Co-Director, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall; Media & Public Affairs Manager, Musica Viva Australia
MBA (Executive) 2019
Tell us about your current role?
By day, I'm Media & Public Affairs Manager at Musica Viva Australia. By night, I co-direct a music tech start-up called Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH). Melbourne Digital Concert Hall is a social enterprise that Co-Director Chris Howlett and I founded in March in an immediate response to the total loss of income faced by Australian classical musicians through COVID-19. The platform provides a central interface between artists and audiences by streaming concerts into people's living rooms, with all ticket proceeds going to the musicians themselves. As Co-Director, I share responsibility for the entire business, from strategy and planning to artist recruitment and marketing.
How would you describe what you do (what you 'make'), your specialist skill?
Put simply, we make it possible for musicians to earn a living during the COVID-19 crisis.
MDCH is a social venture we started when the virus shut down our sector. Whole performance seasons vanished overnight, venues closed their doors and our friends and colleagues suddenly found themselves without income. We responded by taking everything online, creating a platform to stream live concerts into people's living rooms, with all ticket proceeds going to the performers themselves.
MDCH launched on 27 March 2020, broadcasting live from Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre. Built in 1839, the venue’s ornate stage now serves as a backdrop for small groups of socially distanced artists, playing to the world from an empty hall. Three months in, we’ve presented over 100 concerts, engaged about 350 artists, expanded into Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Berlin and London, and generated well over $500,000 in ticket revenue.
This was achieved by forging a network of partners who saw the urgency of the situation and were willing to act fast the Athenaeum Theatre, 5stream, Kawai pianos, the Australia Council for the Arts, Musica Viva, 3MBS and – proudly – UNSW as our new venue partner in Sydney. We're hugely grateful for their trust and generosity.
With most musicians not eligible for JobKeeper, the financial and mental health impacts of COVID-19 are severe and widespread. Several have told us that MDCH is the only thing stopping them from losing their homes. Our motto For musicians, by musicians. Always.
How has your leadership style changed or pivoted in the midst of the unprecedented uncertainty we are now facing?
To me, crisis leadership means protecting those who are fundamental to you by whatever means you can. In our case, those people are musicians. You can't run a music business without them, nor were Chris and I willing to stand by and watch our friends and colleagues struggle. I’ve come to understand more fully that leadership has nothing to do with job title and everything to do with recognising and shouldering your responsibilities as part of a wider community. We both typically work in a broader context – in my case in a bigger team – yet it became apparent that the crisis called for a new approach.
Not just 'lean in' but 'lean up' have been central threads the need to step outside existing parameters, take a long, hard look at established business models and strip the product offering right back to its bare bones. When it comes down to it, all you really need in our industry is the musicians, the audience and some means of connecting the two. We couldn’t do that quickly through existing channels, so we formed a new one on behalf of the wider sector.
That collective approach is another key theme. While myriad online gigs have sprung up on YouTube, few performers can generate income on the scale of MDCH from home, let alone set-up all the high-quality streaming, payment and marketing mechanisms that make our model effective. Our ‘castle in the air’ of a venue bridges the gap, creating a central meeting point for musicians and customers and importantly, a critical mass of options to keep them coming back. It takes a certain optimism to do this in a crisis – a willingness to pick up the pieces and examine them, not in light of what has been lost, but of what can be shaped with all that remains. And then to keep pivoting until all those pieces fall into place.
Perhaps the most challenging element has been the need to ‘forget your perfect offering’ (as Leonard Cohen would put it). Now is not the time to spend weeks discussing strategy or crafting glossy marketing materials. Our sector is in crisis. Now is the time for minimum viable products, for drawing a quick response team together and getting on with solving the wicked problem at hand.
What was the catalyst for your response?
We are the original gig economy – a frightening space to be in right now. As concert halls around the world closed, reports of musicians losing work grew from a trickle to a flood. Social distancing restrictions continuously changing mean that most venues can’t operate viably for the foreseeable future. Our industry was the first to shut down and will be the last to reopen, leaving hundreds of businesses scrambling for new solutions.
The performing arts sector contributes $111 billion to the Australian economy each year, yet thousands of artists are falling through the cracks in the JobKeeper system because they work on a show-by-show basis. Even those in major orchestras or with entire seasons of work confirmed have suddenly found themselves with no safety net. Chris and I saw this play out in real-time and were devastated at the impact it was having on our colleagues. He and I have collaborated for years, mainly as Chair and former Chair of 3MBS, a Melbourne radio station committed to serving at the heart of the classical music community. During our tenure, hundreds of musicians have given their time and expertise to raise funds for 3MBS. Now, it’s our turn to support them. Our horror and disbelief at the unfolding crisis quickly turned to a resolve that no musician would struggle on our watch. It was time to shape a new narrative. MDCH was born during a Sunday-morning phone call and within days, we were up and running.
What were you able to tap into from your AGSM qualification in this new world reality that's been most useful / impactful?
What I learnt in my AGSM MBA has underpinned my entire approach as we navigate this crisis. Its narrative runs like a thread through our business, informing everything from enterprise leadership strategies, fiscal stewardship and collective impact to the opportunities that emerge when you take ‘place’ out of the marketing equation.
Most importantly, it has empowered us to see the bigger picture - to ask the right questions, seek the right partners and take action while others are still reeling in shock. The AGSM has been fundamental to the success of our start-up and will help ensure that it has a strong future. Learning to thrive in a VUCA world was the topic of our final session as an Executive MBA cohort. We could never have foreseen how crucial that closing theme would become.
What are you most optimistic about over the next few months?
When we launched MDCH, it was by no means certain that our audience would be willing to embrace online delivery, let alone pay for a ‘ticket’ to watch concerts from home. That market didn’t really exist yet in Australia. However, the emergency has served as a catalyst for a new way of thinking and we’ve been blown away by the level of support shown for Australian musicians. Every week, we receive dozens of messages from viewers around the country. People who can’t get to a venue due to health issues, distance or caring responsibilities can now watch their favourite musicians live, and there have been countless requests to continue streaming well beyond COVID-19.
Having initially focussed on classical performance, we’re now expanding into more genres to support singer-songwriter acts, jazz and contemporary music. Partners in other cities have come on board, both nationally and internationally, and we’ve acquired our own set of high-quality broadcast equipment to take the show on the road. Interestingly, MDCH is also proving more disruptive to the existing market than we’d anticipated. Because the model is so lean, our musicians typically earn more than they would for a regular gig. Many are now seeking long-term streaming partnerships and we look forward to supporting them into the future.
While nothing can replace the feeling of a live gig, we’re proud to spearhead this movement towards a more accessible live music experience. Even in the bleakest of times, there is much to be optimistic about if you know where to look.