Five Things I Know: Emily Ulman, co-founder of Isol-Aid

For months now, the Instagram-based online music festival Isol-Aid has been keeping Australians company through a trying live music drought. Emily Ulman, one of the festival’s founders and its current director and programmer, talks to NME about live-streaming, accessibility and more

Live-streaming highlights the issue of accessibility in live music

As pandemic restrictions ease, there will still be lots of people for whom restrictions won’t be lifted, who will still be isolated. There are people with physiological and psychological barriers preventing them from accessing live shows; perhaps they experience anxiety in crowds, or they physically can’t get to shows, or they’re pregnant, or can’t afford babysitters.

And there are the geographical barriers – people who live in remote and regional parts of the country – that prevent them from getting to shows, or else musicians don’t travel to those places. I don’t think virtual shows will ever ever ever replace being at festivals or being at live gigs, and I wouldn’t expect them to. But I absolutely think there’s room for both.

emily ulman isol-aid
Emily Ulman. Credit: J Forsyth

Festivals shouldn’t discount live-streaming even as COVID-19 restrictions ease

As well as offering access for punters, international borders are likely to be closed for some time, and so I think there’s going to be a place for live-streaming at festivals for international artists who may not be able to tour here. The changes to restrictions are happening so quickly, and new information is emerging daily and weekly for the states and territories, but initiatives like Isol-Aid have demonstrated that there are lots of different ways we can enjoy live music.

Obstacles can readily turn into opportunities

One potential difficulty of Isol-Aid was its format: punters follow the festival by watching/listening to 20-minute sets on the artists’ pages and then head to the next account to see the next performer play. So what’s been presented as a ‘block’ – asking people to move from handle to handle – has actually been incredibly positive. The audience is actively participating (not just passively being entertained), and while the performance, which often takes place in artists’ homes, is already intimate, viewers are also invited to look at their photos and explore the artist’s Instagram page.

“As pandemic restrictions ease, there will still be lots of people who will still be isolated”

So, really, this format has meant artists gain new followers, they get more subscribers to their newsletters, sell more merch and they invite direct conversation in the comments section of their Isol-Aid performance. This initial block has in fact led to an increased sense of community, and what has become lovingly referred to by artists and viewers as the “Iso-Fam”.

It’s more important than ever to spotlight music industry workers behind the scenes

The reason I feature various lineup curators during Isol-Aid isn’t because programming endless hours of music is a problem. I really wanted to highlight the various parts of the music community affected by the pandemic, and all the amazing work that people do, from labels to the record stores to management companies to PR agencies. It’s an opportunity for people to showcase and promote what they do.

The tagline of Isol-Aid is that it’s presented by the Australian music community. It just feels very important for me to give everybody the platform because the pandemic affects the whole music community, and we’re all in this together and experiencing the same hardship.

Isol-Aid livestream
Karate Boogaloo seen on a phone doing a livestream performance as part of Isol-Aid. Credit: Getty

Want to organise a recurring virtual event? Be clear about your goals

In the second week of Isol-Aid, I wrote a vision statement with all my goals and values for the festival. I keep coming back to these questions: what is my goal – to help people? To raise money? Am I doing it to hone skills? To give artists a platform? To offer people access to live music? If I’m ever unsure about why I’m doing something or whether a particular opportunity is right for the festival, I refer back to this vision statement.

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