An Inequitable Playing Field: The State Of Live Music in 2021

As society continue to grapple with the ever-changing parameters around COVID flare ups, the live music and hospitality sectors in particular are bearing the brunt of the debilitating effects of restrictions and lockdowns on their businesses and livelihoods.

While the need to enforce social distancing restrictions to help ‘stop the spread’ are understood, one sticking point for the industry is the apparent inequity between how music and entertainment venues are allowed to operate in comparison to other large-scale gatherings such as sporting events in relation to these requirements.

The recent State Of Origin rugby league match at Cbus Stadium, which was attended by more than 26 thousand people, was an event that rankled many music and hospitality operators, who have concurrently had to operate at bare levels of attendance (or have had to cancel events entirely). With sporting stadiums having both outdoor and indoor areas, the sight of throngs streaming open slather into the arena, milling together in closely confined spaces such as food and drinks lines before taking their seats and cheering wildly in close proximity to each other, was a source of bewilderment and frustration for those operating under severely limited capacity restrictions.

With the threat of escalating COVID community transmissions lurking ominously, live music and hospitality venues are potentially required to operate under the crippling ‘four square metre rule’ at the drop of a hat. This legal requirement stipulates that venues are only allowed to cater for one person per four square metres within their premises, with dancing prohibited. Effectively this limits venue capacity to around a quarter of what they could normally cater, which has resulted in events either being severely compromised or cancelled altogether, often at extremely short notice.

Venues can operate at 100% capacity with ticketed and allocated seating, while smaller venues (up to 200 sqm) are allowed one person per two square metres, with a maximum of 50 people. Neither of these options is a viable solution from the viewpoint of practicality and basic break-even profitability.

The level of support afforded to the arts and entertainment sectors seems to be inversely proportional to the literally billions of dollars that the sector pumps into the economy annually, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people that work to support it. An undervalued commodity that doesn’t line the coffers through gambling revenues, may be the response of those of a more cynical (or realistic) outlook. The fact is, the lack of meaningful government support combined with these crippling and confusing limitations are rapidly sending many live music venues to the brink of extinction.

We managed to get the combined insights of three key live music venue operators, namely Kim Ferguson of Mo’s Desert Clubhouse, Emma Milikins of Miami Maketta and Michael Salay of Burleigh Bazaar. Here’s what they had to say on some of the key issues and points of conjecture in relation to venue capacity restrictions ..

From a revenue/viability perspective, how have the COVID restrictions (in particular the four square metre rule) impacted your venue?

“As most people are not aware of live music margins, they would probably be shocked to know that break even usually sits at around the 70 – 75% margin. With the one per four square metre rule we can legally only have 25% of our capacity. Anyone can do that maths!!”

(Emma Milikins: Miami Marketta)

“Even with our large open space it significantly reduces income for us and for event organisers who rely on numbers for profit. It also affects which acts we can book. And the constant back and forth between per metre restrictions does not allow any form of planning, as you risk cancellations.”

(Michael Salay: Burleigh Bazaar)

“The one per four square metres completely decimates any licensed venue. There is no way to functionally cover costs for businesses on this capacity, this is across the board. For live music venues, licensed venues and events this capacity is so crippling. Each week that these restrictions are enforced on our businesses we lose thousands of dollars in general expenditure, let alone the lost ability to earn and the tens of thousands of dollars in lost turn over. One per two square metres, which is what it is currently at, is also just as bad. For small venues under 200sq metres there is no difference in patronage between one per four or one per two. For venues such as ours it literally sees us with 112 patrons. Live music venues are based around short stints of performance, usually four – five hours of performance, at a full capacity. We do not have big commercial kitchens or pokies that see our patrons sitting there for half a day to create an income stream. If we can’t have our capacity watching shows for those short stints, there is no viable way to operate. People come, they enjoy a show, they purchase drinks and then they leave when the show is over.

With the limitations shows have to be cancelled, tickets refunded, staff shifts are cancelled and their employment for the week is cancelled. Bands, artists, production teams, managers, booking agents all lose out on work that they have been working on for six months. The music industry works six months in advance, the preparation for a show takes that long to book, facilitate, market, sell tickets etc. When a show doesn’t go ahead, all that work is unpaid for. Hours upon hours of work that is never reimbursed. The unseen worker is a huge thing within the arts industry, there are thousands of people struggling to put food on the table right now because of these capacity restrictions.

The short, sharp three to seven day lockdowns are manageable, sure they are terrible for business, but the extended business restrictions trade is decimating to businesses. We have now had four weeks of all our shows being cancelled, meaning literally zero income over the month of July.”

(Kim Ferguson, Mo’s Desert Clubhouse)

Have the relevant govt/legislative body given you a satisfactory explanation in regards to the discrepancy between how live music and the arts are policed as opposed to the leeway afforded to sporting events when COVID flare ups occur?

“No! They say when directly asked that there is no comparison. I would like to ask the Health Department how the sporting industry were advised (or who advised them) and can we apply the same procedures to licenced music, ie move artists into bubbles (with their families) to avoid lockdowns.”

(Emma Milikins: Miami Marketta)

“I have not found any explanation which makes it clear why a sporting event is an acceptable event but a music event is not. There is a common rule which states seated/ticketed events with allocated seating are fine at full capacity, but I don’t see how a venue with a bar could police this and create allocated seating.”

(Michael Salay: Burleigh Bazaar)

“Not really, QMusic have advised that they are working with Arts QLD and QLD Health to come to a resolution for businesses, however it’s not coming fast enough. There is no factual information given to us provided by the government in relation to indoor / outdoor venues and the spread of COVID. There has been no factual information surrounding standing / sitting given to us either. Both things we are now requesting from the government to help explain to us why our industry is being constantly crippled. But it’s not necessarily about the comparisons between sports and arts, we are stoked that sports are going ahead, we just want to be given the same freedoms to operate before our businesses have to close their doors forever. I can’t express the seriousness that these prolonged restrictions have on our businesses. Venues are dying, we are the back bone of the music industry eco system. When we die, there is nowhere for bands to perform, agents to book, sound techs to work on, or up and coming artists to cut their teeth. Something needs to happen and fast because come 12 months a lot of licensed venues will no longer be here.”

(Kim Ferguson, Mo’s Desert Clubhouse)

On a practical level, what would you like to see happen to ensure the long-term viability of live music venues while lock downs inevitably continue to be sporadically enforced?

“We pitched a subsidy program to the government, that if we are legally only allowed to trade at 50%, then we should be subsidised the other 50%, but this concept did not gain any traction! We would really love the Health Department to work with us to come up with a solution, if the football can work out a way, why can’t we!?”

(Emma Milikins: Miami Marketta)

“Recently there was an organisation of business owners formed on the Gold Coast, to start pushing a bit harder to get these answers that we want. What do we want? We want full capacity, with ensured check ins, contact tracing (this is already the best regulated industry at enforcing this, as we have licensing requirements to do so) and if required mask wearing within venues.

If restrictions are imposed they need to be at a level that is viable for businesses to survive, which is three per four square metres. This is what we need. And this is what we need fast. Sure there has been some funding provided by the government, but when you break down the amounts that venues are receiving it’s only a short term band aid that’s festering a much larger wound that cannot and will not be healed until the restrictions are changed for venues.

Another long term solution would be to create an artist / creative industry border pass, as they have done for transport / sports etc, so that artists can safely cross borders and perform interstate when there are restrictions in place. This would stop the decimation of thousands of jobs every time a border closes and gigs are shut down.

I want to make it clear venues are abiding by regulations and doing our best to work with the restrictions, we don’t want to work against licensing and QLD Health, we just need them to better understand our industry and provide us with a solution that works for them and our industry.”

(Kim Ferguson, Mo’s Desert Clubhouse)

Whilst the perceived inequities are frustrating, the struggling arts sector has at least received one piece of positive news recently with the announcement of a State Government support package through the government’s Live Music Support Program to help offset operational costs for eligible venues, as well as programming and artist fees.

And in another recent development (as outlined in Kim’s response above) Gold Coast business owners impacted by reduced crowd capacities have united to establish the Independent Entertainment Industry Alliance, calling for the Queensland Government to provide certainty for the sector. Meeting for the first time recently at Mo’s Desert Clubhouse, the Alliance (driven by many ‘hidden’ sector professionals such as booking agents, road crews, cultural media, artist managers and event coordinators), is developing a unified proposal to establish a roadmap to full capacity trading for the live music and entertainment sector, putting forward a raft of practical measures to ensure that venues aren’t crippled to closure, while at the same time ensuring that public health is not compromised.

We’ll leave the final word with Kim on getting things on a fair dinkum, even playing field; It’s so positive that Queenslander’s can safely enjoy large sporting events, and we’re simply asking for the same consideration for the arts. We know Queenslanders are just as passionate about music and live entertainment as they are about football.”

IMAGE: The first meeting of the Independent Entertainment Industry Alliance

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