For a number of weeks now, Australians have been reeling in the wake of major shutdowns that have effectively crippled numerous business sectors, but none more so than the local music industry.
While the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic has seen countless events, tours, and festivals – including, but not limited to Coachella, South by Southwest, Splendour in the Grass, Bluesfest, Download, and Dark Mofo – cancelled or postponed, almost everyone involved in the music industry – both here and abroad – has witnessed the effects of a worldwide shutdown.
As festivals began to announce how COVID-19 had affected them, an increased severity on just how many people were allowed to congregate at any given time saw tours – no matter their size – wiped out entirely. Though it’s easy to think of the musicians and artists as the face of this crisis, it goes far beyond them, with everyone involved in the industry at risk. Whether it’s a promoter, a publicist, a tour manager, a sound technician, stagehand, venue booker, bar staff, or even community radio hosts, everyone has been feeling the pinch.
Websites like ilostmygig have been set up to document the impact COVID-19 and its associated shutdowns have had on the industry, and while its value exceeds $310m, initiatives like Sound of Silence have been set up to provide music fans with methods to support their favourite artists.
In the wake of these closures, cancellations, and shutdowns, we spoke with three Australian artists who have been affected by the recent situation to learn more about how they’re faring, what the future holds, and what’s involved when a tour is axed.
When Melbourne’s Kingswood saw their calendars tick over to March, you could forgive them for feeling a little bit excited. The quartet had spent much of the last year recording their third album, Juveniles, and with its release date set for March 13th, the month was set to be a big one.
With a national tour set to coincide with the album’s launch, and months of promotion leading up to this moment, one could only imagine the band’s disappointment when their run of live shows was cancelled just three dates in.
Although the band quickly made plans to record an in-studio live set to tide over their eager fans, their disappointment was notable. Speaking to Rolling Stone hours after their live recording wrapped up in a North Melbourne studio, vocalist Fergus Linacre notes that while it was tour promoter Live Nation that ultimately cancelled their national trek, there was no way they could have gone on performing these shows.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to play that night. But we were certain that it was going to be the last show of the tour.”
“Even if we went ahead with the tour, to pressure people into coming against the advice of the Government, to say, ‘We’re playing, we want you all to come anyway,'” Linacre begins, “I think just would’ve created an environment that just was not conducive to us performing, creating a party atmosphere and having a lot of fun together.
“We didn’t want to forge on and then be in a room that might be half full, and then not have the environment we want to create when we put on a show. I think that was the reason we decided to postpone, and hopefully we’ll be able to reschedule as soon as possible.”
Though many bands had their shows axed well before things began to kick off, Kingswood were in the unfortunate position of having already begun playing shows, ultimately leaving their tour half-finished. However, Linacre notes that even during these shows, it was clear that the writing was on the wall.
“We were at The Corner Hotel, setting up and sound-checking, fully expecting for that show to be cancelled,” he recalls. “Then we heard people from the venue telling us that it was going ahead, but it was going to be the last show they’re doing, and then someone else was saying that they’re getting heaps more shows because Download Festival had just been cancelled, and all these sideshows would be held there.
“So we had no idea. We went to Ballarat the next night, and we were at Volta – which is the new Karova Lounge – and we weren’t sure if we were going to play that night. But we were certain that it was going to be the last show of the tour, because we kind of knew what was coming.”
For Kingswood, both the tour and the fallout of COVID-19 unfortunately coincided with the launch of their latest album. While the record since went on to debut at #14 on the ARIA charts, both this achievement and the excitement of its release were somewhat soured by the events that surrounded it.
“We’ve spent a lot of time on this album, and when you release a record, you have this amazing feeling of accomplishment; you’re very proud of it, and you can’t wait for its release,” Linacre notes. “Then we work very hard on our shows, and we rehearsed for weeks, and then it all comes down to that big tour.
“It’s a pretty resilient industry, and everyone is suffering the same as us.”
“You generally only get one crack at going around on that big tour. Y’know, people’s attention spans aren’t that big anymore, so you need to grab their attention when it comes out, do your big album tour, and then start again.
“I suppose in terms of celebrating the album we created, by the time we tour again we might have a new single out from the next record, or something else we’re working on. So I think it’s just that we don’t get to celebrate this album in the way that we wanted to.”
Of course, in a situation such as this, thoughts often go the financial toll such a cancellation might take on the band. While Linacre labels the cancellation’s effects as “very serious”, he admits that it’s unclear whether it’s something that the band will ever be able to fully recover from.
“You can refund tickets, but you can’t get a refund for your marketing spend,” he begins. “Flights, and a few things will be credited, or we can get refunds for, but the tour is certainly going to be a loss, and there’s no real way for us to come back from that.
“Everything in music is an expense; recording is an expense, marketing is an expense, and especially for a tour you buy the merchandise, you create it, stock it, and then you have to sell it on. There’s not a lot of money in the sales of your actual music, so touring is where we make our money back, and all the expense that has gone into recording or getting ready for this tour is now gone.
“I’m not sure where that leaves the band financially, or what help is on the way, but it’s a pretty resilient industry, and everyone is suffering the same as us. So I think we’re all going to pull together, and the band’s in really good spirits, and we’re all supporting each other as best we can.
“I think we’ll get through it, I don’t think anyone’s going to be left high and dry, and hopefully no one stops playing music.”
Looking ahead though, the question soon becomes just what the Federal Government both will, and can, do to help those who need it. While musicians suffer massive income losses, Linacre admits there needs to be something done, though it’s a difficult situation that likely won’t see a simple answer.
“We’ve been talking with a lot of other friends in the music and creative industries, and it just feels like there is no other option except some kind of help from the Government,” he explains. “There’s no way to reimburse people or keep people afloat.
“In this industry, I’ve heard a lot of people say this, but it is like week to week, or month to month, and you plan ahead a few months ahead at a time, and a lot of people just don’t have an income now. A lot of people can’t buy food, pay their rent, and it’s getting to the point now where people are borrowing off friends, or you might have had a little bit of savings, but that’s going to pretty quickly run out.
“I think we desperately do need some kind of help. I don’t know how that happens, I’m not informed enough to know how that would operate, but I think there’s certainly some help that needs to come our way. I’m sure it’s a very complicated thing to try and work out who needs what and who requires and deserves what amount of money; that’s above my pay grade. There certainly needs to be some assistance as soon as possible.
“There certainly needs to be some assistance as soon as possible.”
Just a few weeks ago, Live Performance Australia CEO Evelyn Richardson participated in an hour-long roundtable, led by Paul Fletcher, Federal Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, which saw her reveal that LPA had requested emergency funding for the industry.
Speaking to The Industry Observer soon after, Richardson discussed her chat with Fletcher, noting how he had listened to her requests and recognised the impact that COVID-19 has had on the music industry, but did not make any pledges of funding.
“We need clarity and very clear guidance on timing, so we can prepare for that three-to-six months closure. And then the post recovery phase,” Richardson explained. “We would like a clear statement of support for the culture industry and obviously we need immediate release (of funds).
“We are a very large industry sector and of course this is having flow-on effects right across the economy. If you look at culture and cultural industries, entertainment along with tourism and hospitality, we’re a very large component. When it comes time to move into that recovery phase, let’s say its September, our ability to reactivate, that’s going to be challenging. You can open venues but will you have product? Will audiences be confident in going out?
“We’re trying to gear up for that now, but we’ve also got a situation where if we’re looking at that closure period, many large companies that won’t survive that. We need an immediate cash injection and all those casuals and contractors and so on to be able to access New Start today or tomorrow to at least be able to give them something to get through.
“Then we need targeted business measures, which we’re working on, to support as many companies as we can to get through this. Even if we’re in reduced mode, so that when we’re moving into that recovery phase that we’ve got the capacity to respond and react to that.”
With more time on their hands though, Kingswood are now looking ahead somewhat at measures they can take to keep fans entertained. While they released the first of the many songs recorded during their in-studio session overnight, and a performance for Isol-Aid took place over the weekend, it’s given the band a lot more time to ensure their fans are engaged.
“We’re talking to our fans more now than we were even just a few months ago, we’re having conversations with everyone,” Linacre explains. “There’s certainly a huge feeling of the sense of community in the air at the moment.
“There’s certainly a huge feeling of the sense of community in the air at the moment.”
“Our short term goal is to use the time we have as best as possible. Like filming our live session; we want to be able to entertain people who are stuck at home or can’t go out and see music or can’t go out to bars. We don’t how serious it’s going to get, but we want to be a form of entertainment, not only to keep ourselves busy, but also to be something that keeps fans engaged.
“Al’s [Alex Laska, guitar/vocals] going to do some nerdy guitar stuff, and all this other sort of stuff you don’t usually have time for. We’re going to make film clips for all the new songs, and just try to stay busy. And of course, like we always do, we’ll keep writing and keep recording during this time as well.
“That’s one of the good things to come out of this, in a big sense, that there’s going to be a lot of new music made and written. So there’ll be a big influx of great music that comes out of it.”
Stay tuned for the second instalment of our three-part series into what happens to a band when when COVID-19 cancels their tour.
While it remains to be seen when restrictions will be lifted enough for the Australian live industry to return to some semblance of normalcy, music fans can show their support by donating to Support Act if they have the means, ordering merchandise from their favourite artists, or simply streaming local music.