On the Couch with Adele Schonhardt

MDCH-Adele-Schonhardt-photo-by-Albert-Comper-PhotographyWho is Adele Schonhardt?
I’m Co-Director of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH), a start-up that Chris Howlett and I founded to support Australian musicians when the pandemic hit. We’ve both worked in arts management all our lives and couldn’t just sit there and do nothing when our friends and colleagues were in crisis.

The concept is simple: you buy a ticket to a livestreamed concert, we pass on the box office revenue to the performers, many of whom haven’t been eligible for much financial support. Since launching in March 2020, we’ve presented 400 concerts, generating more than $1.5 million for over 1,500 musicians and arts workers around the country.

When I’m not busy with MDCH, I can usually be found helping my two daughters with their home learning, walking around the local lake or consulting with the team at Melbourne radio station 3MBS, where I’m proud to serve as Chair of the Board.

What would you do differently from what you do now?
If we’re thinking big, I’d see the pandemic as an opportunity to take a good, hard look at the whole arts industry. Clearly there’s something amiss in a system that provides security to thousands of administrators, yet leaves the artists themselves out in the cold when crisis hits. The cracks were already showing pre-pandemic. Now they’ve become gaping holes in the very fabric of our community.

To my mind, we’re still stuck in a legacy mentality of plenty, catering to tastes and systems that evolved when tertiary education was free and performing arts companies were heavily subsidized. Times have changed dramatically. The future is lean and we must put artists back at the heart of the equation, then see what remains for administrators, support teams and the like.

Who inspires you and why?
Even now, there’s inspiration to be drawn from many sources. Here are a few of mine:

My husband and daughters, 12 and 10, who’ve lost milestones ranging from school camps to grade six graduation, yet cheerfully accept this new way of being and find other ways to stay connected.

My Co-Director Chris, who sees entire months of carefully curated concerts vanish when lockdown hits, yet gets up again every time and keeps working to support more musicians in other locations.

My wonderful friends, who all face challenges and home learning dramas of their own, but who find the time to share jokes and keep each other’s spirits up.

And above all, the many musicians, venues, sponsors, donors and audience members who got behind MDCH and refused to let the music stop when the world went dark.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
I hope what I’m doing now is making a difference but I’m also acutely aware that it’s a drop in the ocean. If I could change anything in our industry, it’d be to help stem the tide of free content unleashed by YouTube, Spotify and the like. We’ve witnessed a media industry in decline since the advent of free online news sites, yet we’ve failed to apply those same lessons to our own work. Much as we hate to see it that way, music is a ‘product’ and we devalue it in the eyes of the consumer when we put it online for free.

That’s why we’re determined to keep building MDCH as a national platform; to make high-quality ticketed live-streaming accessible to as many artists and music lovers as possible and to help effect a shift in consumer behaviour so that paying for a livestreamed concert on a Friday night becomes a normal, regular activity.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
If I could travel abroad, it be to visit my parents in New Zealand or see my husband’s relatives in their small German town in the Black Forest. Failing that, give me a hut in the mountains, a pile of good books, some screen-free time with the family and a few decent hiking tracks and I couldn’t be happier.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
I’ll probably take them everywhere, just for sheer joy of being out and about again. They’d definitely see the city and have a meal by the Yarra, visit the Athenaeum Theatre, which MDCH is so lucky to call home, stroll with me through the NGV and head out to the Dandenong Ranges for a walk in the forest.

What are you currently reading?
Amid all the busyness, the doom-scrolling of news sites and the piles of crime novels that have occupied my fractured attention span lately, there are three authors who’ve stood out: Michelle de Kretser – especially for The Life to Come, Evie Wyld for The Bass Rock and Maggie O’Farrell for just about anything she writes, but particularly The hand that first held mine and Hamnet. They have very different styles, yet they share an ability to create a disquieting sense of place that lingers well after you’ve finished the final chapter.

What are you currently listening to?
3MBS Fine Music Melbourne is obviously high on my playlist. It’s a wonderful community station, broadcasting classical music around the clock thanks to 200 dedicated volunteers and a small team of terrific staff. They’ve earned their rightful place as essential workers in these times and are doing an incredible job of keeping in the community connected. Aside from music, I’m listening to the raucous birds in the garden, my husband on yet another work Zoom call and my children cackling away at something on Minecraft. It’s a fairly typical day at our place.

Happiness is?
Happiness is many things. It’s a lakeside walk with my family and a flock of colourful parrots overhead. It’s a full concert hall and the tangible silence that accompanies moments of startling virtuosity. It’s a clear vision, a group of like-minded collaborators and the freedom to work at speed. And sometimes it’s as simple as a good book and a spare hour or two in a warm spot.

What does the future hold for you?
I hope it holds the best of both worlds – a return to pre-pandemic life enhanced by the many lessons we’ve learned along the way. At MDCH, we look forward to a hybrid future that sees packed concert halls coupled with high-quality streaming, enabling everyone to experience the best of Australian culture, regardless of their location or circumstances.

Adele is the co-recipient (with her colleague Chris Howlett) of the Creative Partnerships Arts Leadership Award for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall (MDCH) – a ticketed livestreaming platform created to support the Australian music industry as venues around the globe went dark. For more information, visit: www.creativepartnerships.gov.au for details.

Image: Adele Schonhardt – photo by Albert Comper Photography