“I’m a band booker, not a band canceller”: the trials of being a venue booker amidst COVID

“I’m a band booker, not a band canceller”: the trials of being a venue booker amidst COVID

Juliette Lalli (The Retreat) and Georgia Farry (The Gaso)
Words By Elsie Lange

A chat with the venue bookers working tirelessly to keep Melbourne’s live music scene alive despite a show-stopping pandemic.

Gasometer Hotel band booker Georgia Farry says from the moment she had to cancel the first show due to COVID-19 last year, she felt a “plummet”.

She’s been working in her role for about three years, at first under the guidance of local legend Emily Ulman, before eventually taking the reins, and her last year at The Gaso has been an absolute rollercoaster.

“We’re still trying to reschedule shows from the first lockdown,” Farry says.

Just this week, due to the latest outbreak and the reintroduction of lockdown, she’s had to postpone ten shows.

“It’s hard particularly for this round of reschedules because we can’t give [the artist] a date on a weekend for another three or four months, when they were able to play that show this weekend… I feel really, really bad,” she says.

Gig bookers across Melbourne are experiencing the same stress, balancing the needs of disappointed artists and punters as they follow rules to keep the community safe, frantically rescheduling into future months where it could all happen again.

Catch up on the latest music interviews, news and reviews here.

Being the bearer of bad news

Adam King, owner and booker of The Rainbow Hotel, who would usually book out the venue for live music a couple of nights a week, says its “gut-wrenching” to continually have to close their doors.

Like all venue bookers, he feels for the artists who have lost work.

“We just feel like a footy being kicked around the park, it’s a nightmare,” King says. “You can’t help but to feel sorry for the artists when you’ve got to cancel gigs on a regular basis, how are they supposed to survive?

“How’s live music in Melbourne supposed to survive?”

Farry says she wasn’t sure if she would go back into gig booking after the last year’s lockdown, it was just too heavy being the bearer of bad news all the time.

“I was like, man, I just don’t know if I can get back into this,” Farry says.

“It’s just been too much of an emotional rollercoaster – you feel like you’re letting people down even though it’s absolutely not your fault.”

The hidden ecosystem

Booker at The Retreat Hotel in Brunswick, Juliette Lalli, has also rescheduled a huge number of gigs in 2020, postponing or cancelling more than fifteen since the beginning of the latest circuit-breaker lockdown.

“It’s heartbreaking having to cancel shows when I know artists have spent hours working behind the scenes to write and rehearse,” Lalli says. “Especially knowing that if a show doesn’t go ahead they won’t be paid until they do play which could be months in the future.”

Behind every cancelled or rescheduled show is a venue booker keeping up-to-date with the latest coronavirus news, relaying information back and forth between venues, artists and punters.

Lalli describes the behind-the-scenes of gig booking as an “ecosystem”, and says the wider community doesn’t completely grasp the mammoth workload it takes to maintain and support live music in the city.

She describes waiting for an announcement or press conference as “anxiety inducing”.

“Artists look to venues and bookers for advice about how they should proceed with shows, but we are not given any special or extra info ahead of time,” Lalli says.

“All we can do is speculate and let them know that we will watch the news extremely closely and update them as soon as we have some sense of what’s coming next.”

Capacity anxieties

Venue bookers are also anxious about changes to capacity restrictions, which were set to be lifted on Friday June 4, only a day after Melbourne’s fourth lockdown was announced.

Jules Sheldon, a band booker at The Tote, says he’s worried about venues having to reopen at much smaller capacities after the latest lockdown.

“The venues have done a wonderful job of implementing great COVID-safe practices and we were going to implement even more COVID-safe practices when there was going to be a capacity increase, we’re ready for this,” Sheldon says.

“To go back to square one is going to torpedo any progress the scene has made over the last six months,” he adds.

Sheldon describes the federal government’s vaccine rollout as “appallingly slow” and part of the reason why Victoria’s venues are facing this nightmare again.

“You’re sad, you’re frustrated, you’re extremely angry … I’m a band booker, not a band canceller but I seem to be doing more of the latter,” he says.

Farry is also concerned about what’s happening to capacity when lockdown lifts.

“We were supposed to move to 200 capacity on the Friday and we’d been waiting for the announcement for months and months,” Farry says. “It’s been so hard to run under capacity.”

Being an emotional support to artists

Nighthawks venue booker and Cable Ties bassist Nick Brown says when shows started being cancelled in March last year, nobody knew what they were in for.

“What the job becomes in that moment is connecting with how someone’s feeling and being there with them for that,” Brown says.

“A lot of bands felt really conflicted and often guilty about cancelling shows, they felt like they were letting down venues and it became your role to just sit on the phone with them and have a chat about what was going on.

“Everyone was just really anxious, people were really, truly stepping into the unknown – letting people know it’s okay to feel all those things was a big part of the role.”

What venue bookers hope for

“What you’re hopeful for is that we can bounce back relatively quickly, but in a safe fashion,” Brown says. “That things can be dealt with and handled so that both of those things can happen simultaneously.”

Lalli says she wants more understanding and consideration from state and federal governments, as well as more support for artists and live music workers “who give so much to the community and the economy and receive so little in return”.

Farry agrees, saying more support from governments is vital to keeping the industry alive.

“[I hope for] more resources available for artists and musicians, bookers, any music worker, whether that’s financial support, mental health support … literally anything would help,” Farry says.

Keen for another read? Check out our piece exploring the DIY nature of Melbourne’s thriving underground music scene.