Will anyone notice when the music finally stops?
Music is embedded into society. As a reflection of who we are, it mirrors values as each spin of the cultural cycle weaves its way through history. Each decade expresses its own texture and flavour through its music. Across time zones, languages, cultural heritages and geographics, each generation in each culture carves out a tangible representation of what each decade has meant through its music.
Who are we without music? What does our society, culture, worklife, homelife and funlife look like without our soundtrack? As Nitin Sawhney said “My obligation as an artist is to be cathartic about what happens and to express my feelings about it”, music reflects and drives social change. Whether we hear it externally OR it emerges from deep within us, the soundtrack of our lives plays 24 hours a day inside our heads and within our bodies.
At an individual level it can induce multiple responses — physiological, movement, mood, emotional, cognitive and behavioural. As a global level, it inspires and comforts. How many Benefit Concerts feature music artists donating their set to help? Music goes beyond words and activates memory. And it is as if we were sung into this world.
Hazrat Inayat Khan said “We grown-up people think that we appreciate music, but if we realized the sense that an infant has brought with it of appreciating sound and rhythm, we would never boast of knowing music. The infant is music itself.” The early connection between a mama and her baby are musical in quality. Holding our pregnant bellies, we sing to our growing little person, our voices in lilting tones, our melodies in harmony with our bodies ability to create life. We sing and dance to learn and play. We lullaby and sway to soothe. We entrain to each other through the music.
My mother told me recently that when she brought me home from the hospital as a newborn, I would rock myself to sleep by kicking the side of the bassinet from day one. I sang before I spoke. Before real words formed, I created my own language and sang repetitive songs before I could speak. The toy piano that Santa brought when I was three years old became my place of refuge. No place was safer. No place gave me as much peace. Wherever we went, I would sniff out the closest piano and sit for hours allowing whatever music was within to come out and play.
Queen Elizabeth visited Townsville when I was a very small child. I was chosen to play the piano during her visit to the school. The only thing I remember was the shimmering of that frilly lemon dress I wore under a ferocious Townsville sweat as I played God Save The Queen through my nerves. Of course, she never heard it but I didn’t matter. I played for me.
My life at school was lived in a crucible of music. Writing songs for the choir, for church service and for myself, I built a primitive recording studio under my parent’s house relentlessly roping my friends in to play whatever part I wrote out for them. From the age of 12, I had set up a little business where I sold my transcribed music of all the latest hits on the radio. The quirky quiet shy kid behind the curtain at assembly every day playing piano, running the microphone and production, conducting the choir, accompanying everyone at school concerts and running the show behind the scenes at school, at church and at family and neighbourhood events was driven by a dream to be on stage instead of behind. I needed for my voice to be heard. I needed to be able to tell my story. Music was my survival mechanism. Music was my universal language. I can’t tell you how many boyfriends I dumped when they would complain about me harmonizing along with the radio. 😊
Music gave me a place to belong. It was my home. It was my safe space. And throughout every significant experience in my life, I am transported back through the first few bars of the song that lives in that memory.
Western society’s addiction to noise and it’s collective rejection of silence is actually an economic driver for a global Music Industry. Headphones in and we can tune the rest of the world out. In our cars, in gyms, shopping centres, lifts, pubs, clubs, waiting rooms, clinics, weddings, parties, events, functions, sporting events, celebrations, funeral, the beating of our hearts match the rhythm of our collective soundtracks.
Yet for all its apparent value to humanity and society, the lockdown experiences of 2020 and 2021 have all but decimated the industry responsible for creating that soundtrack.
In a twist, no one could have ever seen coming, this COVID event has changed the face of the global Arts and Music economies on every level and in every way. Since March 2020, the global tally of lost income for individuals and organisations has already reached billions. And for this one moment in history, everyone in the Music Industry, whether signed to a major label or independently just starting out — regardless of genre or time zone -found themselves in the same position at the same time.
As we tentatively emerged from lockdowns, we witnessed in horror as desperate and vulnerable beaten down music sector began to perform for a meal and drink voucher to perform. We watched with dismay, as Governments around Australia announced Arts Recovery Packages proudly proclaiming their support for the Arts as musicians moved back home to live with their parents, sold their cars to pay their bills, emptied their savings accounts and descended into suicidal states of depression. We wept from the sidelines as promoters and venue owners, saddled with crippling debt, struggling to hire new staff, operating under 50% reduction in capacity, tried to re open their doors and rebuild what was once a thriving economy. In the 18 months since the lockdowns began, 70% of the venues we had previously supplied Live Music to, had yet to rebook live shows meaning that the primary source of income for musicians through Hospitality sectors has hovered around 30% ever since. And with no realistic access to equitable grant funding, this sector, on the whole, have lost their ability to create meaningful financial strategies for the continuation and growth of their music businesses.
How on earth did a once thriving industry sector find itself here?”
My view in the rear-view mirror post a pre covid world is astonishing in how good we had it for decades. My music business had never applied for a grant and never asked for assistance in funding anything. If we wanted to start a project, we simply did it, funded it ourselves and were accountable for every last cent. The thought of asking for financial assistance never entered our heads. We entered into partnerships instead of applying for grants. At the coal face, we were witnesses to the ecoysystem — how the market ebbed and flowed, how promoters and venues sought to leverage music brands to boost their own and how live music artists battled daily with jealousy, depression and that relentless insatiable need to be seen and heard at any cost.
News of a virus emerged in the middle of December 2019 and from the language being used, I felt sick in the pit of my stomach. In early February I called a meeting with the our team to discuss the contingency for lockdown who scoffed at my so-called conspiracy theory dismissing my fears and request for a plan. It was Friday the 13th, when the Federal government announced their restrictions of 500 people per event. By the 18th it was down to 100 people and by Monday 23 March, every single one of our venues called to cancel their entertainment. In one day, I cancelled just over $6million of live music shows in our booking system.
We didn’t have time to feel shock. Our first task was to get the Artists paid. Clients owed us close to half a million dollars and by 18 April, all but $15000 (from a lone chain stubbornly refuseing to pay Artists), of it was paid. Days were spent on hold for our Accountants, Lawyers, Bank, Centrelink, My Gov and the ACCC as we focused on reducing our business and personal costs and began to apply for a suite of government assistance — something I would never have dreamed necessary.
Then the shame crept in. Part of being a long-term small business owner is the desire to create your own pathway — be the steward for your own life. But there was no time for shame, Business accounts were finalised to provide current figures for our accountant so they could apply for Job Keeper for us. Then began the relentless job search making applications for whatever position was advertised. Late March and all of April was a blur of unexpected activity. It was like throwing shit at a wall without any idea what the shit looked like and where the wall was situated.
There was no certainty. No direction. No idea what was to come. We had no answers for our team or our music work force. But we knew that we wanted to stay connected with them for however long this thing would take. So we began a campaign of COVID information on our social media and website. Jam packed with free training courses, ATO and Government information, Wellness Tips, Industry Resources and even setting up Pushworth as a Volunteer conduit. We started a mentor program to keep our artists focused on building their music brands. We began The Music Real podcast to stay connected, then deliver training and finally to interview anyone in the Events, Hospitality and Arts and Music sectors so they could share this story of how lockdown impacted them.
But throughout all this activity, waves of emotion hit day by day. Shock, numb, sadness, grief, terror, confusion, frustration and then finally incredible anger. I gave myself permission to feel every single emotion fully. The overwhelming feeling was of having no control so I was really given no choice but to learn to live in the moment. Surrendering my delusion of control I began to feel free. Nature became my crutch and I craved bringing in the new day through the sunrise. I had to be near trees and gardens at least once a day. There wasn’t a sunset that didn’t bring me to tears each evening. Nature brought me comfort. I found beauty in the mundane and began to discover my street, my neighbourhood, my community and my city.
Our music networks were demonstrating a sharp decline in overall mental health. Pre COVID, the ritual of weekly gigs most certainly offered a reliable numbing effect on those seeking to be seen and heard but not yet brave enough to allow themselves to feel the emotions the music continued to drown out for them. However, now being stuck in lockdown without that weekly purpose of live gigs opened up a cesspool of addictions. Binge seasons on Netflix, Uber Eats comfort eating, online gaming, and any numbing substance like pot and booze cycling Artists down into dark pools of depression and anxiety. The past eighteen months have seen our team talk more Music Artists than I want to count, down off a ledge many, many times. To date, we have lost twenty five people in our network to suicide. 25 people. 25 humans decided that they simply could not live like this anymore. Without the usual strategies of distraction that the lockdown removed, many people simply couldn’t face one more day feeling all the things they had worked so hard pre COVID, NOT to feel.
My own personal mental health strategy was the podcast, the Music Real. The majority of guests was just so happy to have someone to talk to. I would often talk for another hour after the interview concluded just so they could connect with another human. Several key industry people contacted me to share how dark they were and how they could not possibly talk about the impact the lockdowns had on them. Overwhemed by the very same shame that I, myself, had felt, when applying for Job Keeper, many industry alums became frozen in shame, anger, grief and every emotion on that rollercoaster as they meandered through bankruptcy, business closure, divorce and overwhelmingly depression. It was not pretty.
Dame Judi Dent said ‘The arts are not a luxury — they are a necessity,’ The COVID lockdowns have interrupted a $112b annual contribution to the Australian bottom line by an industry who, only a few months earlier, had so generously donated so much to raise money for the Australian Bushfire appeals. Many of them are wondering now, who will generously donate to help them?
So how do you begin to quantify the social, cultural and more importantly human cost?
And if I’m brutally frank, what would your life be like when there is no one left to create, produce, perform and play the soundtrack to your life?
Will anyone notice when the music finally stops?
Excerpt from my upcoming book “The Unsung”, a call to action in the recovery task ahead, a story of my own life in the music industry and how the events of the COVID 19 lockdowns have altered the frequency of music for good. Nichola Burton Copyright 2021