opinion March 16, 2020

Will coronavirus really collapse the live music industry? [op-ed]

Will coronavirus really collapse the live music industry? [op-ed]

On Saturday night, American hardcore band Code Orange live-streamed what was intended to be their album launch. Instead, it was a Twitch video of a band playing to an empty 1,500 seat arena, complete with light show and stage moves. It’s actually quite powerful as a performance, and to be honest, it looks like any broadcast level recording of a live show. Then, the song ends, and the arena is filled with roaring silence, fiercer and more evil than any death metal growl could be.

Watch footage of it. It seems eerie. That’s because it is eerie. This is the immediate future of live music, and it will be this way for an unspecified length of time. But even stunts like Code Orange’s crowdless launch won’t be happening before too long, as we are all sequestered far from public arenas. As Ben Lee quipped this morning, “Kinda jealous of cam girls business model right now.”

This is a disaster for the Australian music industry, an interconnected jumble of small business owners, sole traders, and major corporations, all tangled like guitar leads dumped into a road case.

If the majority of Australian are in lockdown for six months – which seems unlikely, but also just as likely as any of the other unlikely things that have happened so far – then this will completely cripple any sector of the industry that relies upon live performance. Which is most of the industry, spanning from CEOs of touring companies through to sound engineers, road crew, lighting companies, food truck vendors, gear and van hire companies, and all the countless contractors, merchandise sellers, pub owners, bar staff – oh, and the musicians themselves, of course.

As well as losing income, they lose the opportunity to build fans through live performance, as musicians have done since that infamous Mozart tour of 1781. 

Luckily, unlike the Government, the music industry has a solid plan. A Voltron-style grouping of Australian music industry bodies quickly launched I Lost My Gig over the weekend. The idea of the site is to calculate the financial loss to the industry, through self-reporting. 

In less than two days since its launch, the total lost income reported had exceeded $49 million. 190,00 people have lost jobs, with 20,000 events cancelled. This is just the very beginning. Keep in mind this website is a mere two days old and all the figures are self-reported. As word of it spreads throughout the weeks, those figures will reach astronomical heights. It will stand as an undeniable record of a sector, destroyed.

So the music industry is being proactive, collecting data, names, figures, in an organised push for compensation. The live industry is already lobbying ScoMo. Tomorrow, Live Performance Australia CEO Evelyn Richardson will be part of a roundtable with Paul Fletcher the Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts. She estimates that the local industry will bleed half a billion in lost income.

If you have lost work due to virus isolation (a good name for a metal band), I implore you to enter your details.

Things are moving quickly. Spreading like a virus, you might say. On Sunday morning, the Health Minister appeared on ABC’s Insiders and was shaking hands with panellists. Hours later, the PM announced that we shouldn’t be shaking hands at all. This morning, it was announced that gatherings of over 500 people are not just frowned upon, but banned and punishable by jail time. 

It seems to be inevitable that, eventually, we will all be locked in little boxes, for a period of time that is impossible to pre-empt or adequately prepare for. In a few short days the sporting sector has missed out on millions of dollars in lost ticket sales, with cricketers playing to empty stadiums – but at least TV rights deals are still in place, and players, coaches, commentators and SP bookies continue to be paid.

But it’s not the same for the live music industry. Things just grind to a halt. Shows just stop. The Rubens are not going to hop in a van and play a bunch of empty pubs across Australia just to prop up the economy. There is no secondary income stream for those who rely upon the live scene for their livelihood – which is the majority of those involved in the Australian music industry.

Splendour tripped over themselves this year announcing their lineup in February, with tickets on sale two months ahead of their usual schedule. This is their 20th-anniversary festival. Money has already been spent securing international acts, on promotion, and numerous other things. This year’s early announcement may prove a costly mistake, with tickets to be (possibly) refunded, and deposits lost.

Just last Thursday, Splendour was posting about avoiding unauthorised ticket sellers. “If you missed out on camping tickets, be patient and stay tuned as we are working through other solutions!” Not surprisingly, the comments section has since filled with jokes and jabs about self-isolation periods and the like. Just last Thursday seems like a long time ago now. It appears unlikely that international headliners Tyler The Creator and The Strokes will be hopping a plane to Byron, even though the festival isn’t until late July. It will interesting to see how long the organisers hold out before making an announcement either way.

When Big Day Out folded in 2014, it was the most successful festival in Australian history. Yet, a handful of unforeseeable events suddenly made it untenable, and the walls quickly crumbled. Blur pulled out weeks from the 2013 event, and thousands demanded and received refunds. A second Sydney show was announced then cancelled due to poor sales. It was a nightmare year for them. The following year was worse, with BDO attendance down 50%. The company lost ten million dollars in one year. Being a small team and a big operation, the Big Day Out shut up shop.

That was a disaster, but it pales in comparison to what is about to happen. 

This morning, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard called for the cancellation of public events with more than 500 people, giving the powers-that-be the ability to send organisers to prison for six months, and issue fines in the tens of thousands. This is a fairly powerful disincentive to organise a bush doof. It will destroy the usual touring cycles that thousands of Australian artists rely upon to promote new material, build their audiences, and sell merchandise. These are strategic plans, vital to the success of an album. If bands lose the ability to tour, it will impact their streaming numbers, their sales, and could result in them being dropped by record labels not willing to roll the dice as often. It will kill income streams for countless DJs who will lose regular nightclub slots. It will see clubs raided by police in search of organised gathering. It will see young promoters and leaseholders skirting the law in order to survive. It will be bad news.

When the lockout laws were lifted in Sydney, I spoke to Oxford Art Factory owner Mark Gerber, who bemoaned the untold damage of the laws. “We will never really know the true extent of the damage it caused to our city’s music and art cultures,” he told me.

“It is impossible to know just how many future stars of the music and art world either packed it in, never gave it go, or moved away to continue their careers elsewhere.”

The paths of many lives will be irrevocably altered in the next few months, which sounds awfully like hyperbole but is probably understating the matter. For many, the biggest impact will be financial, which is no small thing at all. But there will also be a mental toll: fear, boredom, stress, anxiety, and an aching sense of alienation we won’t quite be able to put our fingers on. 

This will be the lasting legacy of the coronavirus. And that’s the good version of the story, that doesn’t mention death.