Gigs go digital: how COVID-19 changed Australian live music

Picture: Musicians have had to learn to cope with major changes, including playing to people socially distanced in cars. Here Danish musician Mads Langer plays to a field of cars. Picture via YouTube
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As the Australian music industry struggles to stay afloat in the pandemic, virtual reality, Zorb ball, and drive-in shows might be the best way forward. Emily Spindler-Carruthers reports.

When surf rock duo Hockey Dad stepped onstage at the Bulli Showgrounds in October, the crowd looked slightly different to the usual live gig fare.

Instead of fans shoulder to shoulder, rows of cars stared back at them. 

With the audience ordering merchandise to their car doors and flashing their headlights to cheer, it’s a far sight from a pre-COVID show, but is a hopeful sight for musicians struggling to make ends meet and stay relevant.

As the Australian music industry grapples with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions, it’s one of a whole range of options that would’ve been unimaginable a few months ago.

Live and online

While live shows might be some time away for artists in some states, many are turning virtual to keep creating and interacting with fans.

Scott Simpson, guitarist of Alpha Wolf, says the metalcore group has been working hard behind the scenes to find new ways to generate income and keep fans engaged.

Adam Perera, drummer with the band subcult, is one of many musicians taking the opportunity to work on new music, ready for live performance again. Picture: Emily Spindler-Carruthers

“Everyone is in the same situation, so it’s about rolling with the punches and finding ways to make things work,” he says.

The band has created an account on Patreon – a platform for content creators to provide a subscription-based service to followers – and Mr Simpson describes it as “really successful so far”. 

Patreon is just one of many online platforms that bands have turned to in order to remain relevant – and get paid – when their ability to perform has been restricted, with many bands also looking to livestreaming.

According to Chris Themelco of Orpheus Omega and founder of Monolith Studios in Melbourne, livestream performances are here to stay, for now at least. 

“It’s so much easier these days to do it, I think it’s going to be really important moving forward.”

He says these online performances can be a fantastic way to interact with fans desperate for live performances. 

Chris Themelco from Orpheus Omega talks about his experience living through lockdown as a musician and recording studio owner.

However, he says it’s no substitute for in person performances, particularly for heavy and underground music scenes that hinge so much on audience interaction and atmosphere.

“We all want to be part of that interaction at shows.”

Luke Frizon, from the heavy band Growth, says the pandemic has led to a lot of people “changing their relationship with expectation”, and this shift has led fans to seek out innovative performances to augment their music experience.

Virtual reality concerts have emerged as another innovative way to present something new to fans, with artists overseas like John Legend and Jean-Michel Jarre putting on performances in VR spaces.

Frizon says musicians could also start looking towards other novel ways to present live music to COVID-safe crowds, such as crowds in individual Zorb balls to enforce social distancing while keeping things light-hearted.

The US based band The Flaming Lips recently performed a show in Oklahoma city with both the band and the crowd encased in individual plastic bubbles as a means of facilitating a safe show during the pandemic, much to the intrigue of music fans.

Frizon says that musicians need to “lean in” and adapt to the changes, with interesting settings and production for virtual shows a major factor in keeping things interesting for fan bases.

Support for struggling artists and venues

The music industry was one of the first hit as Australia experienced the first COVID-19 wave in March, with large gatherings banned to stop the spread.

Download Festival was cancelled a week out from the event in March, citing the withdrawal of headliner My Chemical Romance because of COVID concerns.

For Australian artists primed to take to the stage for career-changing opportunities, like Themelco’s band Orpheus Omega, this was a massive blow.

We were at the point of having … the biggest opportunities in front of us we’ve ever had, and that getting taken away was really heartbreaking.

Dr Catherine Strong of RMIT University is currently leading the COVID-19 Music Industry Impacts Study aimed at quantifying the effect restrictions have had on the sector, to assist in rebuilding as the country reopens.

Sound technicians, road crews, venue operators and a whole host of other workers that Dr Strong says are “completely tied up with the creative process” of live shows, are also struggling to find support.

However, support from charities, state and federal governments have allowed some in the industry to begin to rebuild and look ahead.

The Victorian Government began granting some much-needed financial support for Melbourne’s venue owners, who have seen their businesses shut for the better part of 2020.

Anthony Commane talks about what he most misses about live shows.

Anthony Commane is a guitarist in modern heavy metal group Triple Kill, and says that he’s “really pleased to see that there’s a lot of accessible support for artists out there”.

Commane’s band received a grant through Creative Arts Victoria which they are using for the recording of their upcoming album.

He also says that Australian charities such as Support Act have also stepped in to financially support struggling artists.

“This is the first time in my career as a musician that I feel like the government has been backing artists to a comparable degree,” he says.

The experience of Triple Kill is not a universal one though, with many artists such as Mr Simpson and Mr Themelco feeling forgotten.

Dr Strong’s study is hoping to make the process of government and corporate support easier for those in the industry.

“We want to give the industry some solid facts and figures to make it easier for whatever help is coming our way to go to the places it’s really needed.” 

An opportunity to grow

Many in the industry have taken the time away from the stage to reassess the path forward and upskill.

With international and some state borders closed, many will be turning inward to local artists to supply entertainment as venues reopen. 

Themelco says will cause local musicians to “work so much harder, and I’m so excited to see what comes of it.”

Shoulder to shoulder crowds are still a long way off, so artists are working hard to find new, innovative ways to present live shows to their audiences. Picture: Dale Rattray

Adam Perera of Frankston-based garage rock group subcult says it’s been difficult being unable to play live and practice together, “not to mention the toll it takes on exposure”.

Perera says the band has had to practice on their own over the past few months and have used the opportunity to “come up with ideas for things that can be used in songs we’re working on, as well as ideas for new songs altogether”.

Despite the time away to work on their music, he is excited to get back into live shows and recording as soon as possible.

“Like yeah, we can still practice on our own and come up with ideas, but the best part, at least for me, has always been practicing together and playing live.”

While an increased quality of performances and music seems to be a popular prediction, many in the business also think that the industry may improve from an ethical perspective.

According to electronic and R&B artist Thando Sikwila, the pause on shows has allowed for important conversations around equal representation in the music industry to be had.

“It’s a great opportunity to look at our industry and do some housekeeping, so when we’re ready to relaunch there’s an awareness of what needs to change…in order to be sustainable for all.”

Dr Strong also says that the break will allow the industry to “rethink some of the ways things are being done, and we may end up with a better and more ethical industry at the end of the day”.

One thing that all artists, venue owners and music fans agree on is that however live music comes back, they’re excited to see it.

Simpson can’t wait to perform – and attend – shows, and experience all the highs and lows of touring.

“There’s nothing else like it in the world, and I miss it dearly.”

The Tote Hotel was one of 106 live music venues to get some support funding from the State Government. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Government grants a lifeline for venues

The Victorian Government’s grant scheme for live venues has been a lifeline for owners and operators around the state. 

Venues such as the Tote Hotel are crowdfunding to support their upkeep, while Richmond’s Corner Hotel is selling branded merchandise to raise funds.

Both are in the list of 106 venues across the state that shared in $9 million of government support announced in September by Creative Victoria. 

Indoor live music venues have slowly begun to open, subject to very strict capacity limits and other rules. Some relaxation in those rules is expected to be announced this weekend as the state heads for COVID-normal.

The Queensland Government is also supporting live venues as part of their Arts and Cultural Recovery Package. 

The Queensland Live Music Venue Support program is offering up to $20,000 to venues who can prove their business was impacted by COVID-19.