The Australian music industry has had another difficult year, with the Covid-19 Delta variant and multiple lockdowns in Australia’s biggest population centres derailing the recovery that many had hoped for. Although live performances have continued outside New South Wales and Victoria, the latest industry survey by ILostMyGig estimated a further $94m in lost income between July and August of this year.
While the local industry has launched a #VaxTheNation campaign to speed an end to restrictions, some Australian performers have made a cautious return to the US market. What seemed like a pipe dream 12 months ago has, with widespread vaccination, become a more manageable risk – and offers a glimpse of what a vaccinated touring circuit might look like back home.
“It’s kind of hard to believe that we’re even doing it,” says singer and guitarist Hannah Joy from soundcheck in Portland, Oregon. Having secured federal government approval to leave Australia in September, her band, Middle Kids, are midway through a 22-date US tour. “The whole way up until we left, it was always like, ‘Is this going to happen?’ We were just holding everything lightly. Even still, if anyone gets Covid, it’s finished.”
Playing a mix of clubs, theatres and festivals, the group are one of many touring acts navigating a new suite of safety protocols they hope will ease the risk of a show-stopping test result. “It’s definitely not your average touring experience,” Joy says. “You’ve got to do whatever you can to keep going. Everyone in the show has to be either vaccinated or have proof of a negative test [within 48 hours].” Many staples of touring life – from meeting fans at the merch desk after a show to mixing with friends and fellow musicians backstage – have been jettisoned. “We’re not going out to heaps of bars or anything. You kind of make your own little bubble.”
Rüfüs Du Sol rode out the pandemic in the US before making their live comeback last month – before the release of their new album, Surrender – with two sold-out, 10,000-capacity shows at an open-air amphitheatre in Denver. A larger touring operation brings more complex safeguards. “We all have different levels of bubbles now,” says the keyboardist, Jon George. “Crew that are near the audience, they have to stay away from us. Everyone has a different level of clearance.”
These precautions proved their worth early, when a member of the band’s team – part of a contingent of Australian crew members who also gained exemptions to travel to the States – tested positive. “Our lighting guy got Covid a few weeks ago and he wasn’t able to come, he had to quarantine and missed coming to the shows,” George says. “It’s a scary prospect right now. He got Covid while he was in his particular bubble, I wasn’t seeing him day to day. It was a week of all of them isolating and getting tested every day – with them not being at rehearsals – it was quite a tough thing to work around.”
George says the band decided early to prioritise outdoor shows to reduce risk of audience transmission, while working with industry leaders such as the talent agency Creative Artists Agency and the promoter Live Nation, which has committed to requiring all concert goers, artists and staff to provide proof of vaccination or negative tests. In late July Live Nation’s Lollapalooza festival reported a 90% vaccination rate among its 400,000 guests, with 12% of that figure apparently citing the festival as their reason for getting vaccinated. While some public health experts criticised a lack of social distancing and questionable compliance, Chicago health authorities later estimated just 203 new cases were linked to the festival, with no reported hospitalisations or fatalities.
Some artists have been even more proactive. After relocating from Adelaide to Los Angeles in 2017, the bassist Emily Retsas had embarked on a 2020 touring schedule that included shows with Kim Gordon and Phoebe Bridgers when the pandemic hit. After 16 months offstage, she’s now back on the road for Bridgers’ outdoors-only Reunion tour.
“I’ve seen bands with more relaxed protocols have members contract Covid and have to postpone and reschedule dates halfway through their tour runs,” Retsas says. “I’ve been lucky to be a part of a team that took protocols very seriously.”
One of the guys has two kids and a partner back at home, and he’s made a pretty big sacrifice – we’re so grateful
Jon George, Rüfüs Du Sol
She notes that Bridgers has made proof of vaccination – not just a negative test result – a requirement for patrons in states where such mandates are permitted. “Venues also had signage up stating that the artist preferred attenders to wear their masks at all times. There’s definitely some disparity on the mask mandates state-to-state, but crowds have been supportive and I think everyone is grateful and willing to do their part.”
Joy has also noted inconsistencies across the US. “It’s crazy how it differs,” she says, adding that only a handful of patrons have sought refunds as a result of entry requirements. The broader prevalence of rapid antigen testing is perhaps one of the starkest contrasts to Australia, she says: “In America there’s all these testing sites; often you’ll just be walking down the street and there’ll be a pop-up testing site and it’s free.”
This has helped her and her bandmate Tim Fitz navigate another big challenge: they became parents at the beginning of the pandemic, and had planned to bring their 18-month-old son on the road too. “That was a big change when the Delta variant started ripping through America again,” she says. “He’s at that age where he basically just licks everything. It felt like it was probably too risky to expose him to so much – we’re going to 23 states, and it just felt … not great.” In the end Joy’s parents also made the trip, travelling separately from the band so the couple can visit their son on “off” days. (“Every time I want to see him, I do a quick little test.”)
Touring often involves long stretches away from home, and Rüfüs Du Sol know they’re asking a lot of their crew to leave Australia’s tight border regime to spend up to six months in the US touring the band’s new album. “We had to pull the trigger at some point; [we were] trying to make sure there was enough work to justify our team coming from Australia,” George says. “One of the guys has two kids and a partner back at home, and he’s made a pretty big sacrifice – we’re so grateful that he did that for us. But he’s keen to come back to work.”
Keeping the show on the road in 2021 has its challenges but for artists and their audiences the payoff becomes clear once the stage lights come up. “[It’s] kind of strange, this sea of masks,” Joy says. “But the energy’s still really amazing. I think people are still feeling quite tentative, but to have the protocols is actually quite comforting.”