opinion Opinion April 21, 2020

How ailing airline Virgin Australia once helped the music biz blossom

Managing Director
How ailing airline Virgin Australia once helped the music biz blossom

It was incredibly sad to read the news that has entered voluntary administration.

The idea that we might be a one-airline nation is quite frightening, not just because of the job losses, especially here in Brisbane, but also because of the opportunity cost that could follow.

In the music biz that’s even more acute, given Virgin’s support of the sector. For me personally, Virgin holds a very dear place in my heart. In 2000, as a young and dumb teenager, I’d just lost my first job in the music industry when the indie label I was working for went belly up.

I got offered a role in the Brisbane office of a then-major that I’d been working closely with as our distributor, and in true ‘upstart young guy that doesn’t know anything’ but thinks he does-style, I decided that rather than working for the man, I’d go out on my own and start a PR company, given my extensive six-month experience in the role and clear awesomeness.

I did a business plan on the back of a napkin. Rent was free, I was living with my parents. I just needed some cash to buy a computer (the hand me down I was given in grade eight was all we could afford) and some way to get to Sydney every month to meet with media.

I was always a little old school in that regard, face time with good people was the best way to get them to listen. It was around the same time Virgin Blue launched and for the first time, I was able to fly to Sydney for $100 (sometimes less!).

It was such a huge part of what enabled me to start a business. We’d fly from a tin shed at the back of Sydney airport (now Terminal 1). I felt like I’d hit the big time.

If flights were $300, my choice would have realistically been to move to Sydney (which I couldn’t afford anyway) or go and get a job elsewhere. I often think back to what was my sliding doors moment, wondering what the last twenty years would have been like if I’d not taken the opportunity that low airfares afforded me at the time (and living at home. Thanks Mum).

Fast forward a few years and I was on the board of QMusic. We had a little event called BIGSOUND that was growing every year and we had started to bring guests from interstate and overseas. At the time we could only afford a handful from down south and one or two from overseas.

One of the very first sponsors that understood what we were doing was Virgin Blue. They came on board and not only worked with the event, but worked with us to establish a new baggage limit for musicians that continued to pour dollars back into artist’s pockets across the country.

For BIGSOUND itself, the sponsorship allowed us to bring in more and more international guests, not just to be talking heads, but to see amazing Australian musicians for the first time. Without their support, there are bands in Australia that would never have international deals. Would not have performed on American TV. Would not have played festivals across Europe and South America. Other festivals that would not have existed.

There is no question that BIGSOUND today would look very different to what it does now without that well-timed investment from Virgin, not only as a one-off promotion, but in the long term. Virgin continued their support for us and for the music industry for over a decade.

I share this not as an ad for Virgin, lord knows they’ve had their profitability issues over the last few years and I’m not here to defend their management. What would I know? I share this as a cautionary tale for the house of cards that we’re all currently precariously perched on.

There are many, many Virgin Australia’s out there who we’re going to mourn over the coming months but it won’t be until down the track that we look back and see what we are really losing. Losing Virgin Australia is not simply 10,000 people out of work. It’s also potentially going to send breadline small businesses to the wall that depend on reasonably priced airfares, not to mention suppliers and those working directly with them.

But more important than that, it’s the opportunity cost of the next SGC Media that never gets off the tarmac. Or the next BIGSOUND that doesn’t have the opportunity to have the impact it does on so many musicians. Or the next band that doesn’t tour over the prohibitive cost of baggage.

The world is going to lose many more Virgin Australia’s over the coming months (hopefully Virgin is able to trade out of administration) and as we inevitably rebuild the ecosystem that we all live and work in, it’s worth taking the time when people or organisations need help to look at the wider contribution they make.

It might mean that we remind ourselves to get out and save the things we hold dear. Or it may simply be feeling grateful to those that aren’t going to make it through to the other side for what they’ve given us. In either case, thanks Virgin Australia.

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