘Cringe The Binge’ events, giving t-shirts to the bands who play these events, and they come back again and again in these t-shirts – like it’s a ‘mark of pride’. ‘Cringe The Binge’ is another Byron-based concept, that aims to have Australians consider the issues of binge-drinking, through a national weekend of action in November and also encourages young people to make personal choices to ‘Cringe The Binge and binge on life instead.’ It’s all about their choices and a surprising number of young people do actually make good choices, even more so, if they are guided towards initiatives like Cringe The Binge.

I don’t think there’s a simple solution to ‘saving’ our youth from alcohol. Education is the key. At the end of the day, if young people are accessing alcohol, then they’re either getting it from home or there are adults buying it for them. Parents are still the primary suppliers. In a place like Byron, we also have an issue with the ‘backpackers’ (mostly fairly young themselves), who have no issues with buying alcohol on behalf of any young people who approach them.

We have fought tirelessly as a community to keep businesses like Dan Murphy’s out of Byron. We won a battle whereby we became the first community in Australia to undergo a conference with the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority in objection to Dan Murphy’s licence application for a superstore here. It was a BIG win for a small community. We are now also battling a proposed application from ALDI for a packaged liquor licence for their store here. This would set a precedent of being the first supermarket to sell alcohol in Byron, which we don’t want. The availability of cheap alcohol is a concern when it comes to young people.

We also have an active Liquor Accord who have alcohol outlets ‘agreements’ to not sell certain items, such as cask wines larger than 2 litres, or alcohol/energy drink mixes. Of course ALDI (being a national brand) would not adhere to these agreements, even if they were members of the local Liquor Accord.

One of the biggest secrets to reducing alcohol-related harm, is to have active communities and community groups who are willing to take up the challenge to do whatever they can, to not only keep our young people safe, but also to address alcohol related issues in the local community. Creative solutions such as our programs, should be more encouraged in every community. Ask young people what they want, what sort of things they think would help them to keep busy and active and not feel the need to reach for a bottle of alcohol. We asked and then we gave them what they wanted and now, as a community, we all benefit from it.

Nicqui Yazdi is Team Leader at BUDDI Community Drug Action Team and Coordinator of the YACROCKCAFE. She was also awarded Byron Shire Citizen of the Year in 2010.

Check out the YACROCKCAFE Facebook page.

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Read the Australian Drug Foundation’s new prevention research publication: Preventing drug and alcohol problems in your community – A practical guide to planning programs and campaigns