As much of the country moves to re-open its economy, the fabled return of live music is almost here. WA, Queensland and NSW have all hosted limited-capacity gigs, employing various gimmicks to emulate the experience; drive-ins, speakeasy listening lounges and full dinner service. But is it enough to sustain venues or artists? It could be obscuring their struggle.
Popular local rock acts like DMA's and Lime Cordiale essentially settled into residencies at Sydney venues Oxford Art Factory and The Factory Theatre, performing twice a night for weeks. The Triffid in Brisbane has embraced Queensland's greater freedoms with two seated performances of about 100 people a night, seeing local legends like Bernard Fanning and Ed Kuepper join contemporary mainstays like Hatchie.
By design, limited-capacity gigs are exclusionary. The price of a ticket to a limited-capacity concert is often dizzying to account for the venue's high overhead costs, sometimes exceeding $150 a table. Lime Cordiale and DMA's shows have tried to skirt that problem by the sheer number of shows booked, bringing it down to the more equitable $50 price point, but this is not an option for non-chart topping acts.
Nobody should advocate that artists or venues don't deserve to be paid properly for their work, particularly after so long without any meaningful support. But the music scene won't prosper again if the only people who can afford to attend live music are well-off full time earners, looking to explore its novelty for date night after a couple of months locked inside. While bigger acts and venues can afford the losses inherent in running 25% capacity, the plight of smaller venues who cannot is being forgotten.
In locked down Victoria, a series of small to medium-sized venue sales quietly occured over the months of March, April and May: The Gasometer Hotel, The Spotted Mallard, Revolver Upstairs. Others, like The Tote and The Old Bar, have been forced to be more transparent with their financial woes, setting up crowdfunding campaigns and public pleas. Old Bar co-owner Liam Matthews estimated to MTV Australia the financial loss over the last six months for him and his partners as $80,000.
"There's no business model that really sees us work at limited capacity," Matthews said. "It defies what we do with The Old Bar which is a cramped, shitload of people into a tight space, and a dirty, sweaty.. Everything that [the] COVID [crisis] is about, is The Old Bar."
"Unless we had musicians coming up to us going, 'Hey, we're gonna play a completely free show and pay for this engineer'. But like that would be really irresponsible of us to put people in that position as well. Musicians are in exactly the same spot as we are."
Matthews worries that if COVID restrictions continue until July 2021, an approximate date for the return to "normality", the pool of bands that normally perform at small-medium venues like The Old Bar will have significantly diminished.
"All these kids that are turning 18 now that would start going to live music and go, 'Holy shit. Like, what is this? Why am I not doing this?' They're all missing out on that... small bands won't exist anymore. That ecosystem gets broken and the bigger bands will just start touring the world again."
When the live music industry does eventually restart in earnest, there are other lessons about accessibility and price structuring it can learn from its involuntary hiatus. Founder of the online music festival Isol-Aid, Emily Ulman, told MTV Australia that while she believed the return of live music in any form was "wholeheartedly" a good thing, she hoped the industry could "put the live show puzzle back together in a different way" upon its return.
"Ticket prices have long been fairly static, headliners and supports aren't paid or valued properly, live music venues are too heavily reliant on booze sales, and venues are also not only undervalued, but also blamed for any late-night drunkenness or violence and slapped with crazy fees, while being the very linchpin of live music and where so many of our well known artists got their start," Ulman said.
She also advocated for livestream performances to continue for those who remain isolated for reasons beyond the pandemic.
"There are people with physiological and psychological barriers preventing them from accessing live shows; perhaps they experience anxiety in crowds, or they physically can't get to shows, or they're pregnant, or can't afford babysitters," Ulman said.
So far, limited-capacity gigs aren't trying to be better – they're simply fighting to exist under restrictions, with near-zero margins. But are they worth doing at all, if we're simply putting a brave face in front of a crumbling industry?