Trigger warning: This article contains material that may be confronting and disturbing. Some words or images may cause sadness or distress, or trigger traumatic memories for people.
We would like to thank journalist, Matt Innes, the team at Aruga and those who shared their personal stories to help shine a spotlight on this important issue.
“My business is completely dead in the water right now, with money just cascading out of the bank,” Peter ‘Pitt’ Pittendreigh says, desperation masked by stoic determination.
The owner of GBH Stage Equipment Hire, a Brisbane company that rents backline gear such as musical instruments and amplifiers to touring bands and festivals, usually turns over $1M annually.
Since the COVID pandemic ground the live music industry to a standstill, Peter’s income whittled down to nothing and he is living on borrowed money.
With two teenage sons to consider, Peter says GBH’s survival is dependent on the level of debt he is willing to endure.
“If I’m prepared to continue into debt, I could last another six to eight months, and then my ability to borrow will be exhausted."
"I’m in financial freefall now and every week, every dollar I spend is a borrowed dollar.”
As the sector struggles with the immense financial losses of the COVID pandemic, the emotional and mental impact on live music workers reveals an intensely human struggle, also with heavy losses.
It’s not just artists who suffer when their gig is cancelled.
It detonates a chain reaction that sends damaging shockwaves throughout an interconnected web of local businesses and sole traders.
This is the real human cost of shutting down live music in Australia.
For many, the financial and emotional fallout is too much to bear.
“Twenty-five people in our network and our circle, personally and professionally, have suicided since last March,” Nichola Burton says with grim forbearance.
As Co-Founder and Director of The Pushworth Group and The Manick Label, a music label and artist management company, Nichola bears witness to a growing mental health crisis in the Australian live music industry.
“The latest victim – one of our music artists – had a very young family,” she continues.
“I’ve never seen my team fall apart like they did when we discovered he’d taken his own life. The most beautiful man – he just couldn’t face his financial situation anymore, because there was no help and no hope.”
The once-thriving sector is now struggling to survive, seeing a drastic rise in suicide and self-harm among its workers.
The Australian live music industry has endured a 90 percent revenue loss due to COVID-related lockdowns, restrictions and venue closures, dropping from $862 million to $82 million.
QMusic CEO Kris Stewart acknowledges that the Queensland government moved quickly to support the live music industry with initiatives such as the $7m Live Music Support Program, but also estimates Queensland live music workers personally lost $130m in income.
“The Australian music industry is a delicate ecosystem at risk of total collapse unless it receives critical life support,” Kris warns.
“For every epic live music event, there are hundreds of individual operators and microbusinesses powering the machinery that drives live music in Australia.
“Like a beach, the industry can seem immense but it is made up of many grains of sand that can easily slip through our fingers.
“The success of Australia’s live music industry lies in the people who make the show go on, those grains of sand who are COVID’s invisible victims.”
Snap lockdowns are a prohibitive force against re-establishing Australian live music to its former glory, eroding promoters’ confidence to gamble resources on an increasingly uncertain outcome.
A three-day lockdown effectively halts event planning for up to six weeks, yet any incurred costs must still be paid.
The ripples of pain caused by each cancelled or postponed gig are felt across the industry – from promoters, agents, band managers, publicists, venue owners, sound engineers, lighting designers and roadies; to bar staff, caterers, equipment hire companies, music journalists, merchandise vendors, cleaners and first aid staff.
“We can have everything wide-open in Queensland, but as long as there is a problem in Sydney or Melbourne, businesses like mine cannot work,” Peter says, noting he has millions of dollars’ worth of stage equipment sitting in a rented warehouse, untouched in more than 18 months.
“It’s devastating. I can see it affecting my relationship with my partner, it’s affecting my friendships and it’s certainly affecting me.
“I’m finding more and more that I don’t want to engage with anybody, I just want to stay at home on my own. I can see the signs of stress, anxiety and depression in myself. I’m finding I’m not engaging with the world the way I usually do.”
The gig economy lives and breathes on the next thing coming along but with nothing in the pipeline, hope is dwindling.
Eddie Gresack tells a similar story.
The sound engineer for Tones & I has spent the past 16 years in Australia working in all technical aspects of live music.
While bumping-in at Bluesfest, Eddie and his team received word that the festival was unceremoniously cancelled for the second time in two years.
“The biggest thing for me is not just the impact of the lack of work and the uncertainty, it’s how hard it is to have hope now,” Eddie laments.
“Recently that’s been really coming down hard. How do I have hope? Because every time I do, these things get cancelled or postponed. Also, the impact of it is, we start to feel that we don’t count at all, that we are so expendable because of the way the government is dealing with this.”
So too, Brodie Popple.
Before COVID, Brodie was a successful booking agent and event programmer.
Now, he is on the verge of being pushed from the industry and questioning how much the State and Federal Governments value gig workers.
“They seem to hark on about how great the gig economy is and treat it like such an important thing but then do little to support it,” Brodie says.
“These are the people who talk about how great Aussie music is, the old days of [Cold] Chisel, et cetera, but those bands wouldn’t be able to exist at the moment.
“If they want to celebrate the past and celebrate how great we are as Australians, you can’t be a patriot and then turn around and not offer any support.”
Nicola, Peter, Eddie and Brodie are but a few in a cacophony of voices sharing their tragic personal stories of a once-great industry crumbling apart.
The Australian Federal Government recently committed another $20M to Support Act and the UK has initiated a £750M insurance scheme to cover festival cancellation costs.
However, the Queensland Government is yet to fully grasp the vital contribution of live music to the state’s economy.
Worse than that, the everyday Australians who make a living from live music are falling through the cracks, feeling ignored and undervalued by their elected representatives.
“The Premier really needs to … put some time aside to support the real businesses,” Peter challenges.
“The information is quite easy to understand – if there is an industry, there are a lot of service businesses that provide to that industry.”
Brodie wants the Queensland Government to recognise the significant long-term human cost of ignoring the problem.
“If you want to talk about economic value, people aren’t going to be of any economic value if they’re severely disabled by their mental illness, or – and this is unfortunate and triggering – if they’re dead. What good is someone if they’ve taken their own life?”
The final, parting words were reserved for Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, courtesy of Nichola Burton.
“(This) is on your hands,” she states.
"What are you going to do about it?”
QMusic and the brains behind BIGSOUND have teamed up for the ultimate end-of-year party on Sunday, November 28! Join in on the biggest party to see out a year that sucked and welcome a funner Summer!
Following ongoing reports of systemic bullying, discrimination, and misconduct under Handlin’s leadership at Sony Music Entertainment, Queensland's peak music industry body QMusic has revoked Handlin's 2020 Honorary Award.
The Australian music industry is a delicate ecosystem at risk of total collapse unless it receives critical life support. The success of Australia’s live music industry lies in the people who make the show go on - the technicians, engineers, managers, hiring companies and more - those who are COVID’s invisible victims.
The Billy Thorpe Scholarship returns for 2022, providing the opportunity for an emerging artist to receive $10,000, record with an established producer, and receive career planning from Chugg Entertainment. Applications close 11:59 (AEST) 21 October 2021.