'We're bracing for things to get worse': crisis continues for Australia's roadies

Kelly Burke
·6-min read

More than $6m has been distributed to workers in the Australian live music industry over the past nine months, in an attempt to relieve a sector that was one of the earliest and hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Music festivals and live music venues were among the first to totally shut down in March 2020. Recognising the financial duress the industry was facing, the federal government issued a $10m grant to Support Act in April, to provide emergency funds and a helpline to musicians, roadies and other music workers.

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The CEO of Support Act, Clive Miller, says the money – capped at $5,000 per recipient – has helped pay the rent, mortgages, utility bills and medical expenses of hundreds of music workers who found their work schedules suddenly empty. Due to the nature of the business, many were not entitled to access income support schemes such as jobkeeper.

“When jobkeeker finishes up at the end of March, and there is a reduction in jobseeker payments, that’s obviously going to be another body blow to artists, crew and music workers in particular, so that’s something that we’re monitoring,” Miller told the Guardian.

There are some signs of life. Muted variations of Sydney, Perth and Adelaide festival are all taking place this summer, and Melbourne’s major gig series Live at the Bowl has been extended until April. But with most tours and music festivals cancelled, the industry on the whole remains in crisis.

“For the time being, we’re just concentrating on keeping people in their homes with a roof over their head.”

‘It bubbles up and then it’s too late’

The emotional toll the shutdown has taken on live music professionals is arguably deeper, and much harder to quantify. Miller says the Support Act helpline has had a 52% increase in calls since last March.

Steve “Pineapple” Alberts has worked as a roadie in the music industry for four decades. His veteran status and sprawling network of friends conferred on him the role of confidante and adviser to fellow roadies years ago. “I got through many addictions, mental health breakdowns, I attempted suicide,” he told the Guardian in March 2020. “I got through the other side. So now people reach out to me – because, ‘If he got through it, I can get through it’.”

Speaking to the Guardian again this week, he said: “I used to get about four calls a week – now I’m getting around 20 to 25.”

Mental health has always been an issue in the live music industry, Alberts explains.

The long hours, pressure and extended periods spent in hotels and buses, far away from family, take their toll on many roadies – particularly those who started their careers in the 70s and 80s and are now feeling physical as well as emotional attrition. “If you have a mental health issue, you’re seen as a liability on the road; no one’s going to take the chance that you might break down or snap or lose your shirt or whatever,” he says.

“You’re scared you’ll miss out, so you keep it to yourself, then it bubbles up and then it’s too late.”

After undergoing a mental health first aid course funded through Support Act, Alberts – a director of the roadie support group CrewCare – is now a trained phone counsellor. Since Covid hit, the stigma many in the industry feel about using a helpline has somewhat dissipated, he says.

The phone calls he receives share common themes. The shutdown didn’t just take a scythe to roadies’ incomes; it took them off the road and locked many of them down in unfamiliar domesticity.

“I’ve been married for 33 years,” the father of five says. “And for all that time I’ve been touring for about 10 months of every year. But when Covid hit I had to learn to live with my wife. Like at first, I was really scared.”

According to the CrewCare director Tony Moran, anecdotal data suggests that among live music crew workers one in every five deaths is by suicide. “And we’re bracing for things to get worse,” he says.

“I think a lot of the crew are now really at the end of their tether. And it just seems to be no end in sight.”

‘We’re bracing for things to get worse’

Gregg Butt, a roadie and CrewCare volunteer who trained in mental health first aid in 2020, says he has taken well over 100 phone calls since the shutdown. As with the calls Alberts has received, some have been from people considering ending their lives.

“There’s been other people who I’ve talked to who have been in horrible places,” he says. And among the older cohort, there is a reluctance to reach out for financial or emotional help.

“These guys are just sitting there, they don’t have credentials to do anything else; it’s not like they can go get a job at Bunnings, but they just don’t want to put their hand out. It’s an old school mentality, I guess.

“There’s a dignity about it: they’re not looking for free feed and they don’t want a handout.”

Backstage in a marque at a summer music festival
‘We see sporting events that are allowed to have 50,000 people in a venue – that same venue that we work in. But for us, everything is still shut down.’ Photograph: Ken Biggs/Alamy

The plight of ageing roadies is a subject Andy Bennett, a professor of sociology at Griffith University, is preparing to research.

“They learnt their trades in the 70s and the 80s, when a lot of the benefits, the pensions and superannuation and the support networks didn’t really exist,” Bennett told the Guardian.

“A lot of workers in that particular age demographic have fallen through the cracks, and it’s not just mental. A lot of them suffer from chronic pain, musculoskeletal problems and so forth.”

Commissioned by Support Act and CrewCare, a team of researchers from Griffith and the University of the Sunshine Coast will soon begin collecting data on the experiences of long-term roadies.

Related: Sport v live music: do Covid-19 restrictions discriminate against cultural events?

“We’ll be listening to the personal stories about the problems they’re facing – the physical problems and the mental health problems – and bring greater attention to these issues,” he says.

Alberts says any research that dispels the myth of the roadie life as “all sex, drugs and rock n roll” would be valuable. And with no international gigs likely before the end of the year – Guns N Roses have been the only big act to announce an Australian tour this year, slated for November – there’s plenty of roadies available to share their stories and unburden their frustrations.

“There was talk that we’d be back at work by September last year, and September came and went,” he says.

“A lot of people are suffering or very frustrated at the moment because we see sporting events that are allowed to have 50,000 people in a venue – that same venue that we work in. But for us, everything is still shut down.”

• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day. The Support Act Wellbeing Helpline is available to all in Australia’s music and live performance arts industry: 1800 959 500; Lifeline: 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467; MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636