On Normalcy

Back into the swing of it. It appears life is accelerating to normalcy at a much faster rate than expected. A much faster rate than hoped to be honest. I was ready for another couple of weeks rolling out of bed at 8.30 am, but it wasn’t to be. The government has decided we’re back to it on Friday and suddenly I’m staring down the barrel of getting out of bed, putting on actual pants and riding my bike to the various schools I teach at. Wild.

I’ve also booked some gigs. What a concept. I had one day of productivity a couple of weeks ago where I emailed a venue I’ve played at for years to see how their opening up was going, and next thing I knew they’d booked me in for two gigs. Then another venue emailed me to reschedule a cancelled gig from July and suddenly I’ve got two rehearsals this weekend for two gigs the next weekend. Ludicrous.

I’ve been musically active this lockdown, but most of my musical activity has been learning this twenty minute brush routine. While the practice has been good for a constant daily routine, it doesn’t translate at all in to being able to play two hours of banjo, and I’ve just realised that one of my first gigs back relies on me to not only play banjo but to sing and talk shit on the microphone between songs. Having not played banjo for two months I’m now a little worried that I’ve overextended myself and shouldn’t have agreed to play all these gigs. Nevertheless, a gig is a gig and I haven’t said no to many gigs over the last fifteen years, so why would I start now?

There is a sneaking sense that normalcy isn’t quite as close as it seems. Beyond this flurry of activity in the next two weeks there isn’t much on the horizon. There’s no festivals this summer, unless you count the one Sidney Myer gig the state government excitedly announced for next week. Touring is definitely off the cards until the other states open up their borders, and beneath everything is the understanding that if you get sick, everything grinds to a halt. I’ve done many many gigs sick. I’ve played shows with the flu, I’ve played shows with gastro, I’ve played more than enough shows with colds and coughs and sniffly noses and sore throats, and while the shows haven’t been fun, at least they’ve continued on. I’ve probably turned down a couple of shows in the last ten years due to being too sick or injured to play – once when I got whooping cough, a couple of times when I developed RSI (long-gone lucky me). The ‘show must go on’ concept is strong, first because I like playing music and second because I like paying rent. So while there’s a lot of shows that I probably should have turned down in hindsight, when you’re on a twenty date East Coast tour there’s not much to do beyond slipping some lemon into your rum to get through the set.

The problem with COVID is that if you test positive you’re quarantined at home for the next two weeks. It also means that anyone who has spent time with you is also quarantined at home. I understand the health advice, but in a month where my local supermarket has closed three times due to a positive case, it feels like only a matter of time till I’m caught in the web and quarantining at home through a gig weekend.

Herein lies the problem – government support for the arts ends this weekend. With the vaccination rate hit and lockdown ostensibly ‘over’, the federal government wipes its hands of the arts sector and declares its job is done. They supported us to the point we can work again, so off they go. But a career in the arts is not a salaried job. I can count on one finger the friend I have who works performing music for an organisation that pays sick leave and has RDOs. Many of my other friends have salaried positions outside the arts, teachers probably the highest represented, but the percentage of them working full-time is low. Most of them would work a couple of days a week teaching and couple of days a week gigging to get by.

Everyone else is stuffed.

Book in the gigs you can, save up money where you’re able, and just hope that when the gigs are cancelled you have enough to get by. That’s what the government is suggesting. Meanwhile every time a gig gets ‘rescheduled’ we don’t get paid. I’m not alone in having a couple of shows that have been rescheduled three or four times now. A rescheduled date just means one gig is now spread over two dates that we can’t work. Or three or four or more as the case may be. No venue is saying ‘oh we’ll just pay you for tonight and book it in again for next month’. No couple is giving out second deposits for rescheduled weddings.

Meanwhile I have tickets to see Tame Impala in December 2020. Which was rescheduled to December 2021. And has now been rescheduled to October 2022.

Another part of the problem is all the rescheduled gigs are clashing with new gigs. It seems absurd but there’s a backlog of gigs. Everyone who tried to release an album in the middle of this year has been pushed to the end of the year. Every gig rescheduled for the end of the year has been pushed to next year, to the point where one of my friends is trying to release an album that postponed from February 2021 to March 2022. Some venues are so overwhelmed that they’ve given up rescheduling gigs at all. To quote a venue who I love and who I’ve had a long-term relationship with – ‘we’ve wiped the book completely clean and we’re starting again when we re-open’. This is because they had rescheduled gigs from 2020 cancelled again in 2021 and for a venue with 100 cap, re-rescheduling all these shows again to 2022 is pointless. No-one is still holding those tickets.

Everyone got their refund years ago, and the people suffering are the artists on the other end.

Our industry bodies have kickstarted a campaign to save our venues, with the assumption that government support for the venues will trickle down to the musicians in the ecosystem (spoiler alert, trickle down economics works for the first people who get a cut of the pie, no-one else). Cherry Bar has a 20 capacity limit under current restrictions, which means the bar staff will get paid, the beer suppliers will get paid, the power company will get paid, but even if the musicians are ‘selling out’ a 20 ticket event there’s no way the musicians are getting paid.

So how do you personally help musicians?

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To finish on a positive note. One year since this video with the delightful Clancye Milne.

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