‘Absolutely heartbroken’: event cancellations return to devastate Australia’s music industry

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In what feels like a devastating sense of deja vu for the music industry, Faith No More, Jimmy Barnes and the Hoodoo Gurus have cancelled Australian shows in the lead-up to Christmas, among many other acts that have been spooked by the December spike in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Posting on his Facebook page at the weekend, Barnes said he was “absolutely heartbroken” over the outbreak in Newcastle, where his band was scheduled to deliver three concerts in December.

Last week new Covid infections in the Hunter region accounted for almost a third of cases in New South Wales. The state recorded an unprecedented 3,057 cases on Tuesday.

“In the interest of the community’s health and safety and the approaching family Christmas holidays, both our family and [the venue] Lizotte’s Newcastle have made the difficult decision to postpone the three December shows to a date still to be confirmed in early January,” Barnes posted.

“We urge the local Newcastle community to seriously consider deferring any social events in Newcastle until after Christmas in order to help keep family Christmas gatherings safe, and to help protect their loved ones, the vulnerable and our essential workers.”

Related: Paul Kelly on his new version of How to Make Gravy: ‘Christmas music gets a bad rap’

The in-house booking manager for one of Newcastle’s most popular live music pub venues told Guardian Australia he had cancelled seven gigs in the past week, with bands expressing concerns at the prospect of finding themselves in lockdown on Christmas Day.

Spencer Scott from Hamilton Station hotel said he probably should have seen the writing on wall when he booked two hardcore punk rock groups to perform last weekend. The bands were called Plague Dwellers and I Hate People.

After a potentially infectious case was traced to one of Newcastle’s largest live music venues, the Cambridge hotel, posted on its Facebook page on 13 December: “Our staff have all gone to get tested and once they come back negative we’ll be back to rock n roll.”

The next day the Cambridge announced it was postponing its Hiatus Kaiyote show scheduled for the following evening. On 16 December, it threw in the towel.

“We are going to sit it out until after Christmas,” it posted on Facebook.

“We have a role to play in our community and at the moment that means limiting everyone’s chance of exposure … Be safe and see you after Xmas.”

The same day NSW Health announced that Newcastle’s Lunar Electric music festival scheduled for 18 December had been cancelled, under a public health order.

In a Facebook post on Saturday Ben Cavenagh, a stage manager for the event, wrote: “Lots of lost jobs, lost income, and just a feeling of going around in circles again. Really tired of this.”

Widespread cancellations across Australia

The retreat of live music in the Hunter is being replicated across the country.

This month Frontier Touring and Triple M announced the postponement of a Hoodoo Gurus and Dandy Warhols’ December tour to April 2022.

In the Sydney, the past week saw the cancellation of a number of live music events, including the Bad Vibrations festival, the Loose Ends Xmas party and Christmas Time in the Inner West.

The ticket retailer Oztix told Guardian Australia an estimated 20% of its events over the Christmas period – from 1 December to 7 January – had either been rescheduled, postponed or cancelled altogether, totalling more than 300 events.

“One trend we’re seeing again and again that is really worrying is a member of a band or a band’s touring party becomes a close or casual contact and has to isolate, forcing the entire tour to stop,” an Oztix spokesperson told the Guardian.

“So, a tour may have been rescheduled 2-3 times already, the band finally starts the tour, gets a few shows in … and they have to cancel. That’s always the real heartbreaker.”

Renewed calls for national insurance scheme

On Monday a coalition of live music and entertainment industry bodies reissued a plea to the Morrison government and state and territory leaders to urgently deliver a government-backed insurance scheme to protect the live performance sector from crippling cancellations.

In November a Senate committee inquiry concluded that an insurance guarantee to future-proof the industry was not the responsibility of a federal government because it was Australia’s states and territories that made the call on border closures, lockdowns and social distancing measures.

Only Victoria has since instituted its own state-run live music insurance product.

The statement from the live performance coalition, which includes the copyright agency Apra Amcos, the Australian Recorded Music Industry Association and the Association of Artist Managers, said the emergence of Omicron showed the pandemic crisis was far from over.

“For an industry getting back on its feet, investing nationally and working hard to get shows back on stage and touring, the ongoing threat of future business disruption is very real,” the statement said.

While the Victorian development was welcome, the live performance coalition said a national scheme was urgently needed to reflect the industry’s “national economic and employment footprint”.

The I Lost My Gig Collective has estimated that, on average, the Australian live music sector has lost about $64m in income each month since March 2020, totalling $880m in lost income so far.

A survey conducted by the collective found that 99% of respondents had no income protection or event cancellation insurance.

Support Act, the charity that is delivering crisis relief services to artists, crew and music workers, has received $40m from the federal government since May 2020.

During this time the charity has delivered financial assistance to 2,540 members totalling $8m (compared with 389 people totalling $1.1m in 2019), and provided more that 7,000 grants totalling $15.2m.

Most of the funding was related to performing arts workers whose livelihoods have been impacted by Covid-19.

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