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Capitalism
Music

Isol-Aid and the limits of post-capitalist ‘connectivity’

Back in March ­– around when they first locked down the pubs and clubs – I sat down on a grassy hill, opened up Instagram, and tuned for the first time into the Isol-Aid Music Festival.

I was soon distracted by the sight of a very stylish woman, waving from the bottom of the hill. ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘I thought I recognised you!’. I recognised her, too. Last year we worked together in the marketing department of a bank.  We chatted for a bit and she told me working from home was a challenge, but she was just glad the bank was in a position to ‘be able to help people’. Then, as she re-joined her family, I found myself thinking … how much do you really believe that?

The home loan deferrals and credit card interest holidays she would’ve been referring to won’t ‘help’ if jobs disappear. JobKeeper was designed to help. But small businesses waiting for it to kick in back in April still had to borrow from banks to pay staff. The banks still earnt interest while the government underwrote the risk. In fact, right now, governments around the world are pumping trillions of dollars into the banking system to keep investment flowing. This assumes markets will always correct themselves after a crisis. Confidence is key. So, a certain amount of self-deception is crucial, too.

Last year, I personally experienced the upper limits of this self-deception. One morning, before work, I read the news that that my bank’s parent bank had been accused of breaking the law twenty-three million times. It was alleged that they’d installed criminally negligent security systems that made it easy to avoid paying tax on international transactions. Worse still, these dodgy systems were failing to detect transfers that were facilitating child exploitation.

The allegations turned out to be true. South-East Asian children were being raped and Westpac wasn’t following the money like it was supposed to. At the time, I simply compartmentalised my moral repugnance and got on with the job of pushing bank ads. It was easy because I’m very good at maintaining a cynical distance between what I do and what I actually think. Marketers have a specific talent for this. But many of us do it just to get through the day.

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The critic Mark Fisher (evoking Slavoj Žižek) explains that capitalist ideology ‘consists of the overvaluing of belief – in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalise in our behaviour.’ Fisher says the global elite provide the service of re-presenting ‘for us our disavowed desires as if they have nothing to do with us.’ A horrific bank scandal, even one involving the rape of children, surprises no-one because ‘what is being disavowed… is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression.’ As Žižek puts it, ‘cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we don’t take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.’

But everything has a limit. In 2015, the economist Paul Mason argued that ‘capitalism is a complex, adaptive system that has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt.’ Even if Australia’s historically big stimulus packages are supposed to be, as Scott Morrison puts it, about ‘building a bridge to recovery on the other side’, it’s clear that capitalism has stopped acting like it’s supposed to.

Isol-Aid is a case in point.

During the festival, artists perform from their bedrooms and loungerooms. Fans can tune in to watch their favourites, discover new music, donate money, and chat. It came about because the music industry has been one of hardest hit by COVID-19 and has received comparatively little in government support. Guy Sebastian helped announce $250 million in emergency federal arts funding back in June and now he’s demanding answers because the money still hasn’t materialised. The arts weren’t even mentioned in the latest federal budget announcement. Meanwhile the exclusion of casual workers from JobKeeper meant people in the (literal and figurative) gig economy have had to rethink how they earn, or live off JobSeeker, which is set to be reduced to below-poverty levels.

Since March, some music venues around the country have cautiously reopened. In less affected areas like the Northern Territory, live music is still happening, but social distancing is encouraged. Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania are allowing bigger outdoor gatherings but, of course, touring artists still need to deal with border restrictions. Elsewhere, venues are opening with limited capacities and temperature checks upon entry. Tickets are sold with a minimum spend at the bar to help with running costs. The Sydney Opera House is opening back up, which will help paint the picture of a live performance industry that’s struggling back onto its feet.

Victoria’s live music scene has been decimated. Restricted outdoor and stadium-sized gatherings are set to start happening but it’s unclear how the smaller venues that feed talent into these kinds of events will survive without ongoing support. Premier Dan Andrews announced a $13 million package to help keep Victoria the ‘live music capital of Australia’, of which $9 million was set aside to help venues stay open. But these venues will need stages and floorspace big enough to accommodate social distancing. The shows will only seat twenty patrons. Gigs that could have cost around $10 will now cost around $40 and bookers will probably be forced to take fewer risks on new acts. It seems dance club culture is suspended until further notice. Which won’t stop Illegal parties from happening, although they’ll probably be shut down quicker these days by Victoria’s encroaching police state.

As Victoria’s second wave peaked, it became clear that neoliberal policies had exacerbated the crisis. The decline in aged-care standards, the mishandling of quarantine measures and Victoria’s catastrophically inadequate contact tracing system can all be traced back to government outsourcing and the idea that you can run healthcare like a business. Victoria’s Health Minister Brett Sutton even admitted that our contract tracing was a ‘hotchpotch of public and private providers that are not able to be stewarded centrally’.

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Through all this, Isol-Aid has been popping up in feeds with indie performances and pet cameos. It’s a community initiative that, ironically, behaves a bit like an agile, info-tech enterprise. The promotors who started it adapted to market shock by pivoting into new terrain. Nothing physically new was built there. Instead – to use some corporate jargon – it co-opted existing social channels to create a (kind of) modular, semi-self-organising online busking network.

Isol-Aid viewers can stumble across their new favourite act and end up buying their music and merch, just like at real gigs. Comments in the live feed are displayed alongside the performances, to mimic the way festivalgoers perform identity at a live gig. The festival sometimes exposes artists to wider audiences and has democratised gigs for regional fans, as well as people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, who might have had trouble getting down to venues. All the money raised goes to Support Act, which has been helping musicians through hardships since 1997. And, more recently, the Victorian Government chipped in with grant money so, now, each Iso-Aid act receives a performance fee.

It’s clear a more top-down approach – with, say, Creative Victoria hosting their own version of Isol-Aid from a government account – wouldn’t have taken off. The work of saving live music had to be initiated by professionals who best knew how to harness online momentum, then funded by the state retroactively. In other words, the adaptive, decentralised market logic that’s allowing Iso-Aid to thrive exists on the same continuum as the neoliberal policies that have exacerbated the need for it in the first place. It’s a snake eating its own tail.

This is especially true since, as Mason points out, markets rely on scarcity. Scarcity is what helps determine price. And music as a commodity has become infinitely replicable. It’s just data reproduced at zero marginal cost. The music industry already adapted to that shock once by creating streaming services. People don’t buy music anymore, they rent it. A company like Apple can’t run multibillion-dollar business based on information without, as Mason puts it, building an ‘entire walled garden of expensive technologies that make it easier to obey the law than to break it.’

Because the music itself has little monetary value, the industry has come to rely more and more on live experiences and wild merch ideas to make ends meet. Before the pandemic, even the world’s biggest pop stars needed to perform lengthy world tours to support their lifestyles. Madonna bundled 2019’s Madame X with concert tickets. Miley Cyrus bundled her new EP with a branded condom. Gunna bundled his music with a lunchbox.

When COVID-19 hit, the industry adapted quickly. Nick Cave sold tickets to a one-off live streamed performance at Alexandra Palace. The rapper Travis Scott showed up in Fortnite to perform as a towering digital avatar of himself. And fundraisers like Isol-Aid sprang into action, almost immediately. These shows either disappear in real-time or get removed after about a day. So the problem of zero marginal cost is side-stepped and the ephemeral ‘live’ nature of the experience remains intact, at least to some degree.

Problem is, the dopamine hit you get from live music has been hardwired into the human brain since we first evolved. It helped make us human. For lots of fans, the online version will never come close. So, if the music itself can’t be priced effectively. And digital experiences don’t give consumers the same value, what’s the industry supposed to do?

Music sharing platforms, like Bandcamp, exist to offer artist a bigger slice of the pie. Indie cottage industries can turn a profit. Fans are still willing to pay top-dollar to support their favourite artists. But that doesn’t solve the shortfall from cancelled tours. Fact is, airlines are going bust and airports are the main vector for the virus.

So, we wait and hope for a vaccine or more effective testing. And if these things eventuate, they’ll be touted by neoliberal true believers as proof that market-fed technological advancement came to the rescue. Meanwhile, the most effective piece of technology we have is a cloth mask plus community cooperation. And the Australian music industry is desperately beaming out a state-sponsored hologram of its former self, partly because the internet has eroded the price of recorded music (while infinitely expanding the potential of its creative energy).

The contradictions are hard to process. Which might help explain the paradoxical tone you get sometimes from Isol-Aid. The first act I tuned into, back on that grassy hill in March, was a garage punk band called Boat Show. They were crammed into the back of parked van in Perth, belting an acoustic version of ‘The Big Smoke’, which is a song about moving to Melbourne and doing amphetamines until you die. The ironic thing was, the singer had introduced the song by admitting that most of the band had just returned from Melbourne. Ostensibly, they’d moved there to die but – because the city’s music scene is so special – they probably had the time of their lives.

The bands bratty attitude knowingly masked the fact that, really, Boat Show were doing something quite earnest: they were participating in the Isol-Aid fundraiser. And, to confuse matters further, the name of that fundraiser was an ironic nod to 1985’s Live Aid – a pop concert originally staged to eliminate Ethiopian famine that’s since become a punchline for the do-gooding hubris of pop stars.

Mark Fisher writes that Live Aid helped usher in ‘the ideological blackmail’ that ‘caring individuals’ could end famine directly, without the need any kind of political solution or systematic reorganisation’. He maintains we need to form a ‘collective subject’ to tackle global crises, ‘yet the appeal to ethical immediacy that has been in place in British culture since at least 1985 – when the consensual sentimentality of Live Aid replaced the antagonism of the miner’s strike – permanently defers the emergence of such a subject’.

After Live Aid failed, Live 8 was staged twenty years later. This time Bono et al wanted to tap into the global anti-capitalism movement and convince the G8 to tackle poverty through legislation. Now Isol-Aid is here as the final evolution of the concept. The fantasy that popstars can save the world is on hold. Right now, it’s the music industry that needs saving.

Fisher writes that, to reclaim political agency what needs to be kept in mind, ‘is that capitalism is both a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.’ Isol-Aid’s strange, oscillating, mix of consensual sentimentality and cynical distance, probably isn’t conducive to Fisher’s conception of the ‘collective subject’. When Australia’s music industry was left in the cold, it didn’t stop to demand a better deal. It appealed to the ethical immediacy of the situation, raised money, and sent emojis.

Nevertheless, Isol-Aid still helped catalyse a situation where Creative Victoria is keeping performers fed and government grants are keeping venues on life support. As Mason has recently pointed out, we’re already living in quasi-post-capitalist society. We could nurture it, or stagger across a ‘bridge to recovery’ that appears to be groaning under the weight of its own self-deception.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sam West is a writer, screenwriter and critic. He’s written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Vice and others. He is the former editor of Three Thousand, Melbourne’s first online city guide.

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