As the nation entered lockdown in March, the internet exploded with think pieces about how people living separately from their partners might deal with intimacy and sex — remotely.
And the general consensus appears to be that while the socially distanced mode is better than nothing, it’s also several orders of magnitude less awesome than the real thing.
Now spare a thought for our nation’s musicians, who are similarly experiencing withdrawals from their previously intimate relationship with audiences.
Musicians currently cannot play shows of any sort and, until recently, couldn’t even rehearse in the same room.
Touring is out until borders reopen and venues get the green light to reactivate, and there are still a lot of unknowns about what those gigs will look like.
Custard frontman Dave McCormack says the band don’t have plans for live gigs or touring for their latest album.(Supplied)
What we know at this point is that socially distanced gigs, like socially distanced sex, will demand great inventiveness, creativity and talent. And for those familiar with the pre-pandemic version, the experience will probably be similarly weird and unsatisfying.
And this isn’t a short-term situation: even if we get a vaccine in the immediate future, live music will have to operate under social-distancing guidelines for a long time to come.
Yes, Australia is dealing with COVID-19 well compared to much of the planet, but a cursory look at other countries indicates just how quickly things get bad when people aren’t vigilant.
And most cruelly of all, the exact things that make gigs great — closely packed crowds in sweaty rooms and people singing their hearts out — are uniquely perfect for spreading this virus.
Tables will have to be evenly spaced out to comply with social-distancing requirements when The Nightcat jazz club in Melbourne reopens.(ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
One of the early super-spreader events in the US was a practice session of 61 members of the Skagit Valley Choral, a choir in Washington, which resulted in 52 cases and two deaths from one asymptomatic carrier.
It was one of the early indications that breath droplets might be a particularly potent transmission risk.
Similarly, when South Korea lifted its restrictions in May after what looked like stunning early success in keeping rates down, 101 new cases were linked to one nightclub in Itaewon, necessitating the rapid re-lockdown of the country’s entertainment precincts.
As the folks behind Melbourne’s SOS: Save Our Scene campaign have pointed out, venues were the first things to close in the pandemic and will be the last things to open, and there’s a huge question mark over how many of them will survive having zero events or income long enough to enter a future which will contain less of both.
A new kind of gig
According to venue owners and industry figures who are currently drawing up post-COVID guidelines in collaboration with Music Victoria, it’s likely all gigs are going to be seated, or with spaces marked out on the floor upon which punters must remain.
Artists will have to remain in place on stage too, distanced from one another.
Audiences will be reduced, so performers will potentially do two or three performances per night, with the venue emptied and cleaned in between. This means sets are likely to be shorter, and multi-act line-ups less common.
Going to the bar will be discouraged, with table service where possible.
Most band rooms won’t be able to operate under these conditions, since running a venue is typically reliant on getting as many people through the door and buying drinks for as long as possible.
And for those people who live for the cathartic release of a live show — the thrill of losing oneself in the electricity of a packed room — standing in a prescribed spot with no-one around you is hardly going to provide the same experience.
Unsurprisingly, some bands are just not bothering until things settle down.
Custard have just released album number eight, Respect All Lifeforms, which would normally herald a strenuous run of live dates around the country. However, frontman Dave McCormack asserts that with gigs off the table, “we have no plans for anything”.
“I’m imagining early 2021 might be a thing, but taking a breather sort of suits us Custard types, in a strange sort of way,” says McCormack.
But for Jack Colwell, launching his new Sarah-Blasko-produced debut album Swandream, the shutdown has given him an opportunity to present his intimate, personal music in a manner that is arguably superior to a run of pub shows.
Jack Colwell live-streamed an acoustic performance of Swandream from recording studios in Marrickville, for the album’s launch.(Supplied: Blackksocks)
“For an artist like me, a headline tour is risky anyway as it’s so costly. So I decided rather than tour, I would put the money I would’ve spent on planes and hotels into a live stream and make a real event of it, with set dressing and proper cameras,” Colwell explains.
“I feel my music is very introspective, so it suits solo viewing at home.”
Megan Washington is similarly sanguine about the August release of her forthcoming album, and explains that while things are still in flux, she’s not making any touring plans either.
But Washington thinks the pause on tours and live shows offers an opportunity for artists who are not wedded to the way they present themselves.
“We’re going to miss the mosh and the crowd surfing and the gore and viscera of the festival experience, 1,000 per cent,” she says.
“But I don’t think that’s the only music that’s good or that’s interesting.
“There are certain things that can’t happen because of coronavirus, and there are certain things that can only happen because of coronavirus.”
Megan Washington’s third album – her first since 2014’s There There – will release on August 28, but she hasn’t planned a tour.
She cites Colwell’s live stream as an example of an artist being in the right place with the right music, but admits that things are very different for, say, a speed metal band.
“If you’re a performer whose genre is baked into your art then, yeah, you’re probably in trouble.”
Ultimately, this won’t be the end of live performances — and just like every other new format, new art forms and modes of bringing it to an audience will evolve.
So socially distanced gigs are going to force us to be a bit more open-minded and creative. Hey, it’s only weird the first few times, right?