Tasmanian live music industry in crisis as COVID-19 clampdown rolls on

The devastation wrought by coronavirus on the arts and entertainment sector in Tasmania goes far deeper than partygoers struggling to find an open dancefloor, with industry advocates saying the damage could last years and affect a generation of young people.

Key points:A survey across Tasmania’s creative industry between March and May found $5.5 million in earnings was lost due to cancelled gigs and abandoned festivalsAs venues grapple with how to reopen and stay viable under capacity constraints, advocates say more needs to be done to help artists survive without incomeA prominent Tasmanian creative director says if the industry is allowed to collapse, one flow-on effect will be a “lost” generation

Tasmania’s live music and entertainment sector was “one of the first to shut down and will be one of the last to recover,” Music Tasmania’s Laura Harper said.

“While we all take heart from the easing of restrictions and the reopening of pubs, it’s going to be some time before we see gigs and music returning with confidence — don’t expect to see a sweaty dancefloor anytime soon.”

Ms Harper said an online survey called I Lost My Gig Australia had tracked the impact of COVID-19 on the creative industries and from March to May, Tasmanians registered lost income of more than $5 million from cancelled gigs and opportunities.

“Most people in the music industry work from gig to gig, as sole traders and small businesses, so the cancellations of festivals and the closure of venues, have been devastating,” she said.

This week, the Government announced indoor and outdoor gathering limits would increase to 80 people, with physical distancing and density limits applying, from midday Wednesday, June 17.

Performer Mel Yeates said “the risk of getting a virus from the coins thrown into my case was too high”.(Instagram: Mel Yeates)

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Mel Yeates, a travelling performer, said she had been in Tasmania for “a year and a half now”, busking and raising money for charity.

One of the main venues for her, Hobart’s Salamanca Markets, shut down in March due to the social-distancing problems.

Even so, Ms Yeates said she could not perform because “the risk of getting a virus from the coins thrown into my case was too high”.

“I have a few close friends who are in the high-risk category, and getting the virus could be fatal for them.”

falls crowd dayThe coronavirus pandemic saw a season of events cancelled, with no end in sight.(Kane Hibberd)

Musicians around the country are reporting hardship as venue owners grapple with the logistics of overheads, including any live entertainment costs, against their income source — the number of patrons permitted in their venue under the coronavirus restrictions.

This week, the ABC reported a consortium that owns pubs in Adelaide and New South Wales has offered musicians food and drink vouchers and told them to “busk” in its venues, drawing outrage from performers and the condemnation from a union who described the offer as an “insult”.

Laura Harper looks at the camera.Laura Harper says it is vital the live entertainment sector is included in the JobKeeper support scheme beyond September.(Supplied: Laura Harper)

The Hurley Hotel Group emailed artists and said it could not pay musicians because cashflow is “virtually non-existent” due to current coronavirus restrictions on patron numbers.

“Although we will not be able to pay artists at present, we will be able to provide them with a $100 food and beverage voucher to be used at the hotel,” the email to its performers reads.

In Melbourne, The Nightcat has done away with its dancefloor and will begin table service and cut-down performances — with Music Victoria’s Patrick Donovan saying that type of scaled-down operation is likely to become commonplace in the medium term.

“If the artist can get paid to play three shorter sessions, sell some merchandise, then the business model might get close to breaking even,” Mr Donovan told the ABC.

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Ms Harper said Tasmania was unlikely to be different and called on the Tasmanian Government do what it could to support and advocate on behalf of those affected.

“Live music venues and performance spaces are still working out how to comply with COVID-19 safety standards to protect patrons and they need to have some cash-flow before they will be programming music, which means in the short-term fewer employment opportunities for musicians and less entertainment for punters.”

Just days before the Salamanca Markets announcement, the organisers of the Dark Mofo winter festival — an event widely credited as a lifeline for the tourism and hospitality industries during Tasmania’s winter months — said it too was for the chop.

Tasmanian performer Maddy Jane with guitar.Tasmanian performer Maddy Jane had to abandon her plans for touring.(Facebook: Maddy Jane)

Last month, the Taste Of Tasmania event — which had planned for an all-Tasmanian line-up of performers — also joined the list of scratchings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also included the Cygnet Folk Festival.

“The cancellation of so many Tasmanian festivals is having a direct and ongoing impact on musicians, promoters, production crews, contract and casual workers, that rely on seasonal employment across a number of festivals to survive,” Ms Harper said.

“It’s these gig workers that have been hit hardest.

“The Premier [Peter Gutwein] recently called for an extension of JobKeeper for those industries such as tourism and hospitality that will take longer to recover and it’s vital our live entertainment sector is included in this targeted JobKeeper support beyond September,” Ms Harper said.

Read more about coronavirus:Not just live music in crisis

It is a sentiment echoed by creative powerhouse and 2018 Tasmanian of The Year Scott Rankin, who described the contribution of people who work in the creative industries as a “central pillar”.

“More [Tasmanians] work in arts than they do in accommodation, than they do in electricity supply or coal mining,” he said.

“If you look at one job created in the arts, it creates five jobs in the service industry.

“People can tend to think of the arts as a hobby, the thing you go to when you want a bit of recreation, but the cultural industries are a central pillar in the economy and an essential service in terms of people’s ability to stay alive and have some wellbeing.”

Profile photo of Scott RankinIn Peter Gutwein, Tasmania has “a Premier who skateboards [and] who loves the arts”, Scott Rankin said, calling for government help.

Mr Rankin, whose Big hART charity was established in 1992 to “find new ways of dealing with disadvantage” in the state’s north-west, warned the collapse of the arts sector would have dire consequences.

“In the 90s, Tasmania lost a generation of young men because of the structural changes we had in the economy and we dropped the ball about how you support young men moving through the changed pathway that leads to jobs,” he said.

“You see them around everywhere. They are older men now and cost the community a fortune.”

Mr Rankin said, “if you look at the COVID-19 [economic fallout] … the people that are going to be affected the most are 18 to 24-year-olds”.

“There is a correlation here about how you pick them up and ensure you don’t lose another generation and have them wandering around in 20 years’ time.”

Four people wearing band t-shirts.Live Performance Australia has outlined a $345 million relief package proposal to the Federal Government.(Facebook: Live Performance Australia)

With no active coronavirus cases in New Zealand, the live performance industry is scrambling back to life with a $175 million arts and music recovery package, giving Australian performers a reason to be optimistic.

The peak industry body, Live Performance Australia, has proposed a $345 million relief package of measures designed to keep the live performance sector afloat, with chief executive Evelyn Richardson telling News Corp “this amount of money is a targeted package to reactivate the industry, and we want it to come online from July”.

Laura Harper said Tasmania’s creative industries were “realistically looking at mid-2021 as the timeframe for when the industry and workers that make our great events happen can return to work”.

In May, Minister for the Arts Elise Archer said in a statement the Government “understands the importance of the state’s cultural and creative industries and is committed to assisting the sector through the difficult times faced as a result of COVID-19”.

She announced she was making available “new funding of $1.5 million and bringing forward $2 million of previously announced funding to assist the individuals and organisations within Tasmania’s renowned cultural sector”.

In a statement, a Tasmanian Government spokesman said the $3.5 million stimulus package included $250,000 for a contemporary music fund.

“The Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Council is providing advice to government on further stimulus measures as a result of COVID-19,” the spokesman said.

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