Music Australia News

COVID’s impact on Australian musicians looks deeply concerning

Andrew Calhoun via Unsplash
Graham Strahle
| November 21, 2020

We are only too well aware how devastating the impact COVID-19 has been on musicians. The forced cancellation of concerts, tours, gigs and festivals across the country since March translates to massive hit to the livelihoods and careers of an untold number of individuals. Just how many is the question.

Two surveys in the UK give a worrying picture of what is happening there. In September, the Musicians’ Union, representing around 32,000 musicians across all sectors, found that 34% of its members were considering leaving their careers, and that 47% have already left to look for work outside the industry. A massive 70% said their current work amounted to less than one quarter of what it used to be before to the pandemic.

In August, the UK booking service Encore found that an even higher proportion, 64% of 560 musicians it surveyed, were considering leaving their careers.

In Australia, we are yet to see quantitatively how the pandemic is impacting the livelihoods and career outlook of musicians. However, one might imagine that our situation would not differ vastly from the UK.

The hardest hit will inevitably be those in music career paths who are non-salaried – casuals and those who work in the so-called gig-economy – and who have found themselves ineligible for JobKeeper.

A 2019 report called Making Music Work: Sustainable Portfolio Careers for Australian Musicians makes it clear how large a proportion these workers account for in the music sector. Written by Brydie-Leigh Bartleet and Dawn Bennett and five other authors for the Australia Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project, and undertaken before COVID-19 struck, it found that 48% of the 592 musicians it surveyed held two or more concurrent jobs, sometimes as many as five.

Professor Brydie-Leigh Bartleet, Research Centre Director at Queensland Conservatorium, explained that these findings demonstrate why the Australian music industry has been especially hard hit by the pandemic, and why recovery can be expected to be very slow.

“This complex balancing act shows us why and how musicians are especially exposed to the current COVID-19 crisis,” she told Griffith News.

“The most common reasons for leaving the music industry were financial stress, lack of income and caring responsibilities – all of which have since been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

As early as April, when the pandemic had just struck, the Australia Council published findings on its impacts on the Australian arts sector. Amongst the data it presented on music and other performing arts, the report showed that 12,100 respondents to an I Lost My Gig Australia survey had reported a total lost income of $325 million. It described the effects of the pandemic across all arts sectors as “devastating” and concluded that these effects will persist into the long term.

I Lost My Gig Australia continues to collect data on the pandemic’s consequences on Australia’s live event and entertainment industries. It publishes daily updates including news items and campaign reports to assist artists and industry workers in need at this time. An initiative of the Australian Festivals Association and the Australian Music Industry Network, it also keeps an active Facebook page.

Further surveys and research to come will no doubt reveal the full magnitude of hardship and stress that thousands of individuals in the music sector have faced this year, and how Australia’s social and cultural life has suffered as a result.

Professor Dawn Bennett, Distinguished Research Fellow at Curtin University, was able to reflect on the situation and share her views with Music Australia.

Eight months since the pandemic struck, how can we view – and perhaps also try to gauge – the impact it has had on the live concert scene generally in Australia?

The official figures are dire, but I think that the real picture is far worse. We have transitioned I think from thinking of COVID as a terrible but temporary phenomenon, to realising that we will live with the pandemic for many years to come. In reality we need to rethink how and in which formats concerts can continue, and how musicians might learn to navigate the new status quo. Beyond practical considerations such as venues, social distancing and so on is the issue of how revenues can be generated for concerts presented in online and blended formats.

We hear anecdotally about how non-salaried (casual and gig working) musicians have been severely affected over these months, with JobKeeper support having not been available to them. What are the consequences you see as resulting from this, presently and over the longer term?

Musicians are intelligent, enterprising people who self-sponsor far more than they are supported by others. The exclusion of gig economy workers from social supports has had a devastating impact on musicians’ ability to sustain their work.

We hear alarming reports in the UK that a high proportion of musicians are considering leaving the industry. Do you see such a trend as happening here?

There is almost certainly a similar trend in Australia. Perhaps more telling is that the passion and commitment of musicians is incredibly strong. Leaving the industry is for many people a last resort and they will have suffered enormously to reach this point. I would like to see out-transition support for musicians to help them realise broader opportunities for their skills and knowledge.

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