Aasha Sriram: On Artistry during a Pandemic

Melbourne has been in and out of lockdowns throughout 2020. The strictest lockdown we experienced lasted two months; under the Stage 4 lockdown, we were only allowed to go to the grocery store once a day and allowed exercise up to an hour. Cops were circling every suburb and iconic streets in the Central Business District (CBD) were empty. Those streets were home to musicians who busked all day at different street corners, trying to drum up some extra cash for an upcoming EP or selling their merchandise to passersby. Given that Melbourne is the live music capital of the world, it felt like a piece of the city’s soul was taken away. 

Even though I was one of the artists affected by the live music scene disappearing overnight, my experience couldn’t be compared with that of full-time live musicians, who busked and played gigs seven days a week. It was a sad time for everyone – bands were closing up shop indefinitely while thinking about other livelihoods, venues were sending condolence emails mourning several cancellations while requesting donations for maintenance, and audiences were forgetting their favourite musicians. As live music slowly died, all music became fully digital and artists were forced to compete on social media for streams and shares. 6 million new subscribers paid for Spotify by April. Hope was still alive though, cancelled gigs transformed into zoom jams and the limitations of creating music remotely gave rise to new ways of conceptualising music. Also, studio costs were manageable. 

I performed my first and last zoom gig around that time. First, because everyone was doing it and that was the only way to keep performing throughout lockdown, and last because it bombed. Singing to a screen with no equipment while staring at the little black windows (nobody turned their cameras on) and pausing in suspense for applause that would never come – music performances on Zoom can feel extremely disconnected. No feedback felt stressful and no eye contact just felt isolating. I didn’t do more shows for those months. Slowly, I fell out of loop with the musicians I used to perform with and I stopped following live music venues. Eventually, I stopped writing songs. 

This process has happened a few times – we go into lockdown, all live music gets forgotten, then we get back outside trying to build the legacy back, grasping at the strangely familiar nostalgia of the past. More recently however, our strict lockdowns have ensured a sustainable, covid-safe return to normal. It has been exciting to see venues sending “We’re back!” emails, reading new line-ups, and hearing about music festivals being planned on some strange lands not too far away. Last week, I booked tickets to see a gig for the first time in almost a year. I thought that the social distancing, mask-wearing, and general limitations would affect the intimate vibe of a live gig, but I was wrong. 

With over 50 people, Bar Ossou, one of the best live music venues in Melbourne was gearing up to host one of its first gigs after a recent 5-day lockdown. I have never seen an audience arrive early or get so excited to watch the soundcheck. Once we sat down, we were allowed to take off our masks, a big win for the band to be able to facial expressions. The gig ended just after midnight; instead of tiny black boxes hovering quietly, loud voices cheered, there was no five-second lag between the audio and video, and the sacred intimacy between the musician and audience stayed intact. It helped a lot that the band, Malla, sounded like Hiatus Kaiyote and Snarky Puppy made a baby. On my way to taking the train from the city, I passed a violinist and a vocalist busking. As these scenes come back and Melbourne’s live music scene picks up again, musicians and audiences are extremely grateful to be present in real life, performing original music to people that want to be there and will pay at least $30 to support live artists.

Editorial Desk

Editorial Desk