“This is the biggest challenge of my life”: Australian artists speak on the coronavirus’ devastating financial impact

Hundreds in the music industry are staring down the barrel of unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 – the disease caused by coronavirus – a pandemic. At the time of writing, there are over 198,000 confirmed cases worldwide, with 564 cases in Australia.

In order to contain the spread of the virus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently called for a ban on outdoor public gatherings of more than 500 people and non-essential indoor events of more than 100 people. It goes without saying that almost all upcoming gigs, tours and festivals have either been axed or postponed.

The disruption to Australia’s live music scene has taken a huge toll on its entire music sector. Hundreds of artists, roadies, record labels and more are staring down the barrel of unemployment for the foreseeable future. I Lost My Gig – a new website tracking the Australian music industry’s devastating financial losses from the coronavirus and bushfires – reported $50million in lost income on March 16. Since then, that number has skyrocketed to $200million, with an estimate of over 400,000 impacted workers and 220,000 cancelled events. And these figures are predicted to rise.

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Out of all the people that have been affected by this episode, it is the smaller artists and record labels that have suffered the most – the ones that live paycheque to paycheque. We spoke with some musicians, a record label head and an artist manager from Australia and New Zealand to determine how deeply the coronavirus has impacted them.

Gordi on how the coronavirus has impacted her career
Gordi. Credit: Supplied

Gordi

“The music industry has been one of the hardest hit in this crisis. For artists, the compounding factors are: the paradigm that music is a ‘non-essential’ industry when it comes to government support; the main revenue stream for artists is touring – which is non-existent for the foreseeable future; and that there’s a common misconception that artists are rolling in cash. A fair few of us are still living tour to tour or with our parents.

“There’s no doubt the global crisis will affect physical record sales. Right now, Amazon is stocking less vinyl to make way for hand sanitiser, and with the economic downturn the general population will be more strapped for cash. On the upside, streaming will likely increase and the ever-resourceful and resilient music industry will find ways to survive and even thrive through engaging with fans on social media.

“I was in Europe at the time it all unravelled. I was sitting anxiously in an Airbnb in London waiting to be told what to do – we had to cancel press and various commitments when I was in the midst of an album rollout. I spent a collective six hours on hold to airlines in 48 hours to try and get on the next plane home. It was a pretty traumatising experience. It cost me a few thousand dollars in plans being changed and cancelled.

“After I arrived home, I had to totally reevaluate the next six to 12 months. The immediate bans on touring seem like they’re going to last for five to six months, which means no income from ticket sales, APRA performance fees, and merch sales at shows. I won’t be able to pay my band or tour manager, and my manager will have reduced commissions. Every musician is a small business owner and therefore the trickle-down effect hits hardest on the people we employ and contract.

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“If I can’t tour, it makes it very difficult to promote a record – and we’ve been working for a long time on this. So to feel like it may all come undone is devastating. It’s also a long time for session musicians, photographers and lighting designers who only work in live events to be without a job. The crisis will last as long as all those people feel the economic strain and are forced to make career choices based on their ability to maintain a roof over their heads and put food on the table. It will surely be a good 12 months before we start to feel some semblance of normal again.

“At the moment, I’m living at my partner’s mum’s house. I just wrote up a CV today and am starting to look for jobs in the medical field, which is my other career. I had quit my job in January because of touring commitments, which have now all vanished. I’ll probably try and find some temporary/locum work until I can bank on an income from touring again.”

Gordi recently released a new single, ‘Sandwiches’, which can be found on her Bandcamp page. It’s her first new track since her 2017 debut album, ‘Reservoir’.

Yumi Zouma on the impacts of the coronavirus
Yumi Zouma. Credit: Aaron Lee

Josh Burgess – guitarist of Yumi Zouma

“It’s been rough for sure. Our album [‘Truth or Consequences’] came out on Friday the 13th, pretty much the day shit hit the fan in the US. Overnight, the spanner of all spanners was jammed into the works.

“Obviously, that has immediate financial repercussions that hurt, but it won’t sink us completely. It’s a bit hard to even make sense of it all. We’re trying to focus on our community of fans and people who work alongside us and say, ‘We’re here, we feel what you’re feeling.’

“It’s a hard time for all industries at the moment, and the essential practice of social distancing is a huge hit to the ecosystem of bands and labels. The positive side to this is that we’re in the digital age – a lot of what we do has stayed intact. Fans can still stream our music and engage with us on social media.

“Regardless, now is the time to be dynamic and think outside the box. A lot of people are anxious and worried, and they need art and entertainment now, more than ever. We have a duty to continue to add to the fabric of culture regardless of how the financials will work out. The thing I am certain of is this: the only way forward is together. The sun will shine tomorrow, and as long as we take a collective approach to what comes next, we can get through this.”

Yumi Zouma released their third album, ‘Truth or Consequences’, on March 13. You can stream and purchase the album on their Bandcamp page.

Ash Grunwald on how the coronavirus has impacted him
Ash Grunwald. Credit: Supplied

Ash Grunwald

“I got out of Spain just 30 minutes before they called a national lockdown. It was like being in a movie – I woke up and got given a choice: get out now, or be stuck in Spain for God knows how long, with zero prospects of getting paid for shows.

“The biggest gigs in France were also cancelled – those were my main income shows and the primary reason I was there. It was financially devastating for me to travel to Europe and have all my big shows cancelled. This is the biggest challenge of my life, but I have a family to feed, so I have no intention of falling into a pit of despair.

“When I got home, I found out all my shows for the next six months were cancelled, including Byron Bay Bluesfest – I was due to play the main stage and record a live album there. I’ve had to quickly think about other ways to make money, so I’ve now offered online vocal and guitar lessons.

“Not having much work is one thing, but to have no offers of assistance from the government feels pretty unfair, considering how generous the music industry is when natural disasters strike and funds need to be raised. The aftershock will last for years – the worst of it may last for up to six months.

“The one thing that I’m certain of though, is that we will get by. I’m searching for the positives – and there are many – but you have to poke through some tough realities to find them. Maybe we all needed to slow down. I just spent my daughter’s seventh birthday with her for a change, instead of being on the other side of the world where I normally am – so I’m looking for those small consolations.

“I’m also aware that life never came with a guarantee on fairness or easiness. Believing that life is meant to be fair or easy is a really disempowering outlook. It puts all the emphasis on external circumstances. The externals are going to be grim before they get rosy so we’ve got to work on our internal realities to get us through these times.”

Ash Grunwald’s Bandcamp page can be found here. You can also visit his website to book guitar and vocal lessons, including mentoring and coaching sessions.

Jo Syme on how the coronavirus has impacted her career
Jo Syme. Credit: Supplied

Jo Syme – founder of Hotel Motel Records, co-founder of Pieater Records, drummer in Big Scary

“The artists I work with vary in how much they earn from royalties, but no matter how established they are, their live income is their most direct and substantial revenue stream.

“Show cancellations have disrupted various things depending on the artist. This can range from a bit of extra income to pay their album mix engineer; an overseas tour with the hope of securing an international label for an upcoming album release; or a domestic tour with a projected income of around $100,000, which would have been the culmination of a 12-month album campaign, and their livelihood for the following 12 months.

“This includes substantial lost and/or delayed income for their band, crew, manager, agent, venues, ticketing company, production hire companies, marketing team, travel services, etc. Not to mention hundreds of lost hours that have gone into putting together now-cancelled shows and tours.

“Most musicians’ day jobs are casual, and often in the hospitality industry due to its flexibility. One artist I work with doesn’t know if they’ll have a workplace to go to next week, as they’re a barista. They’re super anxious right now – they don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent.

“For me, I’ll be mostly living off savings. DJing is my main source of income, which supplements the 45 hours of nearly unpaid work I do each week running indie labels, rehearsing and playing gigs. I’ve already had one DJ gig cancelled, but more will definitely follow. I’ll expect to lose about $3,500 of income between now and the end of May. It’s a huge percentage of my income that was meant to tide me over the quieter winter months.

“I hope we’ll mostly return to normal when the pandemic is over, but who knows what will happen to the venues, small businesses and sole traders that have had to shut down in the meantime. It’ll be an ongoing crisis for those people for a long time.”

Visit the Bandcamp pages of Hotel Motel, Pieater Records, and Big Scary.

Charlotte Abroms on how the coronavirus has impacted her career
Charlotte Abroms. Credit: Ben McNamara

Charlotte Abroms – artist manager (Angie McMahon, Ainslie Wills) at Hear Hear Group

“Everyone I’ve spoken to is feeling a collective sense of sadness for the arts and entertainment industry. From an artist (and manager) perspective, all of our gigs have been cancelled. Gigs are the main source of income for a lot of people we know and love. Angie and I started a fundraiser with our sound engineer Jono Steer, with all donations going to Support Act to provide short-term crisis relief to artists, crew and music workers affected by the pandemic.

“As a manager, income is unstable even without a global pandemic. A manager generally commissions 20 per cent of artist earnings with some deductions. Show cancellations mean that I’ve lost months’ worth of income.

“I’ve always felt that this is a risky business and have been very careful to budget well for the artists I work with, just in case touring were to come to a halt. We’ve been so focused on cancelling months’ worth of touring, but in the coming weeks I know we’ll come up with some cool ideas and share them with the world.

Angie and Ainslie are part of an Instagram livestream over the weekend. They’re encouraging donations to Support Act, but the livestream is not a financially focused idea – it’s to provide entertainment for music lovers and encourage them to stay in.

“What’s important to remember is that this is happening to everyone – and it’s time for us to rely on the community to provide a tiny sense of hope for those who need it most.”

Follow the links to get to Angie McMahon’s and Ainslie Wills’ Bandcamp pages.

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