Music industry figures call on government to back scheme to protect events from COVID cancellations

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Australian musicians and concert promoters say they are fearful of what the future holds if the federal government does not introduce a scheme to help them get pandemic-related event insurance.

Artists across the country are hopeful of getting back to performing and touring, as the country nears vaccination targets that would allow COVID restrictions and border controls to ease.

But the continuing uncertainty about the need for snap lockdowns or border closures means event organisers — from musicians doing self-funded pub tours to major festival promoters — cannot get insurance to cover their losses if a show needs to be cancelled.

The uncertainty means shows and tours that might otherwise already be on sale for 2022 are at risk.

On Thursday, promoters, artists and music industry bodies used a parliamentary hearing to again call on the federal government to set up a scheme that would underwrite the cost of insuring events, similar to those in place in Europe and the UK.

"Do I want it? No," singer-songwriter Pete Murray told the Senate committee, which is examining a bill that would create the scheme.

"But do I need it? Yes.

"I've been doing this for 20 years now, I'm probably a fairly successful musician, and I'm nervous.

"There's a lot of fear [in the industry]."

John Watson of music company Eleven, which manages artists including Midnight Oil and Missy Higgins, said the lack of insurance options was a "market failure" the government needed to step in and fix.

"More and more people are just saying it is too risky to take on touring," he said.

In a submission to the committee, the Insurance Council of Australia said event insurance for pandemics "is not possible without government involvement", given the difficulty of pricing the risk.

Murray said if a government scheme meant he could insure his tours against a COVID-related cancellation, "at least we have got some sort of assurance that we are going to get something back".

Vaccines targets 'no magic bullet' for music

Representatives of the promoter Fuzzy, which runs festivals including Listen Out, said large-scale events involved major risks with big outlays and thin margins. Some can take a year to organise.

If the Sydney leg of the 35,000-capacity Listen Out festival were to be cancelled with a day's notice, for example – as Bluesfest was in March – Fuzzy would be out of pocket $4 million, its co-founder Adelle Robinson said.

"We went from a healthy business to a loss-making business in 12 months," Ming Gan, another Fuzzy co-founder, said.

"Our capital has depleted to the point where one cancellation will be the end of us."

The music industry is trading at a fraction of its usual level and has been decimated over the past 18 months.

The most recent I Lost My Gig survey, released in August, put the number of cancelled arts industry events at 28,000 since July 1, representing $84 million in lost wages.

While other businesses will return to trade in coming weeks across Australia, "a vaccination rate of 80 per cent is no magic bullet for the live music sector," Dean Ormston, head of music rights body APRA-AMCOS, said.

Scheme 'not workable without federal involvement'

The federal government has provided targeted support for the music industry during COVID.

This includes $200 million through its RISE program, which provides grants to put on events, and $40 million for Support Act, which helps music industry workers facing financial or mental health crises.

"We have had feedback from the sector that the RISE fund is hitting the market" and is providing the confidence needed to go forward, said Dr Stephen Arnott, acting deputy secretary for the creative economy and the arts in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

But the Government has repeatedly said that because states and territories are the ones that introduce lockdowns and border closures, they should be in charge of setting up any insurance scheme.

The federal government set up a $50 million Temporary Interruption Fund (TIF) for the film and TV sector, which Dr Arnott said had helped 69 projects secure funding by providing investors with certainty.

None of the projects have had to use the money, which can be claimed if a production is affected by a COVID case among key personnel.

In the hearing, Labor Senator Nita Green pressed Dr Arnott on why the screen sector initiative was different from what the music industry was calling for.

"People contracting COVID is beyond anyone's control," Dr Arnott said.

"Locking down states and reducing venue capacity is a matter for the states … it's a different problem."

He said the TIF did not cover losses if productions were forced to halt due to a state lockdown.

Tasmania and Western Australia have brought in their own state-based underwriting schemes for the live performance sector.

But music industry figures told the committee they were limited and that given the cross-border nature of the work, a national approach was needed.

"Without the federal government playing a role, no scheme can be workable," Mr Watson said.

Australian Festival Association general manager Julia Robinson said one state's lockdown could interrupt plans in other states if band members could not be certain they would be able to return home without quarantining.

The committee is due to report back on the bill, introduced by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, by November 3 before it is voted on.

By music and pop culture reporter Paul Donoughue (Original ABC Article)