After more than 100 days, live music is back on in Sydney. At Butcher’s Brew Bar, it’s a sold-out show for Bek Jensen and the Gold Rockets.
- Annual spending of $1.4 billion on live music has fallen 90 per cent from pre-COVID times
- More than 4,000 venues present live music across Australia
- The majority of these venues are either closed or operating under strict social distancing conditions that don’t make music profitable
“It’s unreal. I mean, the one thing that I’ve been missing is live music,” said one punter.
But gigs are operating a little differently. Audiences must be seated, vaccination status must be checked, and fewer tickets can be sold because of the one person per four square metres rule.
The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on venues mean the pain for the live music industry is far from over. Some venues the ABC spoke to said putting on shows under the current restrictions didn’t financially stack up.
For example, a small venue like Butcher’s Brew Bar can only operate at 40 per cent capacity, with crowd numbers capped at 25.
“We’re just treading water until the restrictions can get lifted.”
CLYPSO rides out the storm
Sydney-based musician, songwriter and singer CLYPSO has seen the best of times and the worst of times during the COVID pandemic.
The Indie dance musician supported Australian music royalty, the Avalanches, on their tour around the country earlier this year.
That was during a sweet spot of reopening before the Delta variant of the coronavirus hit Sydney and Melbourne hard.
She used the COVID downtime to write songs and collaborate with other artists.
And being asked by the Avalanches to make a song with them was a lockdown highlight.
CLYPSO said her performance income fell by at least one-third after all her gigs were cancelled several times over the past two years.
“It’s been a challenging two years.”
“Lots of curveballs, for sure.”
The musician has other strings to her bow, which she has called on to make ends meet.
She teaches music to children and works as an organist at a Sydney church, although coronavirus restrictions have limited the number of weddings and funerals.
While CLYPSO has managed to survive, other artists she knows have struggled.
She pointed out what she saw as preferential treatment given to the sports industry compared with the arts, with big sporting events such as AFL and NRL games being allowed to be held, but music gigs shut down.
‘Save our Scene’ calls for clarity
In Melbourne, the lifting of lockdown restrictions on Friday won’t mean ‘freedom day’ for the live music industry.
Colour nightclub is part of a Victorian campaign led by live music venues called Save Our Scene, which is calling for more support from the state and federal governments and for clarity on when music venues can operate at full capacity.
“We have mostly been left in the dark. There should be the capacity for the people who are involved in this industry to discuss the recovery of it moving forward,” said Liam Alexander, co-owner of Colour.
At the moment, there is no plan for allowing music venues to reopen at full capacity. In the Victorian roadmap, indoor entertainment venues can reopen for the fully vaccinated with a one person per 4 square metre density rule when the state hits the 80 per cent vaccination target, with a cap of 150 for larger venues.
The state government was forced to apologise for an erroneous suggestion that venues could open when the 70 per cent target was reached.
In New South Wales the roadmap does not detail plans to lift density quotas further than the two person per square metre rule.
The federal government will cut the COVID-19 disaster relief payments entirely two weeks after the 80 per cent vaccination target is met.
Mr Alexander said density limits on venues were unsustainable and many would not survive without ongoing support.
“Venues are crucial to the ongoing success of this city culturally and of our perception as one of the live music capitals of the world,” he said.
APRA pushes music industry insurance
Dean Ormston, the CEO of APRA AMCOS, said the music industry was in for a tough summer and would not get back on its feet until at least the middle of next year. The industry is already estimated to have lost 36,000 jobs since the pandemic hit.
“Our industry was the first to fall off a cliff with airlines and hospitality last year, but we’ve got to wait till pubs and clubs are back operating at full capacity before economically, it works for live music,” he said.
A Senate committee is considering a bill to introduce a federal government-backed insurance scheme to cover the industry against COVID-19 related cancellations, put forward by Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
Mr Ormston said a national scheme was crucial for the industry to confidently book shows again.
“Many bands have people that live in different states that come together for a tour. It’s just impossible for people to navigate what might be a state by state-based insurance scheme, we say it needs to be solved by the national cabinet.”
Holy Holy hit by lockdowns
Holy Holy has members and support staff across four states, which means the band has been unable to play shows for months.
“Touring is just so important, not only because it’s how we all make our money, but also having made all of that beautiful music, it is such an important part of how we put it out into the world, and connect with fans” said band manager Jess Beston.
Ms Beston said the cost of having to pay for hotel quarantine and a COVID-19 compliance officer meant they may have to cancel a 20 date tour planned for November and December.
The tour was supposed to be the band’s chance to capitalise on the August release of their fourth album, Hello My Beautiful World, which debuted at number four on the ARIA Album chart.
“That is just absolutely devastating,” she said.
Ms Beston said while the band was grateful to have received a federal government-funded RISE grant to help pay for the basics of putting on a tour, most bands and their support staff had not received the same support.
“You are looking at tens of thousands of agents, crew, venues, merchandise companies, marketing and PR companies, poster companies, production houses where we all hire our audio, backline and lighting equipment,” she said.
The Brew is back
Back at Butchers Brew Bar, Bek Jensen and the Gold Rockets were ecstatic to have played their first show in months.
“I’ve spent my whole life on this stage and I wouldn’t be myself if I wasn’t here,” said singer and guitarist Bek Jensen.
But drummer Declan Kelly said while some musicians had been used to surviving off little money, government support was crucial to getting through COVID-19.
As for whether this summer will prove to be one full of live music? He’s apprehensive.
“Who knows, the last two years has just been unpredictable.”
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