The Future of Live Music
Jasmin Thompson explores the future of local live music post-COVID
We’ve all seen the devastating impact that COVID has had on the arts industry. We’ve watched our favourite creators struggle, the small start-up down the road close, and major art institutions cut a variety of programs. Perhaps one of the hardest hit is the music industry with ilostmygig’s latest tally sitting at $340 million of lost income. This comes as no surprise, the past few months my newsfeed has been overflowing with posts of gig cancellations and politicians bleak statements doubting the near return of traditional live music. Occasionally a glimmer of hope seeps through the negativity, like the announcement of Isol-Aid in March, a free Instagram live music festival in which viewers are encouraged to purchase merch and donate to SupportAct. Although incomparable to a live festival, watching artists jam out in their loungerooms with the occasional curious cats slinking into the frame was definitely a unique experience that only COVID could have bought to us.
Isol-Aid triggered the rise of alternative live music platforms, one of the most notable in Australia being Hockey Dads ‘Alive at the Drive-in’ announcement in May. The concept of drive-in concerts was popularised by Danish Singer-Songwriter Made Langar and on the surface, it’s a great solution for live music in COVID days. Langar’s drive-in concert saw audiences use their windscreen wipers to sway along to the music and their horns to applaud the set. I’m sure if you’ve ever been to a festival or concert of any kind you’ve run into that one group of people that insist on shouting at the artist in the middle of their songs – only this time instead of it being a drunken, incoherent voice it’ll be a blaring horn. Although I’m excited about a great Aussie band using the initiative to start up some COVID safe live music, a drive-in concert feels like more of a novelty to me rather than something that could become a regular occurrence in the future.
Another alternative that gained traction was the socially distanced outdoor gig we saw floating around on the internet in August. Sam Fender took to the stage at Virgin Money Unity Arena to perform to clusters of personal pods. All went smoothly and the night was a hit with a direct path to bathroom facilities and food and drinks bought to you, the only issue being a 45,000 capacity venue was limited down to just 2,500 people. This was a similar issue at DMA’s recent concert at the Oxford Art Factory. Although the limited number made the gig a much more intimate experience for those lucky enough to get a ticket, it also cut down set times, increased the demand for multiple shows and in turn significantly impacted revenue. The gigs also required extra staff and new technology, leading to fears that all these extra factors will result in ticket cost increases. But would that really be so bad? Of course, I miss the days of dirt-cheap gigs that consisted of being wedged between sweaty, screaming fans, but paying a little extra for an intimate set that supports your local establishments and artists doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.
But what if there’s a way to keep gigs cheap, COVID safe and sustainable for both artists and venues in a time that requires more staff and fewer punters? I spoke to Hayden Shepherd, The Newcastle Hotel’s Marketing and Events Manager, and he’s about to do just that.
Earlier this month The Newcastle Hotel made an exciting announcement on their Facebook page, the return of live music at their venue. After being starved of the thrills of live music for so long, this post was a beacon of light, but what does a ‘not quite post-COVID’ concert look like?
We’re probably talking six or seven high tables of five or six and then down the front we might have two or three tables of ten and then a few tables around the edge. I reckon it’ll probably run pretty similar for duration and everything, we might do two night shows or something like that just so the bands can fundraise a bit more with tickets. Logistically we do table service for drinks to try to lower that contact, once you’ve got a fixed number of people in a space it’s quite easy to start running things because you can staff for it correctly. I think it’ll be pretty similar to how it was before, you’re just sitting down and there will be less moshing, you’ll be moving in your chair but that’s about it.
The Newy isn’t taking any risks and neither are the artists. Both parties want the concerts to be a safe as possible with Hayden stating that, “If there are any roadblocks, it just won’t go ahead. I’m not risking it.” Sure it’s not the type of gig where you forget where your body ends and the person next to yours begins, or the type of gig where you feel the spray of warm liquid fly over your head and you’ve got to stop and wonder if its puke, piss, or just warm beer, but its something and most importantly its something that supports the locals. The Newy is much more limited in space than other venues in the area, but instead of seeing this as a disadvantage, Hayden has taken it as an opportunity to give some local bands something that I’m sure many of them have dreamed of – a sold-out gig.
I really like local music and the goals are much lower at the moment because you only need to get 50 people for sell out, so it is quite achievable for small and younger bands. It’s a good time for them to make their footprint in the industry. We don’t need to go any bigger, I want to sell the show out so you might as well back the locals because they’ve backed us as well.
Hayden was kind enough to share the details of their first show back, and although there’s no date set in stone, I’ll be keeping my weekends free for this one. First up will be Hayden’s favourite local band, 4 piece Indie rock band Honey Hills. The band is the perfect love child of the influences listed on their Triple J Unearthed page (Catfish and the Bottlemen, Spacey Jane, and Ocean Alley) and will definitely pull you straight back into live music with their high energy performance. This determination to back local musicians is also Hayden’s solution to the issue of increased ticket prices.
We normally let the bands set ticket prices themselves so most of our gigs are 5-10 dollars, if we get a tour in it’s obviously more but for all our local stuff its usually 5 or 10 bucks. I reckon we’ll probably have to bump that up to about 10-15 dollars. It’s a very equipped venue so our costs are quite low, we don’t have to hire much but I would say we would never charge more than $15 for a show. That’s really important to me. I just wanna keep the young crew coming and have them coming all the time rather than throw up barriers. Same with the nightclub, I make it free before 11:00pm for everyone. I want everyone to be able to come out and have a good time even if they’re a bit strapped for cash.
Things had seemed pretty bleak in the way of live music, but hearing Hayden’s passion for local musicians and his determination to give them a platform and get them back on their feet gave me a new perspective on the impact COVID has had on live music. At the end of the day, I’m glad that something positive has come from it. Using this time to support local musicians is exactly how we should be kicking off the live music scene. Newcastle is full of talented artists who are slowly gaining traction but if we can give them this time to take their place on stage and perform to a sold-out show then at least something good would have come out of 2020. So if you’re like me and have been absolutely craving the vibration of live music these past few months and need somewhere COVID safe, cheap as chips, and all about the locals, then keep an eye on The Newcastle Hotel’s Facebook page for their first gig back!