Australia’s live music crisis is essentially a crisis of confidence. How could we bring it back?

Australia’s live music crisis is essentially a crisis of confidence. How could we bring it back?

It has been a big few weeks in the Australian live music scene. The cancellations of major festivals Groovin’ the Moo and Splendour in the Grass have ushered in a stream of news reports about the challenges affecting live music, and how current economies are making the sector unsustainable.

So far the focus has largely been on the big festival market. But I contend that without a healthy and sustainable grassroots economy, we can’t make a quality live music industry in Australia. The first step towards achieving this is bringing confidence back.

Read more:
Why are so many Australian music festivals being cancelled?

New inquiry, new perspective?

Presumably, the federal inquiry into Australia’s live music industry, announced just two days before Splendour in the Grass was cancelled, will aim for better governance of the sector, including at the grassroots.

According to John Wardle of the Live Music Office, local industries “have faced a range of continuing challenges for decades”. Wardle says local arts and cultural planning, urban renewal and government funding aren’t keeping pace with each other:

There are some good planning instruments available, such as zoning special entertainment precincts, but they aren’t being deployed to the degree in which they might.

A report by Creative Australia, based on a 2022 survey, indicates something shifted in Australia’s arts sector when COVID hit. For instance, while 97% of Australians said they engaged with the arts, and more than half (68%) attended live events, this attendance was less frequent than in pre-COVID times.

Another report released this week by the arts body found just 56% of Australian music festivals in the last financial year made a profit, citing impact from factors such as rising costs of insurance and policing.

We have reached a breaking point in the music industry and there needs to be a concerted effort to reorganise it.

Some argue what we’re seeing is a “market failure” – too many festivals, poor programming, high costs and low confidence – and is therefore a problem for businesses to repair. But the overwhelming public interest in this issue demonstrates just how important live music is to the fabric of our culture.

A collapse in market confidence

The live music sector has become increasingly disconnected from its customers. Audiences have evolved in what they want and expect from live music, while also discovering less complicated ways to be entertained. The industry must evolve with them if it wants to thrive.

Emerging and mid-tier artists all over Australia currently work in venues whose core business is “live music”, yet it’s common for musicians to be booked to play with no guaranteed income.

Araminta, 22, is an independent artist from Naarm (Melbourne) who regularly performs at venues across the city. She told me venues expected her to organise 100% of event promotion and ticket sales:

The venues almost act as hire-spaces rather than working together with artists to ensure a good turnout. We are all working two to three jobs to make ends meet and on top of that we treat our artistry like a full-time job.

Araminta is a folk-pop fusion singer and songwriter.

If the confidence returns, so will the gigs

In 2024, it’s unethical for a three-piece band working in a professional live music venue to only be offered a percentage of the bar takings as payment, yet this happens.

One outcome from the inquiry could be a pilot program that financially and organisationally supports quality, ethical and sustainable live music business models. And this would ideally be done with an eye to creating self-sustaining venues and music models that can be replicated across cities and towns.

The sector should work with governments to develop artists, champion their value and pay them accordingly. There should also be incentives offered for venues that don’t exploit music creators’ work, or rely solely on gambling and alcohol sales to be sustainable.

Araminta says setting a standard minimum rate for venues to pay musicians would make a notable difference:

The main reason artists are hesitant to gig recently is the amount of profit uncertainty – especially artists that are independent without any financial assistance.

Making the most of the inquiry

The terms of reference for the federal inquiry indicate a thorough and holistic approach to improving the sector. This means addressing issues at every level, from local artist development and economic benefit, to sustainability and growth internationally.

In covering this much ground, it will be a challenge to not spread the outcomes too thinly, or focus on short-term fixes rather than meaningful long-term reform.

Wardle cautions that unless we see an increase in jobs for musicians offering fair pay and conditions, more big announcements simply won’t stack up:

Ensuring the voices across the sector are listened to is critical to guide priorities and investment. I’d like to see more artists’ voices and representative opportunities, and structures that ensure that people aren’t excluded because of their cultural background or the type of music they play.

The industry must guarantee the quality of its product and provide safe, accessible and valuable experiences for both customers and musicians. Once audiences and musicians come running, word of mouth will do much of the heavy lifting, and investors will follow suit.

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