Isolaid festival turns one: what’s next for Australia’s favourite pandemic pivot? | Music

Around this time last year, in a dimly lit lounge room, Melbourne musician Georgia Maq was serenading her cat.

Maq plays in the band Camp Cope, but here she was singing tracks from her solo EP Pleaser, holding a hairbrush as a substitute microphone and dancing on top of her couch. Occasionally she paused to take swigs from a bottle of coconut water, before burping into the iPhone camera.

This was a scene from Isolaid, Australia’s first social distancing festival, which held its first event on Instagram in March 2020 – just after the pandemic sent Australia into lockdown.

While the country retreated inside, anxious and running low on toilet paper, artists like Maq took to Instagram Live to stream themselves performing from their share houses and bedrooms. Thousands tuned in to watch, finding comfort and company in the comments section; after each set, one artist would introduce the next, and give viewers a few moments to click on to a new musician’s page.

A year later the world feels like a different place, but Isolaid is still going strong. Almost every weekend since the pandemic struck, the festival has recruited a new batch of artists to play 20-minute sets on social media, with lineups that have included Julia Jacklin, Stella Donnelly and Middle Kids.

In that time, organisers say 881 artists have performed, many of them more than once, and around 35,000 viewers on average tune in each week to what has amounted to almost 356 hours of streams.

“It’s been immense,” exhales founder Emily Ulman. “Sometimes I pinch myself and wonder what [the year] would have been like if I had decided to bake sourdough and do puzzles and gardening like all my friends. But it’s been really important – and it still feels important.”

With the music industry in crisis, Ulman (who initially organised the festival with Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt and Shannen Egan, but now helms it alone) founded Isolaid as a way to fundraise for industry non-profit Support Act.

Emily Ulman
‘That’s something I’ll remember forever.’: Emily Ulman, co-founder of Isolaid festival. Photograph: Simon Fazio

“Tours and shows and festivals were being cancelled, venues were closing down and there was just this incredible sense of despair, uncertainty and fear,” Ulman remembers. “In a lot of ways it was born out of [that].”

There were no ticket sales – Ulman wanted the festival to be accessible to everyone – but viewers with the means were encouraged to donate through the website. Eventually, the festival raised $80,000 for Support Act.

Isolaid quickly began to serve a vital human purpose, too: a way for musicians to perform after their 2020 tour plans evaporated, and for audiences to connect with the music they loved and to share an experience with other people amid sudden, disorienting isolation. The debut Isolaid, as the Guardian’s Steph Harmon wrote at the time, “felt like the first laugh after a big cry”.

Isolaid was meant to be a one-off – but the success of its first weekend convinced Ulman to keep the festival running as a weekly event. To do that, she’s had to continually refine the model.

The first Isolaid, for instance, featured 74 acts playing across 12 hours a day on both Saturday and Sunday. “I quickly learned that some people tune in to as many hours as I’d program and that wasn’t healthy,” Ulman laughs. “So I just cut the numbers right back.” Now, four artists typically play each week: Julia Stone, Jaguar Jonze, Isaiah Firebrace and Hockey Dad (solo) are on the the first birthday lineup this Sunday.

Still from the Isolaid festival held on 18 and 19 April 2020.
Musicians perform during the Isolaid festival held on 18 and 19 April. Composite: Isolaid

The festival has also moved from Instagram to TikTok, where performers stream on their own account and then direct audiences to the next act (you can also stream the whole thing live from their website). From July, Ulman stopped directing funds to Support Act and instead used audience donations and partnership proceeds to pay artists, who had previously been volunteering their time.

Many weeks of Isolaid have been themed, and some have been guest curated: there was a Naidoc week event, an “accessible all areas” line-up featuring musicians who are deaf and disabled, and an Iso Kids special that focussed on children’s performers. One week’s line-up was made up entirely of musicians who are also frontline healthcare workers.

“It isn’t and hasn’t been about promoting any one particular artist or organisation,” Ulman says. “There are no headliners, it’s always very egalitarian in the way that the biggest name could be playing alongside the smallest one.”

Doctor and musician Sophie Payten, who records as Gordi, was part of that frontline workers line-up – one of three Isolaid appearances she’s made over the past year. She likes the way that the festival has democratised gigs: “It’s a really equitable platform because you don’t need heaps of money to make some epic production. It really just comes down to the barebones of a song, your skill and what you’re able to emote through a phone screen,” she says. “There’s something really cool about that.”

Isolaid has also made live music accessible to those who can’t normally attend shows for medical or geographical reasons. For that reason, Ulman hopes that live streaming gigs will be part of the post-Covid world. “Live streaming will [never] replace the IRL experience – nor would I want it to. But I definitely think there’s a place for it alongside live shows.”

At this stage, Ulman says the long-term future of Isolaid is still “TBC”.

“There are still people who tune in every weekend,” Ulman says. “Record and management deals have been made here. And it’s just been such an incredible source of connection for the music community.

“I can’t convey enough how important this festival has been for so many people this last year. That’s something I’ll remember forever.”

Hockey Dad (Solo), Isaiah Firebrace, Jaguar Jonze and Julia Stone are playing the 49th Isol-Aid festival on Sunday 21 March on TikTok. You can also stream via the Isolaid website.

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