With the entire arts sector in Australia facing an unprecedented crisis with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, the impact has already hit hard with concerts having to be cancelled and venues and festivals being shut down. The massive financial impact alone being delivered to musicians and companies in the classical sector will continue for no doubt months and years to come – well after the danger of the virus itself has receded.
But its effect in the concert scene is extremely worrisome and dispiriting for everyone.
It started with Brett Dean being confined to the Royal Adelaide Hospital on 6 March and having to cancel out of an Adelaide Festival concert, and with saxophonist Nick Russoniello being stuck aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner off the Japanese coast. Dean is still in hospital, while Russoniello has gone on to compose a piece called Pandemic’.
There was an early point when only larger events and festivals looked to be imperilled, beginning with the suspension of Dark Mofo and Vivid Sydney and the closure of Arts Centre Melbourne on 15 March, Adelaide Festival Centre two days later, and the Sydney Opera House and QPAC on 20 March.
But now that government restrictions have further tightened to a maximum of 100 persons for non-essential functions, and with travel bans having been introduced, all but the very smallest events are having to cancel.
The classical scene has never looked as fragile and vulnerable as it presently does. Many individual musicians in the so-called gig economy are suddenly out of work, and many small-to-medium organisations do not have the cash reserves to see them through. There is no doubting that the impact will be far reaching, affecting the whole arts ecosystem and beyond to retail, the media and cultural tourism.
We are suddenly back to live music-making at a very small and local level, but a total lock-down of Australian cities would end that too.
The hope amongst many is that online broadcasting of concerts can step in and fill the void. The move to webcasting was quickly made by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which invited audiences to watch a free live stream of its performance of Scheherazade on 16 March and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 on 19 March. We can expect other larger organisations to follow suit. The problem, though, is how to monetise them. Webcasting may be an option for some audiences, but unless a fee is imposed box office is suddenly eliminated.
A bold and very interesting initiative is Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. This aims to support Melbourne musicians by asking a flat $20 per concert for a range of classical ensembles and artists in that city, including Arcadia Winds, Latitude 37, Songmakers Australia, and individuals such as Stefan Cassomenos, Tristan Lee, Zoe Knighton and Kristian Chong. Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s opening season starts on 27 March, and concerts will be webcast just once in real-time, with all revenue going to the musicians. “MDCH is designed to support musicians and the Melbourne arts industry during these challenging times,” says its website.
More such initiatives will surely appear as an alternative to physical concert-giving in the weeks and probably months to come.
For audiences, the need to come together for shared musical experiences and a lifting of spirits may never have been as great as it is now. This time of social distancing will starve people of that, but we can only hope that webcasting initiatives help overcome that and that, given time, the concert scene will return to normal.
More than anything this a time to think together and to support the musical sector. Audiences can visit ABC Classic’s website to find ways of helping musicians in need at this time.
Live Performance Australia has called for a $750m emergency industry support package to assist in wage subsidies, business loans, cash injections and a broad range of other relief measures needed by the live performance industry.