The coronavirus pandemic made this year the worst for the Australian music industry in living memory. But it was not the worst year for Australian music. In many respects, our peppy size, which has held us back in the international arena previously, gave us a resilience that the music meccas of the US and the UK could not have – we are the only country in the world to be safely holding near-capacity live music again. For the moment, we are focused on our own rather than rueing that overseas artists find our shores too expensive to regularly tour.
I've knocked up a rundown of the most important happenings in the Aussie music biz every week for MTV Australia for the last three months, and reported on the industry in a variety of capacities since the beginning of this year. It's been a weird 12 months to work so intensely in music journalism, but doing it stripped of the fringe benefits that usually enamour people with the profession – free tickets, and hanging out with musicians you like – made it easier to focus on what matters.
The dust hasn't quite settled on 2020 – I suspect it won't for a very long time – but several moments in this cruel and life-affirming (in equal measures) industry already stick out as important and tone-setting for the new decade in music at home.
One week in March shut down live music
Speak to any Australian musician this year, and they'll remember where they were and what they were doing on March 13. Though many tours had already begun to be cancelled due to the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, it was that fateful Friday on which Prime Minister Scott Morrison laid down the legal mandate: all public gatherings of over 500 people would be banned, indefinitely. The bizarre caveat initially was that the ban would go into effect on Monday March 16 – Morrison insensitively planned to go to the first game of the NRL season to see the Cronulla Sharks play on the Saturday, before backflipping on the decision for PR purposes.
The two-day buffer saw some artists decide to still take the risk for one last hoorah. UK dance legends New Order made the decision to cancel a Sunday night show in Melbourne at the indoor Forum, but forge ahead with the Saturday at the outdoor amphitheatre Sidney Myer Music Bowl – an event thousands still attended. Pixies had ditched their Australian tour to head home to the US, leaving support act Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever to schedule their own ad hoc, 250-person capacity show in Sydney – just hours before the restrictions went into effect.
By Monday, major cancellations and postponements had begun to reel in – if something wasn't cancelled, it soon would be. The first day held one, brief window of naive optimism: if capacity limits were low, maybe small venues and bands could thrive. But by Tuesday, that was shot – a capacity limit of 100 people on indoor gatherings came into effect, with more promised. According to ILostMyGig, professional creatives in Australia had lost $100 million in income in just five days. They would go on to lose hundreds of millions more.
The Federal Government dragged its feet on supporting the industry
By and large, the arts industry in Australia was understanding of the government's decision to ban public gatherings at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, joining calls for Aussies to stay home and stay safe. But the federal government did not pay the public health support in kind, excluding the arts from its first coronavirus stimulus package. In April, they announced the paltry $27 million relief package for the arts sector, with $10 million of that funnelled to the music crisis charity Support Act – a curious delegation from government to charity.
Spurred by the critics, it was followed in June by the announcement of a $250 million arts relief package. But in August, it emerged that the government still hadn't spent a cent, with the expected dispensation of grants from the package still months away.
While the big ticket items failed to meaningfully support the industry, the federal government continued to point to JobKeeper as a means for individual artists and musicians to access help. But many working in the music and arts industries wouldn't qualify for the payment, as their work is a hodge podge of short-term contracts across jobs and different creative fields.
Now that the music industry has begun to recover with limited capacity shows and plan for next year thanks to Australia's near COVID-free outlook, the government has even less incentive to support its recovery. Many of the support grants offered by the federal government were framed as a means to contribute to the economy, or help further a "national, cultural identity". The latter sees Australia essentially refuse to grapple with colonialism, and ironically continue to cringe at our colonial culture. An excellent essay by arts academic Dr Lauren Caroll Harris highlighted how we shouldn't do either – we should simply want support for the arts for a smart, self-examining country.
Isol-Aid lead a revolution in Australian online performance
A 2020 music cycle after the first quarter of this year roughly followed this trajectory: announce an album, announce a tour, cancel the tour, postpone the album, announce a livestream. Online performance was this year's best solution of necessity, and it was Australia's very own Isol-Aid Festival that led the charge.
Brunswick Music Festival director Emily Ulman didn't let that event's cancellation stop her for a minute – a week later she announced the first Isol-Aid. The event promised and delivered an Instagram-based event where artists would play 15-20 minute sets, often acoustic in their bedrooms and bathrooms, before tag-teaming the next musician on the lineup. Staggeringly, the event hasn't missed a single weekend since its inception in mid-March, with 903 live sets from over 800 artists. Ulman's promise to keep Isol-Aid going until the end of the pandemic has just been hyper-extended too, with the recent announcement that the initiative will migrate to TikTok in 2021.
Ulman made a strong case to MTV Australia in August for the continuation of livestream events like Isol Aid to continue past 2020: "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". Her work has helped make the music fan's perennial coming of age question have two parts – what was the first concert you went to, and what was the first you streamed?
Hip-hop in Australia found popular and diverse form
For the last fifteen years, the prevailing image of mainstream Australian hip-hop has been white, blokey and frivolous. Many of us wrote off the genre locally as something to cringe at or party to while hoping the rest of the world didn't find out what it sounded like. Local hip-hop's diversification has been gradual, but in 2020 it exploded with the valorisation of innovating people of colour.
Sampa The Great's debut album The Return from 2019 had a victory lap in 2020, winning award upon award – the Australian Music Prize, three ARIA Awards, two Music Victoria awards and one AIR Award. OneFOUR, the Mount Druitt drill rappers, overcame intense police scrutiny and incarceration to release a triumphant debut EP and exchange features with A$AP Ferg. Tkay Maidza gained US blog attention for her genre-shifting EP Last Year Was Weird Volume 2.
But in the pop sphere, it was The Kid LAROI – a 17-year old Indigenous rapper from Sydney – who redefined the bounds of the genre for Australia. His debut mixtape FUCK LOVE peaked at a staggering number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts. Laroi, buoyed by a mentorship from the late Juice Wrld, made Aussie sad rap on a global scale.
Not coincidentally, this year has also launched the career of two other Indigenous rappers to watch: Ziggy Ramo and JK-47. Both released incendiary debut albums that set up more mature efforts to come.
NSW threw out lockout laws and arcane live music restrictions
For the last six years, Sydney's nightlife had been stifled by bar curfews – the infamous "lockout laws" that prevented anyone in popular areas of the city from entering a new venue after 1:30am in order to curb alcohol-related violence. The rules almost single-handedly doomed Australia's biggest city to lagging cultural relevance, and reportedly tanked 180 venues, music venues among them. Those rules were finally ditched in January everywhere except Kings Cross, in a bid to reinvigorate the local economy which obviously proved a bit myopic when the pandemic hit.
But in a bid to drag Sydney out of its lockdown stupor, the NSW government made the shocking decision in November to reform nearly 600 pieces of regulatory legislation on live music. The most significant change was the removal of "entertainment conditions", which previously restricted the type of music or instruments played in certain venues – only cover bands, jazz, etc – and stopped restaurants and pubs from hosting any live music at all. But a "music-first" approach also granted longer opening hours and discounts on liquor licenses for music venues.
Building on the momentum of change, the state government promised to establish new entertainment and culture precincts – with the significant new rule that, once built, any residential development built around the venue afterwards would not impose new noise restrictions.
We're still yet to really see how this will change the live economy in the city, because the return to regular operation post-COVID is slow and steady. But it's nothing short of once-in-a-generation change for a place that has long been governed by philistine policy.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.
Note: Image of Sampa The Great was reproduced from photography by Michaela Dutkova – more of her work here.
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