News

How New Zealand's Six60 Became the World's Biggest Live Act This Year

Six60 perform at Eden Park

The country's handling of COVID-19 has allowed the Dunedin five-piece to make history locally and dominate globally.

BRISBANE, Australia — There was a cool breeze in the air, and a touch of rain, when Six60 strolled to the stage on April 24 for their concert in Auckland’s Eden Park stadium. Against the backdrop of a traditional haka dance and a Maori welcome from a local cultural group, the local rockers soon got the crowd warmed up.

While the international spotlight has fallen on New Zealand in recent years — with the likes of Joshua Stylah, Benee and Lorde enjoying success — no act can touch the recent domestic box office of Six60. In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the live concert business, the New Zealand band has emerged as the biggest touring act in the world in 2021, mostly by exploiting their country’s extra-low number of COVID-19 virus cases and its confident handling of the health crisis.

And when Six60 members Matiu Walters, Marlon Gerbes, Ji Fraser, Chris Mac and Eli Paewai ripped open their set at Eden Park with “Don’t Forget Your Roots,” the group fulfilled a dream. That night, Six60 played to a full house of 50,000-plus at the national stadium of New Zealand — becoming the first band ever to do so. With a reputation as seasoned live performers, no other act is playing to crowds of this size.

Eden Park capped a string of major open-air shows in New Zealand, Six60’s second lap in support of their 2019 self-titled album. The band grossed $13.7 million and sold 168,761 tickets across seven shows in New Zealand in 2021, according to Billboard Boxscore. (Six60 played to another 10,000 fans at Cardrona Valley in Wanaka on Jan. 1; The pre-bought tickets were not included in official box office reports.)

Having conquered their homeland, Six60 are now planning to take their touring juggernaut to audiences in Australia, the U.K. and Europe.

“Every month we have a sit-down and try to figure out how to do something really big, to make a difference,” frontman Walters tells Billboard. “We’re continually trying to challenge ourselves.”

A travel “bubble” connecting the lands Down Under opened in April, enabling quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand. Six60 will take advantage with a nine-date tour of Australia due to kick off Nov. 3 at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre. A headline performance is booked for Dubai’s futuristic Expo later this fall, a visit to Bottlerock Napa Valley this Sept. 3–5 is in the cards and an 11-date U.K. and Europe jaunt will begin Nov. 18 at Le Badaboum, Paris, France. Along the way, Six60 will play London’s iconic Alexandra Palace on Nov. 26, a room that's bound to be filled with ex-pats.

“It’s hard to ignore the overwhelming response in Australia with the demand for tickets, over 30,000 tickets sold in the current climate in the first week of the on-sale and counting," says James Browning, senior promoter at Live Nation, who is overseeing the tour’s Australian leg.

In 2019, Six60 became the first New Zealand act to sell out a stadium, Western Springs (50,000 tickets). In 2020 they sold out Western Springs again and added it to a national sell out stadium tour, which sold over 135,000 tickets, the national record, smashing their old mark (75,000) for tickets on a domestic tour.

(For some perspective, Lorde has never played a show in New Zealand larger than Auckland’s Spark Arena, which boasts a capacity of about 12,000 and has hosted performances from Post Malone, Harry Styles and many other international acts.)

Walters’ performance at Eden Park was seemingly in his roots. His grandfather played at the venue, in an entirely different ball game. Muru Walters represented the New Zealand Maoris in a 1956 rugby test match against the touring South African side.

For those who couldn’t get a seat for the Eden Park concert, Veeps streamed the ANZAC weekend event, drawing upwards of 100,000 viewers across 30 countries, say reps. Earlier, the band made history when TikTok live streamed their Feb. 27 concert at Hamilton’s Claudelands Oval.

New Zealand has done better than most countries in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus. By shutting borders early in the pandemic and closely monitoring outbreaks, the country has limited its confirmed cases to less than 2,700, with only 26 deaths, as of June 6, according to Johns Hopkins University. No country with more than 5 million people has fewer deaths. (Taiwan, with 23.5 million people, had fewer deaths until two weeks ago. A recent virus outbreak pushed its fatalities to 260 as of Monday.)

Visitors to New Zealand and Australia are required to undertake 14 days of mandatory quarantine, a hurdle that’s too much for most tourists. It’s a situation that has allowed homegrown acts to shine.

Playing Eden Park, the spiritual home of rugby in New Zealand and the national men’s team, the All Blacks, wasn’t without its challenges.

There had never been a music show there in 100 years. And that seemed unlikely to change when organizers faced a large and vocal opposition, led by former prime minister Helen Clark. To win support, it would come down to a game of numbers.

It turned into a “little battle” to get approval, recounts Reilly. The band and their reps assembled a report to woo residents. The study boiled the argument down to a financial one: Green light a performance by a local band and keep 100% of the taxable touring income in New Zealand.

It was a winning argument. When the report was put out to the community, it received 95% approval, Reilly says.

Formed in 2008 in Dunedin, a South Island town popular with students, Six60took their name from the address of the flat they lived in, No. 660. Since then, they've become accustomed to the big stage. They’ve landed four No. 1 albums on the Official New Zealand Music Chart, and sold more than 1 million singles, an astonishing number for a country whose population of approximately 5 million is roughly equal to that of the Australian city of Sydney.

Malay (Frank Ocean, Lorde, Sam Smith) produced the band’s third self-titled album, which reached No. 8 on Australia’s chart. In New Zealand, it remained at No. 1 for 12 consecutive weeks.

Across their career, Six60 has snagged 17 New Zealand Music Awards, including best group at the 2018 ceremony, one of five trophies on the night.

“It’s their time to shine globally,” says Nick Vinci from Epic Records, which signed the group for North America in October 2019. Their metrics in New Zealand “are staggering and prove their insane potential.” (Epic released the SIX60 album the following month, and then released the single “All She Wrote” this February.)

Six60 didn’t escape the chaos inflicted by the pandemic. The bandmates were “gutted” when promoters scrapped a string of international dates, says Walters, including a July 2020 open-air concert at the 3,000-capacity Somerset House in central London.

“We’re pulling some crazy numbers.” Walters says. “A lot of our decisions in the studio are based around how they resonate live, and we just love the art form so much. It’s been able to carry us so long and so well here in New Zealand. There’s no reason why that can’t happen overseas.”