The Silver Linings of COVID-19 & Australia’s Music Industry

Image Supplied: Reyko.

In the 2017 Melbourne Live Music Census, the Victorian capital was revealed to house more live music venues per capita than any other city in the world. Better than London (1 per 34,350), New York (1 per 18,554) and LA (1 per 19,607), Melbourne had one venue per 9,503 residents. Not only that, but the study also estimated that the 73,000+ annual live gigs across Melbourne in 2017 had created 18,331 part-time jobs for musicians, DJs, venue staff, production staff and security personnel.

Yet fast forward to today and Victoria has experienced four state lockdowns and contributed to 68 per cent of the countries COVID cases with more than 26,000 jobs lost in the Victorian Arts and Recreational Services sector from February to August. Melbourne, like the rest of the world, continue to endure the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the thousands of Melbourne creatives impacted by the pandemic is artist and producer, Reyko (stylized as REYKO!).

Before the first lockdown, Reyko and his Hip-hop collective New Wave Infinity ambitiously invited 60 local artists and producers to collaborate on their debut project, All CornersRecorded across the first week of 2020, Reyko spent the remainder of the year in lockdown, mixing and mastering the collaborative album and beginning to record his debut solo EP, BEHIND TIRED EYES

Image Supplied: Nick Rae.

The streaming profits from All Corners were donated to The Healing Foundation, a charity that supports Stolen Generation survivors, families and their communities. Though with the inability to tour and gig, Reyko’s livelihood as a musician was severely affected and the Melbourne creative was forced to adapt to the indefinite challenges of COVID-19 and reconsider his career approach.

In the initial stages of Melbourne’s first lockdown, New Wave Infinity member and music video director Nick Rae felt the music community showed unprecedented support towards one another.

“We had some really cool stuff like there was this movement where everyone would start to share each other’s stuff and their profiles and pushing the message of supporting creators. We started to think outside the box on how we can keep this movement going but as we progressed weeks later I think we saw a shift in general people becoming far more isolated and normalised to that concept.”

As more lockdowns followed, and the Australian music industry remained vulnerable, Nick Rae shared his experience post-lockdown in an Instagram post detailing the impact of the pandemic on his mental health and career as a videographer.

“I felt like I fell on my face after lockdown because I had normalised myself to this routine that suddenly changed and there were these expectations to go and now socialise and go work and it took me a long time to adapt back to that,” Rae said.

According to a recent study by RMIT University, the Melbourne lockdowns incited a loss of routine and heavily impacted their mental health issues and opportunities to network. Despite the radical change in livelihood, Rae reflects on his time during lockdown as the beginning of a new chapter in his career.

“Previously, my process was to just film shit that looked cool and smash out videos as much as I could. In lockdown, I got more invested in the art and I looked far more deeper into analysing paintings and visual artwork. I realised I need to be more selective with what I capture, and curate it in a sense that so much more is said in so much less time,” Rae said.

“I feel like I’ve established the seeds of a stronger brand, refined my process and become more open as an artist and that’s what I kind of got from lockdown that I’m still incorporating into my work.”

Outside of their own work, Nick Rae recognises the silver linings COVID-19 presents to the Australian music industry, indicating that the pandemic has reshaped how artists market themselves and instilled a stronger appreciation for collaboration and independency.

“A lot of these artists have home studios that wouldn’t have existed 10-20 years ago and a lot of artists would’ve halted completely. But because we have access to that, a lot of people have created a new catalogue. From what I’ve seen from my bookings and artists reaching out to me, a lot of them have explored different sounds and have tried to drastically tried to increase their sound and branding. They made so much improvement in such a short amount of time.”

Sharing the same sentiment, Reyko believes creatives will approach their future in the industry with a higher regard for time and opportunity.

“People are just realising that the lost opportunities of last year are now facing them directly and they have to take it. It’s really good, as bad as everything was, it’s been a wake up call for a lot of people.”

Frank Tremain.


Implications of COVID-19 on the Australian Music Industry

In 2019, Hip-hop in Australia was entering a new era as the perception of ‘Aussie Hip-hop’ began to be more widely challenged by the success of new styles, trends and faces in the scene.

Chillinit and Nerve solidified Grime’s influence on the scene, Drill began to take dominance with ONEFOUR and Hp Boyz leading the way, and The Kid Laroi released his debut label single ‘Let Her Go’, setting him on an unprecedented trajectory for international success.

Image: Danny Howe/Unsplash.

Owner of Melbourne’s Marshall Street Studios, Bennett Ferguson, attributes the success of local Hip-hop in 2019 to the work from artists in the last decade, who gained national recognition and challenged unflattering stereotypes of the genre.

“2019 was when a lot of things started to break out and do big numbers but I think that’s a culmination of what happened in the ten years before it. That’s just when time meets opportunity and the right group dropped the right track,” Ferguson said.

There was no telling the height local Hip-hop was beginning to reach, but on January 25th 2020, its projection was stunted by the announcement of Australia’s first four cases of COVID-19.

By the end of March, community transmission increased significantly and the Australian government shut their borders to non-residents, closed non-essential services and introduced lockdown restrictions. Melbourne in particular, was hit the hardest by the pandemic, with lockdown restrictions being reinstated throughout the months of winter, the start of the new year, and now, during June of 2021, their lockdown has been extended for a further seven days.

Dr Catherine Strong and Dr Fabian Cannizzo from RMIT University investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the music industry in their research paper, ‘Understanding Challenges To The Victorian Music Industry During COVID-19’. According to the study, “the impact of this on musicians, venue owners and operators, road crews and production companies, and associated professionals and personnel from managers to PR to labels and beyond, was immediate and devastating.”

Key Findings:

  • 44 per cent of respondents lost all their music-related work in the pandemic, with those in full-time employment dropping from 34 per cent to seven per cent.
  • 57 per cent of respondents were worried about paying for basics like food and rent
  • More than 80 per cent of respondents thought their involvement in the music industry would be different post COVID-19, with almost three in five considering leaving the industry all together

Source: RMIT University.

Image: Jon Tyson/Unsplash.

AUD’$ editor Matthew Craig describes the “domino effect” caused by the initial cancellation of live music.

“If they’re not having shows they’re not having advertisement and that impacts us. It just impacts down the supply chain. This whole industry is so reliant on the live sector,” Craig said.

Although the full extent of COVID’s impact is yet to be revealed, I Lost My Gig Australia, an initiative by the Australian Music Industry Network and Australian Festival Association, has recorded a total revenue loss of $345 million. In their follow-up survey with 1,556 participants, 66 per cent of respondents had received no other targeted industry support outside of JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

Craig believes the governmental support to creative arts in Australia has always been treated second-rate to sport.

“NSW starting putting on their own lineups competing with private enterprises who are already doing the same thing. So not only was it no shows but now you can return to shows with restrictions and compete with the government who are putting on shows,” Craig said.

WhatsLively is a live music culture and discovery entity dedicated to bringing more eyes on live music in Australia. Co-founder Trishanth Chandrahasan agrees that the support from the government has been underwhelming.

“JobKeeper has kept people afloat but that’s all its really doing, it’s not helping artists. I mean they get some form of it but they’re relying on shows to make money,” Chandrahasan said.

Despite the challenges faced from COVID, there have been a handful of silver linings in regards to the future of the Australian music industry. The innovation of artists has aided Hip-hop in Australia to continue globalising and evolving in diversity and popularity.

From the normalisation of local line-ups and online accessibility, to a greater respect for time and work/life balance, Chandrahasan believes the pandemic has also helped revolutionise live music.

“I think it’s going to play a large role in changing the way we buy tickets, the way we enter and also what happens during a gig. I think the ticket is going to hold more importance, before it was just your pass to get into a venue but I think now it’s going to be more linked to your identity so it’s going to have a bigger link to who you are.”

Frank Tremain.