It’s easy – very, very, very easy – to be pessimistic about the state of Australian music in the Age Of COVID. After all, venues have been shut for months and are gradually reopening under difficult and often uneconomic restrictions. And social distancing seems like a given for the foreseeable future for audiences used to feeding off the vibe of a crowd.
Meanwhile, artists and music industry pros have had zero income for months and have arguably been excluded from federal Government support, although thankfully many states have stepped in with grants to support their artistic communities and prevent them from having to form criminal syndicates. That said, who among us doesn’t want to see an all-muso casino heist? No-one, that’s who.
But there’s something which is worth considering: Australian music has historically been very, very good at turning a change in circumstances into a creative opportunity.
For example: the explosion of Australian music in the ’60s might have seemed inevitable given what was happening in Britain, but the thing that ended up giving us The Easybeats and Billy Thorpe and Australia’s entire rock ’n’ roll explosion was, weirdly enough, feminism.
Liquor licensing regulations around the nation were changed state by state as women successfully fought for the right to drink in pubs. The inadvertent spinoff from that was that all the grand old public houses suddenly had no-one in their previously dame-filled Ladies Lounge – those largely became band rooms servicing the huge market of then-teenage baby boomers looking to shake some action.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Australian population were moving out to the suburban fringes in a desperate attempt to hold on to the dream of a house on a quarter-acre block. This was back in those mythical times when a single breadwinner’s wage was enough for a family to own property. I know, it sounds crazy now, when housing prices hover between “depressing” and “actually insulting”. It was a different time.
The upshot was that populations in the suburbs grew dramatically, and huge suburban pubs, like Selina’s at the Coogee Bay Hotel in Sydney, were hastily built to service this clientele. And since pub rock had already made stars of Cold Chisel, The Angels and most notably AC/DC via epic sets in working man’s pubs, bands were the obvious thing to bring these venues the dangerously huge and hard-drinking crowds which then turned Midnight Oil and INXS into superstars.
“The thing that ended up giving us Australia’s entire rock ’n’ roll explosion was, weirdly enough, feminism”
Another big change happened in the early ’90s when Australian alternative bands went mainstream. Again, it’s easy to point at the US where Nirvana and Sonic Youth were getting major label deals, but as with the ’60s, it was a structural change: in this case, because both the Big Day Out festival and triple j youth radio network left Sydney to go national.
Suddenly bands like Silverchair, The Cruel Sea, The Superjesus and Powderfinger were getting daytime radio play and playing to stadium-sized crowds. It also helped that the dole was something band members could get by on between tours, which hasn’t been the case ever since.
And yes, it’s true that all the above examples were artists benefitting from new opportunities rather than coping with massive disasters, which is what we have going on now. But I’d like to posit that we’ve coped elegantly with those as well.
The late-’80s ascent of house and techno, as well as the development of that inner city alternative scene that would later explode in the ’90s, was the result of both fire safety laws which reduced venue capacity and, crucially, the rise of random breath testing, which sounded the death knell for the pub rock scene in suburban beer barns.
Many punters gravitated back to the cities when faced with the choice of expensive and infrequent taxis or sipping water during a Hunters & Collectors set out in the ’burbs. The suburban sprawl which had created beer barns had left the inner city cheap and empty in the three big capitals, ready for students and artists to move in and start making magic.
And then let’s look at what’s happened following the one-two punch of pokies and inner city noise restrictions in the noughties, particularly in Sydney.
As fewer pubs were able to have live bands, and as housing costs meant more young Australians found themselves in pokey shared accommodation where amps and drums took up valuable space, we still created massive stars and excellent music. It’s just that they increasingly came from hip-hop and electronic music (Hilltop Hoods, Briggs, Flume), with the odd ukulele strummer thrown in (Vance Joy).
“Australian music has historically been very good at turning a change in circumstances into a creative opportunity”
So we can speculate that the artists of the future will be those who can get traction outside of the pub scene. And Australians are already doing that. Musicians like Troye Sivan and Tones And I were kicking goals on YouTube way before isolation set in, and the current success of Jack Colwell suggests that being internet-savvy can more than make up for the loss of heavy touring schedules.
(Despite all the above, it’s worth noting that bands haven’t gone away, as the successes of Amyl And The Sniffers, The Smith Street Band and Bad//Dreems indicate. They’re perhaps not the dominant Australian musical genre today, but loud stuff with guitars still happens.)
In other words: this pandemic is going to change Australian music, not destroy it. We have every reason to be excited about what’s going to emerge from the nation’s collective bedroom in the coming months. And once this is behind us, we’re going to be in the goddamn mood for it.