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Live From the Trans-Tasman Bubble: How Australia Brought Concerts Back

With fewer than 1,000 reported deaths due to Covid-19, the pandemic was a different experience in Australia. Now, the country — and its neighbor New Zealand — have fast-tracked the return of live music.

Lime Cordiale at the Enmore Theatre in Syndey on March 13th

Ashley Mar for Rolling Stone Australia

The year 2020 will be a stain on the memories of most Australian artists. Closed borders and closed venues meant tour and album-release plans were either revised or brought to a halt, and revenue streams (not to mention fans) suffered accordingly. For Australian sibling duo Lime Cordiale, though, the pandemic created an unexpected opportunity. The Sydney-based indie-pop band ended up releasing its second album “to a bored, hungry audience,” as co-founder Oli Leimbach puts it, in July of last year. 14 Steps to a Better You debuted at Number One on the Australian Albums Chart (ARIA), the band’s first leader, and Lime Cordiale went on to win their first ARIA Award, for Breakthrough Artist.

As the lockdown ripped the life out of live, Lime Cordiale scrapped shows around the globe. “[Before the pandemic] our touring schedule in 2020 looked so busy it was already hurting before we’d begun,” says Leimbach. Pre-Covid, Lime Cordiale planned a victory lap of their country in front of their biggest audiences to date. Instead, the band ended up hosting quarter-capacity seated concerts in Sydney and Melbourne, performing two shows a night. The band’s three-night residency at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory brought joy and gratitude to a city starved of live music. But social distancing regulations meant that Lime Cordiale’s piquant pop songs, snazzy horn arrangements, and kazoo solos were heard by a room of just 70 fans.

Now, though, Lime Cordiale had better get ready for more of the good pain Leimbach speaks of. With infection rates remaining consistently low in Australia and its neighbor New Zealand, both countries are moving into the next phase of post-Covid life, and the indie outfit took advantage by announcing a six-date national tour this October, including multiple dates at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion.

In Australia, the road to recovery for live music on a national scale has been paved with reinvention — and it’s happening at a speed that may surprise fans in other parts of the world. In fact, Australia might be six to nine months ahead of the world when it comes to live music reopening in a Covid-safe way, promoters say. Clubs are pumping in Brisbane, where venue capacities have been entirely lifted. Restaurants are open across the country and sporting competitions are in full flow. The so-called “trans-Tasman bubble” opened on April 19th, enabling residents — and performers — to visit both Australia and New Zealand without the need to quarantine. In many ways, a tourist to these parts might wonder if Covid ever happened.

Artists like Courtney Barnett, Keith Urban, and others are announcing treks on what seems to be a daily basis as interstate flights resume (with reduced fares, a move backed by the government and intended to get business flowing). Festivals have resumed with all-local lineups, venue capacities are slowly lifting, and dancing is now permitted — meaning tables and chairs have been removed from venues and they’re looking less speakeasy and more 2019. Across Australia, it’s a return to a new normal. “We are confident that the tours for late this year and early-2022 will go ahead,” comments legendary promoter Michael Chugg, who won the ARIA Icon Award in 2019. “But you never know what can happen.”

Visitors to Australia and New Zealand know its border controls are as rigid as they are unfriendly. This cautious approach set the groundwork for the Lands Down Under to move past Covid before most other markets. “Australia and New Zealand have done a very good job of managing the virus, through a combination of policy, geography, and culture,” explains Geoff Jones, CEO of TEG, parent of TEG Dainty. “Australians and Kiwis tend to play by the rules.” According to data published in late-April 2021 by Johns Hopkins, Australia recorded 910 deaths due to Covid, with fewer than 30,000 confirmed cases among its population of 25 million. Community transmissions have been close to zero for months. 

Since lockdown measures began in March 2020, all arrivals in the country must spend two weeks in hotel quarantine, paid from their own pockets. Once out, you’ll be expected to check in with contact-tracing software on each visit to a music venue, pub, or club. Also, the wearing of masks hasn’t been politicized in these parts to the same degree as in Europe and North America. When they were compulsory, on-the-spot fines of Australian $200 were issued if you were seen without one on public transport.

All this despite the rollout of Covid vaccines being nothing short of a calamity. Due in part to supply issues from abroad, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s target of 4 million Australians vaccinated by the end of March fell short of the target by about 80 percent. And yet, Australia’s economy marches on. In March, Marcel Thieliant, economist at Capital Economics, said he expects a GDP growth of 4.5 percent in 2021: “[This] implies that allowing for the slump in net migration due to the closure of the border, the economy will suffer no permanent drop in output as a result of the pandemic.”

Jones, Chugg, and others at the elite level of concert promoting are betting on international borders remaining closed until 2022. So they’re testing new events featuring all-Australian lineups. Melbourne’s April Sun event, for example, a Live Nation-produced series of headline concerts and mini festivals featuring performances from G Flip, Sneaky Sound System, Touch Sensitive, and others, is a world away from the lockdowns that plagued the Victorian capital last year.  

Every city in Australia tested live events before the colder months set in. Brisbane’s the Zoo was one of the first in the world to trial socially distanced shows, back in June 2020. “I was incredibly nervous to open,” recounts owner and venue booker Pixie Weyand. “We basically had thousands of dollars of fines hanging over our heads if we fucked up, so it was mixed emotions.” 

Those high-pressure shows were a learning experience. For the first time, the entire room was “almost forced to be fixated on the artist without distraction,” Weyand notes. “You weren’t allowed to play pool or have a chat up the back. It was almost confronting for some artists, but in a really positive way.

When Danny Widdicombe led a Tom Petty tribute night on August 1st, 2020, at the Outpost, part of the Fortitude Music Hall, just 100 meters from the Zoo, the venue was limited to half its 300-person capacity, every guest seated at a table. It was a strangely sterile atmosphere, not least because the performers hadn’t experienced an audience for more than six months. 

Some admitted to nerves. Dancing was banned with the threat of an Australian $1,000-plus fine. Drinks could be bought only from waitstaff, though masks weren’t required. Now, in Queensland, all venues can run at full capacity. Other states are bound to follow. Dancing is back in Melbourne and elsewhere, and Australia’s Melbourne Cricket Ground has hosted a post-pandemic world-record crowd of 78,113 fans.

Meanwhile, there are opportunities for foreign artists willing to take on quarantine. British comedian Russell Howard was the first international act to tour New Zealand and Australia since Covid hit, embarking on a multidate trans-Tasman run from January 2021, produced by Live Nation. Ed Sheeran took the plunge when he headed to Melbourne to perform at Michael Gudinski’s state memorial on March 24th, where he debuted “Visiting Hours,” a song he wrote while in isolation.

The worst-case scenario did happen when the annual Bluesfest was shut down by authorities on the eve of its event in early April, due to a single community transmission of Covid-19 in nearby Byron Bay. Not everyone was happy with this decision — Chugg calls it a “ridiculous knee-jerk action” — and it’s likely to cost the economy upward of Australian $200 million in lost revenue. With just one community transmission discovered before NSW Health shut down the five-day camping festival — and zero confirmed cases and restrictions lifted after that — the decision was criticized by the Australian music industry.

“We have to learn to live in a Covid world. We have to have Covid safety plans that work, and Bluesfest’s one was a beauty,” says Bluesfest festival director Peter Noble. “I’m not saying there wasn’t the ability of a superspreader coming to Bluesfest, of course that could happen. That could happen at any major sporting event. The truth is we were ready to do it at a safe level.” 

A bigger test awaits. Guns N’ Roses are booked for a stadium tour, presented by TEG subsidiary TEG Dainty and kicking off November 19th at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast. And Keith Urban is touring his The Speed of Now world tour across Australia in December.

Next year is “looking huge — globally,” says Roger Field, president of Live Nation Asia-Pacific. “Artists are keen to get back on the road, there is pent-up demand from fans to see their favorite artists, and we’re all projecting that there will be enough certainty in freedom of movement and protocols for gatherings. I’m optimistic about the rest of this year as well.” 

None of this is by accident. Behind the scenes, Australia’s music industry has done the legwork by pushing governments at state and federal levels to reduce the barriers to doing business. It hasn’t been an easy sell, despite a glaring double-standard that has seen sporting events play to sizable crowds at a time when live music was told to stay quiet. Those frustrations reached fever pitch when nearly 50,000 people poured into Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium last November for the State of Origin rugby league decider.

In March, a delegation of music-industry representatives, including artist managers and promoters, visited Australia’s capital Canberra for talks with the country’s leaders. Soon after, a stimulus package worth more than Australian $125 million was announced for the ailing live-entertainment sector.

Evelyn Richardson, chief executive of Live Performance Australia, the live-entertainment sector’s trade association, was part of that successful trip. “Keep going,” is her advice. “You just have to keep getting up every day and push on, refocus where and when you need to, and realign depending on what external factors are in play at any given time.”

In the Australian context, the other big challenge for advocates was to work with eight state and territory governments as well as the commonwealth. “Everything just keeps moving and changing so quickly,” says Richardson, “so it’s a constant challenge to stay ahead of the curve.”

The months ahead are looking promising, though the champagne will stay on ice. “As soon as a country opens up, we’re touring it,” says Lime Cordiale’s Oli Leimbach. “We adapted, moved online, created some great merch, but live music is where our hearts are. It’ll take some time to fix the damage that’s been done, but as usual, the artists will fix it.”

Poppy Reid is the managing editor of Rolling Stone Australia; Lars Brandle is Billboard magazine‘s correspondent for Australia

From Rolling Stone US