The Gold Coast Music Awards on Planning and Delivering Live Events during a Pandemic
Since their inaugural awards night in 2015, the Gold Coast Music Awards have worked tirelessly every year to shine a spotlight on and celebrate the incredibly talented artists within the region. When lockdown prevented them from running the event in-person in 2020, the GCMA’s were one of the first awards nights in Australia to do a virtual award ceremony last April. This virtual pivot resulted in 30,000 viewers tuning in to watch the live stream and significantly expanded on the audience those local artists were able to reach. Following this, the GCMA’s were asked to consult with many other awards organisers around the country.
With lockdowns preventing most live events from making a post-COVID comeback, the 2021 GCMA’s have been one of the lucky few to achieve this since the music industry ground to a halt last year. Taking place last Saturday at the Gold Coast’s Home of the Arts (HOTA) theatre, the event saw 500 local musicians, music industry professionals and fans come together IRL for the first time in over two years.
In the Q&A below, we asked GCMA’s co-founder/creative director Chloe Popa, to outline the challenges her team faced, the strategies that were implemented to overcome those challenges, how her team managed to deliver an in-person awards ceremony in the age of COVID and more.
Confidence vs determination
Just under one month ago, Queensland was emerging from a stage four lockdown. In these uncertain times where the music industry and events continue to be dealt crushing blows due to snap lockdowns, how did you manage to maintain the confidence to forge ahead with planning this year’s awards as an in-person event?
We certainly thought that there was a high likelihood that we may be snapped into another lock down before the event, and we watched other huge events like BIGSOUND, Bluesfest, SPRINGTIME Festival and Splendour In The Grass cancel or postpone, so I wouldn’t say that we made the decision to continue planning the event with confidence, but rather with determination.
We have such a close and supportive music community on the Gold Coast, so we are acutely aware how much everyone is hurting from the on-going uncertainty caused by the coming and going of pandemic restrictions. We strongly felt that we needed to push on to give everyone something to celebrate, to come together in a really positive way and highlight what has been achieved, despite the heartbreaking circumstances around the music industry at the moment.
With the 2020 Awards being held virtually, it was also a really long time since we’d been able to bring such a large cohort of the music industry together and we were really committed to achieving that. Our sentiment was that if for some reason we could not go ahead on the planned date, we’d postpone until it was realistic to celebrate together, rather than head online.
Consulting for the live events industry
Claire Hodgson, Industry Development Officer at WAM said the 2020 Gold Coast Music Awards were “brilliant and such a wonderful example of how music awards events can still be engaging and highly enjoyable in the online space”.
We’re told as a result of the 2020 virtual awards success that the GCMA’s consulted other awards nights around the country after the awards, could you please expand on that?
Yes, we consulted with several awards events after the 2020 virtual awards event premiered, starting with the West Australian Music’s 2020 Song of the Year Awards. They had just started investigating how to turn their events virtual and were keen to discuss our approach to planning the Awards and seek advice about what to keep in mind for developing an event of this kind. Of course, we were keen to assist any other events with the shift to an online format since we were one of the first live events to implement the virtual format in April 2020.
Challenges and Strategies
Can you tell us about the extra challenges you faced while planning this year’s awards as opposed to previous years and the steps you had to take to overcome them?
We decided to do both a livestream and in-person event, to ensure many members of the Gold Coast music community and their fans and families who are stuck across the border at the moment were still able to be involved. This also helped showcase our finalists and winners to a national audience to give them more exposure.
As well as having to make sure the event was COVID adaptable, through being scalable and able to be livestreamed, we went into 2021 really under-resourced both financially and in terms of having less team capacity. Like everyone else, pulling together the Awards under these conditions has been really taxing on our team’s well-being, with the changes and uncertainty around the COVID situation causing our planning process to fall behind deadlines at times.
As we came into the event, we just had to take a good look at what the must-haves were and deliver on those really well, forgoing some of the trimmings for next year. That’s the reality of all aspects of our business (and many others) at the moment. We’re dependent on a thriving music and arts sector, so we’re working twice as hard to offer the support that we do, with half the usual resources.
We have had restrictions and lock downs here on the Gold Coast, but a lot less than our southern neighbours. Compared to a lot of other places we’ve been really lucky to have still been able to bring our music community together at times throughout 2020/21. Ultimately, a passionate team working hard towards a shared goal and supportive external stakeholders (Gold Coast City Council, SPRINGTIME Festival and sponsors) really helped us overcome the challenges that kept popping up due to COVID.
The cultural, economic and mental impact
What kind of cultural, economic and mental impact did shifting to a completely virtual event in 2020 have on the Gold Coast music community and what significant differences have you noticed between last year’s virtual event and this year’s in-person event.
Opportunities like the awards give our music community a much-needed chance to reconnect and network, bringing together all different members of the music community, along with artists from a variety of genres and career levels. While the virtual Awards were still a great opportunity to bring the industry together at all, and obviously had some advantages in that we could reach a really wide audience, I think a lot of musicians and industry workers felt quite isolated last year.
As a result of this isolation, I think the importance of community was really highlighted, and we noticed a lot of newcomers at the awards this year. You often see the same core group of people attend music industry events year on year, but with the increased audience we accessed through the 2020 virtual awards as well as reaching a younger demographic with increased online presence, it was great to see a lot of new faces too.
As well as the awards we run an annual program of networking events, so maintaining those activities in the second half of 2020 helped the industry remain connected and optimistic. We also livestreamed all of these events, so I guess our music community has had the opportunity to stay engaged both online and in person. Yet, we really had not had a full industry event in person, as big as the awards since 2019, so we saw award tickets sell really quickly, which was an unexpected surprise this year.
How did you ensure the 2021 event had the best chance of being approved and able to go ahead?
Hosting the event at Home of the Arts was a significant benefit to ensuring that we could go ahead. The facility operates under approved COVID plans and has the team and resources to ensure that the event and venue met COVID restriction requirements. Really, the only thing that would have stopped us was a lockdown, because even under the tightest capacity restrictions, we could have safely held the event with 500 guests.
Alongside our key funding partners, City of Gold Coast and Major Events Gold Coasts’ SPRINGTIME Festival, we had been planning for the awards to be scalable from the outset. That gave us confidence that even if our big sky vision wasn’t able to happen, there was absolute support from the beginning that we could still hold the Awards in some capacity.
With SPRINGTIME announcing their postponement just weeks before the Awards, the scale back did actually happen! The intention was that in conjunction with SPRINGTIME there would have been a 2,000 capacity outdoor Gold Coast Music Awards concert immediately after the ceremony, so we are looking forward to seeing that come to life hopefully for the 2022 Awards.
Local council, state and federal government support
Did the Gold Coast City Council support and assist you to put on this year’s event?
Yes, the City of Gold Coast are our premier funding partner and have been incredibly supportive and adaptive as we adjusted the way we deliver the awards over the last two years. Most significantly they provided us with funding support to produce the professional livestream for the 2021 Awards, so that we could showcase to the industry outside of our region regardless of COVID restrictions.
Are there any stats, data or anecdotes you’ve collected over the last 18 months that you believe could be used to make a strong case for more live music events to be given the green light by the government?
There has been a lot of frustration around Government COVID policy, so we’ve formed the Independent Entertainment Industry Alliance here on the Gold Coast. We want to add our voice to the industry discussions already taking place and make sure our specific concerns are being met. The music and arts industry seems to have been forgotten.
We’re pleased that sports fans seem to be able to gather in the 1,000s and we’re ready to demonstrate that music fans can also safely gather and comply with COVID restrictions. Communities need live music recreation options for their mental health and well-being, as much as the operators need their audiences to return, so that they can stay alive.
Locally, many bands and venues have really cult followings and their fans and patrons are ready and willing to comply with restrictions and do the right thing, so that they can continue to experience live music. So hopefully the restrictions start to give the music community the chance to come back safely.
What kind of support do you think the state/federal government could offer to help revive live event planning/execution that could make a huge difference to the industry?
Music and entertainment businesses are really suffering right now, financially and mentally and the biggest problem is the lack of certainty and constant changes, making it impossible to plan ahead.
Most financial assistance right now is available through a competitive grant process which really puts smaller and more vulnerable enterprises at a further disadvantage when trying to access support. If ups and downs and uncertainty continues, there at least needs to be clear and certain access to support available to the industries’ most significantly impacted by restrictions.
Key takeaways and learnings
What learnings did you gather from the 2020 ceremony that you applied to the 2021 ceremony and what advice do you have for event organisers and promoters right now who are nervous to plan events with the threat of snap lock downs and struggling to navigate their way out of it?
The Gold Coast Music Awards absolutely would not be possible without the financial support of many sponsors, including both government and private sector investment. Bringing these supporters along for the ride and being very open and transparent while we’ve adapted to the current COVID climate has been really crucial to us being able to continue.
In 2020 when everything was uncertain and everyone was in lockdown, understandably many of our funding partners could not provide their intended sponsorship support. We continued to recognise our partners for the support they had committed pre-pandemic and in 2021, every one of those sponsors, has come back on board with financial support despite the continued impacts to their business.
Since we initiated the Gold Coast Music Awards seven years ago, we’ve really focused on building the industry as a community, fostering the mentality that we are all here to support each other and if someone in the industry is shining, then we all benefit. I think that sentiment has been significant for us as we’ve struggled through the uncertainty of snap lock downs. If we’re doing all we can to shine a spotlight on our local artists through the Awards event, it lifts the rest of the industry and provides inspiration for others to persevere and do the same.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.