When will we get to go to a goddamn gig again?

Can we still have transcendent, cathartic live music experiences while assiduously social distancing?

There’s a horrible truth that’s only just starting to dawn on lovers of music: among all the cautious plans to reopen the country – parks, playgrounds, shops, even pubs and restaurants with strictly limited numbers – no-one in power has started talking about live music coming back. And that’s because there’s a non-zero possibility that it isn’t going to, at least in the form many of us know and love.

It’s entirely likely that gigs in small, sweaty rooms with everyone crammed in front of the stage, or bands from outside Australia performing in any capacity, are destined to be stories about the days before The Virus with which we will bore our incredulous descendants.

And this article is being written just as Australia starts to relax its restrictions, meaning that by the time of publication there’s a decent chance that it will either read as needlessly alarmist as things return largely to normal, or dangerously naïve after a devastating second wave of infections drove us back inside to hoard toilet paper and await the inevitability of Thunderdome.

There have been some innovative – or, to put it another way, gimmicky – attempts at live music during lockdown, from Casey Donovan’s Sydney drive-in gig to Travis McCready’s “socially distanced” US concert with dozens of people sequestered in individual seating pods, in a theatre designed for hundreds.

Of course, there are countless online performances – although, as Elton John has no doubt realised after his near-phonetic performance of ‘I’m Still Standing’ for the One World charity livestream, live video shows are fraught with peril without the vibe of the room and the crackling volume of an overdriven PA. And for most people with tinny speakers or cheap headphones combined with an Australian internet connection, the audience experience is also, importantly, godawful.

Casey Donovan performs on stage during a media call to showcase how a drive-in live entertainment venue will operate. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Thus we want our venues to open again ASAP, but whatever hope we might have drawn from South Korea’s handling of the pandemic went down the drain in May: as entertainment precincts reopened, a single infected person came into contact with 1,500 people in a nightclub and created a local spike of over 80 confirmed cases.

So what’s the prognosis for Australia’s live scene? For music lovers, it’s… look, it’s not great.

1. In the short term, no gigs at all

That’s a given. None of the state and federal roadmaps for staggered reductions in restrictions suggests that we’re about to accept a situation where people are crammed into a small space to have someone literally exhale at them.

Music Victoria’s Patrick Donovan is just one of the people trying to work around those structural issues to get live music back in our venues as soon as possible, while admitting that corona-friendly gigs are a difficult sell. “Gigs are intimate and social distancing is the opposite of that,” he concedes.

“What gigs will look like with social distancing, how that will look at the door, at the toilets, at the bar, that’s what we’re working on. We’ll have to abide by the regulations, but you can sit or have crosses on the floor 1.5 metres apart, maybe it’ll be shorter sets with cleaning in between, but I think people are going to be prepared to have a unique experience.”

2. In the longer term, fewer venues

In a best-case scenario, Australia might see a return to regular live entertainment in 2021, assuming a successful vaccine is around the corner and can be deployed to the entire population. But even that rosy future assumes that venues somehow financially remain viable for a year or more with few, if any, patrons or events.

For Donovan, part of the equation is getting legislation passed to protect the live music licenses which currently exist. This includes finding ways to fund venues through a long period of shutdown and protecting them from development which would make it impossible for them to reopen (for example, by whacking up apartments next door). “We’ve got a plan which we’ve presented to Government, and we have to hope they come to the party so we can salvage as much as we can,” the CEO adds.

“A socially distanced mosh pit is something hard to envisage”

As for smaller venues, the places where young local bands start out? It’s hard to see a situation where they survive. “A lot of the pubs that do it part-time won’t bother – it’ll be too hard,” Donovan admits, “and others will try to wait it out until they can have full capacity again.”

Richard Tonkin of Adelaide’s venerable Governor Hindmarsh Hotel is hopeful that 50-seater gigs in his venue will be possible in the second half of 2020, but worries that the smaller venues central to developing local scenes won’t be able to survive. As he puts it, “A socially distanced mosh pit is something hard to envisage.”

3. For the foreseeable term, no international tours

Until such time as there’s a coordinated worldwide response to the pandemic and a return to international air travel – and assuming that said air travel is still affordable, given the reduced number of routes and carriers – international tours are probably off the agenda.

Australia’s in a better place than many countries because at least we have amazing musical acts. That’s why the Falls Festival has been able to bullishly announce that it will have an all-Australian lineup for its New Year’s events. There’s even been a campaign to resurrect the much-missed all-Australasian Homebake Festival. A chance to celebrate local talent could be a great thing, especially if the mooted travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand starts up.

And even if travel restrictions and quarantine requirements are in place, it still might be possible for international acts to tour, eventually – provided that they’re willing to do a longer stint in the country. Venerable promoter Michael Chugg has suggested that the future of tours will be smaller rooms over multiple nights, possibly with a quarantine period included.

Amyl and The Sniffers
It’s hard to imagine riotous shows, like those Amyl And The Sniffers put on, happening in the near future. Credit: David Wolff – Patrick/Redfern

Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention, and there’s every chance that new and exciting art forms will evolve out of this period. And, as Donovan puts it, “People are going to love music more than ever [when venues reopen]. People are dying to get out to shows, and we’re developing a best practice guide around how to make that happen – and artists have been experimenting. It will be very exciting to see what comes out of this.”

That’s hopeful, but for those of us who see music venues as secular temples or have found salvation in a thronging mosh pit or pressed up against the stage screaming every word, even in the best-case scenario, the future is going to look very, very different.

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