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Opinion September 9, 2021

Is there room for up-and-coming acts post-COVID? [OP-ED]

Kevin Dolan
Is there room for up-and-coming acts post-COVID? [OP-ED]
Image: Al Parkinson

I miss airports. I really miss airports.

I miss the bleary-eyed early morning feeling of sitting waiting for a flight. I miss people bustling around. I miss the lights that are just a little too bright. I miss listening for interesting names over the intercom and wondering why they’re so late for their flight.

I miss a lot of things right now.

The last time I was in an airport was back in March 2020, flying to Sydney to open for Ainslie Wills and Leif Vollebekk. I remember all of us waiting for our flight watching the news about this new COVID-19 thing and how it was slowly spreading across Australia.

This was March 4th and by the end of the month we were in lockdown. That was my first tour.

As I sit in Melbourne’s sixth lockdown it feels like it might be my last.

I’d been playing music around Melbourne for the six years since I’d arrived from Ireland. I’d made friends at open mics, played all the small venues in the city, made and released DIY recordings, and had slowly but surely been putting together a band. We eventually called it Four in the Morning.

By late 2019, Four in the Morning had nailed its line up — myself and three of the best musicians I know (Kiran Srinivasan, Dan Walwyn and Alex Lees). With a live show I was proud of, heaps of songs ready to put to tape, and now our first opening slot, 2020 was going to be our year. We were hoping to stake our claim as “emerging artists”, “ones to watch”, “up-and-coming-acts” and all those other industry buzzwords.

That all feels so long ago now.

Bruce Springsteen once said a good artist needs both crippling self doubt and an over-inflated ego. Sometimes I think he’s not wrong. I never planned to have a career in music and I’ve never taken it for granted that people have to listen to our songs. I don’t have that kind of confidence. But it didn’t stop me playing and it hasn’t stopped me making music.

Now I find myself in a weird and frankly surprising situation — people ARE finally starting to listen. We’re on the radio all over Ireland and getting community radio play in Australia, receiving some really nice press, and maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance we’ll be able to keep doing it. But if we can’t tour, what’s our next step? How do we need to adapt?

Is there space for us? Because with the industry as fucked as it is in a pandemic, I can’t help but shake the feeling that soon there may not be.

I feel like I’m stepping into an industry at its breaking point. So many people I know — artists, managers, sound engineers, tour bookers — they’re exhausted. They’re depressed. They’re terrified. They’re angry. They’re burnt out. They’re “aged out”. They’re working harder than ever before but for minimal reward.

And I feel it too. We’ve poured all the stress and anxiety of 2020 into this EP. We wrote over Zoom. Rehearsed with masks on. We learned to code to build our website. Learned to animate to make our music video. Learned to understand distribution contracts. We organised gigs. We cancelled gigs. We rescheduled gigs. We cancelled gigs again. Over and over and over.

Check out the clip for ‘Love in the Asylum’:

We did all of this knowing we probably wouldn’t make any money. We did it for the love of our craft and the chance that people might hear our songs and connect with them.

At first I was furious at the federal government for its mishandling of vaccines and how it’s ignored the whole sector. Their incompetence stole my chance to gig (and see my family back home).

I’m still mad. But as I sit back in lockdown, I’m starting to realise something — COVID-19, the lockdown, and gig cancellations might be killing the industry but let’s not pretend it was healthy to begin with.

The last 18 months has simply proven how precarious it is for an entire industry to be reliant on a single source of income.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Do you remember the Arctic Monkeys first album? As a kid it blew my mind. It came out in 2006, the same year as Spotify — making the Arctic Monkeys older than our current music industry model. Fifteen years! That’s nothing. And back then, yes the music industry found itself in freefall, but there was a weird kind of optimism.

I remember being so excited by the idea of an ad funded Limewire. Think of it! Bands could share their music without any middleman AND get a cut of those huge advertising dollars. I wasn’t even considering a subscription model. I remember thinking it would revolutionise creativity, revolutionise how the industry was funded, and stop my friends and me stealing music.

But instead we became slaves to Spotify algorithms — both as listeners and artists.

We became content workers for social media — both as listeners and artists.
We all became the employee and product for huge tech companies.

As emerging artists we are increasingly relying on playlists and social media for new fans. As gigs disappear, they’re the only way to get heard. But they aren’t a way to get paid. And while I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to create and release music, there is a treasure trove of artists — not nearly as lucky as I am — whose voices are getting lost.

As we started planning our release, we joked that our core audience is A&R people restricted by Spotify. We received so much genuine feedback about how people loved the EP, but they didn’t think there was an audience for the music on Australian Spotify playlists. It’s a little disheartening, and ever so slightly confusing, to hear that people like our music but Spotify might not.

The question that springs to mind is, do we trust DSPs and AI developed playlists to decide what we listen to? There’s this idea that to be worthy of these playlists, “tastemakers” and “gatekeepers” an act needs to hit a certain level — but how does one do that without support? It’s a chicken and egg situation. Plus, if we start writing music to match playlists and as fans we’re only listening to music from within our bubble, it feels like creativity will suffer.

And it’s not like people haven’t figured out solutions to this!

Look at podcasting. They’ve created a model where small independent shows can thrive — creating value for fans and creators alike. My Irish history podcast pretty much funded our EP.

People like Damon Krowkski (Galaxie 500) have been writing about this shit and suggesting solutions for years. As we come out of COVID-19 we need to rework this young and failing industry model.

Abandoning Spotify’s pro-rata system. A blockchain based streaming platform. Government insurance schemes. Aussie brands playing Aussie bands. NFT albums that are more Top Shop than fine art. They might not all be the right solutions, but they’re a start.

What we need is new thinking.
What we need is to support each other.
What we need is a way to make our art viable.

I know what you’re going to say. Wow, he’s already bitter. If his music was any good he wouldn’t be complaining. He’s naive as all hell. He’s clearly been cooped up too long.

Maybe that’s all true (the last one definitely is), but I’m not asking to be on the cover of Rolling Stone and I don’t think millions of people will ever listen to our sad little indie songs. But I’d like to be able to support the musicians I love, and the musicians I’ve never heard of. And in turn I’d love for our art to at least pay for itself. We know there’s an audience out there for our music, we just need a way to find and connect with them.

The one thing I’ll say though, is that I still feel hopeful. People speak a lot about a lucky break but after one of the unluckiest years on record, I think success is less about luck and more about getting the right support.

Is there room for up-and-coming artists? I think yes — if fans, professionals, and established artists make room for them. Thankfully, everything I’ve experienced suggests people are more than happy to help out.

It’s blown me away that in a year where the industry has gone to hell in a handcart, people have still been willing to help bring our music to life. It’s enough to make a depressed songwriter like me well up with joy and love and thankfulness and all that good stuff.

Whether it’s fans reaching out and chipping in on Bandcamp Fridays, mentoring from managers like Charlotte Abroms, Zoom writing calls with Ainslie Wills, people like Al Parkinson and Shari Hindmarsh going above and beyond, Jono Steer working overtime in the studio, or even being given the chance to write this article for The Industry Observer — the Australian music industry has proven time and time again that they’re here to help out a little unknown band for no other reason than they love the music.

And I think that’s the point of this little rant. We all need to make space to find the joy in music again.

That thought is the only thing keeping me going through the 219 days (and counting) that we’ve been in lockdown. That and the fact I know we’re going to keep making music — whether there’s room for us or not.

Stream Four in the Morning’s new EP Stress Dreams:

Buy tickets for their Bandcamp Live Concert on Friday 17 September here

Get in touch with crazy ideas on how to rebuild the music industry here.

This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.


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