Melbourne Digital Concert Hall – a live streaming concert service launched by Co-Directors Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt to help Australian musicians continue to work during the COVID-19 crisis – has just passed the half-million-dollar mark in ticket sales. Given the vast amount of online content that has become available during the pandemic, that’s an extraordinary achievement.

Created “by musicians for musicians”, Howlett and Schonhardt launched MCDH on March 27, 2020 with a performance by Arcadia Winds. By the end of this weekend they will have streamed more than 125 high-quality concerts, featuring over 250 different Australian musicians, into living rooms around the country. Most of the concerts are performed at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, though MDCH has also broadcast from venues in Sydney (where they are streaming the Faces of Sydney Festival on August 1 and 2), Perth, Brisbane, Berlin and London. All the spaces are sanitised and are fully compliant with Government health and social distancing rules.

Kristian Chong performing for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. Photograph © Albert Comper

Tickets to the live streams are sold online. The $20 ticket price goes directly to the musicians, while the $4 booking fee covers transaction and operating costs. Howlett and Schonhardt acknowledge the generosity of their founding partners 5stream, the Athenaeum Theatre and Kawai Australia, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Victorian Arts Minister Martin Foley congratulated MDCH for taking $500,000 in ticket revenue at a very difficult time for everyone working in the arts, given that most performance venues in Australian are currently shuttered. In a speech, which was streamed before last night’s concert featuring members of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Minister Foley said: “The coronavirus pandemic has had devastating flow on effects for our music community. Venue closures and cancellation of shows has meant there are limited opportunities for musicians to work and to generate income… This event marks an impressive milestone: half a million dollars in ticket revenue has been earned by Australian musicians via the program. An incredible achievement. This initiative is testament to the resilience, agility and innovation that characterises our creative sector. It also demonstrates how important music is to Victorians, and the thirst audiences have for high quality cultural experiences.”

A number of musicians have recorded video messages of congratulation, which MDCH will post over the coming days. Pianist Kristian Chong spoke for many when he said in his video: “I cannot express enough thanks to everybody involved with the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, both the organisers and also the audience members, who have been generously buying tickets and enjoying the products of what the musicians are doing. It’s been a real pleasure and I feel so fortunate that the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has given us musicians an outlet to continue practising our artform. It’s given us some sort of normality, something to work towards in a time when we’re really not sure what’s happening with our industry. It’s given us also the ability to pay bills and to actually exist in a way that gives us some sort of security. From the very bottom of my heart, a very big thank you to all concerned, the organisers, the sponsors and most importantly the audiences, without any one of you, this wouldn’t be possible.”

“We are thrilled that we have now passed the half-million dollars earned by musicians in just four months,” Howlett tells Limelight.

“MDCH was one of those bold ideas that you commit to, throw all your energy towards, and then see what happens. It all happened so quickly that Adele and I didn’t have time to create expectations at the beginning, we just wanted to help the musicians. In some ways the expectations increase now as we set ourselves higher targets and program eight recitals a week for the next six months.”

Howlett says that the feedback from the musicians involved has been “amazing. It has literally has been the difference for some between having to move back into their parents’ house and being able to keep their practice studios and independence.”

“The other feedback that has motivated us to be up at 5am every morning working on MDCH is from the audience. In a world where people have a heightened sense of isolation, it has been fabulous to receive messages from all around Australia, both metropolitan and regional, saying that MDCH gives them connection and a sense of normality. Many have attended more digital concerts in the last three months than they have attended traditional concerts in the last three years,” says Howlett.

Howlett and Schonhardt have plenty of plans to keep expanding and developing MDCH. They are working to acquire dedicated high-quality streaming equipment to make MDCH mobile, enabling live broadcasts from regional locations around Australia. Having received numerous requests from Australian artists overseas, they are currently planning more overseas broadcasts as well.

They will be extending their support to other genres of music, and are launching an education series for primary-aged children. They are also working with partners to support post-COVID recovery through a blended live/online model, and to build avenues for long-term sustainability for Australia’s artists and the community that supports them online.

“The future is bright for MDCH as we continue to build nationwide,” says Howlett. “We continue to focus on high-quality broadcasts, interesting programming and keeping overheads (in particular administrative costs) low so that the money goes directly to the musicians. We believe that these philosophies will resonate with colleagues and audience members well into the future.”

Find out more about Melbourne Digital Concert Hall