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Australia’s Music Industry in Crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic places a strict ban on gatherings and several territories close their borders, Australia’s music industry is in meltdown.

First bushfires, then floods, now this. Australians have literally weathered a storm, but the coronavirus pandemic is a next-level problem, one that threatens lives and, in one plausible scenario, could unravel the music community. 

Australia’s gig economy is the stuff of legends, the birthplace of AC/DC, INXS, Violent Soho, and many thousands more. Including all aspects of live entertainment, from festivals to classical and 4,000 performance spaces, it’s a world worth about $4 billion, according to trade body Live Performance Australia.

And, right now, it’s at the mercy of a novel coronavirus. 

With strict, enforceable measures in place to stop Australians hanging out together and potentially spreading the disease, the music community was hit early, and hard. 

“The industry is ‘absolutely in meltdown’.”

The industry is “absolutely in meltdown,” says Evelyn Richardson, Chief Executive of Live Performance Australia, who at the time of writing was desperately negotiating with the government for a $650 million emergency bailout from the federal government’s multi-billion-dollar stimulus and support fund.

Without immediate cash, the future is bleak for Australia’s musicians, the vast majority of whom rely on gigs to stay upright. Most were already skint before COVID-19 was part of the vernacular. 

As Rolling Stone went to press, there was no commitment from Canberra on a lifeline. And there’s no timeline on when, or if, life can go back to normal. The live industry is working on a six-month plan. It could get ugly out there.

“You can open venues, but will you have product? Will audiences be confident in going out?”

“When it comes time to move into that recovery phase, let’s say it’s September, our ability to reactivate, that’s going to be challenging,” says Richardson. “You can open venues, but will you have product? Will audiences be confident in going out?”

The challenges are easy to spot. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a ban in March on social gatherings of 100 or more indoors, and restrictions on groups outdoors, it signalled the shutdown of all concerts and festivals.

None were too big to fail. Bluesfest 2020 and Download were cancelled. CMC Rocks QLD, So Pop 2020 festivals, gone. Live Nation and AEG Presents, the biggest concert promoters on the planet, pressed pause on all tours to Australia and elsewhere.

Splendour in the Grass, Australia’s mid-winter rite of passage, has taken the unprecedented measure of rescheduling its three-day event to exactly three months later.

Splendour in the Grass has taken the unprecedented measure.

Splendour in the Grass has taken the unprecedented measure. (Photo by Jess Gleeson)

The industry’s cherished APRA Awards turned into a “virtual” experience. Hell, even the Tokyo Olympic Games has been rescheduled. The Olympics have been cancelled due to war, but never postponed. Until now. 

A website set up to monitor lost gig income is updated daily. Established by the Australian Festivals Association and the Australian Music Industry Network, ilostmygig offers a sobering look at a once-flourishing scene. By late March, losses exceeded $300 million. 

“It’s truly an awful time for the industry,” says Paul Piticco, co-founder of Secret Sounds, operator of Splendour and Falls Festival, and partner in Brisbane’s Fortitude Music Hall and Triffid venues. “We will prevail if this ends in a reasonable time frame.”