Amid the stress and unknowability of the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic – which continues to wreak daily havoc and decimate arts industries around the world – there was a moment when some Australian musicians actually felt lucky.
“A lot of my friends overseas weren’t getting any sort of stimulus or funding from [their] governments, and we were,” recalls Harriette Pilbeam, who records as Hatchie. After months of lobbying, the state and federal governments had begun drip-feeding the industry with rescue packages, and some musicians found themselves eligible for fortnightly jobkeeper supplements (although many working behind the scenes were not).
“We were so grateful to be here – for [nearly] a year, we thought ‘God, we’re so lucky’,” she says. “It felt like it would be silly [to complain] while everyone else was so much worse off.”
Fast-forward to June 2021, and that moment has passed. Where Australian musicians may once have felt protected from the worst of the global crisis, they now feel left behind by a government that has botched the vaccine rollout, scrapped jobkeeper, and allowed sporting matches to continue while the music equivalents – stadium shows and festivals – have been cancelled repeatedly, often with no insurance.
Those who would ordinarily make their money from touring internationally or locally are faced with the worst of both worlds. While the US and Europe tentatively look forward to the return of live music later this year, Australia’s borders are locking artists out from career-making global tours and festival slots. Meanwhile, the local touring circuit has been made unsustainable due to snap lockdowns, capacity reductions, and little ability to forward plan.
Australia was already a tough enough market to break – and for a career musician like Pilbeam, whose fanbase is largely overseas, the future looks bleak. “I definitely feel like [our luck has] flipped,” she says. “Now we’re the ones who have been left behind, and I have no idea when we’ll get overseas again.”
When the pandemic hit, Hatchie had just finished a two-year touring and promotion cycle for their debut album, and Pilbeam was getting ready to record a follow-up. That record has now been put on ice, as she and her team knock back touring offers until she’s allowed to leave the country. “I think if we knew a specific date when things could be happening it might help, but we’re so in the dark.”
Others were even worse-off: they had to contend with a year’s worth of work being rescheduled or cancelled in the blink of an eye.
Holy Holy, a duo based between Melbourne and Launceston, saw two 2020 tours cancelled – one in April, another planned for October-November. After waiting out much of the year, the band decided to try for a short east coast tour over three weekends in January and February 2021, booking multiple shows a night in drastically reduced-capacity venues. The shows went ahead, but in “pandemic fashion” – that is, all but two had to be rescheduled. The tour was supposed to finish on 27 February; it finally ended in May.
The logistical nightmare is hard to underestimate. Touring in Australia is difficult at the best of times: in Europe you might drive from city to city, playing one show a night, but it’s almost impossible to do the same on such a vast island continent whose hubs are so far apart. For Jess Beston, Holy Holy’s manager, booking a tour involves dozens of moving parts – and has become even more labour-intensive post-pandemic. “When you postpone a show, it affects the band, the manager, the agent, and all of the crew – depending on the band, that could be one person, or it could be 12. And when they suddenly lose work, it’s not like they can replace that work that weekend, especially if people are in lockdown,” she says.
One round of Holy Holy shows were set for the night Melbourne went into its first lockdown of 2021, requiring a mad – and expensive – dash to get the band and crew out of Victoria before borders closed. Then a handful of Brisbane shows had to be postponed, because the Queensland government couldn’t confirm whether one of Holy Holy’s band members would be allowed into the state from Melbourne. The day after the shows were postponed, border restrictions were lifted.
Beston lost around $80,000 in income last year; she made it through due to jobkeeper, and additional projects she picked up. Others were not so lucky. “A lot of people basically lost an entire year of pay, [while] still working that whole time,” she says. “[We were] booking in shows, chasing the shows, doing various things, but not getting paid for that work.”
That Holy Holy got to play shows at all is a minor miracle. Melbourne musician Kira Puru was set to play her first show in a year in February, after what was supposed to be a year of touring. But just days before the show date, Melbourne was back in lockdown.
“It just devastated me in a way that I don’t think I could have predicted,” she says. A lack of income stability, as well as the general anxiety associated with working in the arts now, has stymied Puru’s creativity and added new pressures. Pouring salt on the wound, Puru was one of many Australian musicians whose last few shows were all fundraisers for the bushfires that blazed across the country just ahead of the pandemic. “On an emotional level, it’s really mind-fucking – you never know when things are gonna fall apart. It’s hard to ever have hope of things coming through.”
Puru stresses that the damage done runs far deeper than just musicians. “I just feel in general there’s not enough support for the arts from the government at all.”
Beston, Pilbeam and Puru all stress that the industry needs an efficient vaccination rollout to help it back on its feet. But all three are also critical of what they see as hypocrisy in the allowances made for sporting audiences compared to live music. As Holy Holy’s team were booking quarter-capacity shows at Melbourne’s 2,100-capacity Forum theatre in February, she says, there were crowds of thousands attending sports games – with more than 7,000 allowed to gather under closed roofs for the Australian Open, whose venues were at 50% capacity. “The disparity [is] very painful for all of us to witness,” Beston says.
Pilbeam agrees: “[Sports fans] all arrive at the same time, they all go to the bathroom at the same time, they’re all in corridors at the same time – so how is that different from having a few hundred people in a room for a show? … People at sports matches are just as likely to jump up and scream as people at shows are likely to move around and sing along – I don’t know what the difference is.”
In the scheme of things, Australia was shielded from many of the pandemic’s horrors. But Beston worries that Covid will be impacting the music industry for years to come – particularly now that jobkeeper has ended, leaving the largely casualised workforce particularly vulnerable. “I’m worried about the mental health impacts on young artists and young managers – I think  would be an incredibly difficult thing to recover from. I can definitely understand if they chose to pursue other careers that had more stability and safety and secure income,” she says.
Streaming platforms are not a viable income source for the industry’s 99%, and for early-career musicians the last 18 months may have been a breaking point. “I think the industry may have lost some really beautiful future artists,” Beston says.