LOOKING AROUND I’M CLOCKING THE SCENE. Masks? Some. Beers? Plenty. A merch stand to one side doing a brisk trade in records and t-shirts? Correct. Sunday evening in Sydney and I’m standing among a group of people who I don’t know, while music is coming from the stage in front of us, and things feel … strange, very strange. But also strangely familiar.
Is it? Can it be? Yes, it’s a gig. I’m at a gig. And it’s my third this week. It’s like nature was righting itself. As if saying to us all, hold on to your tickets, your proof of vaccination, your knowledge of the best place to park in Newtown on a busy night, we’re not dead yet.
Ask Brisbane musician Hatchie who had her own “totally electrifying” return to live music in Melbourne and then shows at Luna Park’s Big Top this month, before her album release on April 22.
“[It was] even better than I remembered,” she says. “The Melbourne show we did before the Sydney ones, it was just after restrictions eased and people were allowed to stand up and dance, and it was honestly so amazing. Even better than they have been before because everyone was so excited and ready to go out again.”
The enthusiasm and the hope – touch wood, fingers crossed, salt over the left shoulder, God-willing, oh please – in the music industry after virtually two years of lockdowns, restrictions and cancellations, is palpable. And real.
(Hatchie - photo by Lissyelle)
“There is a lot of great energy around, people are really happy to be out and supporting live music again,” says Tyler Dombroski, of Leichhardt’s Crowbar. “Sometimes they’re seeing artists they may usually see two or three times a year for the first time in two years. You can see a sense of relief for audiences and artists that the shows are finally going ahead without restrictions.”
And it’s not just the small bars.
“We’ve got an incredible second half of the year planned, we are really excited,” says Sam Nardo, chief operating officer of the family-owned Century Venues, whose four main rooms – the Enmore Theatre, the Metro, Manning Bar, and the Factory Theatre – are the backbone of Sydney’s music circuit. “And I hope people are missing live music and performance enough to come out and see maybe one or two extra shows.”
And why wouldn’t there be some enthusiasm? Especially when you consider that, according to Music NSW, between March 18, 2020 and February 18, 2022 there were only 12 days without restrictions for venues. And that 12 days was the brief burst between the so-called freedom day of December 15, 2021, and when the Omicron surge forced restrictions back on December 27.
International acts, like Billie Eilish and Ed Sheeran, have announced tours which are already selling out; for better or worse, Michael Bublé is coming and Courtney Barnett has been; Wolf Alice will do two nights at the Big Top at Luna Park to close out April, warming up the room for Spiritualized who arrive at the same venue in June, with former One Direction hunk, Louis Tomlinson, following in July, and (one version of) UB40 are due in October.
Meanwhile the unlikely combination of 1970s power pop band, Cheap Trick, mid ‘90s grunge acts, Stone Temple Pilots and Bush, turn-of-the-century indeed noise group, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and venerable pub rock outfit, Rose Tattoo – the show billed as Under Southern Stars – have only recently been playing arenas. Seriously.
Local singer/songwriters Julia Jacklin and Grace Cummings, like American singer/songwriters Courtney Marie Andrews and Erin Rae, last month pulled audiences to the City Recital Hall, which came back earlier than some venues because its all-seated structure allowed for distancing, and now is reaping the benefits.
Having taken time during lockdowns to rethink its orientation outside the solid bloc of regular users such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra and introducing a greater contemporary music program, the Recital Hall’s programmer Stuart Rogers, happily notes that two thirds of the audience for Jacklin had never been to the venue before. “We’ve been on the front end of taking a bit of artistic risk if you like.”
Big festivals such as Bluesfest (returned at Easter) and Vivid Live (in May) are back, with Splendour In The Grass (July) locked in. Smaller festivals are being held from Parramatta to Bondi and the Conservatorium of Music, the Storyland music and arts festival next week (April 23) has been set up in Coffs Harbour as an offshoot of the existing Screenwave International Film Festival, and courtesy of the State government-backed Great Southern Nights, a variety of mini-festivals are happening throughout Sydney and New South Wales.
Elsewhere, Australian Music Prize-winning Genesis Owusu filled the Enmore twice (admittedly after his first sold-out show was cut short, by a collapsing floor. But hey, they all came back didn’t they?), with King Gizzard playing in between those two shows as a warm-up for a longer run later in 2022, Baker Boy reclaimed the Factory Theatre, Benee made two trips to the Big Top, northern beaches dreamy stoners, Ocean Alley, took over the Hordern Pavilion for three nights, and Flight Facilities moved their mini-festival show to the nearby Entertainment Quarter showground after their original park venue was washed.
It’s enough to have Emily Collins, managing director of the industry body, Music New South Wales, talk about a recovery not just survival.
“The last few years have been tough for live music, but I am endlessly heartened by the resilience of venues, artists, industry workers and audiences,” she says. “We’ve seen things start to come back blazing the last few weeks since restrictions lifted sold out shows, eager crowds and world-class talent. Not to say we won’t have some bumps along the way, or that things are perfect, but anyone who talks down Sydney’s live music scene clearly hasn’t been out recently.”
Even some of the bumps, or more accurately, the depressions, haven’t deterred planning, or slowed the shows. While those of us who attended the Genesis Owusu show the night the floor sank beneath the now-undulating carpet, making it look like a lurid water bed, might have expected the venue to be out of action for months, it was operational in days.
(Genesis Owusu on stage at The Enmore - photo by Jordan Munns)
Indeed, the carpet, installed just before the first lockdowns of 2020, is a sign of one of the few benefits of the long periods when the Enmore was dark in the past two years. Some “serious upgrades” to the venue were made in that time, and this is probably the best the room has looked since opening 115 years ago.
And while the principal focus was on the Enmore (which has a capacity of more than 2000), Century Venues took the opportunity too to begin developing an oft-neglected second space at their CBD venue, The Metro (capacity of 1200 in its main room; 300 in the new space), and confirm two extra spaces at their Marrickville mid-size room, The Factory (whose main area can take 800, while 1200 could be accommodated including the smaller spaces), all helping to fill some gaps in Sydney’s gig circuit.
“We stopped and reflected on what’s needed at the moment. There are a couple of venues [in the 300-700 bracket] but a lot of venues that just aren’t there,” says Sam Nardo. “It has been really difficult to make that capacity work from a financial perspective, Sydney being what it is with the cost of living, and one of the ways is if you have a site with more than one venue and you can try different costs to make that work.”
This connectivity is something highlighted by Mark Gerber, who runs the Oxford Art Factory (490 in its central room, another 120 in the side bar), and believes, or wants to believe, that “we’ll see another revolution happening” in coming years as artists and audiences begin to reconnect.
“For Oxford Art Factory to function well, it needs venues like the Lansdowne, for the same reason the Metro needs the Oxford Art Factory,” Gerber says. “It’s an ecosystem, a landscape [bands] can traverse. It’s absolutely crucial that you have these small to medium venues where a particular scene can gather and they can exchange ideas, and philosophies are discussed. And they become catalysts for all manner of things.”
As someone who has been bouncing between these various venues for decades – from the days of long-gone rooms like the Trade Union Club, Strawberry Hills Hotel, Evening Star and various basements in Oxford Street, to the rise and fall of the Hopetoun, Annandale and Sandringham Hotels, and the wholesale disappearance of suburban live music rooms – I’d like to believe in Gerber’s vision too.
Following a band as it moved up the line from the Lansdowne to the Oxford Art Factory to the Metro and then to the Enmore, or chasing an act from the Civic Underground to Goodgod Small Bar to Home to the Hordern Pavilion, wasn’t just a musical journey, it felt like being connected to this city.
But, as those who limped through the years of State government-imposed early closures and lockouts know, and as those who watched music room after music room disappear during the rise of the State government-encouraged poker machine takeovers of pubs and clubs remember, it’s not like the music industry was exactly thriving before Covid.
By 2015 it was easier sometimes to list the venues that no longer existed than the ones operating (check how the gig listings went from multiple pages to several columns) and it wasn’t just the pokies and the early shutdowns, as a cultural change had made live music only one of the ways we socialised and identified ourselves and our tribes. So called golden years of music such as the ‘80s (when overcrowded firetraps and diets of beers and rum seemed normal) and ‘90s (when dance and rock and pop seemed in balance) got smashed by cultural, political and OH&S revolutions.
The good news was that Marrickville became a hub for small venues alongside the city itself, Newtown survived, and some parts of Parramatta Rd showed life; the bad news was that was pretty much it. That’s why, as genuine as this enthusiasm is in 2022, not even the most cockeyed optimist could pretend there isn’t an equal amount of trepidation and, in some cases, despair about a still precarious present and very uncertain future.
For a start, not every venue that was staging gigs in early 2020 will be around in 2022. Jazz-focused Club 505 and alternative arts room Red Dwarf, shut during lockdown, while the operators of the Landsdowne Hotel, the Mary’s Group, announced that the music program was ending in May – though rumours, or maybe wishful thinking, persist of a replacement operator stepping in before then.
There’s talk of a new venue to be set up by the media company Brag Media, in Marrickville – though that’s only a real estate deal so far. But even those that have returned aren’t all necessarily on board the thrilled train, with Alison Avron, owner and director of the boutique The Great Club in Marrickville pointing to a run of gigs that went from “a killer week to being killed” as a dangerous sign.
"We are back, but this is an example of how we are not exactly totally back,” says Avron. “It was going to be our busiest week back: we had five gigs Wednesday to Sunday, which is the dream. And well attended gigs too. But then three out of the five gigs were close contacts or got Covid, so we had to postpone them. We are really finding as well that while things are open, consumer confidence is still down.”
Avron points to a drop off in pre-sales, which used to make up the majority of tickets sold, as people now were making last-minute decisions out of the quite reasonable concern that a Covid infection in the band could mean the show would not go on (as happened to Midnight Oil in Melbourne, Darwin and Cairns, while the whole Hoodoo Gurus tour was postponed due to a potential infection), or they themselves may not be able to attend. Century Venues puts the change in pre-sales at between 60 and 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels.
This doesn’t take into account nature wreaking havoc, which saw the organisers of the Yours & Owls Festival in Wollongong announce “with total exhaustion and sadness” the cancellation only days ahead of the event, due to flooding. As Hatchie says, “It’s a much harder to plan in advance now. I don’t really believe anything, particularly shows, will happen until the day of.”
Meanwhile, venues such as Marrickville’s Camelot, with two performance rooms, have been cancelling shows if presales were insufficient because of the risk nights would operate at a significant loss due to fixed costs, such as staff and food and drink.
“We are treading water I would say,” says Avron. “This week our head is under the water, and maybe it will bob up again next week. It’s really hard.”
What about government funding, can that help? During the first two years of Covid, the NSW government operated several programs, such as the live music support package (for venues), the festival relaunch package (for established festivals), micro festivals and arts rescue and restart program (for regional events and organisations), and Create NSW’s Arts & Cultural Funding program (for independent contemporary music organisations), as well as grants to Support Act (providing relief to individual workers), Make Music Day, professional development provided by APRA/AMCOS and Music NSW, and individual musicians and venues for presenting music in the Play The City program.
Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, the duo behind Mary’s Burgers, Mary’s Underground (the former Basement) and for a few another month, The Lansdowne Hotel, are among those who credit local and state government support – but not the federal government who they call “lacklustre” – for keeping a number of venues and organisations operating.
“The City of Sydney council has been exceptional, the state government has been very good,” says Smyth. “We’ve never seen more support from the Liberal government for the arts community, ever.”
Sam Nardo, who in late 2020 warned that “if the government doesn’t act soon to help save our live music industry, we’ll see more venues forced to close”, says the various packages “definitely helped keep our venues alive and operating”, and Crowbar’s Dombroski says “we wouldn’t have survived without government support of the last two years”.
But she adds “we hope that can continue in some form as our recovery isn’t over yet”, as the reality is most grants are being phased out, and as Amy Curl, CEO of the jazz organisation, SIMA, points out, this is happening in what is “the make or break year for lots of people and lots of venues”.
“The small business support that we received was really, really welcome in the last couple of years,” Curl says. “Just over summer I use some of that to employ about 170 artists for the February summer program, which was really big. We faced a new variant, and I suppose a lack of public confidence in attending events, particularly indoor events, and I concur wholeheartedly with [the description of a trend for] buying tickets on the day, which is very frightening for a producer and a presenter to not have any idea if people will come or not.”
(Moussa Diakite - one of the performers in SIMA's summer festival)
Worried that experienced crew and technicians left the industry for more stable or secure work, and experienced musicians have contemplated leaving altogether, Curl argues that “what we need right now is a long-term strategy by the government to support the live music sector”.
“This is a race, sorry Scott Morrison, and there is a sense of urgency,” she says. “People in our industry are physically and emotionally fatigued, and this is the year we really need that support."
It’s a point emphasised by John Wardle of the Live Music Office, in a speech he gave to the Night Time Industries Association in March, where he said “We don’t need further reviews, papers, committees…just the collective coordination to join the dots across agencies, tiers of government, and grants to make it happen.”
His point is two-fold, that the grants are not being targeted in key areas such as Inner West Council, whose area includes Enmore and Marrickville, two of the most active music hubs in Sydney, and need to be continued.
Not surprisingly perhaps, Inner West Council’s Labor mayor, Darcy Byrne, agrees that “this would be exactly the wrong time to withdraw support altogether from the government” and if the plan is to get the music and arts sectors back on their feet permanently, “it needs a massive injection” over the next 12 to 24 months.
“Let’s be honest, the support has been too late in coming, that’s for sure, and there are a lot of people who have had to leave to work in other industries just to make a living, and there are a lot of venues and creative businesses that have taken on huge debts to stay afloat,” Byrne says. “And those debts aren’t going away.”
(Mary's Underground - Sydney)
With or without further government assistance, building on the optimism that’s there will involve “putting live music back into people’s vision”, as Curl puts it, maybe with outdoor shows that have the benefit of relative Covid safety. “People have to find ways to remember what that experience [of live music] is like.”
For the crew at Mary’s, that may already be happening, Mary’s Underground being booked through to July, three or four nights a week. “And that’s a huge reason why we are so positive,” says Smyth. “We are not scrapping week to week to get shows in last-minute; these are established bands, these are up-and-coming bands.”
Tell ‘em they’re dreaming?
“Our optimism isn’t Pollyanna-ish, it’s better, it’s reality,” Smyth says, letting slip that they are close to finding themselves a new music venue in Sydney. “We see the appetite [in audiences] and we see the hungry young bands and promoters as well.”
His partner, Graham, adds a personal note. “I got a notification from Spotify the other day, an American artist I listen to has got a gig coming up, and I thought why are you telling me about a gig in Chicago or wherever, but she was actually playing at the Recital Hall in Sydney. I thought it’s coming back, so quickly.”
And it will happen faster than we realise says Hatchie who has an American tour starting on her birthday, May 4. “I intend to hit the ground running now,” she says. “And not even take a breath in case something happens again.”
WISHIN' & HOPIN': TWO ARTISTS, TWO YEARS, THEIR STORIES
As the first wave of Covid broke in 2020, Sally Seltmann watched a tour with Seeker Lover Keeper, her award-winning trio with fellow Sydney songwriters, Holly Throsby and Sarah Blasko, swiftly shut down. In March this year, she supported Augie March at Sydney shows where the Melbourne band was forced to perform without their regular sound and light crew, who were ruled out because of Covid, and had a friend step in to replace the guitar tech who had reluctantly taken another, more secure, job.
Yet, Seltmann remains “fairly optimistic about this year”, in which she intends releasing an album and supporting it with her own tour, which she knows could be derailed at any point if someone in the band or crew contracted the virus.
(Sally Seltmann - maybe at home waiting for the next gig)
“I have to be optimistic,” she says. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation in playing live, for musicians, but there’s also the whole financial thing, the scheduling of crew, so it’s such a mammoth amount of energy and people that it is affecting. That disappointment, that big feeling of disappointment, has made me appreciate how great it is that we can usually just play shows.”
It is not just the shows though. While she was able to make use of the two years of lockdowns to write and record in her home studio, with husband Darren Seltmann producing, the part she missed the most was rehearsing and preparing and connecting with other musicians.
“That just went away and I thought that was really sad for performers,” says Seltmann, who points out that also affected people like photographers and crew and publicists. “People don’t see all that behind the scene work that goes into a performance, and the joy that musicians get out of that rehearsal time.”
Jess Ciampa understands that all too well. A percussionist and vocalist who performs in multiple genres and instruments, from the Australian Chamber Orchestra to small pub bands, from traditional South American and central European bands to classical choirs, Ciampa has long been one of the most in-demand musicians in Sydney.
When Covid hit, he went from not having had a night off for six months, to having virtually no gigs for much of the next 24. Then when restrictions were first lifted and a long run beckoned with the theatre show, Come From Away, the second lockdown shut it down almost immediately.
(Jess Ciampa - after two lost years, not sure whether to be hopeful or sceptical)
“It was brutal, absolutely brutal,” he says now. “We’d seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it turned out to be an oncoming train.” And while “I was okay financially because of Job Keeper”, practising at home alone just wasn’t going to cut it for him.
“I realised that music making for me is about being in a room with other musicians, playing together. I’m one of those guys who really enjoys rehearsing and I was missing being with other people, and that was pretty devastating.”
Even as he was going into rehearsals with the ACO – “it’s incredibly exciting, I can’t wait” – for a tour that has been to Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney before finishing in Wollongong, Ciampa was wary of plans and building up any expectations, and has recent good reason.
“I was going to be on a mini tour with Mara Big Band: 11 musicians, years in the planning. One member of the band tested positive on Friday morning, tour’s off. That’s three theatres, tickets sold, four rehearsals,” he says. “So we are nowhere near being out of the woods and it’s hard to be optimistic. I’ve got really exciting projects in the diary and I have to think now, well, I just need one member of that orchestra to get ill and we are all close contacts, and if it’s key people, the gigs are off.
“Every time someone talks about a new strain [of Covid] I just think, here we go again.”
A version of this story was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.