The Roadmaps To Nowhere: The Music Industry Is Being Left Behind Again
Government roadmaps out of lockdown barely factor in live music, and the path forward for musicians is very unclear.
As a Melbourne-based musician, the last 18 months have been, quite simply, devastating.
I spent most of 2020 and 2021 locked down in my bedroom slash home studio, using my swivel chair to rotate from my bed to my desk and vice versa, trying to be creative and trying not to think about the amount of income and career-advancement opportunities I’ve missed during the pandemic. Like countless other musicians, I’ve lost thousands of dollars in cancelled gigs from the most recent Victorian outbreak and subsequent lockdowns.
While career advancement opportunities are impossible to quantify, measured only in what-ifs and if-onlys, I can’t deny the income I’ve lost. Like many creatives I generate a living wage through several different avenues — and live performance, in a normal year, is a significant one. Thankfully, other income streams have helped me to weather the storm of the last 18 months. I’m also a music publicist and lecturer — and, as of 2020, a Twitch streamer — and with the addition of a one-day-a-week casual office job, I’ve been able to survive financially without gigs for the time being.
And I’m proud to say that I haven’t just survived this pandemic, but I’ve continued to release new music and build my audience as well. I have released two EPs since November 2020 and started streaming multiple times a week to my growing Twitch viewership. While this is something that I’m incredibly proud of, I am so sad that I haven’t been able to perform my new music live — and I know that while I may continue to grow my audience online, the growth of my local audience is stunted due to the lack of shows.
I want to note here that I am fully vaccinated, and support the necessary lockdown measures and restrictions that are put in place to protect the community. It’s also important to acknowledge that live performances are first to be cancelled by such measures, and the very last to be restored. That means that for musicians and crew, the last 18 months have been completely financially devastating. Even if based in a state that hasn’t been subjected to rolling lockdowns, Australian musicians are still not performing gigs at anywhere near a pre-COVID rate, due to the unpredictability of the virus. A single case can trigger a snap lockdown at any moment, leaving thousands of musicians and crew in the red.
While it may seem that in some ways the Australian government is listening and responding with support, through specific funding opportunities such as the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand fund (RISE), the reality is that Australian musicians are still in dire need of financial support. The funding is not going to who needs it most — and musicians are struggling to pay the bills, with many jumping ship and changing careers altogether. If Australia wants to have a music industry to enjoy at the end of the pandemic, more needs to be done to support musicians.
So what does the path back to normalcy look like for Australian musicians — and how long is it actually going to take to get there?
What Do The Roadmaps Look Like?
Every state and territory in Australia is seemingly fighting its own battle against coronavirus, and each one has its own rules and guidelines for the live music sector. Interpreting each individual roadmap is confusing and demoralising, as most guidelines indicate significantly reduced capacity for indoor and outdoor venues, with no concrete reimbursement for the lost income these necessary safety measures will cause for musicians and crew.
Even though musicians in Western Australia are currently able to perform at venues with no capacity limitations, and in Queensland musicians are able to perform to seated full capacity crowds, these states are still not immune to outbreaks of COVID, resulting in cancelled shows and lost income. Whether it’s caused by reduced capacity, a snap lockdown, or any other coronavirus-related roadblock (i.e. border closures), musicians all around the country will continue to lose income, even when they are able to perform more regularly.
According to the roadmap revealed by premier Dan Andrews on September 19, once Victoria reaches the current ‘end goal’ of 80 percent of people over 16 being fully vaccinated, entertainment venues in metropolitan Melbourne can have one fully vaccinated person every four square metres — to a maximum of 150 people — in an indoor space.
For context, the Croxton Bandroom has an original capacity of 900 people — but at 527 square metres, it would not be able to hold the maximum of 150 people under the roadmap’s guidelines. In fairness, the roadmap does state that ‘significant venues (were) to be considered for larger crowds’, but there is no indication of what constitutes a larger crowd or a significant venue. As November 5, the date the roadmap suggests Victoria will reach 80 percent fully vaccinated, draws ever closer, these terms remain undefined.
Outdoor gigs in metropolitan Melbourne are set to be slightly more financially viable in terms of capacity, with the roadmap indicating a capacity of ‘lesser than 25 percent or 5000 per venue’, but it is still deeply concerning that the final stage in the current Victorian roadmap will see musicians struggling to make a profit from shows.
If Australia wants to have a music industry to enjoy at the end of the pandemic, more needs to be done to support musicians.
For reference, lower capacity shows mean artists will be selling significantly less tickets to performances. Unless an artist chooses to do some form of ‘stripped back’ performance, the costs of putting on a show generally remain the same no matter how many audience members are in the room. A lot of the time, if a bandroom usually holds 900 people, an artist will need to sell the vast majority of those 900 tickets to make a profit from that performance.
In terms of capacity limits, the New South Wales roadmap out of lockdown is not drastically different to Victoria’s — once NSW reaches 70 percent fully vaccinated, the roadmap also notes a one person per four square metre rule for indoor venues, or a limit of 75 percent fixed seated capacity. Restrictions are to be further reconsidered once the state reaches the 80 percent fully vaccinated landmark, predicted to be around the 18th to the 23rd of October.
On Monday, September 27, the NSW government unveiled their plan to further lift restrictions for all citizens regardless of vaccination status from the 1st of December 2021. Amongst this list of new rules, the NSW government states that entertainment venues will be able to operate with one person every two square metres (as opposed to the previous rule of one person every four square metres).
For information on interstate and international touring, musicians would expect to be able to look to the Federal Government’s phased roadmap for answers — but there aren’t many to be found. According to the Federal Government’s current roadmap out of lockdown, when each state reaches 80 percent of people over 16 being fully vaccinated, those people will be exempt from ‘domestic restrictions’, and the restrictions on outbound travel will be lifted.
The Federal Government’s roadmap is bereft of any specific information for particular industries, but one would assume that these vague indicators would mean that, ideally, once the country reaches 80 percent fully vaccinated, residents will be able to travel freely across state borders.
As mentioned above, states and territories have largely acted independently of each other during the course of the pandemic. In actuality, the Federal Government has little control over the vague ‘domestic restrictions’ mentioned in their roadmap. State premiers will no doubt continue to close borders as they see fit — particularly as even the Federal Government’s roadmap notes that at the 80 percent fully vaccinated mark, ‘highly targeted lockdowns’ may still be necessary. This means that touring still may not be a viable income stream for Australian musicians for quite some time.
What Financial Support Is Actually Available For Musicians?
All of this does not bode well for an industry that relies on gatherings of people to make an income. There have been a small number of government initiatives to support musicians during the pandemic, however, evidence has shown that most cash has not yet reached the hands of those who need it the most: working musicians and crew.
The Arts Rescue Package announced by the Federal Government in June 2020 and, at the time, supported by Guy Sebastian, has repeatedly been called into question, as the glacial pace of its rollout left artists wondering if they’d ever see any of the promised funds. In March, Kelly Burke wrote in The Guardian that “of the federal government’s earlier $250m rescue package for the sector…three-quarters is yet to be spent. $50 million of that has been quarantined for insurance for the film industry, which is yet to make a claim; and an additional $85m — around a third of the full budget — is yet to be distributed.”
The Arts Rescue Package is the source of funding for the RISE grants, which is a program through which arts organisations can apply for funds “to assist in the presentation of cultural and creative projects, activities and events to rebuild confidence amongst investors, producers and consumers.” RISE funding has been granted to everything from Australia’s productions of Hamilton ($932,140) to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ($971,895), to multiple art galleries, theatres, dance companies, and many more artist organisations across the country.
Massive Australian festivals and promoters have also been provided with funding, with Secret Sounds ($1,593,520), Bluesfest ($1,000,000), Laneway ($500,000) WOMADelaide and Adelaide Festival ($938,000) amongst many of the recipients. A handful of Australian bands and artists have also been allocated funding directly, with Peking Duck ($91,500), Holy Holy ($65,194), and Imogen Clark ($12,900) respectively receiving grants to produce shows and to tour Australia.
But the RISE funding has also been called into question by the Australian music industry, with both Sophie Kirov of touring and events agency Lost Motel and Melbourne-based artist Alex Lahey publishing open letters pointing out that because of the payment-upon-completion model utilised within the music industry — that is, artists and crew are not paid the full fee until after the show has happened — millions of dollars passed on to Australian festivals through RISE funding is currently sitting untouched in promoter’s bank accounts, unlikely to be seen by artists in the foreseeable future.
“In the four rounds of (RISE) funding, Contemporary Live Music specifically has received $44 million in funding across 69 tours, events and festivals,” wrote Sophie Kirov in her open letter to minister of the arts Paul Fletcher. “To date only 10 of these have been seen to execution…representing a mere $6 million. Of the remaining $38 million that has been allocated to live music, those funds sit untouched in the bank accounts of the promoters of cancelled, postponed, or entirely unannounced beneficiaries while our industry crumbles. Only three percent of the total $200 million RISE Fund pool has been disseminated downstream to live music businesses.”
At the time of writing, RISE has since announced a fifth round of recipients.
It’s all very well to create funding opportunities for tours and artistic projects that reinvigorate the community after 18 months of disruption and despair. But while most of the announced funding sits untouched by promoters, waiting for the day when Australian festivals can happen again, musicians and crew are struggling to cover day-to-day costs.
While most of the announced funding sits untouched by promoters, waiting for the day when Australian festivals can happen again, musicians and crew are struggling to cover day-to-day costs.
On a personal level, I’ve lost five scheduled gigs between today and June 2021. It may not seem like much, but the combined value of those gigs is thousands of dollars. This was money I needed to live — not just to produce music and maintain my creative practice, but to help cover actual living costs.
Support Act’s COVID Relief Grants were also funded under the Arts Rescue Package, and are an extremely important source of funds for struggling artists right now. Their $2000 COVID Relief payments are available to anyone who can prove they have been working in the Australian music or performing arts sector for the last three years. I received this grant in May 2021, and the application process was simple, the employees at Support Act were empathetic, thoughtful and non-judgemental, and payment was prompt.
But $2000, despite being a life-saver at the time, doesn’t go particularly far when your entire industry is shut down. Six weeks ago, I applied for the Victorian Government’s Live Performance Support Program, which said it would reimburse artists up to $500 for each lost gig due to lockdowns. I am yet to hear if I’ve been successful in this application — when I called the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions to check on my application, the person I spoke to said they had been so inundated with applications for the program that it could be weeks until I hear if I’ll receive reimbursement for my lost gigs.
The Federal Government’s COVID Disaster payments, which musicians are eligible for if they can prove they have lost income through loss of gigs, rehearsals, sessions, etc, have personally been a lifeline for me during the lockdown in Victoria. However, I feel a steadily increasing sense of doom, knowing that the payments will end, presumably when we hit the slated vaccine targets — but generating an income through live music in this country will still be very difficult.
What Needs To Happen?
In her open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Melbourne-based artist Alex Lahey calls for a “Federal Government led national insurance scheme and wage subsidies program for the arts and entertainment industry.”
In August 2021, The Guardian published an article by Kelly Burke outlining the mounting pressure on the Federal Government to establish an insurance guarantee for the live music sector. “A federal insurance guarantee will plug this massive hole in the insurance market and help get our shows back on the road well into the future,”, Greens spokesperson for the arts Sarah Hanson-Young told The Guardian. “The live performance sector isn’t asking for a handout, it is asking for a product that simply isn’t available right now so that they can plan gigs, festivals and events with confidence they won’t keep taking massive financial hits with ongoing restrictions and lockdowns.”
According to this piece, Labor’s spokesperson for the arts, Tony Burke, also echoed these sentiments.
“The live performance sector isn’t asking for a handout, it is asking for a product…so that they can plan gigs, festivals and events with confidence.”
A national insurance scheme for the live music sector was introduced in the UK in August 2021, as festival promoters noted the impossibility of obtaining event insurance for live performances affected or cancelled due to coronavirus. While some in the industry lamented the insurance scheme being ‘too little, too late’, many welcomed it, noting how much more peace of mind this safety net will provide to festival organisers and the artists on their lineups. A similar Federal Government insurance scheme, like the one suggested by Lahey and Hanson-Young, would be incredibly helpful as the Australian music industry attempts to recover its losses while also reinvigorating the sector.
The Australian music industry is in desperate need of funds to cover simple living costs — not just to put on and insure live shows once it’s possible to do so. Emergency funding like that of the Support Act COVID Relief Grant is absolutely vital to our industry right now, and more funding like this, treated with similar urgency, needs to be made available to musicians and crew who are struggling to pay the bills right now — and will continue to struggle even as the country reaches vaccine targets and starts to open up.
A wage subsidy program like that of JobKeeper is vital to keep our industry afloat while coronavirus safety precautions keep live music under restrictions. As Alex Lahey notes in her open letter, “…the conclusion of the JobKeeper and the JobSeeker scheme has neglected an entire industry that continues to be unable to keep or seek jobs for the foreseeable future.”
The Australian music community is in a serious crisis. We have been consistently let down by government promises of financial support and given confusing and conflicting information about when we will be able to safely perform again. But there are ways to combat this crisis, and when we can play shows it is possible for us to do so in a way that is financially viable. We just really need some help getting back on our feet.