‘A lot of people are at breaking point’: After a dire summer, the live music industry begs for support – Hack | #government | #hacking | #cyberattack

It was supposed to be the summer where live music got back on its feet.

After three years of lost income thanks to the pandemic and the Black Summer bushfires, many in the (usually) multi-billion dollar industry were pinning their hopes on this season’s festivals.

But the Omicron outbreak and snap reinstatement of restrictions – particularly in NSW, where singing and dancing is now banned for indoor and outdoor events – has seen a wave of festivals cancel in the last couple of days.

For Sydney-based producer and musician Cam Nacson, the new NSW restrictions meant thousands of dollars lost in a day.

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He helps independent artists build live gigs, but many of them are now looking in doubt for 2022. The financial impact of that is huge, taking in months worth of prep – and then all the admin needed to cancel bookings and undo the hard work.

“We don’t just lose that gig’s pay; because of the trickle down effects, we can’t get paid for the work that we’ve done leading up to it,” he told Hack.

“It is really disheartening and it’s been an emotional few days, just chatting to fellow artists, booking agents, venues, festivals, all these different people.”

“It feels quite defeated at the moment.”

“We understand that restrictions have to happen. We just need to feel supported and understood that these restrictions affect our industry a lot more than some, and that we can do something about it.”

The new NSW restrictions have a few exceptions – including religious gatherings. Inner Sydney pub The Lord Gladstone is running with that loophole, temporarily rebranding as a ‘church’ and holding a Sunday ‘service’, promoted as “a day of worship, schooners and good times.”

Amid the cancellation announcements and tongue-in-cheek responses, footage emerged of Hillsong’s Youth Summer Camp festival going ahead in NSW

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Hillsong told Hack in a statement that all attendees undertook rapid antigen tests before arrival and that their youth camps “are not similar to a music festival in any way.”

“We follow strict COVID procedures and adhere to government guidelines. Outdoor Christian services are held during the camp but these are only a small part of the program, and any singing is only a small part of each service (a video circulating on social media today reflects a few minutes of this part of the program).”

On Thursday night, NSW Health ordered the festival to stop singing and dancing events immediately.

“Singing and dancing at a major recreational facility is in breach of the public health order,” said Health Minister Brad Hazzard in a statement.

“I have no idea why the Hillsong concerts were realistically allowed to go ahead,” says musician Kim Churchill.

Hack spoke to him on the road, heading to a gig he’s hoping to play on the weekend. It’s already been rescheduled five times in the last 12 months.

“The danger is that we need to be able to trust that the government is doing what’s right for our safety. And what it does when a gathering of that nature is allowed to go ahead, it suggests that all of the other restrictions that are in place on us all, are potentially not necessary for our safety.”

Mr Churchill says he’s felt like Harry Potter’s “Sirius Black on the run” for the past few years of the pandemic, living a pretty lonely life navigating closed borders, snap lockdowns and cancelled shows.

“There are these awful dark moments where I almost want to cancel the shows, just because it is such a huge weight trying to make them happen and so much passion and emotional labour goes into scheduling the show, getting the tickets sold, building up to the performance,” he says.

“There are times that you just feel so crummy … you don’t know if you can get up on stage and be that charismatic, bright eyed entertainer.”

He’s feeling anxious about the uncertain future, and says that’s a feeling shared by many in the live music industry. Without economic safety nets like JobKeeper, workers are making tough decisions about their careers.

“I think a lot of people are at breaking point now. I think a lot of large festivals are at breaking point now.

“A lot of artists that I know are simply not doing it anymore. It’s actually really scary. I reckon I probably have one call a week with a friend, an artist somewhere that has stopped releasing music. They’ve stopped touring, they’ve stopped playing, and they’re looking to do other things with their lives.”

Julia Robinson, Managing Director of the Australian Festivals Association (AFA), says the loss of skilled workers is one of the biggest issues for the industry at the moment.

“We’ve lost a whole bunch of skilled and experienced workers to other sectors,” she told Hack.

“And it’s really hard to get that experience back. It’s not learned in a classroom … Especially those frontline personnel like security, understanding how the crowd moves, and how it might work in a pit, really does kind of need to be learned on the job.”

Ms Robinson also responded to the footage of Hillsong live events going ahead.

“Seeing recent footage of singing and dancing, as well as clear flouting of social distancing at other settings, illustrates considerable discrepancies in the public health orders.”

“This will come as a huge disappointment not only to the organisers and suppliers, but also to the fans.”

Push for federal insurance scheme to save industry from ‘irreparable’ damage

Insurance is the other key issue.

Festival organisers – and everyone associated with them – cannot get insurance against COVID if the gig can’t go ahead.

“Festivals are being cancelled, or postponed, at the promoter’s expense,” says Julia Robinson.

“The knock on effect is the supplier’s expense, who may have forked out some money to work on that show as well, and the artists who wouldn’t have been able to book themselves for other shows.”

Only Victoria has introduced COVID-19 event insurance, and federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has resisted calls to create a national scheme for the live music industry.

While responsibility lies awkwardly between states and the federal government, there is precedent for a national insurance scheme: this week, the film industry’s $50m Temporary Interruption Fund was extended until June.

The fund supports local TV and film producers to continue their projects when lack of insurance coverage has forced them to shut down.

In a joint statement with other music industry organisations, including ARIA and Live Performance Australia, the AFA called on the PM and Minister Fletcher to consider a similar scheme for the live music industry.

“The live music and entertainment industry’s calls over the past 18 months for a similar national scheme have fallen on deaf ears. Australia now lags behind New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Estonia in delivering a solution to this issue,” it said.

The federal government has committed pandemic funding to the live music industry, with $200 million going to charity Support Act to deliver crisis relief for live performing arts workers.
There’s another $200 million in the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, which backs new cultural and creative projects. But that funding expired in December, and those new projects may also be affected by new restrictions.

“We do recognise that there has been a good amount of stimulus funding that has been given out to our industry,” says Julia Robinson.

“And we do welcome that funding available to put new shows on, to put concerts on and festivals across the country. But unfortunately, this aspect of the insurance just doesn’t seem to get traction.”

“You could say that, actually, the insurance that they could consider would actually help to ensure their own funding would be used.”

Kim Churchill thinks the next 12 months will be a big make-or-break period for the live music industry.

“A lot of the people and organisations and promoters that have been holding on with all that they’ve got,” he says.

“If there’s another year like last year or the year before, I think we’ll see so much more of that irreparable damage.”

Cam Nacson is looking to all levels of government for support: local, state and federal. He’d like to see funders engage more with the industry to understand the intricacies of how it operates, and to move away from funding one-off, big events. He’s keen to see more long term support that helps grow the industry and builds on its existing infrastructure.

“Without investment, the calibre of any industry goes down,” he says.

“And whether that is because people are moving overseas, or it’s just not seen as a viable career choice, or any of that kind of stuff – that is the major impact.”

He’s kicking off a grassroots campaign to spread more awareness about how the pandemic is still impacting live music performers and workers.

“We want to hear what everyone has to say, communicate that to the government, and to feel that we have been heard and implement realistic changes,” he says. Stories and experiences can be shared with him via Instagram.

Despite how rough the past few years have been, he still has hope in the resilience of the industry.

“We will get through this one way or another. We just need the right support. And we will get the right support through helping each other understand each other. That’s the way forward.”

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