Dissecting the crowd capacity debate that's divided the nation.
On Sunday April 25, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) became the marvel of the sporting world as 78, 113 fans piled in for the traditional ANZAC Day fixture which was the biggest crowd at a sporting event since the start of the pandemic.
The MCG’s seated capacity was lifted from 75 per cent to 85 per cent leading up to the game, while music venues across Victoria can use 100 per cent of their seated capacity, so long as there are not more than one thousand people and they’re all seated – a requirement that many a small venue simply cannot adhere to.
So, what is going on and why is this the case?
- Differing crowd capacity regulations between music and sports events in Australia have caused anger among those working in the arts and entertainment sector.
- Many venues are forced to combat restrictive crowd capacity rules that are increasingly difficult to contend with.
- Recent events such as WA’s snap lockdown have demonstrated the contrast between stances towards live music and sporting events by federal and state bodies.
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COVID-19 halted everything. It did not discriminate between the stage and the footy oval. But after a three-month hiatus, the Australian Football League (AFL) returned.
With one of the more complex fixturing tasks and organising hubs for the players, play resumed with no crowds.
As the admitted crowds rose at AFL games, live performing music just would not be the same without an audience. Many artists took to online platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube to live stream performances.
Although this was the best that could be done, many artists like US indie artist Phoebe Bridgers admitted it just was not the same.
She had not played for 10,000 people prior to the pandemic, and told the New York Times that “it’s hard to feel like that’s happening when you’re alone in your house and there isn’t crowd response”.
“You’re like, ‘I feel like an idiot. I’m just playing in my house, talking to myself.’ It’s very weird,” she said.
Australian singer-songwriter Alice Skye shared similar thoughts in that “it’s all weird, but it’s nice to have the opportunity”.
“I thought I’d love it, because I get so nervous on stage, but it’s hard,” she said.
“Pre-recording is hard because you have to imagine the people watching it. Live streams on Instagram are better for that because you can get live reactions while you’re doing it”.
As musicians’ audiences became entirely virtual, the AFL and National Rugby League (NRL) started to let more fans back through the gates.
It seemed reasonable at first with the easily achievable social distancing in the large stadiums, but when cases in Queensland and New South Wales, where both codes were entirely based, hit zero and the discrepancy remained, questions arose.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berijiklian approved a 50 per cent capacity crowd for the NRL Grand Final which almost 50,000 people attended. Further North at the AFL Grand Final in Brisbane, a touch under 30,000 attended. At the same time, live music events succumbed to just 25 per cent capacity.
Electronic duo Peking Duk asked, “Is there a magical reason that differentiates how Covid is spread between rugby fans and music fans?”
Before their recent snap lockdown, Western Australia was the only footballing state with unrestricted fixed-seat capacities besides South Australia whose attendees all must wear masks. New South Wales now share the same restrictions as Victoria, and Queensland are capped at 500 people for indoor events.
The density rule still applies for venues without fixed seating or standing alone which varies from one person per two square metres to three people per four square metres.
These differences are in place to prevent the spread of the virus first and foremost. Although Australia’s community transmission has been almost non-existent barring the recent cases in Western Australia, these rules aim to prevent further spread should someone be unknowingly carrying the virus.
The fixed seating privileges stem from reducing the movement of people to prevent risk, much like Victoria’s five kilometre travel law at the height of their second wave. Even though no restrictions are placed on dance floors in Victoria and New South Wales, health authorities deem the risk greater at standing music venues.
Despite the vain signage that attempts to enforce social distancing at the football, stadiums still sell tickets where you are seated next to strangers and are allowed to roam freely outside of the stadium. You then proceed to jump on public transport where you rub shoulders with more strangers who are also most likely not wearing a mask.
Many people would immediately point out the difference is between indoor and outdoor venues, but MARVEL Stadium has operated entirely as an indoor stadium with its retractable roof closed.
The venue can operate at 75 per cent capacity for AFL games which is around 40,000 people and although no health regulations would prevent bands and artists from booking the venue, unless you are Adele or Ed Sheeran, it is highly unlikely it will be worth it.
Financial viability to operate these venues has become an issue as Music Victoria CEO Simone Schinkel told Ministry of Sport that “it’s extremely frustrating because we’ve been working with health and we’ve been working with the government to try and work out where the challenges are and where the risks are”.
“We’re really happy to take on board any of their feedback in how we can be able to remove this density quotient, meaning we are trading at 30% of our usual capacity, so we’re not making any money whatsoever,” she said.
Venues are designed and budgeted to operate at maximum capacity, so the easing of restrictions have done nothing to such venues due to their typically unseated and general admission nature.
JobKeeper subsidies ended on March 28 which affect 90 per cent of the live entertainment companies it was supporting through 2021’s first quarter.
Live Performance Australia CEO said the sector has lost 24 billion dollars and 79 thousand jobs since the start of the pandemic.
Although the Australian Taxation Office has reported significant job recoveries, she stresses that the live entertainment industry is not in those figures and the ending of JobKeeper will see “significant job losses and an unprecedented down-sizing of the industry”.
“Live entertainment remains largely at a standstill. We’re slowly getting shows back but under heavy restrictions and current business activity it is not sustainable,” she said.
The issue for many is not the football or the rugby, it is the double standard.
Recently, Perth-based band Spacey Jane were forced to cancel shows in Queensland due to Perth and Peel’s lockdown. At the same time, AFL club North Melbourne were exempted and given permission to travel to Perth to play Fremantle during the lockdown without having to quarantine on arrival there, or back in Melbourne.
Similarly, Bluesfest 2021 was also forced to cancel for the second year in a row after a positive case hit Byron Bay the day before its scheduled start, but the Sydney Swans were able to host a fan-attended game just three days after the scheduled finish date of Bluesfest.
Musicians and fans will continue to languish with reduced and separated crowds but if the pandemic has taught us anything, not even this is guaranteed.
Find out more about how Victoria’s live music venues are struggling to cope with COVIDSafe crowd capacity restrictions.