Musings on Innovation During COVID-19

Written by Rose Bassett

Rose Bassett. Photo: Jake Amy

If you’re like me, living in Melbourne and attempting to develop a career in one of Australia’s most thriving music cultures, you’ll know that 2020 has proven itself to be a particularly challenging year so far. As Melbournians head back into the second instalment of lock-down we are reminded of the devastating impacts this virus has reaped upon our industry, where only a week earlier I had optimistically felt that live gigs weren’t so far away. With cancellations of major live events, gigs and festivals occurring almost hourly in the initial outbreak, it’s as if someone has taken out the lungs of our industry and left only a small calling card with the name ‘Rona’ plastered to the front. This is not to downplay the importance of taking measures to protect our communities from the dreaded virus, yet rather to understand that these measures are impacting our arts sector in significant ways. Our live music scene has lost most if not all of its revenue, not to mention the genuine human connection served on a silver platter at gigs and festivals. However, we are a resilient bunch, as our industry proves time and time again. At the core of creative and artistic people and communities, there is a spark of innovation built into the very nature of what we do. This was the topic of my engaging conversations with two incredible women from our industry this week. For, whilst the cold reality of this virus can certainly be classed as overwhelming, so too is it important to converse on the innovative approaches people are employing to overcome the various challenges we face during this time and where these approaches are leading into the future. 

With 15-odd years of experience in various sectors of the music industry, it’s safe to say that Bonnie Dalton is a passionate lover of the arts. Currently based in two roles, General Manager at the Victorian Music Development Organisation (VDMO) and seconded as the Music Industry Liaison for Creative Victoria, Bonnie has a view of the industry from the unique perspective of someone immersed in the sector. I spoke to Bonnie over an enthusiastic zoom call about her view of the past few months. 

How have you observed the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the music industry?

“The impact has been really devastating. The live music industry can’t ‘pivot’ as some industries have been able to do, and COVID-19 has demonstrated something that we probably didn’t want to face: that live income was covering the inadequacy of income from all other sources. In general, even those still streaming music and selling merch online are in a significantly worse financial position than they would be otherwise. There are also many for whom live music was their only outlet - incredible artists who just haven’t recorded music and don’t connect with audiences that way. There’s also the social impact. Music is so often underpinned by community, it’s a release for creators and audience and it can be tied to identity; that’s all being challenged right now, which has broad implications, from creativity to mental health.”  It was after this response that we both admitted to feeling burn-out at some level to the constant flow of pessimistic information, with Bonnie stating she had only recently deleted Facebook off her phone to limit her continuous exposure: “It’s really important to stay informed, but you can also go down rabbit holes...”. I decided to hunt down a different rabbit hole, one which shed light on the amazing work coming out of this crisis. 

Bonnie Dalton. Photo: provided by Bonnie

How are people responding to the challenges the industry is currently facing? Do you have any examples of innovative approaches that people are employing to overcome these challenges?

“This is a very resilient and dynamic sector and, as expected, the responses have been incredible. The live streaming we’ve seen, and audiences’ appetite for it, has kept people performing and connecting (eg Isol-Aid, Medicine Songs, Untitled Day Party, Open Mic), being paid fees for performances (Iso-Late, Couch Concerts, State of Music, Distance Between Us, The Boite) and even paying crew and venues too (Delivered Live). 

“In addition to this, I’ve found that the exploration and development of digital opportunities is really varied and exciting. Iso-Late utilised the Twitch platform which is definitely a space with many more possibilities for music than were being used before COVID and even good old-fashioned YouTube has been getting more focussed engagement [workshop later this month]. At the VMDO we piloted a program to connect indie game developers with independent artists/bands to co-create games around existing tracks [hear about the project here]. There’s so much happening out in the sector! From virtual writing sessions, to recording, to tech innovation, to unique socially distanced performances. It’s been amazing to see different kinds of collaboration, involvement and inclusion of people who previously maybe wouldn’t have been able to for a whole range of different reasons. Although, connecting to community and experiencing things live gives you a resilience to keep constantly changing. When we don’t have that aspect, it makes it really hard to go out time and time again and keep finding reserves to adapt.”

Do you think that there is potential to reshape the way our industry is built via the live streaming services that are currently at the forefront of our response to COVID-19?

“I think it’s an additional new offering. I don’t see it as a replacement. It’s similar to when VCRs first came out and people said, ‘no one will go to the movies’ and of course they did. I’ve already heard whispers that there are TV networks that are looking to commission music programmes because they have seen the impact that streaming has had and the pretty consistent numbers of a home audience base. So it’s really exciting that this sort of innovative grassroots movement could impact the more mainstream culture.” 

Do you think these live streaming services can help diversity and accessibility in the scene?

“They can and they can’t. It’s another pathway for artists and audiences to connect, but there are still processes and mechanisms in place which won’t disappear just because it’s easy to get onto a platform. Similar to the democratisation of streaming services, you can take away the gatekeepers and suddenly anyone can put their music up online. The lie of this is that then we’ve all got an equal chance to ‘get to the top’ and create a career out of music. That’s definitely not the case. The proliferation of music online doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s having a huge impact. What I would say to any artist is setting your goals and then identifying whether what you're doing is getting you closer to that or further away from that.”

What innovation do you think is needed to make our scene more stable in the face of this crisis?

“Music has always been full of innovation and the survival of our creative scene is assured by peoples’ need for music. The scene we rebuild needs to be really considered so we can ‘build it back better’. Government intervention can play a role in doing that. In my role I’m mindful of the fact that ‘recovery prioritises incumbent success, and leaves behind the ones who started behind’, so that’s something to be weighed in every decision. We need to support the artists and their teams around them to ensure that they can stay well, be able to create and stay connected to each other and to audiences ahead of a return to live.

“If you’re in the creative industries, you can’t be a one trick pony and you must have diversified income.

“At the moment, people seem up for supporting things they care about with money. I think it raises an opportunity to rethink the relationship between fans and the artist. Maybe we can ask fans to support the artist more and in ways that we previously didn’t bother with, because currently we say ‘just buy a ticket and we’ll call it even’. Just take a look at the Save Our Scene movement. They got 16,000 ‘e-signatures.’ It’s something that people really care about. I think there’s evidence to say that we can ask more of fans.”

What advice would you offer our readers at this time? Especially in Melbourne who are back into stage three restrictions? ​

“I've definitely spoken to a lot of artists who’ve said, ‘I think I probably need to take a break.’ And yes, there is definitely an element of giving yourself permission to just watch TV or something, but if you’re in the headspace to be creative then there's definitely opportunities for now. One of the things we’ve been doing with the VDMO is looking towards people doing professional development. Things that maybe don’t return immediate outcomes, but that can pay dividends in the future.” 

My conversation with Bonnie certainly left me with a lot to think about and caused a flutter in my heart at the idea that audiences are still willing and able to support the artistic community. One such avenue which has seen an incredible virtual ‘turn-out’ is that of live streaming. Enter Emily Ulman, creator and managing director of Isol-Aid music festival. Speaking with Emily as she was perusing the aisles of a store for trackies before the next instalment of isolation, I got a view into the mind of one such innovative creator, trying to maintain a sense of connection between artists, fans and the wider community. 

How did you approach creating something like Isol-Aid during this time?

“I guess it’s about adapting and seeing the need to respond to a situation or group of people. I program festivals (CHANGES conference, Isol-Aid, Brunswick Music Festival) and all of those situations are about reflecting on what other people would be responding to, or looking beyond the realm of what I, as Emily, would want to see or do or participate in. So, seeing the greater needs of the community, and whether that be in the music industry, or, you know, the music community or, just out in the industry as a whole. I think really, it’s just about being flexible and adaptable.

“I think that taking a ‘micro’ perspective rather than this enormous ‘what is this going to look like for the next six months’ kind of thing, made [Isol-Aid] more approachable and manageable. After the first weekend I realised that there was merit there, and that people wanted it to continue. Just thinking about it in a way that meant I wasn’t overwhelmed or inundated by millions of different ideas. Because it did happen so quickly. Once I realised it was going to be more than just a once off, I was very careful to create a vision statement, which I still refer to today. It outlines all of the values and principles that are important to me as a person, but also things that I want to instil in the people that are part of the festival and the wider community. Sometimes when you’re so stuck in it, it can be hard to look at things objectively, so it’s good to have something to refer back to.”

Emily Ulman. Photo: Simon Fazio

Streaming has become part of the norm in the space of a few months. Do you think that it will continue to grow as a medium into the future of our industry? 

“I absolutely think it’ll continue. As everyone was caught so unaware and unprepared, the technology has really struggled to keep up with the demand and various consumer and musician requirements. In terms of tech, I think there is a way to go in being able to cater to everybody’s specific requirements. By the same token, I think that online and virtual events, streams, gigs and festivals are never going to replace real experiences. Nor should they, and nor do I want them to, but there is definitely room for both. Isol-Aid has really highlighted to me how many people didn’t have access to live music for various reasons, whether they be geographical, physical or psychological barriers. Lots of people contacted me saying how amazing it is to have the opportunity to see live music. They hope it doesn’t stop. I don’t think there is a reason for it to stop. We have this opportunity to put the live music model back together in a really different way. For example, with musicians not being at the bottom of the food chain and venues not being so heavily reliant on alcohol sales.”

Do you have any advice for people in maintaining their innovation? 

“I think that no matter what you are doing, whether you are writing a song, baking a cake or starting an online event, I think that knowing what you’re doing and why you are doing it is crucial. It can be different in regard to creativity as this can just happen naturally but asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ and 'who is the audience?' and 'what purpose will it serve?' and then referring back to something you can hold onto. Being mindful as well.”

“Being mindful” is a statement that resonates throughout this entire year so far. As a musician myself, so much of what Bonnie and Emily discussed aligned with my experiences so far. Thinking about the stability of our music scene and the actions that are both being taken and what’s to come makes me so grateful that I work in an industry which seems ready and able to reinvent itself. With the most recent ‘I Lost My Gig’ tally sitting at $340 million in losses across the Australian music industry, it’s important to understand that innovation and continued resilience are going to be what pulls us out of the muck. The breakdown of our scene, whilst both devastating and frustrating to us who are wedged in the middle, may just provide the opportunity for us to build a better, more sustainable and inclusive industry. I think it’s up to us to decide which way it goes. 

Keep up to date with Bonnie here and Emily on Facebook

We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.

Thank you dearly to Bonnie and Emily for your time.

Interviews with Bonnie and Emily conducted between 7 and 10 July 2020.

Article first published 12 July 2020.

Photographs taken by Jake Amy, Simon Fazio and provided by Bonnie.

Written by Rose Bassett. Edited by Jake Amy and Hugh Heller.

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