The pandemic has been devastating for Australian musicians, but it’s also changing the way they make music
Lucy Sugerman was no stranger to a recording studio by the time COVID-19 struck last year.
Still a teenager, the Canberra based singer-songwriter had already appeared on the television show The Voice and secured a recording deal.
But when she was forced to stop live performing and go into isolation along with the rest of the country, everything changed.
Like many who had lost their main source of income, she struggled.
“For the first few months of COVID, I was pretty defeated and sad,” Sugerman said.
“And I tried to be like, ‘oh, I’m going to write about the pandemic, and use this as inspiration. This is a weird thing we’re all going through.’
“But I really struggled with that.”
After that initial slump, however, she started to use her music as a way of coping and moving forward.
“It kind of felt like there was nothing going on at the time. So then I found myself making up a lot of stories,” she said.
Stuck at home in her sharehouse, with her guitar, keyboard, some recording software and a microphone, she would send samples of her recordings to her collaborators, with whom she would previously have been sharing a recording studio.
Two of her more recently released songs, Colour Blind and Golden Boy, came together during that time, in snippets recorded with the software she had downloaded.
At times, she sat in her cupboard to get the right sound — it was a shared project, but she was doing more recording herself, alone.
It’s an approach to recording that is not new, but thanks to the global pandemic, has become a necessity for creators everywhere.
The unexpected confidence that comes from recording in self-isolation
At the beginning of 2020, Sugerman said she was still nervous about producing her own sounds out of her small bedroom studio.
“At first, I was really hesitant to share things because it was a lot more home-focused work,” she said.
But she said the combination of more time on her own, and the accessibility of recording software, had helped shape her music, after years of recording at studios with professional engineers.
“I found, especially as a young girl, it could be a little bit difficult in those recording situations to not completely get steam rolled and to be taken seriously. Or to have your ideas completely just shoved to the side, which is really unfortunate,” she said.
She said working from home had changed her creative process.
“I think at home, I was definitely more inclined to try everything that came to mind because no one else was going to be hearing it — I didn’t have this whole complex of, ‘oh, my God, this is a really stupid idea’,” she said.
Sugerman is part of a movement spurred on by artists like Bille Eilish, who famously produced much of her music from home alongside her brother Finneas.
Sugerman said Eilish showed it was possible to create music beyond the traditional environment of a professional studio, and with the simplest of tools.
“I feel very lucky that I live in an age where recording and creation are becoming more accessible with the digital age, and things becoming more affordable and being condensed, to be able to be used in people’s bedrooms,” she said.
“To reach that commercial success, I think is a really cool story that people are really inspired by. I think there’s a lot more power being put into independent labels and independent artists.”
The shift of power to creators can be seen in the defiance of Taylor Swift, who over the past 18 months has been re-releasing her tracks to take back ownership of her work.
And, in an industry that has been repeatedly criticised for a lack of gender diversity, Sugerman said these stories mattered to those still making a name for themselves.
“For someone as famous as Taylor Swift [to be] struggling with that, is really highlighting that there is a problem there,” Sugerman said.
“But I think especially, you know, with the internet and a lot more platforms offering ways to just put the music out there, you’re not having to go through these big corporations anymore.”
She said it was freeing to know she could release music both through a label as well as independently.
“I was actually in a recording contract from late 2017 to about late 2019, and so I wasn’t really able to put out music, just because I had exclusive rights to them,” she said.
“So it wasn’t until quarantine that I was able to sit back and realise, ‘I don’t actually have to answer to anyone right now. I can do whatever I want.'”
Is this the age of the ‘music entrepreneur’?
The Australian Institute of Music this year released its white paper showing that the rise of independent artists and labels was helping to usher in the age of the “music entrepreneur”.
The paper argued more flexible working arrangements with smaller labels were giving artists more freedom.
Melbourne based performer and record producer Becki Whitton said these forces were helping to make music production more accessible to everyone.
“A huge barrier for a lot of aspiring engineers or artists who want to do engineering work as well, is just class,” she said.
“Because gear traditionally has been very expensive.
“And now it’s kind of like there’s gear or plugins at every different point of access, in terms of finances.”
She said while the pandemic was a financially difficult time for many, artists had found ways to create from home, against the odds.
Whitton said when the pandemic shut down her own production business, she took the opportunity to share her skills with people who could no longer make the trip in person.
“At that point in time, it was really important to me that all the artists that I had previously worked with, and was starting to work with, didn’t feel suddenly totally disenfranchised with their music,” she said.
“I started doing a bunch of live streams on Instagram, just answering artists’ questions about, you know, ‘how do I make my vocal sound good?’
“So I feel like it was a strong incentive for artists to take the power at home, I guess, to have that ability and control.”
She said she knew of artists who had gained more confidence in their ability to understand the recording process, which would be a powerful tool as the country continued to deal with lockdowns.
“And those artists are going to be able to use those skills that they’ve learnt during lockdown, in isolation, and take them into studios and be more confident when they have that access to more fancy equipment,” she said.
Fears for artists remain as lockdowns continue
While Whitton said there was hope in the way artists were becoming more empowered, there were still huge barriers in place without support.
She said without JobKeeper, or the freedom to tour without fear of a COVID-19 disruption, many were still struggling.
There have been calls this year to renew JobKeeper payments for workers who rely on live music, but governments have refused, instead offering individual payments to those living under lockdown conditions for more than a week.
“Definitely having that welfare support [in JobKeeper] made the difference between the lockdown being a hellscape versus a survivable thing for a lot of people, and for having those necessities like a roof over your head,” Whitton said.
She said grassroots creatives were in danger of floundering without government aid, and much of what they were able to do solo would not be able to go further without more support.
“Individual artists, and engineers and producers, who are doing grassroots stuff in their scenes — seeing them just take control of that and build their skills and invite new people into the scene and just grow it like that, is super heartening for me,” she said.
“Because it makes me think that, artistically, Australia is growing, and hopefully the music industry will also catch up to that.”