Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt have achieved an extraordinary amount for Australia’s classical music scene, both before and during the pandemic, winning them the Creative Partnerships Arts Leadership Award. F&P’s Fiona Atkinson caught up with them to find out more.

Adele Schonhardt describes the response of the Australian Digital Concert Hall to the pandemic as ‘agile’. We’d describe it as a highly strategic, lightning-fast sprint.

On 25 January 2020, COVID-19 reached Australian shores. By 17 March, Adele and fellow industry native, Chris Howlett, had begun to discuss how they could support the mental health of music industry colleagues. By 27 March they had launched their first concert on a new digital platform, the Australian Digital Concert Hall (ADCH). To put the speed of this response into perspective, Australian borders were not closed, and social distancing rules were not introduced until 20 and 21 March 2020 respectively. Adele and Chris started ahead of the game and that’s where they have remained.

So, what is the ADCH? Who are Adele and Chris? And what monumental effort have they put in that has seen them secure accolades and media coverage across the country and recognised as the deserving winners of the 2021 Creative Partnerships Australia’s Arts Leadership Award?

The Australian Digital Concert Hall – the concept

Chris and Adele launched the (formerly named) Melbourne Digital Concert Hall in March 2020, in the hope it would help professional musicians continue their craft and earn an income during COVID-19.

Simply put, it is a ticketed livestreaming platform. You purchase a ticket to enjoy a high-quality live-streamed concert and the ADCH then passes on the full ticket price to the artists, with a modest booking fee keeping the cameras rolling.

Chris calls it ‘a concert hall in a box’, with $60,000 worth of equipment in Melbourne and partnerships with AV teams around the country to keep employment local and sidestep complicated quarantine requirements.

Since launching, the platform has gone national (hence the name change) livestreaming more than 450 concerts, earning 2000 musicians and arts industry workers over $1.7 million. Today there are opportunities to attend the concerts in-person and this will grow as restrictions ease. But if we were to ever plunge back into lockdown (heaven forbid!), then the platform has shown it can survive, and thrive, in the most restrictive of environments.

It’s down to the incredible work of two tenacious individuals that all this was possible, so let us introduce you to the co-directors of the ADCH.

Chris Howlett is an artistic director, producer and cellist who has performed around the globe.

He is co-director of the Sanguine Estate and Bendigo Chamber Music Festivals and former board chair of radio station, 3MBS Fine Music Melbourne, for whom he still curates the annual 3MBS Fine Music Melbourne Marathon. He is founder and executive producer of Australian International Productions and the Australian International Opera Company. In amongst all this, Chris and his wife welcomed their second child in early 2021!

Adele Schonhardt has spent two decades connecting people through music – a skill honed working in arts management, governance and corporate PR in Australia, Germany and the US.

A graduate of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Adele’s career has taken her from Germany’s biggest opera house to the League of American Orchestras in New York and most recently to Musica Viva Australia, where she was Media & Public Affairs Manager before, as Chris describes, “bravely taking a leap of faith” to leave and focus on ADCH. “I was doing Musica Viva, ADCH and home schooling – I couldn’t do all three!” says Adele.

Adele is a volunteer with 3MBS and has taken over the role of Chair from Chris. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and two daughters.

Their resumes are impressive, their connections in the music industry numerous, and their time at 3MBS, in particular, has introduced them to the world of fundraising.

“Chris is brilliant in the private giving area and has good knowledge of trusts and foundations. And I’ve been able to come in with knowledge of the government space, which has been a nice balance,” says Adele.

So, how did they leverage these skill sets and networks to raise the funds they needed for ADCH in record time?

A speedy and straightforward fundraising approach

In late February 2020, Chris received a text message from his business partner in China to say that 90% of income (about $2.5 million of contracts) had disappeared almost overnight. The Australian International Opera Company, of which Chris is founder and executive producer, typically presents over 150 concerts in China each year and before COVID-19 it was Australia’s largest exporter of classical music to the country.

His mind whirring, Chris suggested a digital platform to help Australian artists, and asked Adele to join him. They set to work immediately, knowing there would be considerable cost involved. As well as the complicated logistics of launching livestream concerts previously planned as in-person events, the pair needed to be on top of their fundraising game.

What they did to start was simple, but something that many of us find hard to do. They picked up the phone and started asking their contacts for help.

Straight away, 3MBS donated sound equipment. Securing audio-visual equipment was a priority for Chris and Adele, who were adamant their digital approach would not compromise sound or vision. They knew they were working in an environment where many artists were uploading free content to social media to stay connected with audiences during a turbulent time. To break through this, the ADCH point of difference had to be live-concert-level quality.

Greg Hocking, who runs Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, jumped at the chance to sponsor the ADCH and offered up the venue for concert livestreaming after receiving a call.

Chris and Adele didn’t stop mining their contacts there. Next stop was Tim Kelly – a university friend of Chris, and founder of Melbourne-based global streaming provider, 5stream, who now oversees the livestreaming of ADCH concerts from the Athenaeum.

And then there was a the donation of a very special grand piano by Kawai, which led to the ‘Kawai Piano Series’.

These partners jumped in with their support without knowing what the long-term outcome would be. “Although Greg regularly reminds us that he only gave us the Athenaeum keys for two weeks and 20 months later he can’t get rid of us,” says Chris.

The pair have also had success in the grants space, receiving $400,00 from the federal government’s RISE fund at the beginning of September 2021. This will support the future of the ADCH for another two years and is “a testimony to Adele’s ability to write amazing grant applications,” says Chris.

NSW government funding initiative, Create NSW, has also supported the ADCH, including the recent announcement that they will grant the ADCH $60,000 to present 50 livestreamed concerts by Sydney and regional NSW musicians, and to facilitate a series of 40 masterclasses that will connect regional students with top music educators.

Pre-existing relationships with the Limb Family Foundation and Helen Macpherson Smith Trust secured grants, including seed funding for an early pilot with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra that explored the foray into concert delivery via digital format.

In terms of individual giving, Chris and Adele had many breakthroughs. They quickly developed ‘MDCH Friends’. With a pledge of $20 a month, supporters help safeguard the future of the ADCH and receive access to special events and discounts.

With a concert series named after him, Michael Aquilina is their largest individual donor. Chris and Adele know Michael personally and through 3MBS. He was particularly keen to support an initiative that he knew, with certainty, would directly benefit musicians during the pandemic.

A full list of government, philanthropic and corporate support can be found on this page and individual donors can be found on this page.

Adele and Chris understood that some donors wanted to support something physical and tangible (such as a camera equipment), some wanted to support infrastructure, and others wanted to support artists or ensembles. In response, they offered tailored asks based on specific projects and areas of need.

A lot of smaller community donations initially came from people who had received refunds for concert tickets and decided to redirect that money to the ADCH. These supporters and concert-goers now know that the ADCH is a robust platform that can survive future crises (no uncertainty here about concerts going ahead!). This is reflected in a growing audience of ticket buyers (25,000+), many of whom are now loyal customers.

Donations are managed on the Australian Cultural Fund (ACF) site, which enables tax-deductible receipting, and are channelled through the ADCF’s charitable entity, Australian Digital Arts and Events. The ACF also provided mentorship to Adele and Chris, which they found invaluable.

The ADCH has delivered on what it promised: nationwide live classical music, accessible to audiences across the country and globe throughout the worst of Australia’s lockdowns, supporting thousands of musicians. But peel back the layers and the impact goes even deeper.

The impact of the ADCH

After the ADCH’s first concert on 27 March 2020, the platform made $18,000 for Australian musicians in its first two weeks.

“Overwhelming, completely overwhelming,” says Adele when she talks about the feedback from participating musicians.

The initiative has been particularly impactful for soloists and small ensembles who didn’t have a lot of resources to fall back on during lockdowns.

The ADCH spearheaded a subscription series that has helped artists to significantly grow their own followings and databases. “Not only are they playing to an audience in Melbourne, they’re also playing to the music lover in Dingo Beach!” says Chris.

One musician, upon receiving an ADCH pay cheque, wrote to let Adele and Chris know that she is a single mother, and the money was the difference between paying the rent and moving back to her parents’ house with her two children. “From a mental health perspective, that’s off the charts,” says Chris.

With concerts beamed directly into their living rooms, donors and audiences are more connected to musicians than ever before. Chris and Adele – and the ADCH audience – have been blown away by talent they have discovered on the platform. Talent such as Queensland chamber orchestra, Camerata, who have secured a dedicated nationwide following because of the platform.

Artists can test and refine projects that are more challenging to pull off in a traditional live format. Katy Abbott, an award-winning Australian composer, created ‘Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender’, which incorporates text from a series of letters from Australian citizens that that never made it their intended recipients – detained asylum seekers. Performed by the Flinders Quartet with mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd and actor Richard Piper as narrator, the piece premiered on the ADCH in July 2020. In a touching postscript, there were many asylum seekers in the audience who then wrote to the people whose letters had been returned.

Of course, it’s not just the musicians who have benefitted. Many classical audience members fall into an older demographic; a demographic that has been particularly isolated during lockdowns.

And for the first time, remote and regional audiences had access to a huge variety of live classical music. Adele recalls fondly one occasion when phones rang off the hook for a concert by a Darwin children’s choir. No matter where they lived, proud grandparents and families were able to watch the children perform.

The ADCH is also an affordable way for people to enjoy a cultural event. Livestream ticket prices  start from a very reasonable $24 and there are no other associated costs such as transport, parking and babysitting fees.

And the benefit for donors and stakeholders? An unparalleled degree of collaboration, efficiency and return on investment.

ADCH ROI and its winning pillars

The ADCH offers what Chris and Adele describe as a strong admin-to-player ratio. Instead of 50 separate organisations applying for funding to set up live streaming equipment, the ADCH does it for them. Instead of multiple ticketing platforms, thousands of concert sales happen under one roof. Plus, marketing is taken care of with Adele and Chris managing promotions for thousands of Australian musicians.

It’s collaborative, it makes responsible use of philanthropic, government and consumer money, and it’s win-win for everyone involved.

These cornerstones of Chris and Adele’s success have won over funders and audience members alike (and delivered a great ROI):

  • A clear and simple proposition – supporting the ADCH directly supports artists.
  • A clear understanding of audience groups and their specific needs.
  • Nimble mobilisation of networks in the early phase of the platform, securing both the in-kind and financial support Chris and Adele needed to launch the ADCH in just 10 days.
  • An understanding of the different motivations of their donors, with asks and areas to support tailored accordingly.
  • Proven sustainability and ability to survive in extremely challenging circumstances.
  • Recognising the power of offering unique and special experiences – such as Katy Abbott’s asylum seeker piece and the Darwin children’s choir.
  • Openness to seeking support from mentors and peers.

Music to a funder’s ears right?! This dynamic duo has delivered in spades and to think they could be so strategic in the grip of early-2020 panic, going on to achieve such monumental impact for the Australian music industry and community is truly awe-inspiring. Surely the future looks bright for the ACDH.

What the future holds

 “I think moving forward there’s three avenues,” explains Chris. “There’s digital only, there’s hybrid – which is what we expect the next six to 12 months to be – and then, ideally, we’ll be back to full houses again by late 2022.”

A hybrid approach will involve live performances with digital broadcasts, which will cater to in-person concert goers, alongside those with a lingering discomfort about venturing out or those situated remotely (33% of the ADCH audience is in regional Australia).

Adele and Chris hope to expand their offering beyond the classical genre, and have plans to introduce world music, cabaret and jazz to their program.

The need for philanthropic support will be ongoing, vital in growing the administrative team and back-end infrastructure.

Creative Partnerships Award

 Now that we’ve shone a light on Chris and Adele’s work, we probably don’t need to explain why they won the Creative Partnerships Australia Arts Leadership Award. But it is a privilege to have the opportunity to ask what it means for them personally.

“It’s an incredible honour, and I don’t think either Chris or I ever thought we would join that [Creative Partnerships Australia Awards] list of phenomenal leaders in the sector. Those are people we’ve looked up to throughout our entire careers,” says Adele.

“We’re just at the very beginning of what we think the ADCH is capable of, so I guess this is a real affirmation of just how important the work we’re doing is, and how much potential it has to connect Australians everywhere through music.”

Chris wants to emphasise that, without the ADCH’s founding partners, the award – and everything that came before it – would not have been possible:

“Without our founding partners, we would never have got off the ground in 10 days. They enabled us to create the impetus and movement we needed to put us in the position we are in today. The power of the partnership is so vital.”

“Bravo!” is an overused word but Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt deserve the accolade.

“They saw opportunities where the rest of us saw roadblocks,” says William Hennessy, Artistic Director of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. “And that is the hallmark of leadership.”

We couldn’t have said it any better ourselves.

To watch footage of Chris and Adele talking about the ADCH, click here.

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