When Hillsong youth pastor—and daughter of Hillsong’s founder—Laura Toggs launched her defence of the church’s recent Summercamp in New South Wales, I met every eye-roll with one of my own.

After accusing “multiple journalists” of “trespassing” onto private property to “hide in bushes and film teenagers by their tents” (which is completely illegal under s 8 of the Surveillance Devices Act 2007 in NSW, and I hope she reported it to the relevant authorities) Toggs went on a tirade about the government.

She said the government had been “telling us we can do one thing in private, checking off all the details, saying that we’re abiding by the rules and then suddenly – due to media pressure – backflipping on us, and reclassifying our event and therefore condemning us and saying we’re breaking the rules. Without forewarning us.”

If you don’t want to watch Laura Toggs’ full video, here are the CliffsNotes. She says:

  • There were only 200 teens there, plus youth leaders: “I mean if you think about it that’s less people than at the shopping centre you’ve visited at the weekend; if you went out for dinner in the city last night, probably less people than gathered indoors for a meal within your proximity.”
  • The kids were off their screens, in a drug and alcohol-free environment: “We created a positive environment for fun and for friendship, which if you think about the last couple of years that they have had to endure in loneliness and isolation.”
  • They had Bible studies and plenty of time to sit together in the fresh air and sunshine: “I mean, really? Is it really so terrible? Is it really newsworthy?”
  • It’s “unfair” and “ludicrous” to suggest they blatantly broke the rules: “We followed the rules and the guidelines that were checked off by the NSW Health department regarding everything COVID-safety related.”
  • Many families chose to keep their kids at home, and many people – even leaders – were isolating: “So there were plenty of people who are part of our church who have faced the pandemic as real as anybody else.”
  • As a camp organiser, she was unaware the state’s health orders had changed: “We were busy hosting and there was very little phone reception and I was not aware of that change, and I would have been more sensitive regarding the singing had I known.”
  • She understands the music industry’s frustration: “I completely am compassionate towards that, after the last two years that has hit the music industry, artists, events so hard, to have to cancel their gigs and their events and so on is heartbreaking.”
  • But it’s not really about the few seconds of random footage that happened to be spotted on the Hillsong Youth Instagram and shared with outrage: “This is because there is a clear agenda to drag Hillsong through the mud any chance that the media can get and to destroy our name.”
  • So at the end of the day: “I feel for musicians and artists and events having to cancel their gigs after a devastating two years for them and the negative impact that this pandemic has had on everyone is beyond painful, and I hope the music industry can rally their strength to lobby government rather than bash churchgoers.”
  • Also, church goers are just regular people: “When you throw Hillsong under a bus, what you need to understand is you are throwing just everyday Australian people under the bus. Your GPs that you meet at your medical practices, your nurses at your hospitals; it’s your waitresses and waiters at the places that you eat; it’s people who are processing your food at the grocery stores; It’s business people in your offices; it’s people you bump into at your coffee shop.”

It behooves me to say that Musicians are good people, too. In fact, two years ago almost to the day, musicians were using their platforms to raise awareness and money for the victims of the horrific bushfires that ripped through this country.

They were opening their own pockets to donate money, and putting on benefit gigs – everyone from Tones And I and Peking Duk to The Wiggles and Briggs; Jack River and Thelma Plum to Gang of Youths and Flume. 

The Fire Fight benefit concert held in Sydney in February 2020 raised over $11 million for bushfire relief. Both artists and crew donated their time and talents to make that event happen. 

Never miss industry news

Get the latest music industry news, insights, and updates straight to your inbox. Learn more

The thing is, the “music industry” runs so much deeper than just the artists whose gigs get cancelled each week and who have platforms the mainstream media pays attention to.

It’s the venues. The promoters. The bar staff. The suppliers. The food trucks and entertainment at festivals. The security guards. The crew setting up the stage. The merch sellers. The production techs. The stage managers. The tour managers. The artist managers. The booking agents. The publicists. 

It’s the people who work 12-16 hour days because it is their livelihood, their passion, the only thing they can think of doing. 

These people are now becoming so disillusioned with the industry they have worked in for 10, 15, 20 years they are now looking at alternative career paths. 

I should know – I’ve been one of them.

Although, for a lot of us, a cancelled gig can mean food off the table, a cancelled festival or a postponed tour goes far beyond the financial impact of lost work in a gig economy. 

It’s the flight credits that now have to be used within a certain timeframe, with no gigs to book for; it’s rescheduling up to a dozen people’s lives to fit new dates in (for festival promoters the nightmare is even bigger, trying to secure the same drawcard names for whatever date the venue can fit the event in again); it’s insurance nightmares and ticket refunds; it’s the daily mental health toll. 

Not to mention the artists having to return to day jobs, and the crew who have spent a life on the road now stacking shelves at Woolworths just to make ends meet.

To say the music industry should “rally their strength to lobby government rather than bash churchgoers” is insulting, because we have collectively been trying to do that for almost two years already.

In June 2020, the Australia Institute published data that stated the Australian arts and entertainment sector contributed $14.7 billion per year in added GDP.

It employed 193,000 Australians, and for every $1 million in turnover produced nine jobs, compared to one in the construction industry.

As reported by The Guardian in February last year, almost 80,000 live performance jobs were lost in the 10 months prior.

“The pandemic has had a devastating impact on live entertainment,” Live Performance Australia’s chief executive, Evelyn Richardson, told the publication. 

It was estimated then it would take until 2025 to recover from the snap lockdowns and audience restrictions that are still happening a year later.

Only 47-65 per cent of arts and entertainment businesses were still operating in April 2020, according to the Australia Institute’s report.

By March 2021, the Australian Live Music Business Council – which represents over 600 small businesses and sole traders – said nearly 70 per cent of respondents polled said their revenue was down 100 per cent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three-quarters of businesses were not expected to survive the next six months, and 90 per cent of respondents said they felt “ignored and forgotten” by the government.

While all of this was happening, one of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s former Hillsong mates – Leigh Coleman, who scored a mention in his 2008 debut speech alongside Toggs’ daddio, Brian Houston – was allegedly linked to a company that won around $43 million in federal contracts as a registered charity. 

The Morrison government did come to the entertainment industry’s ‘rescue’ with the announcement of the $200 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, which released $60 million in the first round across 115 projects. 

A mere $17 million more than the contracts The Guardian reported were awarded to Coleman’s single charity in the five years to 2020.

The rest was divided amongst several rounds between 2020 and 2022, including $1.35 million in total for an Australian promoter to tour – and reschedule – American rock act Guns N’ Roses.

To be fair, the frustration against Hillsong specifically isn’t really misdirected; especially from the Australian music industry.

After all, as Rolling Stone outlined in 2020, Hillsong is not only a church, it’s “a Christian music brand” that has enjoyed “unprecedented international success”:

“Data provided by Nielsen Music to Rolling Stone shows songs by the three Hillsong groups were streamed more times on demand in the United States last year than Aussie exports Tame Impala, Sia, rockers AC/DC, or 5 Seconds of Summer. Hillsong music might just be the biggest Aussie act mainstream Australia hasn’t listened to.”

A Christian music brand that has the privilege of making millions from the music industry, whilst simultaneously not being subject to the same restrictions as the music industry because… religious freedoms? 

Sure, nothing to be upset about.

At the end of the day, it’s not about “throwing Hillsong under the bus”, nor is there any agenda – at least not by this journalist – to destroy anyone’s name.

For me, it’s about recognising a position of privilege and acknowledging it. No excuses.

Imagine if Bluesfest promoter Peter Noble had turned around last year and said, ‘Oops, I didn’t know the circumstances had changed because I was busy on-site setting up for the festival and didn’t have great reception and nobody told me there was an outbreak of COVID-19 in Byron Bay so I didn’t know until my phone blew up… But we were abiding by the COVID-safe plan NSW Health had signed off on! And everyone took rapid antigen tests before they came, so it’s not even newsworthy.’

So, Laura, please don’t sit on your high horse (or in front of your cream lounge) and say you “feel” for people in the music industry whose gigs are still getting cancelled two years into the pandemic – I’ll pretend you were referring to everyone, not just the artists who have the platform to call you out.

Thoughts and prayers do nothing to put food on the table. They don’t provide tangible support. They don’t provide the help the industry has been screaming for since this whole shit show began.

You see, when you throw the Australian music industry under the bus, you don’t just throw the artists there: you throw us all there. We’re frustrated. We’re fed up. We’re tired of seeing other industries having one set of rules while we’re given another. 

30,000 people in a stadium for a rugby game: good.

30,000 people in a stadium for a concert: bad.

You want us to watch (arguably more than) “200 teens plus leaders” sing and dance under a festival tent without masks or social distancing when the music festival down the road’s just been cancelled… and… not call out the injustice?

You’re joking, right?

Hillsong isn’t the reason we hated it – hypocrisy is.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine