Written by Liam Calleja
As the spectre of COVID-19 continues to plague the globe for the indefinite future, social and physical restrictions have hit the music industry the hardest.
Melbourne’s music community is teeming with uncertainty and distress since our pubs and music venues were forced to close their doors on 23 March and will remain closed until at least the first of July, and even then with strict limitations.
According to survey data collected by I Lost My Gig, a quick-response data capture project established by the Australian Festivals Association (AFA) and the Australian Music Industry Network (AMIN), the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australia’s music industry has seen up to $340 million in lost revenue. Some fear that that this pandemic could cause irreparable damage to local bands and artists, venues, and the entire local music scene as many working in the industry lose their livelihoods. Although physical distancing regulations have cancelled gigs for the indefinite future, impacting artists’ financial security as well as their connection with their fans, the music community’s creativity and innovation means that the heart of Melbourne can continue to beat.
“This isn’t going to break us as an industry ... we can still come together as a community and give something.”
The initial focus for many musicians was limiting financial losses from compulsory cancellations. But over the course of isolation, our local artists have focused on different ways to maintain and even build upon the connection they have with their fans, from free online shows to premium homemade content.
In the early days of isolation, a social media trend dubbed ‘Covered 19’ gained momentum as Triple J Unearthed artists began posting covers of each other’s songs on Instagram and Facebook in a bid for cross-promotion, a sense of novelty for fans seeing their favourite artists covering each other’s songs, and to show support and maintain a sense of togetherness within the music community.
More recently, artists have individualised their approaches to maintaining connection with their fans, from uploading premium content to subscription platform Patreon (eg. Bakers Eddy, Slowly Slowly) to releasing exclusive isolation merch (eg. Kitschen Boy) to special live series and bedroom residencies featuring a different guest each week (eg. Hosted by Bec Stevens). As bands continue to create content, they have been simultaneously exploring and arranging different and more intimate avenues in which to engage with their fans, sustaining and even strengthening the connection they have with their supporters.
However, the most prominent grassroots musical movement to blossom during isolation has been Isol-Aid Festival. We sat down with Shannen Egan - artist manager, panellist on the ‘Taking it to the Streams’ webinar, and co-organiser of the now widely successful Isol-Aid - to discuss the current climate of the music industry, how COVID-19 has impacted the local music scene in Melbourne, and how Isol-Aid came to be.
Shannen Egan of Turning Heads Agency.
Isol-Aid is a weekly livestreamed music festival which takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, hosted on Instagram and Twitch. It was initially planned as a one-off weekend, however Isol-Aid received enough success and support that it became a reoccurring event and is now in its ninth week.
Shannen explained that Isol-Aid was inspired as a fundraiser to raise awareness and provide a platform for artists to perform during isolation. “[It] was focused on community engagement, sparking up spirit and morale,” she said. “You know, this isn’t going to break us as an industry and we can still come together as a community and give something.” Isol-Aid raises money for Support Act, a charity delivering crisis relief and mental health support to artists amidst the pandemic. It has since raised over $90 thousand for the charity.
After helping to set up Isol-Aid, Shannen took a step back to focus on release campaigns for the artists on her management label, Turning Heads. Initially, she said, musicians felt reluctant to release music during isolation as “they didn’t know whether they held as much value as much as they would if they were touring with their releases". However, she has seen this change recently. With many bands now sharing their content, a flood of new local music has been dominating Australian airwaves.
Working predominately with touring artists, many of which having had to cancel or reschedule tours, Shannen worries about the impact it might have on their careers. “We work on 12 to 18 month plans,” she explained. With live music coming to a halt, this could set back a musician’s career by up to two years. With no financial guarantee from live performances to fund tours and recording, the economic cycle for artists has been disrupted. But for Shannen, the toughest challenge she has faced as an artist manager has been much more personal.
“The hardest part is when an artist is coming to you with questions that you can’t answer.
Normally, you’re meant to be a leader in that situation, where you actively go out and seek the answers. But nobody’s really got the answer, you know, when things are reopening again...”
When the closure of indoor venues in March put a stop to live performances, Shannen felt “it was sad, but it was exciting at the same time. It meant that there were new opportunities, new experiments, new ideas.” She feels there is hope within a world which is “going into the big unknown”.
Peak Park for Radio Monash's livestream
music festival, RADFEST.
The success of Isol-Aid raises the question of long-term feasibility of livestreaming both during isolation and once restrictions lessen. According to Shannen, for streams to become sustainable, artists and their teams need to benefit from them in some way. Simply put, streaming must be monetised to secure its viability into the future. As the artists Shannen works with consider incorporating livestreams into their post-isolation plans, livestreaming holds the potential to open the door to new markets and provide a new platform for people to sell their art.
The COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing restrictions have plunged the Melbourne music scene into disarray, and it may never operate the same again. The success of Isol-Aid has been a beacon of hope within a sea of fear and uncertainty and has paved the way for bands to create their own individualised methods of sustaining fan connection. And while the restrictions may be punishing to artists, punters, and venues, the bond between fans of live music and its performers remains iron clad.
While we may not be able to experience live music right now, the compassion, creativity and resilience of Melbourne’s music community means our local music scene will never die.
The Stained Daisies @ the Evelyn Hotel for LIVE AT HUM, February 2020. Photographer: Ivy Emily Trim