How Covid “rooted” the arts

A 'ghost light' illuminates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House during lockdown. Photo: Daniel Boud/Sydney Opera House.

With support payments coming to an end, the arts and entertainment sector is struggling to navigate the devastation caused by months of lockdowns – with some wondering whether the industry will ever recover. John Moyle reports.

As vaccination rates hit soar past 80 per cent, the federal government is winding down Covid-19
payments, but many in the arts say it is too early.

While the second lockdown for much of Australia has come to an end, many in the arts sector will still be impacted for many months, with the industry facing uncertainty as to when theatres, clubs, festivals and pubs will return to economic and operational feasibility.

The Centre for Future Work found that around 350,000 people were employed in the arts and
culture industries before Covid, and that once the pandemic hit, 80,000 of these jobs were lost by
April 2020.

By the second lockdown this year, the number of jobs impacted had risen to 190,000 (some
estimates are higher).

Over 255,000 gigs have been cancelled and 60 film productions cancelled or postponed, while across all live entertainment sectors $1.4 billion was lost in 2020.

For many, the lifelines offered by federal and state governments were welcome but came too late
and were slow to access.

Clive Miller, the CEO of Support Act, a national charity supporting artists, artist managers, crew and music workers
has some sympathy for the government agencies accused of a slow response and rollout of funds.

“Disasters by definition are unknown quantities and hopefully people have disaster plans in place, but like anything else, you need to experience things before you can better understand them,” he said.

Most of Support Act’s funding is through industry support and in August 2021, the organisation received $20 million
from the Office for the Arts.

“The government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into even acknowledging there was a problem for these workers.”

– Tony Burke, shadow minister for the arts

One vocal critic of the federal government’s response has been Tony Burke, shadow minister for
the arts.

“The government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into even acknowledging there was a
problem for these workers. It took six months until the money started flowing, and at best, they are
indifferent to the fate of the industry, at worst they are deliberately trying to weaken it because they
see it as hostile to their political agenda,” Burke said.

Grant Muir AKA VJ Morph is a twenty year veteran of the music industry, supplying high-end video
graphics to events including the Big Day Out, the Future Music Festival, Stereosonic, Good
Vibrations and Pacha club residencies.

Grant Muir AKA VJ Morph at work at the Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane. Photo: Jaymis Loveday/Wikimedia Commons published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

During the second lockdown he has had to close his business and turn to JobKeeper, which pays
$750 a week.

“I haven’t exactly fallen through the cracks because my business is legitimate and I am diligent with
my record keeping,” Muir said.

Qualifying for a Service NSW micro-business grant was another matter altogether.

“Getting the micro-business payment through Service NSW was another business altogether with
the dicking around,” Muir said.

Muir also points out that the winding back of money comes at a time when the music industry is still
struggling to return to a stable economic future.

“While event organisers might be able to put on an event they are not going to be spending extras
on visuals or elaborate flyers for the graphic designers, or spending extra money on lighting
operators or quality sound guys, and it is all these people who make these events come alive,”
Muir said.

To date, Muir has one small gig booked for a show in December.

Advertisement

As an owner/operator of sound and lighting equipment for major events and concerts, Nino Pace
found himself in an unenviable position when Covid’s second wave hit, as he had just started a new
company at the beginning of last year, and to attract government support had to prove that he had
earned less this year than last year.

“So that meant that I had to earn basically nothing which is hard to explain, so I am trying to get
work rather than grants,” Pace said.

Pace has also had to move his storage five times in the past 12 months due to lease changes and
is currently paying around $2,000 monthly.

“There is a lot of equipment just sitting there, and I am worried that if we open too quickly that in a
few months we will have rising case numbers, which will force the venues to close again,” he said.

One of the local agencies helping those in the theatre and film industries is the Actors
Benevolent Fund NSW, which has been operating since 1944.

“We anticipate that it will take until around May next year before there is any kind of normality in the industry.”

– Camilla Rowntree, secretary, Actors Benevolent Fund, NSW

Since Covid hit, the small fund has been inundated with calls for assistance.

“We have around 700 recipients and some of them are on three or four different applications for
help,” Camilla Rowntree, secretary, NSW Actors Benevolent Fund, said.

“It’s just not the actors who are unemployed, it is all the front of house staff, bar staff, box office staff,
ushers and admin people, and these are all part of the ecoystem that keeps theatre doors
open.”

Paying out around $50,000 a month, the small fund has struggled with the demand but has been
helped by the Seaborn, Broughton & Walford Foundation and generous donations
from several internationally known Australian actors plus members of the public.

“Just because the funding is ending doesn’t mean that everyone has a job,” Rowntree said.

“We anticipate that it will take until around May next year before there is any kind of normality in the
industry.”

Pat Conwell from RUN Sound & Studio on the Central Coast, had a thriving business supplying PAs to
small festivals, weddings and pubs, in addition to recording podcasts and voiceovers.

“At the moment, we are doing OK because Support Act helped us out – but before that, we were really rooted.”

– Pat Conwell, RUN Sound & Studio

Operating as part of a husband and wife team, Conwell found navigating Service NSW excruciating.

“We went back and forth with Service NSW to get as much clear information as possible and they
didn’t have anything that could help us at the time,” Conwell said.

Still carrying a large credit card debt from the 2020 lockdown, Pat then turned to Support Act.

“At the moment we are doing OK because Support Act helped us out – but before that we were really
rooted,” Conwell said.

“Support Act were really supportive and we had a really good back-and-forth with their own social
workers, whereas the government wanted to stitch us up really badly.”

Conwell and RUN were just one of 4,506 applications received by Support Act since the
beginning of August; 1,636 from live performing arts workers and 2,870 from music workers, who
shared in crisis relief grants totalling $7.9 million.

Since Covid hit, Support Act has seen a 200 per cent increase in the number of calls to
their Wellbeing helpline, which is staffed by counsellors from AccessEAP trained in the
dealing with the unique situation of music industry people.

“Anyone who calls is going to get someone who fully understands where they are coming from,”
Clive Miller said.

“We have the help line and we run a range of preventive education training events and we have
provided free mental health first aid training plus a series of monthly workshops called ‘On My Mind’ that are open to anyone.”

One way everyone can help Support Act top up their coffers is to buy a music tee on Ausmusic
T-shirt Day
being held across Australia on Friday, 19 November.

Miller said, “Artists are often the first to be helping out when there are disasters and now we are
hoping that people will help the music industry in our hour of need.”

Support Act CEO Clive Miller is encouraging Australians to support the music industry. Photo: supplied.

In a statement to The Sydney Sentinel, Service NSW said: “Service NSW apologises to customers for
delays in receiving Covid-19 payments … since 26 July, Service NSW has approved more than 430,000 applications for business grants, worth more than $8 billion.”

Applications for Covid-19 JobSaver payments and Micro Business Grants closed on 18 October.

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.