As our quarantine restrictions begin to ease around the country, many of us are getting excited for the resumption of some sort of normal social and recreational activity. Plans are being made for holidays even as many restrictions remain on the travel sector. The streets around popular tourist destinations in the area I call home are crowded with out-of-town traffic once more, only days since people were allowed back inside cafes. Next week, schools will again be filled with children, no doubt to the relief of many.
But it seems the greatest excitement is for our winter contact sport regime to kick off once more. Every news broadcast and media outlet has time and space devoted to what the competition will look like, how it will be played, whether teams can cross state boundaries or if crowds will be able to attend. For football – the clubs, players, fans, media outlets that rely in its income, agencies that depend on it for gambling revenue – things are going to be exciting again, and while it would be churlish to deny that excitement and relief to those who love the game, what about those of us for whom football and sport in general is not, perhaps, our greatest love?
To paraphrase one of our more enduring and mawkish hit songs – What about people like me? Since the mid-1980s I have worshipped at another altar, one far removed from the pigskin and the turf marking paint, but still with plenty of leather, sweat and the roar of a crowd. Another arena with its own rituals and rush of adrenalin. For a tragic like me, who has devoted most of my life to it, a live music venue is a holy place, as holy as any temple or revered sporting ground. To be without this communion of body and volume is to be left feeling bereft. I’m ok with quarantine and physical distancing, but when will I get to see a live music show again? No one seems to have the answer, and, worse, no one with any authority seems to care.
As I’ve written before, 35 years ago, Australia had the most vibrant live music scene in the world. In Sydney, more people would go and watch a local band playing than would often go to rugby league matches. With hundreds of venues packed with hundreds of punters almost every night of the week, rugby league could barely even compete with the live music crowd. No wonder the ARL brought in Jimmy Barnes and Tina Turner to promote the game. Who now is going to help live music? Remember Band Together and Fire Fight, where the music industry helped raise money for bushfire relief, and all the other times entertainment acts got together for charity relief and benefit shows?
One of the most vivid memories of my high school years is of sitting with some friends high up in the pavilion at Bankstown Paceway watching an open air concert by The Angels and The Radiators playing to a sea of people at possibly the only show of its kind ever held at that venue. A couple of years later, when I was finally old enough to do so, I would head off to the RSL in Bankstown to catch whatever band was on, pressing myself against the lip of the stage every Saturday night, intoxicated by the volume. The high it gave me was worth the hour-plus, five kilometre walk home at 1am.
Once I could drive, I couldn’t be stopped. I would go wherever the gigs were by whatever band I wanted to see that night – Canberra, Wollongong, Newcastle. Nowhere was too far away or too difficult to get to. One night in the 90s when I was still living in Sydney, I drove to Blaxland in the Blue Mountains to see a show by The Poor and then back to Newtown to catch the end of a late night set by some other band I can’t now remember. Another time I caught Nitocris doing a support slot at the Annandale and then drove across town to the Collector in Parramatta to watch them play a headline show the same night. For me, that was a completely normal night out.
Pretty soon, my entire life revolved around live shows, and I went to hundreds. My first writing gig was as a live reviewer for a Sydney street press outlet in the mid-1990s, and I was at shows at places like Feedback on King Street so often I’m sure some people thought I lived at one of them. Gigging informed my entire social life. I would go to shows as much to hang out with my mates and friends I knew would be there as to catch whatever band was playing. When I turned 30, every single person who attended my birthday party was someone I knew through the local live music scene. Twenty years later, most of those people still form the basis of my social network. My wife and I first became acquainted at the Sandringham Hotel watching our mutual friend Kriss Hades present one of the weirdest and most arcane shows I’ve ever witnessed. When we got married, every guest who wasn’t a member of our immediate family was connected to the scene in some way. Because of the lockdowns and quarantines, a lot of these people are hurting financially.
I miss the shows and I miss the scene. I’ve actually found myself being acutely depressed when I think about the state my beloved scene has been reduced to, but not entirely for myself. I’ve been to hundreds of gigs now. I’ve seen hundreds of bands. I’ve seen so many I can’t even remember them all. I’m sad for the future, for those who are just coming through. Kids like my daughter, who, at 15, is already a gig veteran, or my 11 year old who was looking forward to seeing Iron Maiden with me this month. When is the next time he is going to get to be filled with that same sense of joy I saw on his face as we watched Whitesnake and the Scorpions a few months back, that same excitement I would feel as the amps crackled and the roar of the crowd began to rise?
But I am most concerned about the industry itself. The thousands of people who relied on the industry for their livelihood – not only the musicians, most of whom barely scraped by at the best of times, but the roadies, riggers, techies, venue and studio owners, gig bookers, publicists, promoters, backline suppliers, and all their staff. Who’s looking out for them now? I’m missing my live music rush, but these people depend on it financially. If no less a figure than Michael Chugg can’t get the government to listen to the pleas of the music and performance art industries, who can?
Beyond the bands themselves, who aren’t used to making a lot of money anyway, and big players like the Chuggs, Gudinskis and Coppells, there are hundreds of lesser known entities now struggling on the verge of ruin. There are friends of mine who spent decades building their touring agencies up to mid-level organisations with a few hundred successful tours under their belts, only to see an entire year’s worth of income swept away overnight. Blue Mountains-based publicist Chris Maric told me last week his business has lost out to the cancellation of eleven international tours, several of which were scheduled for this month. Another colleague has seen her entire business collapse with a string of sold-out shows having to be cancelled, and no guarantee any of them can be re-booked into the foreseeable future. Live music is a drug, but for a lot of people it’s how they make a living.
Let’s not forget that it’s not just live music that’s suffering here – theatre, dance, comedy, even film and TV… every area of the performing and creative arts has been gutted by COVID-19 and at every level of government it has been denied any form of financial assistance. Pubs and clubs might be reopening, but who knows how long it will be before they are once again filled with the clamour of live entertainment, and what restrictions will be in place once they are? For those of us who love it live, all we can do is support the scene and those impacted however we can. Help them out. Find them on Bandcamp and actually buy their music instead of just downloading it for free. Make a donation to SupportAct’s COVID-19 emergency appeal and, most importantly, when shows finally do start up again, get out to as many as you can. Lastly, the next time an election rolls around, support the candidates who support the arts. Not just for now, but for always.
Donate to SupportAct here: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/226584/corona-virus-emergency-appeal-for-support-act