Pizza, Pods and Parking-Lots: How Melbourne Music Adapted to COVID-19February 28, 2021
Graphics by Casey Boswell
Cramped in the room like human Tetris, you battle your way through a sea of arms moving in tune with energetic beats and otherworldly melodies. Your destination? The front left speaker.
In the not-so-distant past, regular gigs and swarms of partygoers was part of Melbourne’s cultural identity. Globally, Melbourne has the most live music venues per capita, and the industry is a significant economic contributor – according to the Melbourne Live Music Census 2017, it generates over $1.4 billion annually.
However, when COVID hit, the music industry was one of the first to go under. Where the fabric of Melbourne’s thriving arts scene was unravelled by pandemic restrictions and an international travel ban, insufficient government support did little to combat the matter. Missing our Friday night sesh is one thing – but the harrowing impact this had on an integral part of Melbourne’s culture is a whole other ballpark.
Yet, in spite of this, the music industry has shown resilience and adaptability. With live events now subject to coronavirus restrictions, local venues and promoters have creatively accommodated to capacity limits in the face of ongoing strife.
Here are some organisations who have thought outside the box to indulge Melbourne’s undernourished passion for phat boogie.
SUN CYCLE FESTIVAL
Sidney Myer Music Bowl
Last year’s go-to New Year’s Day event returned this January dressed in full PPE. Circa 2020, Sun Cycle Festival focused on electronic tunes and dabbled in hip-hop, with British producer Floating Points and American rapper Freddie Gibbs headlining. However, with restrictions on international travel, Sun Cycle 2021 turned their focus inwards to curate a diverse range of artists hailing from Australian soil.
Radio Fodder spoke to Sun Cycle Artist Liaison Yang Chen, about how the pandemic has influenced the festival curation process.
Yang noted that whilst the festival was unable to rely on international acts, they combated it by hosting well-known Australian artists such as CC-Disco and Mildlife to drive ticket sales. Having well-established local artists headlining left room for lesser-known local talents to play earlier in the festival.
“There was a band that played early on that didn’t necessarily have the biggest following yet, and because of the lack of the international talent we were able to get them on board and get them a place at Sun Cycle,” she said.
Held at the Sidney Myer Music bowl, Sun Cycle used the venue’s existing Live at the Bowl COVID-safe infrastructure to ensure that social distancing measures were upheld. To accommodate capacity limits, the venue has switched up their use of space by sectioning off ‘pods’ for groups of people to remain in for the duration of shows. In the interest of public health, moving outside of the pod is only allowed for bathroom and drink breaks.
Yang added that the venue further influenced the festival’s curation process. Last year, Sun Cycle had three stages, which allowed festivalgoers a degree of autonomy over the musicians they see.
“[At the Sidney Myer Music Bowl] there was only one stage. We had to… pick talent that appealed to a broad audience rather than different genres at each stage,” Yang said.
Additionally, a large-scale venue, plus covid-safe measures that limited movement, meant that greater effort needed to be put into stage visuals so that those located at the back of the festival could still see. “[There was] a big statement on stage so it translated further out,” she said.
Despite the rocky ride that is COVID, Yang says she appreciates that more effort is going into live shows and hopes that we can continue emphasising our rich selection of local artists post-pandemic.
229 Queensberry St, Carlton VIC
Like Sun Cycle, Colour hosts a diverse range of acts, including regular jazz nights and pumpin’ electronic music events. Having opened in October 2019, Colour was still a newborn when COVID hit. To ensure their survival, the venue innovatively adapted to the turbulent ride between lockdowns.
During Melbourne’s first round of stage four restrictions, Colour offered delivery alcohol and merchandise made in collaboration with independent designers, which eventually extended to store-front takeaway alcohol, cocktails, coffee and merch. After Dan Andrews made the blissful announcement that Melbournians could finally start eating in restaurants, Colour morphed their space into a pseudo restaurant – pizza and breakbeat anyone?
Now that music and arts events are back, chameleon Colour is using 3–5-hour timeslots to adjust to capacity limits, making sure everyone gets their COVID-Safe Friday night techno hit. In addition, the club has an open-air event in the works to allow for more people, more dancing, and more local talent.
Barely over a year old, Colour has proven themselves as a multi-faceted, resilient club with dedication to the industry. If this is what they’re capable of now, we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Melbourne’s promising new club.
THE NIGHT CAT
137-141 Johnston St, Fitzroy VIC
Established in 1996, The Night Cat is a quintessential northside venue that features varied acts, from RnB and soul to bass-heavy dance tunes. The club has a 360-degree stage for optimal band-watching (though it can confuse the regular meeting point of the front-left speaker).
Despite being a well-known business, the Night Cat still struggled with the money-eating coronavirus. To integrate capacity limits and public health into their groove infused festivities, the venue opened the Cantina, a carpark turned open air dancefloor.
Sounds simple enough, but in October, the local council designated a 3-month timeframe for their license to be approved – decidedly past the prime-time for sun-bathed day parties. In response, the venue launched a petition to speed up the licensing process, garnering almost 2000 signatures. In a grand display of people power, the Cantina officially opened in November, less than a month after it was proposed.
We spoke to Max McKenzie, who is a co-creator of Greener Pastures, a Melbourne-based artists collective that runs electronic music events at The Night Cat. He said that the venue’s efforts to open the Cantina early has benefited him by providing an opportunity for his events to be held in a COVID-friendly way. “[It helps to] have people outdoors and not in a sweaty room where everyone is close together and bumping shoulders. If it’s outside it’s more manageable with COVID,” he said.
“It’s summer! People want to be outside after being cooped up for months on end.”
As summer draws to a close, you’ll know where to find us.
It hasn’t been an easy year for the music industry, and the fight is far from over. Max noted that operating during the pandemic has been hard given the uncertainty, which we’ve seen with Victoria’s recent snap lockdown. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
The road ahead is rocky, but the creative endeavours from our local music organisations are ultimately working to maintain Melbourne’s unique scene, providing a chance to thrive in a post-pandemic world.