South-East Queensland Indie isn’t dead

Patrik Williams sat in his home studio on 18 March practicing one of his newest songs, ‘Evangeline’, for concert, when his phone buzzed. Thrice. The artist manager for Blues on Broadbeach, Duckie, needed to talk. So did the Ekka. So did Redfest.

Patrik took the calls. Duckie’s message was the same as all the others: no gigs for the foreseeable future. And just like that, in a moment, Patrik’s livelihood had disappeared.

On his news feed four stories popped out at him: The Courier Mail, The Guardian, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald. “Coronavirus lockdown Australia” and “Nationwide Shutdown” flooded the headlines. This had been coming for a while, he’d heard of the situation in China, in Europe, in America – but no one thought it would come here. Not so fast.

“I felt very disheartened, it was like a tap had been turned off,” Patrik says in a phone interview from his home in late May, describing the first moments of realisation. “All I could think about was all the work and performances that got cancelled. I think like many others, the idea of lockdown was scary at first, and it definitely took its toll on me at the start.”

Patrik’s experience parallels that of thousands of musicians in South East Queensland affected by the closures of music venues since 18 March. Over the last three months, the SEQ indie music scene has been at a standstill. The implemented restrictions included an immediate closure of all non-essential businesses and a stay-at-home order except for essential activities, such as grocery shopping. Queenslanders were told not to travel outside their neighborhood, and to get food delivered if they were to eat without cooking.

Artists have explored new avenues during their downtime in lockdown, and their recovery via focusing on producing music and increased online presence is shaping the indie scene once restrictions lift.

The Initial Blow

According to ilostmygig.com, musicians all over Australia have lost a total of over $340 million due to lockdown. This number has mainly been calculated by cancelled gigs. There is so far no other report on this subject, as lockdown is ongoing.

Patrik initially classified those lost experiences as “the end of the world.” He planned to meet one of his biggest inspirations, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, at Blues on Broadbeach, and participate in the first iteration of the start-up indie festival Redfest. Playing at the Ekka was an opportunity to grow his audience with the band he formed directly before lockdown, and most of all he could no longer play a live single launch.

“So, the first two weeks maybe, of isolation, I just had no drive to do music.” He says he was, “just sort of letting myself slip away. And the only times that I would pick up my guitar was when I was teaching, you know.”

In lockdown, one major hurdle for bands is when members live in different cities and can no longer get to each other to rehearse or play together. This has been a major setback for Patrik’s new band, formed days before lockdown, forcing him to work on his own music instead.

Swash booking agent Tristan Aber, who also goes by TJ, suggests lockdown weeded out many “hobby bands”, who may have wanted a career change or given up without the opportunity to get onstage in a few months.

“I can tell who are aiming to be professional,” he says. “They might be releasing music or at least keeping everyone in the loop of what they’re doing. Yeah, that’s more defined compared to everyone else who wants to kind of just play on stage and play in a band.”

For businesses, it means grinding to a halt.  TJ describes the hit to his company: “It might’ve been Wednesday the 18th of March? Everything stopped. In one day it went from 20+ shows a week, organising tours and everything like that, to absolutely nothing. Complete standstill.”

Though TJ says his staff are staying happy and healthy until they can get back to work, venues in the scene are suffering from a lack of support. While the Federal Government has provided JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments to staff and cash-flow boosts to some businesses, some venues remain in danger of closing permanently.

TJ says the venues most in danger of going under are those that opened closer to the lockdown announcement. “I think that everything’s going to kind of go back to normal except for a couple of venues that are on the fence about what their branding is or what kind of venue they want to be,” TJ says. For the rest, it’s a waiting game. What will run out first: time spent in lockdown, or the bank account?

How They Bounced Back

The initial blow to gigs left artists in South-East Queensland reeling, but didn’t take them out for good. “Bouncing back” didn’t mean gigging again, but rather shifting perspective and making the most of it. The scene in lockdown is not a scene based on venue performance: its roots are in having the time to produce more music, more personal music, and getting online rather than on a stage to present it.

Patrik says bigger Aussie artists came back online, as did Patrik and the musicians he knows best.

“I think in general the ones that really want to keep working at it, they will have found ways to improve themselves and do what they can with what they have,” Patrik says. “I don’t thing every artist necessarily had the bounce-back and had the uplifting moment, but I reckon a large majority will have.”

“The main thing I’m going is actually taking this time to work on my music. Because when life’s ‘go, go, go, go, go,’ you’re stuck in this sort of loop of ‘oh, I’ve got to do this, but I’m tired, I have to work,’ and things like that, you kind of just get yourself stuck in that repeating loop and then you never get the album or the EP or the single done.”

He says, “I’ve managed to finish the album I’ve been trying to work on for the last two years.”

After adjusting to the loss of motivation and primarily solo work, the artists left frame lockdown as time to focus more on songwriting, producing, and online activity. Pop-punk artist Amy Elise (pictured)  and independent pop artist Talia Walker (AKA Erys) have both focused primarily on prolific online activity.

As an artist who works primarily in the online sphere, Erys hasn’t felt the harsher effects of lockdown in music-making and growing an audience. With the restrictions allowing visitors in the house she says she’s had regular contact with her producer, and with audiences stuck at home and spending more time online, Erys has noticed more audience engagement on her profiles.

“I think that a huge part of growing as an artist is having an online image. Because a lot of the time people will want to associate a face with the music,” she says. “So, I put a lot of my time – not an excessive amount, but – I do put time and thought into what I’m going to post. Like, the sequence and the timing of it. Just to start, sort of, creating an image.”

Erys has seen a 200-follower jump in audience since lockdown, which she attributes to a combination of increased promotion and the increased time audiences spend online due to quarantine.

Amy Elise has been taking advantage of online resources that help artists grow without their usual venue pop-ups and busking performances. Her main projects since lockdown include recording base tracks and a full song with psychedelic soul artist Benny D Williams, participating in artist-to-artist shoutouts, and livestreaming every Saturday on the Pub with No Fear.

Amy Elise says she never really focused on livestreams before quarantine, but since she started she’s seen her audience grow. “They’re definitely a new development,” she says. “Because, especially on Saturdays, those were my busking days. So, I didn’t really have the time to do it. But now it’s almost replaced my busking.”

“I feel like any time I do a livestream I gain – it doesn’t sound like much, but – I gain three followers. And that does add up after you’ve done quite a few.”

The Scene Now

TJ suggests the SEQ indie music scene before lockdown was, “A vibrant, all-inclusive, welcoming scene. Everyone here knows each other in some capacity.

“I assume the next question is gonna be, what’s it like now. It’s the same. It’s the same, except everyone’s at home.”

Though the spirit of the community has endured, however, a lot has changed. For many musicians, lockdown means an increased engagement with other artists and a stronger net of support. For others who weren’t involved to begin with, it means a postponed introduction.

In going online for promotion and collaboration, Patrik and Amy have both found themselves more engrossed in the community of SEQ indie.

That manifests itself for Amy in artist-to-artist shoutouts online. She says getting people involved in other local artists can have an impact on your own success.

“Getting people aware of the Australian music scene or even the Gold Coast music scene, it just expands a lot more, and it can sort of extend over to you even if you’re not necessarily the one being shouted out.”

For Patrik, lockdown has expanded his collaborative relationships with other musicians.

He says, “I know quite a lot of artists and a lot of us are sort of working together just kind of trying to get through this. Always in Discord calls sharing music with each other, sending each other mixes for feedback, and cool things like screen sharing with each other and playing the audio back and sort of mixing together… I find I’m talking to more artists now than I ever have been, which has been great. So, networking has just sort of stayed the same, if not it’s improved, for me at least.”

More directly than getting feedback, Patrik has started to produce for artists like Eggs Bennie. He says he’s now had the time to produce more efficiently and effectively and grow more confident in his skills as a songwriter and producer. For him, it’s all about helping out artists in the same boat.

But the community element of the South-East Queensland indie scene isn’t all-encompassing. Artists working on the outskirts of the community, like Erys, have had limited support during lockdown. Erys reports getting feedback from her producer and her producer only, emotional support from her artist friend Lindsey Nolan, and, if it weren’t for lockdown, networking via gigs from rapper “theproblematicgenius.”

Erys describes herself as detached from the SEQ indie music scene, admitting she wasn’t aware of a “scene” to begin with. Her more individualistic approach makes her music more personal and gives her more control over her vision, but also limits her audience.

“I’m taking the independent route because I really want to form my own identity as a creative and as an artist, and get used to me – like, get people used to who Erys is – before I even think about collaborating,” she says. “When you do collaborate with people, you sort of share an audience. But despite… sounding arrogant, I would rather take a long time – or at least longer – to build an audience just by myself.”

What SEQ Music Will Look Like After Lockdown

Opening venues doesn’t just mean opening stages. It means opening bars, seating, kitchens and dance floors. Responding to Queensland’s roadmap towards phased reopening, TJ predicts July as the most hopeful miracle cure to regular trading for small venues but says “it could be 2021.”

“Part of putting on a show is the energy around it, it’s the people you meet, it’s the crowd,” TJ says, asking, “If you can hold 50 people in a venue, would it be worth putting music on, considering those people probably can’t dance next to each other?”

But it isn’t just because you can’t make a mosh pit with under 50 bodies. Less hobby and cover bands are available, now playing smaller shows – and fewer shows, in the cases of venues going under. Types of live music will be limited; with dance music obsolete without dancers, the more “chill” indie sounds will be perpetuated on the streets. Many bands that continue will have to wait until restrictions allow them to meet up from different cities and rehearse, and others will have to wait weeks after that to play a quality set. Then there are the supply lines of food, alcohol, and staff to think of.

“For music to be played again in Brissie,” TJ says, “there’s so many little things… Is the demand going to be met with a reasonable amount of supply? Is that supply coming in from overseas?”

“All of these things are part of the bigger picture of a venue opening up and continuing trade.”

As far as the music on the streets is concerned, though more folky, “chill” musicians might be heard more than others, Amy Elise doesn’t predict a change in genre for individuals. In fact, the opposite.

She says, “I think it almost makes it a lot more personal, because there’s less people. Especially going to gigs, it makes it feel a lot more intimate if it’s a smaller venue and less people. I don’t necessarily think that people will change the style to suit a smaller audience – you always want to make your target audience as wide as you possibly can – but I think people would’ve definitely had time to focus on the exact type of music they’re wanting to be making, and they’ll have a clearer idea of that they want to be creating.”

Patrik and Erys both attribute this more personal style to the time in lockdown spent on introspection.

“During a time where you suddenly don’t have normality and you’re stripped away from being able to go see your friends or go anywhere other than for your essential shopping,” Patrik says. “Suddenly you feel a bit cooped up and a bit alone with your thoughts… I think no matter what genre the indie artist is specialising in… their lyrics are going to be more connected to the situation and even more so to their thoughts… It’s going to be a more grounded world for a little bit, in terms of the indie music scene.”

Lockdown’s effect on music is the encouragement of more personal lyrics and more unique sounds. This is both because of the time artists spent getting introspective when writing music during lockdown and because with fewer artists playing at fewer venues with smaller audiences, gigging will become a more intimate experience.

Supply and Demand

However, on the audience side, there has been an increase in demand for music. In a survey of 22 South-East Queensland indie fans, 20 said they would go back to their favorite venues once they reopen, all respondents who had concert tickets said they would buy them again if they came back, and 73% of all respondents said artists had kept them engaged through lockdown.

One fan of the “sun-soaked” indie-rock Brisbane band, The Jensens, writes, “COVID has encouraged me to go out more to see live music once the pandemic is over – more so than before.”

When asked whether they’d re-buy concert tickets they missed out on due to lockdown, an avid venue-hopper wrote, “100%. I miss shows so much it actually burns my skin.”

Artists, venues and booking agents alike are aware of the competition the anticipation of the return of live music brings, especially in a space where less people can see it at once.

As venues start putting out their red rope barrier posts, tentatively taking down their ‘Closed’ signs, and stationing a security guard outside their doors, musicians in South-East Queensland will keep their ears open for the starting gun: an end-of-lockdown announcement.

Patrik giggles as he says, “I’m excited for the battle. It’s gonna be wonderful.”

Patrik Williams is posting instrumental videos on his YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and his website https://www.patrikwilliamsmusic.com/. He says stay tuned for his upcoming music video, still in development due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Amy Elise recently uploaded the music video to her latest song ‘Teenagism’ on YouTube: @amyeliseofficial. She is @amyeliseofficial on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook and @amyelise on all streaming platforms. Her next release is planned for July-September 2020.

Find Erys on Instagram: @erysonmars. Her music can be found on all streaming platforms internationally. Her next releases are scheduled first for a couple weeks away and second for two months away – stay tuned for official dates.

IMAGE: Amy Elise

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