‘The losses are incalculable’: Australian music reels of COVID success | Arts and culture news
Melbourne, Australia – Peter Noble remembers when he had to shut down his music festival just hours before it opened.
“It was a situation of shock, horror and trauma not only for me but for my whole team,” he told Al Jazeera.
Noble is the director of Bluesfest, an annual Australian music festival that has seen stars such as James Brown, BB King and Norah Jones perform on stage.
Held in the popular coastal tourist destination of Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, the award-winning Bluesfest draws around 25,000 people to the area, generating millions for the local economy.
However, the effect of COVID-19 saw the festival shut down by Australian health authorities the day before it opened, based on a single case in the region.
“We were ready to go and discussed the public health cancellation until the day before,” Noble said. “I keep shaking my head and I’m like, ‘Was this action plan the only one available? “
“Not only were we closed, but our entire area up to an hour’s drive was closed. The losses are incalculable. It is not just the millions of dollars that we have let go and lost, it is the tens of millions of dollars that our region has lost because it has not been able to trade fully.
The 2021 cancellation earlier this year came after the cancellation of last year’s event. In 2020, they received three weeks’ notice.
The cancellation of musical events due to the coronavirus has hit the Australian music industry hard across the board.
Not only have major festivals like Bluesfest been closed, smaller pub gigs have also had to close, tours have been canceled, and even the ability to rehearse and record is restricted due to ongoing lockdowns.
Economic modeling from consulting firm PwC Australia indicates that Australia’s music industry was worth A $ 1.82 billion ($ 1.36 million) in 2019 – a figure expected to fall by 90% in 2020.
The mainstays of Australia’s You Am I music scene saw their 32-year-old march almost stop in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
The band members live in different Australian states and, due to travel restrictions, even had to record their new album remotely.
“We just had to adapt,” bassist and manager Andy Kent told Al Jazeera. “We managed to set a record one way or another when we weren’t even in the same condition.”
The Australian music industry has traditionally relied on touring and live performances to generate income and for artists to market themselves.
You Am I, who started performing together in 1989, fully understands the importance of live performance for new and emerging groups.
“If you have 2,000 people in a room, your merchandise [merchandise] sales will be up, ”said Kent. “And if you tour a lot, there are a lot of people who engage with you and therefore your profile increases and you are more likely to play on the radio or your record sales will increase.”
Kent tells Al Jazeera that while You Am I has been fortunate to have over 30 years of experience and a strong loyal fan base to draw on, the lack of touring and performance opportunities creates a huge challenge. for new and emerging groups.
“This fundamental core that plays in front of so many people is very important to the music business and these touring groups,” he said.
Still, emerging Indigenous soul singer Kee’ahn rose to the challenge by releasing her debut single Better Things in mid-2020.
With her hometown of Melbourne in the midst of a multi-month lockdown, Kee’ahn felt it was actually a good time to kick off the song.
“I was like, I really want to release this song because I love it and I think it might be useful during this stage of everything,” Kee’ahn told Al Jazeera.
With no opportunity to perform live or on tour to support the release of Better Things, the song still caught the airwaves of the only online release and even won an award at the 2020 National Indigenous Music Awards.
“Everyone was online [due to the lockdown] so it exploded that way, ”Kee’ahn said.
The singer – whose name means ‘dance, sing and play’ in her family’s indigenous Wik language – says the lockdown has opened up online opportunities that many musicians may not have previously considered.
“Personally, I am really interested [in how] Tik Tok and Instagram have influenced the way music and [how] artists can capitalize off stream and start a musical career without actually doing live concerts, ”she said.
“I really like the online space that plays on Zoom and IG Live. The younger generation can adapt to the online space. I’m not saying the older generation can’t, but I think it’s easier [for young people]. “
However, despite the opportunities of online engagement, Kee’ahn also recognizes the limitations.
“It’s not the same to do it online through Zoom,” she said. “But it underscored just how more accessible online music can be for people who can’t make it in person. I [still] think live music is really important.
Noble remains adamant that the Australian live music industry needs to be supported.
“I just don’t want this to be the end of major live music events in Australia,” he said. “I see people turning to streaming events and that really concerns me.”
Musicians and artists were able to access the Australian government’s Jobkeeper Allowance, a minimum-wage welfare scheme designed to help workers who have found themselves unemployed due to the fallout from COVID-19.
However, access to Jobkeeper is now complete, and although the government has committed an additional A $ 135 million ($ 101 million) to support the industry, this is well below the nearly A $ 2 billion (1 , $ 5 billion) generated each year.
Noble says that live music, in particular, is vital, not only to the concert experience for the audience, but also to the income it generates for the musicians.
“As CD revenues have become virtually nil and streaming is nil, the music industry depends on live performances for its revenue,” Noble said.
“And now I’m starting to see streaming events happening replacing live music events. I can guarantee you that the payments of those for the artists are not equal or close to what the artists are paid for live performances. “
Noble says the Australian government should support the music industry in the same way it has supported the return of the sport.
Tens of thousands of people can now attend sports matches and an Olympic team has been sent to Tokyo, although Australia has some of the most draconian travel restrictions in the world due to COVID-19 – to the point that even the citizens were unable to return home.
Yet stringent social distancing measures have dramatically reduced the capacity of concert halls, and laws banning dancing have even been enacted.
“There’s a joke going around in the industry that all musicians should run on stage in a soccer sweater and throw a ball into the audience and we won’t be canceled,” Noble said. “But there is a lot of truth to this joke.”
Despite the challenges COVID-19 presented, Noble is hosting Bluesfest for the third time.
Now, which will take place in October with an all-Australian roster, he says it has been “very difficult for us to get up and get out of the mat”.
The festival – and the live music – can still be tested further.
COVID-19 is back for a recall and Sydney is on lockdown amid a new outbreak caused by the more transmissible Delta variant.