For most music artists, playing live is the best part of being a musician. Sure, writing, recording and shooting videos can be fun and cathartic. Getting played on radio is great and reaching new listeners on streaming sites are also great milestones, but nothing beats the high of an amazing show.
The sentiment has been expressed to me time and time again by my peers in the local scene and also by some of the biggest bands in the world that I’ve had the opportunity to interview. The highlight for touring artists is always getting to play for an audience and of course, being a musician myself, it’s a feeling I know all too well.
We are all still recovering from the rollercoaster that was 2020 and one of the biggest concerns musicians had when COVID hit was how different their year was going to look without the ability to play live. Most, if not all of us were forced to cancel or change plans and there was much concern that our careers would not only be stalled but even move backwards.
Personal and professional pressure
Over the last 14 months, I saw this worry manifest in different ways for different people. Personally speaking, as a woman in an industry that glorifies youth, I was plagued by the thought that, ‘time is running out’ to achieve my goals. This pressure, combined with social isolation and not being able to see loved ones, sometimes took me to a very dark place, and I know I wasn’t alone in that.
A lovely symptom of being stuck inside is that you’re forced to look within, and we don’t always like what we find. But reflecting on this time over a year on, I can say that out of all the uncertainty experienced throughout this time, I certainly didn’t expect the transformation that ended up taking place within myself both personally and professionally.
Uncertainty and cancellations swept through Melbourne
The last show I attended before everything shut down in Melbourne, Australia was on Friday 13th March - yes, Black Friday - at Max Watts. Myself and guests were invited to an almost sold-out performance of one of my clients. But as uncertainty swept through our city, my friends ditched me at the last minute, opting to stay home and away from crowds, and many other punters had done the same. I didn’t know that it would be eight months before I would attend a live show again, coincidentally at Max Watts, in Sydney.
Not long after, things felt even more real for me as my band, The Last Martyr, was forced to cancel the video shoot for our next single, ‘Hindsight.’ It was a video we rescheduled five times and eventually released over a year later. I recall not wanting to get my hopes up the night before shoot day actually happened. ‘I’ll believe it when I’m dressed, at the studio and there’s a camera pointed at me,’ I thought.
As more restrictions were put in place around the country, it became abundantly clear that the pandemic was affecting not only musicians but promoters, venue staff, crew and music media, possibly even more so.
Although so many musicians were feeling lost and confused as to what they should do next, we could easily turn to other revenue streams like merch, fan subscriptions and even teaching to make up some of the lost income and exposure. After all, with social media and website options, artists have so many tools at their disposal to reach new audiences.
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My heart broke for the likes of promoters who’d put money on the line and music media outlets who relied on advertising revenue largely from tours and festivals to keep going. The worst part? No one knew when this was going to end.
“Logistically Covid has been an absolute nightmare,” said Silverback Touring Owner, Danny Bazzi. “We initially moved all of our internationals for 6 months based on the initial advice and have continually shifted them ever since as the advice changes. Tours have many moving parts at the best of times but coordinating new dates across agents, managers, artists and their schedules and then managing to string dates together with venues has been mind-numbing, frustrating and exhausting.”
Funding options for music venues
By May 2020, a petition was launched via Change.org titled, “Our Live Venue Pleas Are Falling On Deaf Ears.” Many were worried for live music institutions who’d been around for decades, particularly in Sydney, whose live music scene had already been ransacked by the infamous Lockout Laws that’d forced many of its venues to close since 2014.
An open letter to the Victorian government was published in late May by Save Our Scene, and the initiative launched the largest Parliamentary e-petition in the state’s history not only for more funding, but a clear roadmap to re-opening safely.
When the Australian Government introduced the JobKeeper Scheme it was a huge relief as it’d allow employers to keep staff on, subsidising their pay. But the scheme wouldn’t be helpful to everyone, and the pressure felt by many music industry professionals was palpable. Any grants or stimulus packages that were available seemed to fall short if they were even available at all.
Anthony Blaney of Your Mate Bookings said that the funding has simply not been enough. “I am and a lot of others are currently on a drastically reduced wage and even now (after losing the job keeper income in March 2021 - which continued to be reduced since 2020) the Job Seeker income is barely enough to cover expenses. There was a piddly $5000 grant given to NSW residents running small businesses but that's nothing.”
Music businesses pivot to stay afloat
It was clear from the start that if anyone was to come out the other side of this with a band or business intact, they would have to pivot fast, and pivot they did. Over the next few months, I was actually in awe watching how many businesses did so.
With Silverback Touring having a primary focus on bringing out international acts, they launched a local booking agency arm of the business adding a handful of local acts to their roster. I watched as both media outlet Wall of Sound and booking agency Your Mate Bookings launched merch lines and countless bands started Twitch channels, podcasts and experimented with live-streamed concerts. Venues started offering takeaway food and cocktails-to-go, and the infamous Sydney venue and dive bar Frankie's Pizza By The Slice turned itself into the coolest bottle shop in the country.
For The Last Martyr, not being able to release a single as planned led to recording an entire EP, completely rebranding and a renewed sense of direction and who we were as artists. For myself personally, reduced hours at my day job allowed me to significantly grow my consulting business which I went full time in last April.
Even though there were some wins, everyone in the industry was desperately missing live shows at this point.
Short-lived return to music
There was a brief reprieve in June as restaurants, bars and venues were allowed to trade as normal. But for Melbourne, the freedom was short-lived as our government thrust us into one of the strictest lockdowns in the world come August. The music capital of Australia was basically a ghost town for the rest of the year.
Conversely, by Q4 2020, most Australian cities had COVID under control and their live music scenes had returned to normal...well, sort of. Sydney music lovers were not allowed to sing or dance in public for fear it would increase the likelihood of transmission and when gigs returned, apart from dramatic capacity restrictions, punters were forced to be seated.
When borders between NSW and VIC opened in November 2020, I made a beeline to visit family and friends in Sydney. It was an emotional couple of weeks and strange on many levels, especially as masks weren’t mandatory in Sydney like they were in Melbourne. But it was on this trip, I experienced my first sitdown rock show at Max Watts. Given the bands were in a chill, new wave genre, it was quite nice having drinks brought over by staff to our candlelit tables. But most Sydneysiders I spoke to found the sitdown shows weird, especially as performers feed off the audience’s energy.
“As a performer and a frontman, who before covid was used to hyping the crowd to match our onstage energy, it felt as if there was a visceral kinetic disconnect between what we were playing, what the crowd wanted to do, and what people were actually allowed to do.” Said Raphael Smith from Sydney metal band, Broken Earth.
“I couldn't encourage any movement or the show would be shut down, it felt as if the energy myself and my band relied on from the crowd couldn't be received, which while not discouraging us from playing, felt as though we were all experiencing some kind of cognitive dissonance.”
Anthony from Your Mate Bookings summarised the vibe at shows and some of the new barriers to selling tickets. “It was quite embarrassing for me as a promoter having a lot of punters walk up to me to have a chat only to be told to sit down like a naughty school child...The tickets were harder to sell as the mental state of society was anxious and fearful.
We have the following issues in regards to ticket sales: 1. Who wants to sit down at a gig 2. The capacity of venues was so minimal that it is hard to turn a sustainable profit to survive on. 3. The people coming or not coming have as well been affected financially so they only have so much money to spend each week on a gig.”
Even if the gigs were seated, it was hard seeing my friends in other states go out to shows whilst I was locked down in the harsh Melbourne winter scrolling on Instagram and TikTok. What rubbed even more salt into the wounds was seeing live sporting events take place with tens of thousands of people in the stands, yet live music venues were still at reduced capacity.
Capacity limits and unpredictability
The continuous unpredictability of the touring industry led to venues and artists alike campaigning for punters to keep their tickets for cancelled shows until they were rescheduled, instead of asking for a refund. Parkway Drive recently revealed to The Australian that each cancelled show represents $1mil lost in revenue between the box office, merchandise and more.
For the most part, once word got out how much this would assist the scene, most people did. Guitarist of punk band, FANGZ, Samuel Sheumack, shared that “98% of ticket holders didn’t ask for a refund, and held their tickets for the rescheduled show. I think people are just super pumped to have something to look forward to after the past 18 months of not knowing when the next time they might see a gig will be.”
Things continue to be unpredictable, especially here in Melbourne and as capacity limits are still significantly decreased, many bands and venues have come up with the solution of hosting two sessions a night for each show.
My band’s first show in 18 months was doing such a show early May at the Northcote Social Club. Performing a double set is definitely more tiring than usual - especially when you play heavy music and especially for headliners Redhook who had to do a whole tour this way. But we were just happy to be back on stage again...and then again at 9.30pm.
Continuing the journey together
Originally when I began writing this piece it was going to be largely based on my own experiences navigating Australia’s live music scene through COVID and the return of live shows. But the more I thought about it, the prouder I felt thinking about how the people and businesses in all facets of our industry have endured and banded together during this time.
Although I’ve only just scratched the surface of everything that’s happened, I truly could not share my experiences without including the experiences of others because of how intimately each sector is intertwined. We’ve all been through this journey together and whilst we’re not fully out the other side yet, in a lot of ways we’ve become stronger, and learned to approach our businesses from angles we may not have previously.
To get a tad esoteric, what I've learned from this experience is to trust in divine timing, as hard as it can be sometimes. For many reasons, now was the best time for my band to release music strategically and personally. Not only have we kicked more goals than ever before with our latest single, but I don’t think I would have been able to give the attention promoting our music deserved if we were to launch 6 or 9 months ago.
I’ve learned more about myself in the last 14 months than I ever expected and I needed to learn those lessons to be the person I see in the mirror today. And I'm really proud of her.
As much as it’s easy to play the victim through all of this, as friend, band coach, and scene vetran Steven Cannatelli put it “Rock N' Roll has never had the support of any Government or Political Establishment...Keep looking after each other on a local level, keep that fire inside burning and we'll clear this hurdle the same as we've been clearing them the last 100 years! You can't kill us, we will emerge from these ashes stronger than ever!”
Monica Strut is a musician, heavy music fiend and “former” Myspace kid from Melbourne, Australia. After working for years as a music journalist and digital marketer, she now helps emerging bands and musicians reach the next level through her podcast, Being in a Band, coaching services and online courses. When not helping other musicians kick their goals she is writing, recording and playing in her own rock/metal band, The Last Martyr.
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