Promoter Paris Martine: “Grants need to be larger, more immediate, and recognize the contribution live and electronic music make to the economy.”

With bushfires of recent months barely out, venues must take on financial fallout from coronavirus

Lobbying by small to medium-size Australian music venues for help from the federal and state governments and local councils during the coronavirus pandemic is slowly paying off.

Venues were hit when COVID-19 crowd restrictions began with bans on gatherings of 500 and then shrunk to 100, before mass closures were ordered from March 23.

The business had already been affected by the summer’s bushfires, whose lingering smoke haze kept patrons indoors. Artists canceled headline shows in favor of collective fundraisers.

“There’s been very little respite this year,” said Michael Rodrigues, chair of the Sydney-based Night Time Industries Association.

“By the beginning of March, these businesses saw a drop of trade of up to 80% in revenue,” he said. “There were mass redundancies and layoffs even before the government’s containment steps.”

The association’s post-lockdown studies found only 13% of venues thought they had enough cash flow to last until May. 

The studies showed 38% of businesses are operating in some guise, but 70% of these are trading further into the red. Only 50% have negotiated a deal with landlords.

The association launched the Keep Our Venues Alive campaign, which asked for suspending property taxes on venues; financial provision for all venue staff (including casual workers, who don’t have guaranteed hours); additional tax relief; initiatives for landlords to defer rents; a fund to support businesses forced to close; and ensuring that insurers cover closures of businesses and event cancellations due to the pandemic.

Michael Rodrigues of the Night Time Industries Association (Daniel Boud)

Rodrigues noted that because the group was already working with the government of New South Wales — home to Australia’s most populous city, Sydney — and councils on revitalizing the scene after a mandatory 1 a.m. closing time for bars and clubs was lifted mid-January, it has found it easier to have its current concerns heard.

New South Wales introduced ways for small businesses to manage cash flow challenges and retain employees through tax-free payments of 20,000 Australian dollars ($12,694) to AU$100,000 ($63,366).

Sydney, for one, introduced a diversification grant, which Rodrigues noted, “is for venues that only do one thing. They can diversify to include live music and comedy, which builds flexibility in business models and opens up more revenue streams.” A similar campaign launched in Melbourne, the country’s live music capital which, with 553 venues, boasts more per capita than London, New York and Los Angeles, according to the Melbourne Live Music Census.

Led by venue owner Guy Palermo, the campaign reminded authorities that the state of Victoria’s live sector creates over 42,000 jobs and contributes AU$1.7 billion to the state economy.

It called for temporary freezes on loan repayments, utility disconnections, rent, insurance and stock repayments, among others, and for councils to provide alternate use of venues as storages and offices.

The state government helped by waiving liquor license payments, due March 31 and ranging from AU$7,000 to AU$20,000. 

Funding was set up to help businesses keep operating. Councils initiated music and arts grants and stopped rents on council buildings.

Longtime Melbourne booker and tour promoter Paris Martine said the federal government’s post-COVID-19 multibillion-dollar programs — JobSeeker, which provides AU$1,100 a fortnight to individuals, and JobKeeper, aimed at maintaining their staff with a payment of AU$1,500 a fortnight for each employee — “are very welcome indeed.

“But there’s a massive backlog on getting on to the schemes. That JobKeeper is paid in arrears is of concern, so we need guaranteed interest-free loans from the banks mandated by the government so that businesses are not further burdened by debt, risk and paperwork.

“The payments are backdated, but how do you cover rents and wages until then when your money stopped overnight?”

Martine advised: “Grants need to be larger, more immediate, and recognize the contribution live and electronic music make to the economy and be more aligned to their specific needs.”

For venues, the return to normalcy will be staggered. 

Until then, she suggested, prized location buildings that house music spaces must be protected in three ways: Heritage listings should be not just for their turn-of-century architecture but also for their value as cultural institutions; planning needs to place a moratorium on “change of use” and rezoning so that developers don’t opportunistically swoop in to turn them into apartment blocks; and there must be stronger incentives for landlords to agree to rent reprieves so that live music licenses linked to these buildings remain active. 

Rodrigues agreed. “The economic downturn is inevitable, but we are social beings and there will be pent-up demand.

“By that point, you have government in alignment with industry and a consumer base that just wants to leave the house.”