BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA — Michael Chugg understands the devastating impact of bushfires better than most. The Chugg Entertainment founder’s father was a firefighter in his native Tasmania, and the promoter joined his dad on several fire fights until they decided the son’s outings were too dangerous.
Now, amid the massive bushfires sweeping across Australia, Chugg and other concert promoters are scrambling to develop contingency plans for festivals and events that could face smoke and fire danger. While only a handful of events have been canceled, the rapidly moving fires — unprecedented and supercharged by climate change — have promoters working around the clock to try and minimize the economic damage a string of major show cancellations could bring.
“The situation is day by day, hour by hour,” says Matthew Lazarus-Hall, senior vp Asia Pacific for AEG Presents, which is promoting Elton John‘s second visit to Australia for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour, a 27-date run in the country that began Jan. 7 and will cover 12 cities, two arenas, six stadiums and four wineries.
The veteran British singer’s Australian jaunt is among those threatened by the fires. The tour includes a mix of indoor venues like Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, outdoor performances at wineries like Hope Estate in New South Wales and two shows at the famed Hanging Rock in Central Victoria — all of which have faced some level of fire danger in recent weeks.
John was grossing an average of $2 million per show during his first dates in Australia at the end of 2019. The upcoming leg of outdoor concerts has AEG executives monitoring air quality and fire danger in the country and planning a number of benefit shows for those affected by the wildfires, which intensified in January just as the summer concert season in Australia and New Zealand kicked off.
Over 15 million acres of land have burned — an area the size of West Virginia and more than seven times the area torched in the 2018 California fires. Almost 2,000 homes have been destroyed, and at least 24 people are confirmed dead, with many more missing.
At times, the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House have been lost to the naked eye due to the orange haze of nearby fires. The filthy air has triggered smoke alarms in offices in Sydney, where the smoke was so bad in early December that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level. In the capital of Canberra, the picture is no better. And the fires aren’t contained: Over 130 of them were burning across southeastern Australia, the hardest-hit area, as of Jan. 6.
“These are not bushfires. They are climate-change storms,” says Chugg. “Disasters with fireballs, massive explosions, massive fire fronts and much more. I grew up with bushfires, and the disasters happening now can’t be called bushfires.”
The latest crisis has already forced the cancellation of one major outdoor event. Halsey was among the acts who were to perform at the Falls Festival in Lorne, Victoria (organized by Live Nation-affiliated Secret Sounds), which was called off due to unsafe conditions. Some 9,000 people were evacuated from the site on Dec. 29 due to extreme weather conditions.
“We are gutted to make this call, but the safety of our patrons, artists and staff is our main priority,” said Secret Sounds co-CEO Jessica Ducrou. Falls Festival events in Byron Bay, Marion Bay and Fremantle went as planned. The raging fires are threatening to dampen Australia’s live entertainment sector just as it’s coming off two banner years. Artists in Australia sold 3.7 million tickets to 672 shows in 2019, down from 4.74 million tickets to 877 shows in 2018, when bigger touring stars like P!nk, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift visited Down Under, according to Billboard Boxscore. P!nk played 42 shows in the country last year on her Beautiful Trauma world tour, grossing $80.4 million with 559,361 tickets sold in Australia and New Zealand.
Legendary singer Jimmy Barnes, whose rock band Cold Chisel is touring its domestic No. 1 album Blood Moon for a string of outdoor shows in January and February, says the hot weather is taking its toll. “It really is dry,” Barnes told Billboard from his home in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. “It’s tough out there for people. We could all do with rain, but unfortunately, it’s not looking good.”
It’s a sensitive time, and not just for Aussie natives. Tourism Australia temporarily yanked a $15 million “Matesong” campaign fronted by Kylie Minogue, which promotes the region in the United Kingdom; it launched before Christmas.
Reegan Stark, who heads up communications for Frontier Touring, says the longer-than-normal bushfire season “seems to be getting closer and closer to the start of our busy season,” which really gets going in February and March. Most think the situation will improve by the time events like the traveling Laneway Festival starts in Brisbane (Feb. 1), but fears that the unprecedented natural crisis could drag on longer has promoters worried about mounting losses.
The country’s distance from Europe and North America makes rescheduling shows more difficult. A canceled Rolling Stones date at Hanging Rock in 2014 nearly bankrupted Frontier founder/CEO Michael Gudinski, who merged with the much larger AEG in 2019.
“The entire industry is in shock and distressed by what’s happening,” says Chugg. “And we believe it will go on for some time.” As an industry, “we will be doing whatever we can concert-wise to raise funds and focus on climate-change awareness.”
Additional reporting by Eric Frankenberg.