I’d been travelling in India for around three months when the coronavirus pandemic hit. After a series of cancelled flights and visas, I’m now back at my parents’ house in a quiet residential street in Seddon, Victoria.
There are no cars and definitely no rickshaws. After the intensity of India, I’ve seen four people in as many days. Self-isolation feels more like sensory deprivation. And the Australian music industry that I love so dearly – and make some of my income from – is in tatters.
But in this time of confusion and separation, 74 bands and artists eased the pain by beaming in performances for Isol-Aid, a two-day music festival that took place online over the weekend, organised by booker Emily Ulman, musician Merpire (aka Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt) and artist manager Shannen Egan.
The trio pulled together the concept, artwork and line-up for Isol-Aid in two days. They began by blocking out 20-minute time slots, filling Saturday in a matter of hours. They made a conscious decision to avoid hierarchical set times, which had the flow-on effect of breaking down institutional biases. The usual format is to place the biggest names – generally male artists, in a male-dominated industry – in the primetime slots. But Isol-Aid’s approach meant emerging artists such as Chitra (2253 Instagram followers) could play alongside big acts such as Stella Donnelley (74,300 followers).
“The ultimate ethos behind it was really about community. Not about hierarchy, who has more followers, who’s more famous,” says Ulman. “We’re all in the same boat. The music community is suffering. Not just the artists.” Ulman’s worked as a booker in Melbourne for 20 years, at venues including the Gasometer, the Toff in Town and Prince Bandroom. She’s currently the programmer for Brunswick Music Festival, one of dozens of events cancelled or postponed due to coronavirus.
Performances were live-streamed from the artists’ personal Instagram pages. When it came time to move to the next act, each artist would connect with the next performer with a split-screen view, leading to many “Help! Is it working?” moments. Viewers could then click over to the next performer’s page. Bands met each other for the first time and offered kind words for the preceding set or encouragement for the next act.
Despite the technology involved, the ramshackle nature of grappling with the new format and technology gave the proceedings a real DIY flavour. During Good Morning’s set, the band’s camera was set in landscape format, meaning fan comments would scroll in from the right of the screen – but at a 45-degree angle to the musicians. Drummer Joe Alexander’s smiley face would periodically peek in from the side of the frame where he’d been cut off. Hundreds of fans, writers, editors and performers sent love hearts and emojis and words of encouragement, cracked in-jokes and shouted-out each other.
“We’re seeing what the altruistic intent of these platforms would have been when they started,” says Melbourne musician Didirri Peters, who played on Saturday night. He’s just had a 28-day UK tour cancelled as well as five shows in the US, including one at the now-cancelled SXSW. “This is what people would have imagined when they first invented Instagram, the community coming together in positivity.”
Many performers were seated and took a simple approach, some with nothing more than an acoustic guitar. Lucy Peach showed up late on Sunday (on what she told fans was day one of her period) post-bath, in a towel and dressing gown.
“It’s not true / I don’t have zero fucks to give / I’ve got two and a half / and I’m giving them to you,” she sang on Zero Fucks to Give.
Some, such as Stella Donnelly, chose to dance around and get right up into the camera lens. Donnelly even introduced the audience to a chihuahua called Lydia-Jane. Zoe Fox took full advantage of the technology and situation at hand, employing back-up dancers, strobe lights and Instagram filters that turned her into a talking pickle.
There were makeshift sets involving houseplants (#plantsofisolaid), tapestries, Simpsons projections and life-sized Matthew McConaughey cut-outs. With nothing to do during Spacey Jane’s guitar-and-bass-only set, drummer Kieran Lama just hung out off-screen playing Lego Star Wars on his Xbox.
The environment the performer chose to play in affected each performance too. Tamara Reichman, of Tamara and the Dreams, played solo in a field surrounded by long grass, with backing vocals from birds and insects. And Carla Geneve’s choice to play on the edge of a bath created a delicious resonance – I’m not normally the type to drink the bathwater, but I’d make an exception here.
A sobering moment came at the end of Saturday night as Harvey Sutherland started his closing set surrounded by his beloved Juno-40 keyboard, an array of synths and organs. “I’m gonna use all this equipment before I have to sell it,” he said, before tearing into a set of flawless live funk and house music.
Seeing the musicians in their homes and studios – some vulnerable like Sutherland, others buoyed by the community spirit – created a palpable intimacy and broke down the distancing effect that social media can generate.
“I performed much more as I would if I was writing a song,” Peters tells me. “It almost felt as if I was letting people into the conception of a song rather than the performing of a song.”
He’s currently in self-isolation, waiting on the return of his own Covid-19 test, which he took after a period of touring.
“[During Isol-Aid] I had a one-on-one connection with 1500 people, which I wouldn’t be able to do with a big crowd because quite a few drunk units usually taint the experience for everyone else. But they were totally isolated from each other.”
There were big crowds at times: during Stella Donnelly and Julia Jacklin’s sets, around 3000 viewers tuned in. With the festival clocking those numbers, playing to a camera and a couple of friends in the room didn’t necessarily make it easier for everyone.
“I was really quite nervous to play,” says festival organiser Merpire, who played on Saturday night. “I think after watching so many amazing artists all day, seeing all the comments on each performance and all the people tuning in, I transposed it to a physical situation. Romy [Vager] from RVG clocked up to 800 viewers and I thought, ‘You’re basically playing the Corner’.”
At Isol-Aid, many of the peeves your might experience at festivals and live gigs were removed from the equation. There were no beach balls hitting you in the head, no tall people to block your view (guilty), and no one spilling their drinks on you or heckling the performers or crowd surfing into your face.
The festival also provided many of the same opportunities and access for the differently abled. Peters’ friends suffering from migraines and epilepsy were able to enjoy live music in a way that they hadn’t in years.
“Streaming by its very nature disrupts the idea of access,” says Ulman. “All of a sudden we’re all in the front row of a gig … you can turn it up as loudly or as softly as you like … too much noise, light or sensations, things that sometimes prohibit people from going to gigs [are diminished]. None of that is a factor.”
The festival was free, but viewers were encouraged to buy merch from the artists and donate to Support Act, an organisation set up to support music workers that have lost income in the wake of Covid-19. Isol-Aid raised more than $12,000 over the festival’s two nights and most artists gained 200 or more followers from their 20-minute sets. But some artists did decline to take part, not wanting to take fans away from already struggling live-music venues (these venues are now closed due to new government regulations).
“One of the pitfalls of Isol-Aid is that we’re just encouraging people to donate or buy merch, but it’s not ticketed in any way [so the artists don’t get a performance fee],” says Ulman. “That’s amazing in terms of access – in that it’s free to everybody whether you can afford it or not – but I think the arts community is looked to a lot to donate their time. The bushfire crisis was very evident of that.”
This isn’t a normal review where I write about the artists I thought were good, and others not so much. It’s not a normal review because we’re not living in a normal situation. And this isn’t a normal festival. Instead, it’s exactly what we need right now: an inclusive festival full of generosity and compassion; full of gentle, sweet, sad and funny things. Once again performers are giving when they don’t have to, sharing their art to comfort us in times of loneliness and distress. So tune in next weekend. And buy some merch already.