Lamenting Melbourne’s lost music scene: how COVID-19 flipped a robust industry

"Overnight we lost our livelihood, we lost our income. We grieved for the life we had"

Melbourne, one of the world’s most liveable cities pre-COVID, has been struck hard by the pandemic – with some industries affected more than others.

A new study by RMIT University, titled Understanding Challenges to the Victorian Music Industry, commissioned by the Victorian Music Development Office and the Victorian office for Women, found that 58 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the industry. The study found that 74 per cent had seen their income decrease, while 57 per cent were worried about paying for basics, like rent and food.

Helen Marcou, an activist and advocate for the Victorian music community – recognised with an Order of Australia for her contribution to the arts – recalls the historic Live Music Rally on 23 February, 2010, attended by 20,000 supporters. The event was a catalyst for change in Victoria’s music policy, making it among the best in Australia. As a result, many musicians were drawn to Melbourne because of the city’s interesting arts scene and opportunities.

“What makes Melbourne interesting is the diversity and the richness in culture in terms of live music genres. Melbourne was the envy of all other cities, not just for the nightlife but for live music of all genres, with a culture scene of world class level,” Ms Marcou told Neos Kosmos, remembering the industry’s successes via the Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) which she co-founded.

“COVID-19 flipped all that. In particular, 13 March was an ominous day where many of us suffered huge cancellations.”

The industry, already facing problems because of an oversupply of performers in recent years, suffered hard losses.

She and her partner Quincy McLean, who co-founded Melbourne’s Bakehouse Studios in 1991, have not only had to weather the storm as far as their own business is concerned but have also had to see their colleagues suffer.

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“It impacted the ability of musicians to make money,” she said, adding that COVID-19 has caused further strains following 12 months of cancellations.

“Overnight we lost our livelihood, we lost our income.

“We grieved for the life we had. We were in a state of shock and we spent months trying to rebuild what we had, which was even more difficult for us who ran bricks and mortar businesses. Not only do we have contracts cancelled, rent, utilities, a cohort of staff which we want to keep on board while they are watching their industry collapse worldwide.

“Constant negotiations with landlords have been soul crushing. We are in a state of fatigue. A lot of grief,” she sighs, adding that it will take years to make up for the losses.

With border closures still being implemented, limited capacity at venues due to social distancing laws and uncertainty, everything is still in a state of flux.

“It wasn’t until November that there was some momentum, especially from local councils performing music and entertainment events in the park,” she said.

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Being a creative lot many musicians turned to alternative ways of expressing themselves with digital events, including performers at zoom meetings at business events, concerts at the back of trucks, live pop concerts etc. Some venues pooled together resources as a way to cut costs.

Ms Marcou is among the 80 per cent of respondents to the RMIT’s study who say that their involvement in the industry would be different post-COVID-19.

The city’s nightlife will never be the same. Many Melbourne performers went interstate, whereas among those in Melbourne, it was mainly women in the industry that suffered because many had to juggle their work problems with homeschooling or looking after elderly parents and Ms Marcou is worried that some may have given up on the industry altogether.

“For me, I’m very connected to the community,” she said. “My family are here so I won’t leave Melbourne.

“On second thoughts, I may go to Samos… but only to retire.”