ISOL-AID continues to go off like a Hot Wings-crammed Falcon 9, with its second outing planned for this weekend after the roaring success of its first iteration – in which 74 artists performed consecutive, 20-minute live sets beamed to us from their bedrooms, bathrooms, tractors, patios, or wherever they were socially isolating – last weekend. We spoke to the festival’s co-founder Emily Ulman (who conceived the idea alongside artist Merpire AKA Rhiannon Atkinson-Howatt, and manager Shannen Egan) about the innovative project.
When you’re in charge of an official and professional company account, you’ve got to work out your house style: do you use emojis? Do you use swears? And how do you respond to the odd shit-stirrer who’s bound to poke their head out from under the bridge? “What am I going to do when people start being rude, or start being critical of the sound?’” Emily Ulman asked herself as she manned the official ISOL-AID official account last Saturday morning, awaiting the festival’s kick-off at noon. “’I’ll go, ‘@MY MOTHERS BISCUIT, PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF BEING KIND!’” Ulman trumpets, and then laughs: “But literally, not one negative comment. Not one! It was so unbelievably warm, and supportive, and beautiful. It blew me away.”
And it wasn’t just punters, but other artists as well, who turned up in the comments of their peers’ sets – a somewhat unexpected and heartwarming feature of this festival (“Agreed,” Ulman beams). But could we have imagined any different, when just weeks ago these very musicians were donating their time and passion and art to charity shows for the benefit of bushfire-affected communities across Australia?
There was something visceral about watching the viewership counter in the top-right corner of each Insta performance creep up last weekend (something not lost on Atkinson-Howatt, who commented from her Merpire account to congratulate RVG’s Romy Vager on effectively filling The Corner Hotel, when Romy’s numbers slunk upwards of 800), and blessedly, Ulman says she has received reports of a real knock-on follower effect. “All the artists that played saw an increase of minimum 400-plus new followers – imagine playing a festival and immediately having 400 new people following your music?” she says. “And sometimes it was upwards of thousands of new followers! I got really teary when I heard that; it was just so heartening, because [we didn’t want to] monetise the festival – at this stage we really want to keep it accessible, but the artists are getting something in return for their amazing talent.”
That’s not to say the artists cannot benefit financially: Ulman and her co-founders have been urging these generous musicians to promote their BandCamp and Patreon details during their sets. “They were definitely doing that, but for the most part, artists were saying ‘We want to talk about the Support Act fundraiser’ – even still, in this time of crisis when who knows when they’re going to be able to play in public to real life humans again, they are still prioritising the overall community over themselves,” she notes with reverence. “It’s not ‘My band or my success or my career over the state of the whole community.’ And that’s testament to Melburnian and Australian music – it’s so supportive and community-minded.”
Ulman herself will be joining the line-up this weekend, which has once again pulled in some stellar names from all pockets of the musical landscape (including Courtney Barnett, Marlon Williams, Camp Cope and Jen Cloher). In her extensive experience as a booker, Ulman hoped to avoid some traditional pitfalls of line-up arcs, but also maintain the worthiest principles. “We’re always mindful of diversity in all its forms; we wanted to not only not have a hierarchy, but also give emerging artists a leg-up; if they can play before or after a bigger name, how great!” she says.
This way of ordering the line-up – where small acts play next to big ones, and the biggest names aren’t necessarily saved for the ‘peak’ performance slots – gives rise to a wondrous sense of discovery: “That was the beauty of the three of us [ISOL-ID founders] booking together: I discovered new artists! Our tastes and our networks are quite different.”
It was just a matter of writing up wishlists and then hurling out emails, and Ulman reveals the overlapping intricacies of such a head-spinning coordinative task. “We just kind of went for it! Some artists were like ‘We would play later but our neighbours would kill us’, or ‘My housemate goes to bed early so I can only play earlier’,” she smiles. “And also the overseas acts – like LANKS, who played from New York – had to be considered, and time-zones, like WA artists playing later in the day ‘cause they’re three hours behind.”
In glorious evidence of Ulman, Atkinson-Howatt and Egan’s hard work, ISOL-AID Vol. 1 ran itself without a hitch, offering the intimate spaces of musicians up for our viewing eyes. Some artists were visibly – or verbally – nervous, which seems counter-intuitive when you consider they’re not truly in front of an IRL audience, but Ulman has some ideas on why it is so. “You have no microphone, none of the soundchecks… usually you’d have a lot more control over what you sound like, what you hear on stage, what people are hearing off-stage, the lighting. All of a sudden you’ve got none of that, and also no feedback!”
Except for, of course, our adoring ears, eyes, emoji comments, and donation-capable hands. Juice up your phone and get prepped for another weekend of uncommonly inspiring community and music this weekend, for ISOL-AID’s second outing. Full line-up below!