COVID has had a profound impact upon the lives and work of Australian musicians, reports Croakey journalist Alison Barrett, a keen supporter of live music who spoke with several musicians about their pandemic experiences.
Alison Barrett writes:
It was mid 2021 and most Australians had been under some form of order to stay at home or at least close to home for the past year.
Musicians – who had spent much of the previous year live-streaming to online audiences and wondering when, or if, they would ever play live music to a real crowd again – were starting to return to the stage.
At the alternative rock Spring Loaded Festivals in Sydney and Brisbane, MC Lindsay McDougall, guitarist with Frenzal Rhomb, found himself with the responsibility of COVID crowd control.
Anyone who has ever seen the festival headliners Grinspoon, Frenzal, and Jebediah knows that it would be no mean feat to ensure social distancing in those crowds.
“I had to spend a lot of time telling people to socially distance, which is a very funny idea in a mosh pit,” McDougall said.
For McDougall, also host of ABC Illawarra’s Drive show, a particular challenge of the pandemic was “adjusting to the seemingly whimsical changes to legislation”.
McDougall reflects on Bluesfest 2021 that was shut down when one person with COVID “crept across the border” from Queensland to NSW in 2021. He said it was interesting that the following year it was normal for thousands of people to have COVID without shutting anything down.
Acknowledging Frenzal Rhomb have been around for 30 years and that he personally didn’t mind having a break from touring, McDougall said he felt for newer bands who may have been on the cusp of making it big in 2019.
He said touring continues to be a challenge due to “price hikes” on flights, unpredictable ticket sales and lack of crew who were the first to lose their income when everything shut down.
“No one knew when you’d be able to tour again”, so many crew staff had to get other work, and some haven’t returned to the industry, he said, while festivals are still “crying out” for workers.
McDougall said he felt the music community had been forgotten by the Federal Government, although he acknowledges the Albanese Government appears more interested in supporting Australia’s contemporary arts and culture than previous governments.
Following a “decade of neglect, cuts and changes to Federal arts funding, and the hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic”, the Albanese Government launched its five-year National Cultural Policy in January, aimed at reviving Australia’s arts and culture sector.
With additional funding, restructuring of the Australia Council, a Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces and emphasis on prioritising First Nations people, “there are many positive actions in the new policy”, Associate Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne Jo Caust wrote in The Conversation.
“The devil will be in the details on how it is rolled out,” Caust said.
For Georgia Maq, singer-songwriter-guitarist for indie-rock band Camp Cope – who recently announced their breakup – the pandemic provided an opportunity to use her nursing training to help on the frontlines.
Partway through 2020 Maq decided to use her nursing qualifications and began working in COVID-testing centres and then on the vaccination rollout before getting a graduate nursing position in a hospital COVID ward in Naarm/Melbourne.
“I’ve been doing that ever since and I love it,” Maq told Croakey.
However, she also said it was “frustrating dealing with anti-vaxxers” during the vaccine rollout.
“I just want everyone to be fucking vaccinated and to care about others. That’s all,” she said.
Echoing the comments made by McDougall, Maq said it felt like the Morrison Government didn’t care about the music industry during the pandemic.
“It was just completely unfair. The music industry is so beneficial to Australia, and culture. Music is the universal language – I’ve never met a single person in my life who doesn’t like listening to music. You know, music can make you feel things without saying a single word.”
Maq, daughter of Redgum musician Hugh MacDonald, believes it may have been a different story for musicians if the Labor Government had been in power in the early days of the pandemic because she thinks “Anthony Albanese quite respects musicians and music”.
She told Croakey that unless you’re in a band that’s playing at stadiums and massive shows, it’s really hard to make a living as a musician in Australia, and that musicians should be provided a living wage.
“I think it’s going to be difficult for low to mid successful musicians to keep doing it because it’s expensive,” Maq said.
During the pandemic, she’s been writing and producing music in addition to her nursing shifts.
Maq said that Camp Cope’s fans are socially conscious and may be less likely to attend a concert if unwell. Camp Cope had mask mandates for everyone working on their shows, but many of the health and safety measures during their 2022 tour were left up to the band to implement.
Maq added that she was grateful for lockdowns preventing deaths from COVID.
Reset and refocus
When the first stay-at-home orders hit Adelaide in 2020, students and teachers at Cal Williams Jr’s Guitar Academy “scattered to the four winds”. He was left with an empty academy and no income to pay rent.
As he could only afford rent for one room, blues musician Williams Jr packed up the “three rooms of the Academy into one room” and then eventually closed the business down.
After the initial shock of the closure, Williams Jr was surprised by how relieved he felt that the burden of owning and managing a music business for seven years “exploded in one event”.
In the end, this was a positive outcome that helped him gain a perspective on what he valued in the art of music teaching, Williams Jr told Croakey.
While initially thinking in the early days of the pandemic that “maybe being a professional musician probably wasn’t the greatest career choice”, since the academy closed, he has been busy with one-on-one teaching (online until restrictions ended), gigging and converting one of the old teaching rooms into a bookshop.
Pubs, event organisers and Adelaide City Council did what they could to keep live music in Adelaide – from live streaming gigs from different pubs to recording Backstage Sessions for the cancelled Guitar Festival in 2020 to hosting musicians on city streets.
“I think people realised we were getting a pretty raw deal – there was no real support for artists and musicians,” Williams Jr said.
Initiatives like SA State Government’s See It Live e-vouchers will help musicians in a roundabout way with funds for small venues in SA to host live music, according to Williams Jr.
“In a way, I think people are [now] more appreciative of music,” he said.
Demand for live music is being affected by the public’s COVID concerns, as well as staffing problems being experienced by pubs and restaurants, according to Naarm/Melbourne-based musician Rebecca Barnard.
“There’s still a lot of COVID around,” said Barnard, who was the lead singer of 90s band Rebecca’s Empire, and continues to record and perform solo – and who has also been a regular guest on TV shows Spicks and Specks and Rockwiz.
She told Croakey that planning album tours is tough in the current precarious environment.
Flights, accommodation and venues all have to be organised before tickets go on sale, and then they may find only 30 tickets have been sold a week before the show.
“That’s why a lot of musicians are cancelling gigs,” says Barnard. “It’s only since COVID that this started happening.”
Since the advent of digital streaming, bands don’t make much money from selling music, Barnard said. For income, they “rely on getting bums on seats at gigs”.
She said she’s not sure how much governments can do, but there’s currently no significant regulation on streaming. The big streaming corporations “have got us over a barrel”, Barnard said.
“The thing that infuriates me…imagine a world without music.”
During the long Melbourne lockdowns, Barnard streamed some live shows each week and recorded a song a week for RRR community radio station.
She told Croakey “it was good to stop and take stock…and think about why we do what we do” but also acknowledged she didn’t have desire to immerse herself in anything creative – “the muse wasn’t there”.
While she loves music and performing, the pandemic has been challenging as a performer. She has noticed feeling “a little bit disconnected” and not fully present when performing, surmising that it could be because “it could all come to a crashing end any minute…we just all feel a bit more fragile and vulnerable”.
Barnard also puts the suffering of the music industry into a broader context, acknowledging friends and family who lost loved ones.
She completed her first jazz album during the past couple of years and launched it to a sold-out crowd last month.
Support local artists
In early 2020 and afraid they would be stuck in London and away from family, singer and performer Carla Lippis and her husband made the decision to leave the UK before Australia’s borders closed.
“My intuition was going crazy…We just walked out of the house and left, took a bag, got on a plane and came back, and I was so relieved,” Lippis told Croakey.
Leaving a five-year career performing in London’s West End behind, Lippis felt lucky she and her husband could leave.
Many of their friends did not have the option, and they “really struggle” and continued to struggle, she said, “because the bottom fell out of the entertainment industry, especially for live performers”.
Three years later they are still in Adelaide with no plans to return to the UK.
While work was slow to pick up in Adelaide, Lippis said that the work she was doing in London “just doesn’t exist anymore. All the clubs shut down, and for a really long time. A lot of them went out of business”.
In hindsight, she acknowledges the forced break from performing was well-needed and the “time staring at the wall allowed” her to regroup and spend time considering what kind of artist she wanted to be.
She also appreciated having time to spend with family and friends.
Deciding she wanted to create original music, Lippis got a band together – called Mondo Psycho – and spent the past 18 months writing and creating a new sound, which she describes as post-apocalyptic rock.
With their inaugural album due to be released mid-year, Lippis told Croakey about some of the challenges in making an album. Making a full-length album and then touring is incredibly expensive, she said.
Lippis said the funding structure for the Music Development Office – the government office to support local contemporary music in South Australia – is different to other art forms and they “don’t have as much to pass around as other funding bodies”.
The music industry in South Australia is very limited, especially in terms of record labels and PR companies and runs the risk of losing “a lot of incredible people who have come back to South Australia” during the pandemic, Lippis said. “We need to support them, because then they’ll stay.”
Yolngu musician, singer and storyteller Yirrmal shares his experience of being a musician from remote North East Arnhem Land during the pandemic in a separate article.
Yirrmal, son of Yothu Yindi musician Witiyana Marika, describes challenges making music and touring from Arnhem Land, including the significant financial cost of travel and limited production services.
He calls for allyship and supportive policies to facilitate more First Nations artists being involved in the music industry.
You can read his full story here.
National Cultural Policy
Live Performance Australia – the peak body for the live performance industry – made a submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation, highlighting many of the issues raised by the musicians above, including skills shortages and increasing costs of touring.
Evelyn Richardson, Chief Executive of Live Performance provided the following statement to Croakey in response to ALP’s National Cultural Policy.
“Everybody, on and off stage, is working under intense pressure in a very challenging post-pandemic environment.
The industry is re-emerging from the pandemic into a whole new set of critical challenges – skills shortages across the board, soaring costs, household budgets under growing pressure, and shifts in consumer behaviour when it comes to buying tickets. The growing incidence of weather-related disruptions to events and festivals is also adding to the rocky road back.
To realise the ambition of the National Cultural Policy, we need the people, businesses and organisations in place to deliver it.
We need to continue to support them through what continues to be a very challenging period particularly over the next 12 to 18 months as the new approach set out in the national cultural policy takes shape.
All levels of government need to prioritise the skills and training needs of the industry.
Our survey of LPA members has revealed critical shortage of skills particularly in technical and production roles ranging from stagehands through to lighting and sound technicians and riggers, as well as front of house roles.
In our Federal Pre-Budget submission we have called for support to fund traineeships and establish industry-led initiatives to attract, retrain and retain skilled workers.
Support programs put in place during COVID have been wrapped up.
But many of our artists and crew, and businesses and organisations which support them are still in a very challenging position.
Financial reserves have been depleted during the pandemic. We are reopening into a period of much higher costs across the board (up by 30 to 50 percent), including for touring. Ticket revenues remain down on pre-pandemic levels, and consumers are buying their tickets much later in the cycle which increases risk for producers, promoters and presenters.
We have called for a grants program over the next 18 months to help businesses and organisations continue their recovery and rebuild. These grants could help offset increased production and operational costs. We also need to help organisations rebuild their financial reserves that would be matched by state and territory governments.
Emotional, cultural and physical safety in the workplace is also a critical part of the recovery process.
We welcome the creation of the Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces in the national cultural policy, but this needs to be complemented by the delivery of training and education programs in workplaces. However, the Centre does not appear to be adequately resourced to support workplace training and programs to deliver better outcomes.
LPA has developed a national code of practice for the live performance industry and delivered respectful workplaces training across its membership in 2018 and 2019. We have called for funding support to enable more training programs to be delivered in workplaces and plans to do more in this area.”
See them play
You can see Camp Cope play their final Adelaide gig this Friday 3 March as part of the Adelaide Festival, and their last show in Naarm/Melbourne – sold out – at the Brunswick Music Festival on 11 March.
Rebecca Barnard is also playing at Brunswick Music Festival at an International Women’s Day gig on 8 March. You can also see Barnard play songs from her new album with her band at The Kelvin Club, Melbourne on 5 May and at Monstalvat, Eltham on 28 May.
Frenzal Rhomb recently released a new single and are booked to play at Spring Loaded Festival, Sandstone Point Hotel, QLD in June. Their new album – delayed due to the pandemic – is planned to be released in April.
Carla Lippis is performing in 27 Club at Adelaide Fringe Festival. The 27 Club are then running shows at Geelong (23 March), Castlemaine (24 March), Brisbane (31 March) and Gold Coast (1 April). Mondo Psycho are planning to launch their album mid-2023.
See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on COVID-19.
Croakey thanks and acknowledges donors to our public interest journalism funding pool who have helped support this article.