Five Things I Know: Dr. Catherine Strong, RMIT

Last year, the Victorian Music Development Office and the Victorian Office For Women commissioned a study on the challenges faced by the Victorian music industry during COVID-19, which was published February 2021. NME spoke to Dr. Catherine Strong of RMIT, who led the research, about JobKeeper, cheap gigs and the importance of contingency planning

The pandemic’s impact on mental health speaks to a harsh industry

Many people were telling us about not feeling motivated or productive, and about the loss of connection to others. But people also found it difficult to have their plans destroyed so quickly and completely out of the blue: like a year’s worth of plans in terms of album releases, recording sessions, release parties being booked. Having everything lined up for a long period of time and having it all ripped away really quickly was emotionally devastating.

There was also the toll of the recurring cycle, in the first few months, of trying to put plans back in place and having them cancelled again. When you put so much energy into something and it doesn’t happen, it can be difficult to pull yourself back into that cycle again.

But we did have that other unexpected finding, which was the small category of people who said that their mental health improved, because they were able to rest and take a break from work. It made a difference to them and was unexpectedly positive. That was, I think, a reflection of how difficult this industry can be.

Our music industry is facing a significant loss of talent

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Nearly 60 per cent of respondents to our survey said that they had considered leaving the music industry. We were certainly expecting that there would be people saying that it would be difficult to maintain their careers in music, given the circumstances where a lot of people were losing all of their income and weren’t able to do their music work at all. But the figure was higher than we expected. A lot of people also told us that even if they didn’t leave music completely, they were going to have to cut back the time that they were going to be spending on it. So overall, the potential talent loss is quite big – even bigger than some of the numbers in the report suggest.

In the early months of the pandemic, people were saying that things were hard, but they were also trying to emphasise the good news stories. You would hear a lot about how gigs were being brought online; people were innovating, finding a way to continue with the music. Understandably, a lot of people wanted to focus on the positives so everyone didn’t just fall into a pit of despair. But it meant that some of the pain got swept under the carpet.

I think what’s going to happen is over the next few months, as JobKeeper disappears and JobSeeker payments go back to low levels, is that a lot of the loss is going to hit home, possibly even harder than it did in the initial period.

People wanted to focus on the positives so everyone didn’t just fall into a pit of despair. But it meant that some of the pain got swept under the carpet.

JobKeeper is an ideological issue

The question of extending JobKeeper is an ideological issue for the government. I think they’re very committed to not supporting people. JobSeeker payments are going to be reduced, even though there’s evidence that shows that giving more money to people who are looking for work is good for both the economy and those people as well, in terms of their self esteem and their ability to do the sorts of tasks that enable them to find jobs.

So the government thinks it is wrong for social welfare to be extended to people under difficult circumstances. That’s what we’re up against. It means that putting forward strong arguments based on evidence can often come up against a brick wall, because if people are coming from an ideological position, then that is a lot more difficult to shift than if they are looking at evidence-based information.

Live music is accessible but not sustainable

One of the recommendations our report made was to make the value of music-related activities and workers more visible; part of that could include reconsidering ticket prices. There has been a culture for a long time in Australia where a lot of gigs are quite cheap. It’s been this divided system that a lot of our respondents in this report commented on: you have this small strata of people who have the ability to make a lot of money out of music, the superstar that can command $100 or $150 a ticket. But for the majority of musicians, it’s much more a ‘three bands for 10 bucks’ type of scenario.

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Quite a few people did talk to us about trying to find ways to shift that culture to better recognise that performing music is a skill. For some, it’s only a fun hobby, and they don’t necessarily want to be paid for it. But there needs to be a way to differentiate the hobbyists and the people who are trying to make a living. That includes thinking about all of these layers to the industry, where you’re not just paying the musician, but also the backstage crew, the management, and all of the people who bring gigs together.

It’s great if live music is accessible to as many people as possible. But if musicians are not able to make ends meet, then that’s a bad outcome.

The pandemic wasn’t truly “unprecedented”, as much as people were using that word to describe it

Better contingency planning is necessary

Another recommendation was that the music industry improve contingency planning, because the pandemic wasn’t truly “unprecedented”, as much as people were using that word to describe it. One reason the industry didn’t have robust contingency structures when COVID-19 hit is that it’s such a disparate industry with lots of small moving parts. There are bodies like Music Victoria and APRA AMCOS, but we’re mostly still talking about sole traders or small venues, or just musicians and their managers who are making decisions for themselves.

The difficulty of building a career in the music industry means people often don’t have the headspace or time to think big-picture. If you told an artist or manager “there’s a one in 100 chance we could have a pandemic,” they’d probably go, “Well, that’s such a remote possibility that I’m not going to plan for that. I’m too busy working out my tour schedule and how everyone’s going to get paid.” It’s understandable that people hadn’t thought about what would happen under these circumstances.

But hopefully this will be a wake-up call to start thinking about things we know are coming. For example, the effects of climate change in Australia are going to start disrupting things like the summer festival circuit that we’ve all gotten used to.

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