BRISBANE, Australia — After years of playing Melbourne clubs with capacities of under 1,000, the hardcore rap-metal band Dregg finally had its moment at the 2019 Brisbane Bigsound festival. Within months, the act signed with U.S. managers Adam LaRue and Jon Halperin, then booking agency Paradigm and label Epitaph Records. Everything was going great, until “all the touring and shows were canceled,” says lead singer Christopher Mackertich, who quit his day job as a high-end hairstylist to go on tour in March 2020. That didn’t happen, of course.
Because the group is based in Australia, though, Dregg will be able to start playing concerts far sooner than most. In North America and Europe, touring isn’t expected to resume until fall, with a full-scale comeback not expected until 2022. But Australia and New Zealand, which fought off the coronavirus with strict quarantine rules and rigorous safety protocols, are already hosting both indoor concerts and festivals, with little or no social distancing. For international artists willing to travel there and quarantine, Australasia’s relatively developed touring market offers an opportunity to hit the road.
“Australia is probably further along than most other countries” in terms of a touring rebound, says AEG Asia CEO Adam Wilkes. Other parts of Asia Pacific with large domestic markets — namely China and Japan — are also finding their way back by doing local-artist events, increasingly on a larger scale, Wilkes says.
So far, most tours in Australia are led by domestic acts like Midnight Oil, which is playing shows to support its chart-topping mini-album The Makarrata Project. New Zealand pop-rockers Six60 embarked on a stadium tour of their homeland in early February, playing to a crowd of more than 30,000 fans at Wellington’s Sky Stadium on Feb. 13.
But promoters are also establishing protocols to bring in global acts, including Guns N’ Roses, which will tour stadiums in November (during the Australian summer). Much of the traffic is handled by Michael Gudinski‘s Frontier Touring and Roundhouse Touring, which booked Midnight Oil’s four February/March outdoor winery shows in Australia and New Zealand. “Touring is decimated,” says Gudinski, “but it’s a great time for Australian acts to shine.”
Queensland state, home to Brisbane and the Gold Coast, is back at 100% venue capacity, and “we are working across all the states to increase audience capacity beyond 60% to 75% capacity and removal of caps so we can get to full capacity as soon as possible,” says Evelyn Richardson, CEO of trade association Live Performance Australia.
The Australasia market has never been a hard sell for touring artists: With a combined English-speaking population of nearly 30 million, top acts can sell over 300,000 tickets, or earn up to $40 million in gross revenue, on a tour. The 2020-2024 Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook predicted that the live sector would bring in $1.4 billion in 2020, although revenue estimates fell by 90% due to the pandemic.
Distance and cost have always been the challenge. And Australia’s coronavirus quarantine regulations, which captured global attention in January during the Australian Open tennis tournament, have also been an issue. Anyone entering or reentering the country, including Australian nationals, must quarantine for 14 to 24 days at a hotel chosen by the government. Travelers must cover hotel costs and submit to multiple COVID-19 tests. With irregular room service and police and security guards maintaining order, “acts are very wary of traveling and about putting up with a two-week quarantine,” Gudinski says. “I’m a realist.”
Some have already taken the plunge though. American singer-songwriter Ben Folds is among the foreigners who have moved to Sydney to perform at the Sunset Piazza, a 350-capacity pop-up concert series. Other artists on the bill include Kate Miller-Heidke, Josh Pyke, Eddie Perfect and G Flip.
“The next test, particularly for Australia, will be finding the balance as we reopen and return to living a reasonably normal life, something New Zealand has excelled at so far,” says Roger Field, president of Live Nation Asia Pacific. In May, New Zealand became one of the first countries to experiment with COVID-19-safe shows. In October, the annual Rhythm and Vines festival, with an all-local lineup, drew nearly 20,000 attendees, according to Live Nation. (An unexplained outbreak of three cases in Auckland led local officials to order a three-day lockdown starting Feb. 14.)
Once artists pass through quarantine, Australasia offers a potential touring map of at least 10 cities and 20 venues across both countries. Australia has five major cities, three of which — Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane — are on its east coast. More dates can be added in smaller cities: Elton John‘s 40-show schedule in 2019 and 2020 included dates in Bathurst, Coffs Harbour and Geelong.
Ed Sheeran‘s 2018 Divide stadium tour smashed all-time box office records, shifting 1.1 million tickets across both territories, says Gudinski, whose Frontier Touring produced the trek. P!nk set the benchmark for arena shows with her 2009 Funhouse tour, which criss-crossed the country and sold more than 650,000 tickets across 58 dates in Australia.
Guns N’ Roses plans to stage this year’s most ambitious tour — eight stadium shows starting in November produced by TEG Dainty, a division of TEG Group. The venues can operate at full capacity, but they will employ COVID-19 cleaning protocols. (Guns N’ Roses last toured Australia in 2017, selling 350,000 tickets over eight shows to gross $38 million, according to Billboard Boxscore.)
In late 2020, TEG explored the market with two reduced-capacity shows (6,000) at Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena featuring all-local lineups. “It’s not about making money,” says TEG CEO Geoff Jones. “It’s about breaking even. We need to give confidence to the industry. We need to find our way back.”
Australia’s vaccine rollout is set to start by the end of February, though a trans-Tasman Sea “bubble” has yet to materialize. Promoters had been hoping to create a COVID-19-safe regional touring map in Asia Pacific, but a planned travel bubble of Singapore and Hong Kong fell apart in November after a spike in cases in Hong Kong. If a direct path that doesn’t require quarantining twice opens between Australia and New Zealand, it would make the combination of both countries “a very attractive global market for live events,” says Richardson.
No one is predicting a return to normal this year, although Australia and New Zealand are positioned to become the places to restart international tours — with some patience and planning. “We are the lucky country here,” says Gudinski. “Let’s not make us unlucky.”
Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo.