The show must go on. And it will. Next Monday, May 25, the APRA Music Awards will hit your screens in a spanking-new virtual format, custom-built for the times we live in.

It’s no secret, the music industry has been crushed by the health crisis. All gigs and tours are off. There are no concerts hotspots on the planet right now, and if there were, you couldn’t get there.

For a brief moment, the APRAs could have been rescheduled, held back until the resumption of normal service.

Arguably the most cherished event on the annual Australian music industry calendar, the APRAs was launched in 1982 to recognise excellence in songwriting.  A year on the sidelines would have been another kick in the teeth for the music community. 

So, an emergency plan was hatched, the awards organising team tooled-up and moved fast to ensure this show would go on.

TIO caught up with the key players behind the scenes of the inaugural Virtual APRA Music Awards for a glimpse at how the show came together, the challenges and what to expect.

powderfinger 2007 apras
Powderfinger (2007)

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Can you run me through the process of scrapping the ceremony and switching to a virtual show. Was there a moment when you considered shutting it down for the year?

Narelle Butterworth, Senior Event Manager: There was never any debate about not honouring our composers in 2020. The conversation was always around how we could best pay tribute to our music community outside of the usual physical event format, while maintaining a sense of warmth and intimacy in this time of social distancing.

Milly Petriella, Director, Member Relations: The initial question was “do we move the awards to a later time in the year” and risk not knowing when we would actually be allowed to physically come together again as a community, resulting in not honouring our members this year. Cancellation was never an option. The priority was always to determine how best to honour and respect our nominees while maintaining our overall company directive to limit expenditure and deliver those savings to our members at time when the industry was suffering greatly. And so was born The Virtual APRA Awards.

Milly Petriella

Did APRA AMCOS have an emergency option ready in case of something like this?

Narelle Butterworth: Like Donald Trump I was completely surprised by the exigencies of the COVID pandemic. It became clear quite quickly that gathering 700 people in a room was not going to be possible in April, so we had to make a call to transition to a virtual event. None of our team has had any experience in something like this, so we have been learning as we go along. The biggest disappointment for me is not being able to engage with our usual suppliers like Mick Mazzone and (official photographer) Tony Mott, who are part of the APRA Awards furniture.

Milly Petriella: This particular emergency plan was developed this year out of necessity. These are unprecedented times and the existing robust risk measures already in place at APRA AMCOS enabling us to always continue our core business including the collection and distribution of royalties to our members would never have included not being able to host our yearly music awards. We have now become acutely aware that in a moment, without any control or warning, we can lose everything we have taken for granted. Globally we have experienced an historic moment which has in turn broadened our thinking to ensure we continue to remain agile and always have contingency plans in place for every facet of business.

One thing that’s become a standard for broadcasting during the coronavirus era is the struggles shows have had with producing good audio for interviews and performances over Zoom, Facetime and other apps. How will you address those technical issues and how do you make sure some of the artists aren’t shaded by a bad connection.

Narelle Butterworth: Thankfully we are working with a great team in TMC Productions, Peter Rix Management and HYVIO. Deciding on a pre-produced show gave us the luxury of viewing everything before broadcast. We considered ‘live’ elements, but to be honest we didn’t relish the stress of potential technical difficulties on the night. Some of the artists have recorded their performances in a studio setting, but there are raw grabs as well; that’s part of the fun of adhering to the current isolation restrictions. There is one performance whose component parts are being negotiated over four different time zones which has been quite a challenge to coordinate. 

Milly Petriella: We aimed to deliver a show that complements and honours the quality of our physical show we host every year, only this year translating it to screen and making it available globally. Our partners and the team we have gathered all have the same focus – to deliver an entertaining, slick, great sounding and respectful show. We maintained stringent, high-quality control throughout the process ensuring we always provided the comfort, security and support our performers, presenters and host required to sit back and do what they do best, leaving the technical side to our team to manage.

The APRA Music Awards team members on their weekly production Zoom call

What are some of the biggest technical issues at this stage?

Narelle Butterworth: Apart from us all agreeing on every idea that gets put on the table? Despite the event being pre-recorded, we want to capture the atmosphere of producing with a lockdown in effect. This has really changed the way in which the five Song of the Year performances are covered; they’re being filmed in lounge rooms in every corner of the globe. There are so many aspects to a public broadcast that we haven’t had to deal with before; for example, every single photo, film clip and snippet of music we use within the hour needs pre-approval from its copyright owner. 

Peter Rix AM, Managing Director of Peter Rix Management and Event Producer: Nigel O’Connell and his team at TMC Productions have been integral to the solving of issues that surround the recording of both performances and acceptances in isolation! Each of the five performers has found a way to ensure that the audio quality and the look and feel have maintained some level of creativity as well as sound reproduction. In each instance we have had to leave it to them to manage and then record. If we weren’t happy, we would then respond and seek another run of the song. Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype, amongst others, have become our best friends in bringing each of the nominees, speakers and publishers together online. Everything has been fed back to TMC for editing but it has allowed each of the speakers, in groups or singularly, to communicate without leaving their homes. Finally, this is an online music event of global significance and so the one-hour production needs to, and will, run with the precision and momentum of an Olympic bobsled race.

Milly Petriella: Technically there is always a solution, personally we were not able to enjoy the experience we manage to create each year of bringing together our community, universally celebrating the achievements of our songwriters. The tech will always be resolved, however the loss of human interaction in a virtual world can never be resolved. We had the mammoth task of trying to do the best we can to create just a fraction of that community and celebration on a screen and I truly hope we have captured it!

Kate Miller-Heidke red background
Kate Miller-Heidke

How did the nominees and performers respond when they heard it was going all-digital? And going global?

Kate Miller-Heidke – Musical Director: With the performers, artists have varying levels of comfort when it comes to streamed home performances. It’s a very different medium than standing on stage – it’s more raw, more exposing and more intimate. Those qualities can be harnessed. Everyone is excited about the prospect of the APRAs potentially reaching a bigger audience than ever before, with people being able to stream it from all over the world.

Narelle Butterworth: The response from the industry in general has been positive. I get a real sense that the nominees are grateful that they will still be recognised for their work over the past 12 months. Composers and their publishers have been more engaged on their social profiles to promote the event and we feel the Awards are a welcome relief from the crisis currently facing the industry.

Milly Petriella: The fear of virtual/zoom/video burnout was a serious consideration from both APRA AMCOS and the nominees’ perspective. We all had the fear that it would be just another online show that would be missed in all the ‘noise’ online. It’s normally a night to be anticipated by so many and this year it’s all going to be ‘different’. We had the daunting job of making sure that we could produce a night still to be anticipated whilst still delivering a respectful celebration that does not leave this year’s nominees feeling any less celebrated and acknowledged.

Will much of it be pre-recorded to minimise the chaos? What parts will be “live”?

Narelle Butterworth: In order to maintain an element of surprise on the night, no winners have been notified in advance. So, while the entire broadcast is pre-recorded, no one watching will know what’s in store for them. That’s partly towards creating an atmosphere for the event, partly to help us with logistics and the smooth running of the show. 

Milly Petriella: Leaving an element of surprise on the night was always our intention, having Briggs at the helm will be a joyful, entertaining and humorous ride for an hour of surprises whether pre-recorded or live! Our nominees have no idea who is winning, it’s all about tuning in and finding out.

Describe to me what people are going to see when the APRAs come online. What will it look like? Will there be a stage?

Kate Miller-Heidke: The audience will get a sneak peek into each artist’s lounge room/bedroom/studio/domestic set-up. It’s voyeuristic in a way – it’s interesting what they choose to show us and how that can frame the performance.

Narelle Butterworth: In trying to edit an awards ceremony that would usually take place over 3 hours, we have really had to think about the best way to slash and burn what works and what doesn’t, and pack it all up neatly into a 1-hour special. Senator Briggs will be officiating proceedings from a secret location. There will be no fancy light show, no red carpet (although we are hoping the audience will join us on our virtual media wall) and none of the usual suspects gathering outside to chat over a cigarette between songs.

Peter Rix: We have reinvented the APRA Music Awards to suit an online broadcast! Every member of the music community that is on screen has been filmed in their home or in a local recording studio and they’ve done it themselves! There are no stages, no fancy backdrops, but real music and real people celebrating Australian music together under an online umbrella. Our hope is that you grab a drink, put your feet up and enjoy the music, the celebration and the winners! And there are lots of terrific surprises in store. 

Milly Petriella: It’s raw, it’s cool, from our home to yours. No traditional stage and audience set up, we always wanted to respect the current situation and produce a show that delivered and celebrated the music. No bells and whistles. Filled with many great surprises and musical moments. Kate Miller-Heidke has expertly and tastefully pulled together 5 stellar performances that will be in (usual APRA style) the talk of the industry and possibly unveil new talent that may have not been on anyone’s radar.

How will you manage the special moment when the artist receives the award? Presumably, there won’t be a Postal Force guy lurking in the background with a trophy to hand over at the precise moment.

Narelle Butterworth: We have created one segment for the infamous APRA donut trophy to make an appearance. The remaining trophies are tucked safely away in the lounge rooms of the Events team, bubble wrapped and packaged, ready to ship out to the winners the day after the event is broadcast.

Milly Petriella: The APRA Awards donut will always make an appearance, it wouldn’t be the same without it.

Does the webcasting element create possibly more international opportunities for the artists? After all, the APRAs hit several international cities earlier this year. Our artists are internationalists. If this virtual event runs smoothly, might we see the livestream play a bigger part alongside a traditional APRA Awards in years to come?

Narelle Butterworth: It certainly does start the conversation around the direction the Awards will head in 2021. The APRAs have traditionally been a private industry event so it’s both exciting and frightening to be opening up for anyone to view.

Milly Petriella: Having just returned from the inaugural Global Music Award celebrations held in LA, Nashville and London has been an incredible experience and our members are very appreciative of having the spotlight on them on the ground and for the first time having had their stories told back home. The world has changed since then so quickly and dramatically! It’s time to take stock and revisit the awards program moving forward. This will be a priority for our Board in the coming months and I am sure that whatever the decision, we will always find a way to celebrate our members’ success globally. 2020 is a first, beamed around the world to anyone that wants to join us for the first time, no limitations, no borders or restrictions! This will open doors to many new and exciting ideas for the future.

Watch the #VAPRAs here on Monday 25 May

2020 VIRTUAL APRA MUSIC AWARDS

MONDAY 25 MAY
6:30pm AEST Virtual Red Carpet kicks off
7:00pm AEST #VAPRAs broadcast commences
Hosted by Briggs
With Musical Direction by Kate Miller-Heidke

With special performances of our 5 Song of the Year nominations by:
John Butler and Mama Kin
Kira Puru and Mo’Ju
Nikka Costa and Justin Stanley
The Dawn of MAY
William Crighton