Who supports the supports? COVID-19 still has the Australian music industry on its knees

Australia’s music industry is practically on life support as the pandemic approaches the two-year mark – no thanks to the federal government

At the risk of stating the blindingly and depressingly obvious, this pandemic has been absolutely terrible for Australian music. And sure, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s had a super rad time of it lately, but the arts sector generally and the music biz specifically have suffered more than most.

There was so much optimism early on, too. After all, the music industry is resilient and has historically been the first to put its hand up when others need help – most recently with the bushfire relief concerts that raised vital funds for hard-hit communities after the Black Summer, just before COVID-19 decided to up the stakes – so you can understand why artists and workers would naturally hope the favour would be returned when lockdowns bit.

And as soon as the national lockdown finished, there was a flurry of innovative ideas of how to get gigs happening again in ways that were responsible and socially distanced. Livestreams. Reduced capacity in-venue performances. Bands started announcing national tours again earlier this year, and festivals like Bluesfest and Splendour in the Grass postponed dates in the hopes that everything would be back to some degree of normal before too long.

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Except the vaccine rollout stalled, the Delta strain emerged, and things didn’t go back to normal. Not even a bit.

And while everyone’s hoping that 2022 will be better, it’s been a long, painful, difficult and psychologically scarring 18 months for people in an industry with a business model based in significant part upon packing large numbers of people into small spaces to share transformative collective experiences while yelling in each other’s faces.

Businesses have closed. Incomes have vanished. People have left the industry in droves, robbing the scene of irreplaceable experience and expertise. And it’s not over yet: I Lost My Gig estimates that as of August 5, almost $84.5million was lost in cancelled bookings this year alone, with 67 per cent of those who lost work not eligible for any form of disaster relief and 60 per cent now actively looking for work outside of the industry.

bluesfest cancellation 2021 cost $10million live performance australia
The Bluesfest 2021 site. CREDIT: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Since the pandemic began, the federal Coalition government and Scott Morrison’s response to the arts sector has ranged from wilful ignorance to minuscule, piecemeal funding. The performing arts were effectively excluded from being able to access JobKeeper when the nation went into lockdown in 2020, with only a hodgepodge of small and limited state and local grants available.

In August the federal Department Of Arts (well, more accurately, the Office For The Arts within the Department Of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development And Communications: in 2019, Scott Morrison did away with having a stand-alone Minister For The Arts in what was effectively a piece of policy foreshadowing) announced more funding for the COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund for a total pool of $50 million distributed over two years.

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While that’s something, it’s also not going to bands and venues and touring companies. It’s going to established arts organisations, like orchestras and galleries and opera companies. They’re absolutely deserving of support, but that piddling amount of money isn’t even going to touch the sides when it comes to the amount needed to keep all of Australia’s musical institutions alive – much less making any difference for the neglected contemporary music industry, which was estimated to be bringing in over $555 million back in 2019.

And all that feels disheartening, certainly. But there are some reasons to be hopeful that the tide may turn.

“You have the power to support your artists by pre-buying tickets and merch”

One is that the erudite and articulate Alex Lahey has recently tried to bring the music industry’s troubles back into the public and political eye with her public call for the government to provide a roadmap for the future of their sector, shrewdly emphasising to the party that likes to brand itself the champions of small business that every artist is an entrepreneur running a taxpaying operation.

Lahey’s proposal included a demand for wage subsidies (JobKeeper, in other words) and a COVID insurance scheme that would create a pool of money to allow tours and festivals to make plans without fearing that everyone involved will lose their shirts if a lockdown forces an eleventh-hour cancellation. This sort of business interruption insurance has been advocated by Bluesfest’s Peter Noble and the Australian Festival Association’s Julia Robinson, among many others, and has been met by an echoing and resonant silence from the Coalition to date.

Lahey’s call has drawn a number of fresh eyes to the idea – notably, her tweet containing this open letter was liked by our federal Leader Of The Opposition and notorious gig-goer Anthony Albanese. So presumably Labor is officially on board with this – right, Albo?

There’s also been some really positive advocacy at the industry coalface, with Jack River spearheading a campaign to get Channel 7 to only use Australian music in its coverage of the Olympics, which has turned into a larger campaign for Australian businesses, telcos and broadcasters to show some national pride and prioritise Australian artists for their stores, ads, hold music and more. It seems like a no-brainer, frankly.

Jack River calls for Aus music during Olympics
Jack River. Credit: Don Arnold/WireImage

And the federal government recently poured $20 million more into Support Act, which has been doing exceptional work helping struggling people keep the lights on over this extended period of industry-wide hardship and are currently handing out $2,000 grants to help performers and crew in hardship – so if this is you, let them know.

But there’s one even more resilient form of support. And that, of course, comes from that most wonderful natural source of goodness: the Australian music-adorer.

You have the power to support your artists, even in these uncertain locked-down times, by pre-buying tickets to the shows that are scheduled (or keeping your tickets to those that have been postponed) and popping on the webstores of those that aren’t gigging but have merch you obviously need and should get right now.

And with a federal election coming rapidly down the democracy chute, you also have the opportunity to let your local MP know exactly how unimpressed you are with the current state of support for musicians and the industry that sustains them. If the party you support doesn’t have an arts package, ask them why – and if you don’t like their answer, find a party who does.

Because let’s be honest: when all this is behind us, and it eventually will be, we’re going to need people to organise, stage and play at the massive celebratory concert we absolutely goddamn deserve.

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