Canberra found its music scene only to lose its musicians


Matt Sanford

Uni of Canberra Refectory at full capacity, pre-Covid

In early 2020, after almost a decade of building his career and investing thousands of dollars in his work, Chris Endrey had a strong following, performing multiple gigs and hosting many events in Canberra.

The Canberra musician felt lucky to be one of the few who could afford to perform for a living and his hard work was finally paying off. Then the pandemic got top billing.

Overnight the gigs evaporated and Endrey found himself in lockdown with no income. Endry said it’s a tough industry with no baseline conditions ­­– no super, no sick leave, no holiday pay.

“Having to prove why you should receive a grant in a time of crisis is brutal,” he said.

Pre-pandemic, Canberra’s community of independent performing artists like Endrey was slowly but steadily growing, and the music scene appeared to be thriving. But since March 2020, the creative sector has been in crisis.

I Lost My Gig Australia, a joint initiative of the Australian Festivals Association and the Australian Music Industry Network, has been quantifying the impact of Covid. They surveyed 2,000 creative professionals, most of them sole traders, casuals and contractors who’d often lived gig-to-gig in the live event and entertainment industry.

In one month last year alone, they found 23,000 gigs were cancelled and nearly $64 million of income lost, equating to a staggering $16 million a week.

Unable to access sufficient government crisis funding, with only one-in-three performing artists eligible for Job Keeper, many like Endrey were left to fight for competitive grants.

The ACT Government has put in place industry funding initiatives, but Endrey said those support systems, such as Amp It Up!, focused on a return to performing gigs instead of addressing the hardships of live performers’ basic living expenses.

Chris Endrey continued to work on his music even when gigs dried up because of lockdown. (Supplied)

“There are many funded organisations full of people who have never had the same worries, so there isn’t good mapping at government level of the artist experience and how desperate they are,” he said. “It’s a band-aid that doesn’t fix the problem.

“Such an important part of wellbeing for people is to feel they have a place in society and are appreciated for that contribution. It’s just been degrading for everybody.”

MusicACT Director Daniel Ballantyne, who spends his time directing those in the industry to support entitlements, said about 23 venues in Canberra were eligible for Amp It Up! However, he said the Commonwealth Government isn’t playing its part.

“The fundamental problem is at the high level of the Commonwealth, where an industry that is structured around touring and venue capacity has not been recognised as being important to the future of the country.”

Mr Ballantyne said the government needed to support the industry by being responsive to future live gigs and assessing the ways in which it would be viable to return.

“We need to be consistent in our approach to opening up venues and enabling artist and tours to recover at a viable level.”

He added that vaccination mandates and insurance schemes for postponed events could be part of the answer. Before the latest lockdown in 2021, most live venues in Canberra had managed to remain open and operate under very strict and very confusing conditions.

UC Refectory Music Manager Kelsey Bagust said there had been confusion around capacity limits and, under the capped person-per-square-metre rule, crowds were not large enough to sustain costs.

“Live music venues don’t exist on one-person-per-square-metre,” Ms Bagust said. “That’s the way the picture is painted by the ACT Government.”

Having cancelled 96 shows last year, and at least 30 in the last lockdown in 2021, Ms Bagust said it was uncertain when they would be viable again, particularly with no indication from the ACT Government.

Even half-capacity events required hours of paperwork, with mandatory exemption forms and Covid-safe plans sometimes taking up to eight weeks to be approved.

“If the ACT Government doesn’t put us at the forefront, we are definitely going to be left behind,” Ms Bagust said. “There will be artists who choose to go other places. If it’s not financially viable for a touring artist to come to Canberra, then they just won’t.

“There has to be comprehensive funding support or a lot of live venues (will) close.”

This was almost the case for the Transit Bar. Forced to close in 2020 and move locations, the iconic Canberra music venue was set to re-open at the end of September, but now the date post-lockdown is uncertain.

“Fingers crossed it’s this year (2022),” said bar owner Charlotte Reynolds, adding that continuing restrictions and a lack of funding support might not make it viable.

Ms Reynolds said Transit Bar’s application for the ACT’s Covid-19 business support grant was deemed ineligible because the government program only applied to open businesses. And her relief at receiving a $55,500 Amp It Up! gig grant had been short-lived as she has been unable to book any performers before its expiry date in early 2022, due to continuing venue restrictions and border closures.

After 18 months of almost no work, Endrey has been searching for other employment and is now considering giving up his life’s passion for good.

“I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not viable,” Endrey said. “I either stay in the arts – the industry I love and am good at and leave Australia to do it – or pivot to something else.”

Endrey said the quality of musicians and gigs in the city was at risk.

“You get what you pay for as a society and if we can’t find a way to have people be full-time performing musicians and meet rent … we’re not going to get the quality.”