I always wonder when it’s time to stop saying “Happy New Year”. Is it right after the 1st of Jan? Or is it fine for the first week of the month? Or can we even continue until February?
In 2022, I have serious doubts whether we should use the adjective “happy” at all. Because it’s only the second full week of the new year, and some pretty messed up things have already been happening in the Aussie music scene.
So I’ve taken the liberty to play a clairvoyant and share my thoughts on what 2022 can still serve us. And it’s not all bad news.
PART 91a OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE
Before you burn me at the stake for being a witch, know that I don’t have any special powers to predict the future. But I do follow analyses and discussions about what’s been going on in the last couple of years. I also choose to believe, albeit naively, that those who decide about stuff on our behalf at the very top (like WHO or governments) put life preservation and our best interest as humanity above any political or financial gain. Last but not least, I trust science and medicine.
But then, I open the AU & NZ New Music Friday playlist on Spotify, and my scepticism returns.
Obviously, the playlist can’t be an indication of the year ahead. But, in a way, those song titles reflect certain concerns in the Aussie music industry. So I reckon in 2022 the discussions in the business will revolve around four major areas. This week, let’s about the first two.
The uncertainty in the live performance sector will continue (and we have to learn to live with it)
It’s not rocket science to come to this conclusion, given how fast the Omicron variant has been spreading. I wish it would be the last COVID-19 mutation as well. After two pretty shitty years for live performers, it’s not something that anybody wants to hear, either. But it’s inevitable. So the burning question is, what can we do about it?
In mid-December 2021, Tone Deaf published an article with a triumphant title, “The return of the Australian music festival: A comprehensive list of Aussie music festivals in 2022”. It mentions 60+ events planned for 2022 all over the country. A week later, the first Xmas/NYE cancellations started happening. And when I’m typing this, on 11 Jan 2022, Grapevine has just released a statement informing punters that it has to axe its NSW leg four days before it was scheduled. All that because of new regulations introduced overnight. And that’s just one of (too) many examples.
The worst part is, the cancellations are not only Australia’s problem. If it makes you feel better, music events have needed to be rescheduled or called off in Europe and the US as well.
In today’s global society, the majority of the world’s population must be immune if we want to lead fairly “normal” lives, let alone participate in any form of entertainment in the flesh (as in “not online”). Regardless of the vax/anti-vax or mask-wearing discussions, it doesn’t look like we’re going to reach herd immunity any time soon. Not this year, for sure (at the moment, less than 60% of the world population has received at least one vaccine jab, for example).
As Melbourne’s case clearly showed last year, lockdowns are sooooo not the way to go. We can’t forbid interstate or intercontinental travel forever because business and family connections depend on that. Finally, not doing anything about The Rona spread is an equally bad idea. So almost two years into the pandemic, we’re not exactly closer to eliminating the virus. How about learning to live with it instead?
That seems to be an unattainable task, too. No matter how technologically and scientifically advanced we have become, global, regional and local authorities are more lost than ever in handling the situation. Most means to contain the pandemic seem short-lived and outdated as soon as they’re introduced, especially in the context of live music.
Remember when reaching 70% of the vaxxed population in Australia was supposed to be the ticket to “freedom”? Until it wasn’t. And it’s not entirely the government’s fault because nobody in the whole wide world seems to know WTF they’re doing. What sounds like a plan on Monday becomes obsolete on Friday.
So I’m sorry to say that, but governments will still try to wing it every time to show that they’re doing “something”. Sadly, questionable decisions will be our everyday bread when it comes to music events because they’re the easiest ones to axe (since they’re not “essential” to our lives) and the last ones to be brought back (because they’re not “essential” to our lives).
Like the recent move by NSW (and partially VIC) to ban singing and dancing in public venues. Again. When sporting events don’t seem to be a threat. Again.
In June 2021, Paul McDermott, an Aussie comedian and musician, released a song called “No Singing No Dancing”. It was his reaction to those two activities being forbidden by the NSW government for the first time. Check it out – I’m fairly sure it expresses many Aussies’ opinions today as well.
As far as I understand, the 2022 ban includes both a scheduled gig at a local pub and a spontaneous boogie at a neighbourhood bar. Whilst I do see the reasoning behind it (a lot of people at the same time in a fairly constrained indoor environment), I don’t quite get how venues and “major events” are exempt (there are tens of thousands of people without masks at festivals). Plus, allegedly, singing in churches with masks on is still allowed. That’s some twisted logic.
There’s an additional factor in this equation. Not all regulations introduced by the authorities are pointless. And calling off an event that was being prepared for months in advance is definitely the last thing any promoter wants to do. But meeting the new requirements on short notice is just impossible or unsustainable many times.
And that’s exactly my point: the new rules cannot be introduced overnight without any consultation with the industries they affect the most. Hopefully, in 2022, the authorities will finally get that.
But, for now, get used to the idea that some gigs and festivals will continue to be postponed and/or cancelled throughout this year. And if it makes you feel devastated, imagine what artists must be going through when they hear about not being able to perform at that one event they were scheduled to appear at this summer.
The music industry must become better at planning (with a little help from the government)
I honestly believe that, paradoxically, the pandemic is an amazing opportunity for the entire music industry to fully embrace risk management (or, in less fancy vernacular, “getting the s**t contained”). And that has to do with several things.
Studies and history show that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon evolve into an endemic state. It means that from an uncontrolled, global outbreak, The Rona will become a more predictable and manageable event. It doesn’t mean that it will disappear forever, but we’ll learn to “control” it in a way. That’s some good news, right?
Truth be told, we’ve already learned heaps about it in the music biz since 2020, both good and bad.
Festivals have introduced COVID-safety protocols, sometimes quite innovative. If you haven’t heard about the use of a rotating stage to mitigate the virus spread, check out WA’s Good Day Sunshine festival concept. Another cool thing, although not born Down Under, is the drive-in gigs’ concept. Hockey Dad staged it successfully in 2020.
The more obvious but far less glamorous regulations include capping shows’ capacity at 70%, quarantine for international performers upon arrival or temperature checks for punters when entering venues. Those are just some measures introduced by the Under The Southern Stars Festival last year, to name one event. (Fun fact, though – the event has already been rescheduled twice, despite the COVID protocols in place, and is now planned for March 2022.)
Then, there was the discussion about having to present COVID passports to participate in live music events. In all fairness, I don’t think I’ve seen any public debate gone so far south so fast (and that includes the whole damn world). In the era of diversity, inclusion and fierce fight for human rights, introducing a process discriminating a significant part of the population without a proper mandate to do so is an obvious reason for receiving the middle finger in response.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for people having a choice in their lives. But I reckon there’s some confusion as to the limits of individual freedoms if we want to be considered a part of a bigger group called “society”.
Alright, so let’s make everyone have negative RATs (Rapid Antigen Tests) before letting them into venues. Great idea! If they were only free and available to everyone. An Aussie-based singer, Clare Bowditch, recently wrote to the PM about it from a parents’ perspective, calling the current situation on that front “an utter shitshow”. It’s hard to disagree.
So it seems like, again, we don’t have the slightest clue what to do to make everyone safe, sane and healthy, without somehow offending or antagonising at least some part of the population. Sweet.
In the meantime, event organisers and musicians plead with punters to hold on to their tickets for postponed events. But how long can you wait for a gig to finally go ahead, especially if it cost you a couple of hundred bucks? It’s not the festival’s fault, but Bluesfest, for instance, has already been rescheduled twice, in 2020 and 2021. Fingers crossed, it will go ahead this year. But if not, I’d want my money back as well.
I can’t believe I’m saying that but going to a gig has somehow become very stressful and complicated as of late. Don’t you think?
That’s why we need to do something about it urgently this year. It’s clear to me that some form of a check will need to be put in place to eliminate the risk. Because even one COVID case in a maskless place can turn into a super-spreader event with the domino effect.
I don’t have an easy fix for that. But, in my humble opinion, this is a priority for 2022. And its success lies with all parties involved. The government needs to recognise that it’s a mess and work closely with the music and event industries on finding viable options. Artists must continue to ferociously advocate for this topic to be taken seriously, no matter how frustrating that fight might be. And music fans have to approach it with an open mind, heaps of patience and readiness for flexibility if they want to remember what it’s like to see a live show a few years from now.
There is already some good news on the horizon. Event promoters have been urging the Australian government to come up with some sort of insurance scheme, including event cancellations due to pandemics. I still can’t get over the fact that it hasn’t been included in the force majeure category before. But it is vital for the event industry, which closely cooperates with the music biz in current circumstances.
Victoria has already taken that first step and, on 15 December, announced “Extra Certainty For Much-Loved Events With New Insurance”. It’s aimed at sporting, business and community events as well, but at least music promoters from Melbourne and the rest of the state can now sleep a bit better. Hopefully, the rest of the states will soon follow suit or the federal government will introduce all-encompassing regulations for the whole country.
In conclusion, insurance can surely ease the effects of cancellations. But 2022 will be the year to focus on ensuring that live gigs and festivals can actually go ahead. Even if that means introducing a completely new way of organising them. I’m keen to see how that develops.
Come back next week to find out about my two other predictions. And, in the meantime, take this fun quiz referring to some 2021 events I discussed on the blog.
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