Entertainment Banding together in lockdown, musicians take a sad song and make it better
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Banding together in lockdown, musicians take a sad song and make it better

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Of all the industries laid low by the coronavirus, the entertainment and live music scene has been the hardest hit – and the strain is starting to show.

For a calling that often provides the soundtrack to other people’s tribulations, the joy and release of a live music venue is something that many fans are missing and which is costing millions of dollars for entertainers.

With the new Victorian outbreak setting back that state’s plans to start a limited reopening of venues to small, socially distanced patrons, the despair and financial pressure felt by professional musicians is showing up in support networks.

Support Act – the music-based charity that recently received a $10 million grant from the federal government to distribute to those feeling the strain – is one body reporting an uptick in those seeking help.

Offering crisis help to all music workers doing it tough, Support Act’s national welfare co-ordinator Lindy Morrison says its Wellbeing phone counselling line, for mental health help, is fielding many calls.

“It’s not surprising, considering the uncertainty that music workers live with at any time,” Ms Morrison told The New Daily.

“Music workers are used to doubts in their career, but this is bigger. This scenario presents a kind of hopelessness.

“I mean, how does it look now if you are a musician? There’s no chance of a gig in front of a live audience for some time and that amount of time is not known. For a person who plays music professionally, it’s an issue because their art, their sense of self is not satisfied.”

Ms Morrison says the absence of work is not just causing financial pressure.

“It’s hard to explain that hole,” Ms Morrison said.

“And then we have people who work behind the scenes and they love their work, those who are carrying the black boxes on their backs, even if it is stressful, they want to and miss their work and it fills them with a sense of dread not to know what lies ahead.

Support Act is also providing a 24/7 Wellbeing health helpline with psychologists on call and long-term phone counselling providing support to all workers in all the arts.’’

Despite being one of the first industries hit by the global pandemic, the entertainment sector appeared to be last on the federal government’s list for support funding – with many gig employees not covered by the JobKeeper arrangements.

Tasmania’s Dark Mofo, due to be held in June, was the first festival cancelled in March when the pandemic hit and since then a steady stream of music events across the country have been abandoned for 2020.

Live music scenes across the nation were put on hold, with no clear indication of when venues in pubs, clubs and casinos can again reopen.

In recent months, musicians have become more creative in promoting their work through live shows online, events at drive-ins, and by releasing new music on monetised websites.

Many have come together to promote shared gigs and cross-promoting new releases.

Melbourne’s Mick Thomas and his band The Roving Commission are one group who have already immortalised the 2020 lockdown in song, the former Weddings, Parties, Anything lead singer writing I’ll see you when I’m looking at you off his new album See You On The Other Side. 

 

Music Victoria general manager Dale Packard concedes the recent outbreak had been a setback, with only “a handful” of small venues operating and a large majority unable to open until further restrictions are lifted.

“Further assistance is absolutely required,” Mr Packard said.

“This has been the case even before the current setbacks. We’re working with local, state and federal government to ensure music is sufficiently supported.

“It’s been great to see artists adapting to the current conditions and experimenting with different performance formats. There have been a range of responses to these. Some haven’t worked but there have been some success stories, like the Isol-Aid Festival.”

Mr Packard said it was too soon to know how far the recent Victorian outbreak would set back reopening plans.

It’s too hard to say. We know about as much as anyone else and take our direction from the DHHS. Fingers crossed.’’

After being criticised for not responding with cash support sooner, the federal government late last month announced it would provide $250 million to assist in rebuilding the arts industries.

Support Act will distribute its money by paying bills for people who have lost work from tours, studio recordings, venues, crewing, management and administration jobs.

“Support Act is in the process of rolling out these grants to people in need who are all types of music workers,” said Ms Morrison, adding it would also assist music businesses that “are falling by the wayside”.

“The applications are continually being processed by a team of social workers.”

The loss of live music venues in capital cities has accelerated since the outbreak, with some mainstays of the music industry facing closure and sale.

Music fans in the bush are also missing their regular hotel and public hall gigs, with many casual artists part of the fabric of local communities.

Lead singer for The Jack High in south-west Victoria, Tamara Neal says her band’s four-year run of building an audience ended almost overnight when the pandemic hit.

“The cancellations started pretty much when it first happened, probably we had four shows booked already,” Ms Neal explains.

“They were out there and were going to go ahead. Then it just stopped.

I feel a bit lost and I just miss the camaraderie with my fellow musicians and the sense of the community that we are involved with.’’

Although many part-timers at least have their regular employment to fall back on, creatives who have put everything into making it big in the music industry have been devastated by the loss of income.

Ms Morrison believes the road back will be long, but filled with music’s usual good humour and energy.

“Of course the industry will bounce back,” she said.

“People who choose to work in music have a drive that is inexplicable … it’s a life on the margins for the majority of players because work is so uncertain.

“These are the jobs they excel at – this is where their competencies lie and they find a place to live and work, their tribe if you will.

“People in music work hard to gain the specific skills required to play musical instruments, record, run venues, manage and crew. There is no holding our industry back.”