2021, the local music industry is counting on you. Don’t let us down

What silver linings – and future trends – can we pick out of the rubble of a year we’d sooner forget?

Let’s not beat around the bush: music’s done better than we’d have guessed it would this year, and the future is looking if not exactly bright, then it at least has a vague luminescence you can pick out if you really squint.

And lest you accuse me of being a starry-eyed Pollyanna deliberately underplaying the devastation the year has wrought, let’s first acknowledge our losses: from John Prine to Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, we lost many music legends prematurely to the virus.

A lot of people in the music industry also saw their careers abruptly ended in 2020. This was particularly in the wake of the government’s baffling and entirely deliberate decision to exclude many in the arts industry (and the university sector, and people on visas…) from JobKeeper support because, as treasurer Josh Frydenberg explained, “a line has to be drawn somewhere”.

Except that no, it didn’t – at least, not at that point. And it’s hard to see why accountants and truck drivers and IT managers deserved help with paying rent and keeping the lights on while promoters, musicians and PA riggers apparently could live on air and good vibes. Especially when ol’ Joshy found himself with an extra $60 billion unspent on economic relief, and our creative sectors still found the ink with which that line was drawn to be stubbornly indelible.

Similarly, many live venues haven’t returned from COVID-hibernation at all while those which soldiered on are still struggling with limited capacity restrictions and the ever-present fear of lockdowns.

And, of course, the touring industry is in disarray as international acts remain largely out of reach – at least, those not of suitable size to afford a fortnight’s quarantine before embarking on a run of shows. And finally, there’s the fact that even a successful vaccine rollout won’t mean the end of audience caps, social distancing and masks, at least for a good while.

All that being said, if things do start to revert back to our pre-COVID times in 2021 then it’s worth acknowledging the silver linings and recognising a few things which emerged from our collective hell that will bode well for the future. For example…

1. We’ll forge closer creative ties with New Zealand

Australia has always punched above its weight in terms of amazing artists per capita, but NZ is arguably even stronger. By my calculation, every single household in Dunedin contains at least six bands and at least one cassette-only label, and I assume that’s the same ratio across the nation.

The imminent travel bubble between us and The Australian State Which Nearly Was offers more than just awesome travel and Hobbit-bagging opportunities: it means that it might be possible to build a stronger Australia-New Zealand touring circuit closer to the one both countries enjoyed in the ’80s and early ’90s.

And hey, maybe we can do a bit of a cheeky PM swap while we’re at it.

2. We’re seeing the normalisation of the all-local lineup

I still miss Homebake more than I miss certain dead relatives. It was not merely a festival, but a celebration of Australasian music that acted as an annual reminder of just how amazingly talented our little bit of the world actually is.

That genius mix of up-and-coming artists, established big names and a few much-anticipated reunions and collaborations fizzled out in 2012. It was the height of the Australian festival wars: promoters outbid each other for a smaller pool of more expensive headliners, and state licensing boards heard the clanging of cash registers with every fee hike. But there’s at least some small poetic justice in that now every festival is basically going to be Homebake. Huzzah!

And with international visitors locked out for the foreseeable future, local artists have a window to be seen by audiences they wouldn’t otherwise. Closed borders means that bands who would have been inevitably overlooked for yet another Wombats festival slot will finally get a guernsey.

3. People still did cool stuff even in lockdown

troye sivan livestream stonewall gives back
Troye Sivan performs from home for the Stonewall Gives Back! livestream event. Credit: World of Wonder / Getty Images for World of Wonder / Stonewall Inn Gives Back

While 2021 is probably going to be The Year Of The Introspective Lockdown Record, a lot of artists found new ways to get their material out there and/or make a buck. Sure, Zoom concerts have been a little hit or miss depending on your WiFi, but there have been some bright ideas out there.

Ed Kuepper’s forced standstill meant the former Saint put paid to a year of shows. Despite this, he’s been making up for gaps in touring by live-streaming subscription gigs, both solo and with the Aints, and drip-feeding new material on his socials and YouTube channel, as well as dredging up archival material from across his illustrious career.

On a smaller scale, Sydney’s underground hip-hop label Rah! had their release schedule disrupted, but decided to lean in. “Since the end of April, we’ve released 18 singles digitally featuring a bunch of different local MCs, producers, singers and musicians,” co-founder Mark Mason tells NME. “We decided to do this to help our community, particularly when it became apparent that federal government wasn’t going to do anything to help us.”

4. Ultimately, live music has survived

factory summer festival 2020 brisbane
The COVID-safe Factory Summer Festival held in Brisbane in December 2020. Credit: Zennieshia Butts

Screamfeeder’s Kellie Lloyd has snapped back into playing in Queensland and while things are definitely different, from her account they’re still pretty glorious.

“I’ve played shows with 100 [patron] cap and seating and also the last show was 350 cap and dancing. But my experience was that everyone pretty much loved being able to see live music,” she enthuses to NME. “The seated shows were great from a performer perspective because everyone in the audience was fully engaged, in a totally different way.”

And former Bluebottle Kiss/Devoted Few mainstay and solo artist Ben Fletcher feels similarly: “All year I was sitting on my hands, but last month in Sydney I was playing a couple of shows every week. Great Southern Nights was kinda amazing. It’s so nice to be playing again.”

In other words, despite everything we’ve been through, there are plenty of reasons to think that the next year will be worth getting excited about.

Unless 2021 has something even bigger planned for us, of course.

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