Covid restrictions have been putting Dunedin’s live musicians under pressure, needing to adjust to a new normal of small gigs, even tighter finances, and lots more time spent online. Critic Te Arohi spoke to local musicians Boaz Anema and Zi Shaw, as well as sound engineer and music scene advocate Dave Bennett, to gather their thoughts on what’s changed and how they’re adjusting.
What does live music look like now, in Covid times? For starters (RIP), with venues mostly closed down or unable to sustain live musicians, there’s a lot more online performances. Musician Boaz Anema said “I began livestreaming in the first lockdown and tried challenging myself to stream every day. By the tenth day I was exhausted from playing and soon gave up. I found the rest of my lockdown felt a bit easier because I didn’t put pressure on myself. The second lockdown, I started to live stream once a week on the weekend. This felt a lot more comfortable for me.”
In addition, anyone who has struggled with laggy Zoom meetings or video-chats will know live-streaming is a real mission. Even more so when you need to time everything perfectly. Dave Bennett said that the “technical aspects of live streaming are quite straightforward. A decent audio interface or digital mixer, some mics, a camera, and a laptop and you’re good to go.” Sometimes, it’s easier said than done, though. “How does one convey the live energy of an indie rock band when you’re playing at the local pub, streaming off the guitarist’s phone straight to Facebook with audio coming from one crappy microphone?” he said.
Of course, most fingers are crossed that something approaching normalcy can resume soon. Jacinda, for one, seems committed to summer gigs going ahead: "We will find a way to make sure, regardless of the circumstances globally and domestically, that we are able to have the events that make New Zealand summers.”
Although restrictions were recently eased to allow gatherings of up to 100 people, some others are less optimistic. Caroline Harvey-Teare, chief executive at Venues Ōtautahi (who runs venues such as the Christchurch Town Hall and Orangetheory Stadium), told Stuff in September that they are expecting Level 2 restrictions to remain until at least Christmas.
The uncertainty makes it an absolute nightmare for musos, says Boaz: “My band, BO And the Constrictors, had a long-awaited tour booked when the second lockdown hit two days before our first gig. The uncertainty about levels has made it very hard, as we have had to make changes as information was announced. Initially it was only our first three dates postponed, then it slowly became the entire tour. We have had to reschedule every date and now we are having to consider re-rescheduling our dates again.”
Local musician Zi, an Otago student, had a similar experience: “We had a couple gigs booked in lockdown, and now they'll be next year, partly because uni break is so soon, as well as just the amount of events that have to be moved around. It makes it hard to plan for months out when we don't really know what will be happening, particularly stuff outside of Dunedin.”
Of course, no article about the struggles of local musicians is complete without discussion of money. As much as any muso will tell you it’s not about the money, they’ve still got to travel, get equipment, and eat. Boaz says small gigs make often tenuous financial situations even more of a struggle. “There is almost no pay to these smaller gigs. Even if we fill capacity, unless we charge an unreasonable door charge we cannot make the same income we did before lockdown.”
All these issues cumulatively take a toll on musicians. Uploading videos on YouTube, says Zi, was “a bit strange because you don't get an immediate, visible reaction. You're watching likes and views numbers, and people comment ‘this is really good,’ and you say ‘Thanks!’ and that's the whole interaction. So it just feels a bit flat, or like it becomes easy to obsess over the wrong details.”
Boaz was frank about how challenging he found this: “I love playing music and I love being a musician but your mental health gets an absolute battering in this industry,” says Boaz. “I could have planned better for this second lockdown, but in reality I can have good weeks and I can have the absolute worst weeks. I feel like the negative feelings are amplified in lockdown, as I struggle to find purpose in my craft when I am singing in an empty room to a lifeless screen.”
While the atmosphere, energy and motivation that comes from a live crowd cannot be beat, both Zi and Boaz, like many other musicians, are trying to make the best of the current situation. Zi’s band, Midnight Caffeine, is considering beginning Twitch streaming if Covid restrictions keep larger gigs from happening in the longer-term. Boaz looks forward to “the audience engagement in live streaming, which can be quite a spirit lifter, especially when they comment that you are playing their favourite song — bonus if it is one of my originals!”
Advocacy group Save Dunedin Live Music told Critic Te Arohi, “music is, at its core, a social good that helps to strengthen the bonds of community and fosters a deep sense of belonging and pride in our city. Therefore, when forces such as Covid-19 impact negatively on the music scene, we believe the community must step in and protect this vital piece of Dunedin culture. With a robust plan for the future, support from the council and good community consultation, we believe Dunedin can continue to be a world class music city.”
Dave had a word of encouragement for musos struggling with the ‘new normal’. “If you’re in it for the love and getting good vibes out to your mates in lockdown, don’t let the logistics hold you back. Music is meant to be shared, and in a Covid world, we need it more than ever.”