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The NZ Normal: What live is like on the other side

The country's post-pandemic bubble has garnered global envy but its live industry says that true success will depend on the rest of the world overcoming Covid

By Gordon Masson on 26 Feb 2021

Spark Arena, New Zealand

Spark Arena, New Zealand


When IQ catches up with Stuart Clumpas, he is at the wedding of Live Nation New Zealand chief Mark Kneebone, and the following morning is flying his plane to Queenstown for an outdoor gig. “How very New Zealand-of-the-moment is that?” he comments, adding how fortunate he feels to be in a place that has dealt so well with the pandemic.

“What New Zealand has been able to do, by a combination of fortuitous positioning on the planet, a little bit of taking a punt and getting it right, and just a very cooperative element throughout society, is to stop Covid in its tracks, and then put up strict-but-fair barriers to prevent the virus getting into the country,” says Clumpas.

However, while going to a gig remains all but a dream for billions of people around the world, the reality in the Land of the Long White Cloud is that live music professionals are suffering from some of the same issues as their peers in nations where concerts remain banned.

“We’re in a bubble that nobody can leave or get into”

Indeed, never has the term Kiwi been more appropriate, as the national icon is a flightless bird, very much symbolising the current dilemma. “I feel like I’m the living embodiment of The Truman Show,” confesses Clumpas. “We’re in a bubble that nobody can leave or get into.”

Former Live Nation chairman Clumpas, who still consults for the company but otherwise runs Auckland’s 12,000-capacity Spark Arena and sister venue The Tuning Fork (cap. 375), contends that New Zealand’s ‘new normal’ comes with caveats. “It’s normal to all extents and purposes, but there is an uncomfortable feeling or an unease behind it; everybody knows that it ain’t the norm, even though you go about life being normal… it’s hard to explain.

“In terms of business, though, we’re able to have shows without restrictions, as there is no community Covid here.” (At press time, the New Zealand government announced that a 56-year-old woman who had completed the compulsory two-week quarantine had subsequently returned a positive test. She was ordered to self isolate at home.)

“Covid-19 [has] had a massive impact on the number of events we’ve been able to deliver”

Staging shows
While anyone remotely interested in live entertainment might be looking enviously at the freedoms the people of New Zealand are enjoying, for those working in the territory the reality is a lot more fragile. Clumpas, for instance, reports that Spark Arena’s business is 85% down, while others disclose similar struggles.

“Covid-19 [has] had a massive impact on the number of events we’ve been able to deliver. Since lockdown we have hosted 61 performance events in our venues; for the same date range in the previous year we hosted more than 130 events,” reports Gus Sharp, event sales and planning manager for WellingtonNZ, which through its Venues Wellington division operates six buildings: Michael Fowler Centre (capacity 2,500 seated); TSB Arena (cap 6,000); Shed 6 (1,400); The Opera House (1,388 seated); the Wellington Town Hall, (2,200 mixed); and the St James Theatre (1,700 seated).

Sharp continues, “The largest single night event we delivered was a drum and bass rave at the TSB Arena which, on the night, had a capacity of 4,000.”

Detailing Live Nation New Zealand’s post-Covid journey, managing director Mark Kneebone, recalls, “We started off with smaller shows like the Together Again series which were among the first socially distanced shows in the world, which we kicked off at the Tuning Fork, Auckland in late May 2020.

“The largest single night event we delivered was a drum and bass rave at the TSB Arena which had a capacity of 4,000”

“Initially, the capacity for the events were 100 people, including all staff. These events were all seated, with fans in pods, and with lots of health and safety precautions such as temperature checks, socially distanced seating, table service, staff wearing PPE and contact tracing.

“As the situation in the country became under control and restrictions were lifted, shows could happen at full scale again and we were back on the road as quickly as we could be.”

Kneebone continues, “The biggest headline show we did in 2020 was Benee, with the tour covering eight shows ranging from theatre to arena level in four cities across NZ, and included two sold-out shows at Spark Arena.”

On the festival front, Live Nation benefitted from the demand for entertainment outdoors at its 29-31 December Rhythm & Vines festival, which with an all-Kiwi line up, selling more than 25,000 tickets and attracting 83,000 attendees across the four days.

“We also had to create our own gigs, which is something that others elsewhere might want to look at”

Away from music, WellingtonNZ also hosted the world premiere of Digital Nights – Van Gogh Alive, an out-door digital projection exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh. “It had more than 44,000 people through the gates,” says Sharp. “This was a fantastic outcome considering that for part of the eight-week season, crowds were unavoidably limited to no more than 100 people a session.”

Creativity has also been a challenge at Spark Arena, where Clumpas flags up a successful beer festival. “We also had to create our own gigs, which is something that others elsewhere might want to look at,” he says, citing the world’s biggest ever pub gig, which was organised in partnership with promoter Eccles Entertainment.

“This harks back to the 80s when the likes of INXS and Midnight Oil would play to 2,000 people in these huge pubs – nobody would pay to get in but they’d all come in and drink like hell,” explains Clumpas.

“It was Brent Eccles’ idea, where he put on all these Kiwi bands who were big in the 80s. It was fabulous – we had 3,000 people and because we didn’t have an international Spark Arena in Auckland has introduced Covid tests at the venue’s entrances touring production manager to deal with, we ran the room and we were able to do a whole bunch of shit that never in a month of Sun- days we would have been allowed to do – and people absolutely loved it.

“Such ingenuity is needed because New Zealand’s limited talent pool has already been used – to great effect”

“For example, there’s a famous takeaway hamburger caravan called The White Lady in central Auckland where people go in the early hours on their way home after a big night. We brought The White Lady into the venue and put it at the back of the room.

“And above the stage, Brent had this video screen on a loop, saying ‘No shorts or stubbies or jandals allowed in this bar, mate. Get too drunk and you’re fucking getting chucked out.’ The bands love it, and every punter who came up to me thought it was hilarious and begged us to do it again.”

Eccles, too, was thrilled at the success of the format. “We’ll definitely do it again,” he tells IQ. “In fact, I have plans to take the idea to Australia, when it’s possible.”

Delighting at the details of the event, Eccles says, “All the bars were on the floor of the arena, like a pub, and we had signage up for legendary 80s places like The Globe, the Windsor Castle and the Gluepot, which don’t exist any more. Such ingenuity is needed because New Zealand’s limited talent pool has already been used – to great effect – but venues throughout the country are struggling to fill their many vacant diary dates.

“Our local acts are boosted by getting to work with that state-of-the-art production gear”

Boosting the domestic scene
There are, of course, silver linings. Clumpas points to the amazing production support that has flourished thanks to all of the international tours that have visited New Zealand in the last decade.

“Our local acts have worked incredibly hard to deliver some great shows, and they are boosted by getting to work with that state-of-the-art production gear so they can look and sound as good in an arena as any of the international acts,” he says.

“We’ve certainly seen some homegrown success stories come out of 2020,” agrees Sharp. “The 4,000-capacity rave mentioned earlier was a purely domestic line-up: that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened before Covid reared its ugly head.

“We’ve also had homegrown superstars such as Benee doing three sold-out nights in a row in one of our GA venues. The demand for homegrown talent is a fantastic thing to see and may well be ushering in a golden era for New Zealand performers and audiences.”

“We may well be ushering in a golden era for New Zealand performers and audiences”

Live Nation’s Kneebone observes, “Demand has been really strong as we came out of lockdown which has been great to see. We of course wanted to give extra thought and messaging around health and safety precautions. There will never be a one-sized fits all approach for marketing, so we continue to partner closely with artist teams to determine the right strategy. We’ve found things work smoothest when fans have all the details upfront so their expectations are aligned from the onset.”

Kneebone also tips his hat to the way in which home-grown talent has stepped up to entertain their fellow citizens. “Domestic acts have the spotlight to themselves at the moment and are headlining all the festivals around the country,” he notes. “Fans have been incredibly supportive of that, too, which means the industry can keep the wheels turning while enjoying all the best that Kiwi talent has to offer.”

Although he is the New Zealand representative of Australian giant Frontier Touring, Eccles has had no acts from that agreement to promote during the last few months. However, Eccles Entertainment was established in 2000 and has been built on a roster of Kiwi talent that has helped its founders retain all their employees throughout the pandemic. Indeed, with local act Six60 in the midst of a stadium tour that has sold 120,000 tickets, the company has the biggest tour of the NZ summer.

“Six60 are capable of selling out Western Springs, which is 50,000 capacity and a hallowed ground, as its had gigs by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bob Marley – all the massive acts – so they are huge in New Zealand,” he says.
Looking ahead, Eccles is having to pull on all his experience to come up with new and unique ways to maintain interest for his roster of domestic talent.

“There are a lot of challenges to deal with and it’s going to be an exciting year for New Zealand artists”

“I don’t want to give away any secrets, but I’ve been asking the acts if there is somewhere they’ve always wanted to play, or some other act they’d love to work with,” he reveals. “You’ve got to offer something unique, especially after it starts to get cold here in April. But I’m really excited, as there are a lot of challenges to deal with and it’s going to be an exciting year for New Zealand artists.”

The ability to rely on domestic talent has given the industry a lifeline, although it appears to be a limited one. Recalling the shows at Spark Arena with Benee, Clumpas notes that fans were generally being a little more conscious of each other’s personal space.

“Perceptively you can see people standing a little bit further away in the queue and not in each other’s face. And instead of rushing the door, there was a calmness as they gave each other a bit more space.” Indeed, such considerate audience behaviour prompted Clumpas to allow the audience to choose how they wanted to experience the concerts. “We had what we call free-flow, where nothing is allocated, and that allows people to stand for a bit, then go grab a seat. So it’s up to them if they want to go and sit at the front or the back. And it worked really well.”

The arena’s sparse booking calendar also allowed some imaginative formatting for Benee’s visit. Judging that she would sell about 10,000 tickets, the decision was made to spread that across two nights. “It was Benee’s first tour and rather than do 10k on one night, when she’d never even played to half that, her management, who are smart boys, decided to do two shows at 5.5k as that wasn’t so daunting for the artist,” says Clumpas. “We took the view that we could do anything – even a whole number of nights at 2,000-cap, because we weren’t doing anything else.”

“We only have four or five bands that can sell-out half an arena, so we’ve kind of run out of talent”

Skills shortage
Around the world, one of the key issues that the live entertainment business is having to face when it returns is a lack of personnel to kickstart operations.

Thousands of industry professionals have been made redundant throughout the pandemic, while others have simply moved into new areas of employment so that they can pay the bills, creating a significant headache for event organisers whenever the green light for mass gatherings is given. And despite a busy outdoor season currently underway, it seems colleagues in New Zealand are already facing identical problems.

Detailing the precarious nature of the NZ recovery, Clumpas explains: “Unlike in the UK, we have a very thin local market and that goes back to the fact that the business here used to be run out of Australia, bringing in loads of bands from overseas but never developing a local market.

“At arena level, we only have four or five bands that can sell-out half an arena, and the biggest comedian here can maybe sell 3,000 tickets, so we’ve kind of run out of talent: business is down by about 85% and we’ve had to lay people off because we don’t have enough things to put on at the arena.”

“We took an approach of leniency with contracts and generally acknowledged the completely unprecedented situation”

Sharp comments, “We have not escaped unscathed – even the relatively short disruption has had a huge influence on the industry and we are still feeling the effects.”

But, as with countless businesses around the planet, WellingtonNZ and its affiliates have been collaborating with others to try to mitigate the pain. “As a public organisation, our focus is on helping our partners through,” pledges Sharp. “We took an approach of leniency with contracts and generally acknowledged the completely unprecedented situation. This proved to be the right way to deal with the situation as it generated goodwill and strengthened relationships, both of which will bear fruit as the impacts of Covid on the sector start to recede.”

A team of five million
The willingness of the population to cooperate is key to New Zealand’s fight to keep the virus out, according to Scotland-born Clumpas, who emigrated to Auckland in 2002. “One of the first things that struck me about living in New Zealand is that there is a really strong community feel among its citizens, no matter who they are, rich or poor. And with Covid, everyone realised we are all in this together,” says Clumpas.

Highlighting that communal attitude, Clumpas refers to the Grab & Go facilities at Spark Arena, which relies on audience honesty to help themselves to food and drink and then pay before entering the auditorium. “It lets people move more quickly at the intervals and, of course, Kiwis pay – they would not dream of taking stuff and not paying. It’s remarkable but it sums up society here.

“Overall we are seeing similar ticket-buying patterns to pre-Covid times”

“Our prime minister, Jacinda [Ardern], referred to it as ‘a team of five million.’ It’s a genuine thing where people understand this is for the good of your fellow man, so they play the game. I find that hugely different to the US or the UK, where people might ignore the government because they don’t like their politics or whatever.”

Demand & supply
While industry leaders in Asia, Europe and the Americas speculate that the pent up demand of live music fans will propel the business back toward profit when the pandemic restrictions are lifted, it’s interesting to gauge how the Kiwis have handled their restart.

WellingtonNZ’s Sharp contends that marketing is still crucial to selling tickets, although “in the immediate post-lockdown period we did see huge enthusiasm for a return to live events and tickets flew out the door,” he admits. “The second lockdown definitely shook confidence, but overall we are seeing similar ticket-buying patterns to pre-Covid times.”

Eccles is revelling in those promoting challenges, citing his big- gest pub gig strategy as an example where he captured the imagination of ticket buyers. “We had a unique way of marketing the pub gig using The Sound radio station,” says Eccles. “We went on air with 100 tickets priced at $29.90 to announce the event, then as each band was announced we went to $39.90 for the next 100 tickets, then $49.90, right up to $79.90 when we revealed the headliner, and that kept people’s interest all the way through.

“Exemptions aren’t granted lightly, but they do show [that] the government understands the importance of live events”

“It was great fun and allowed people to remember the old days, as well as seeing the bands they used to see in those pubs back in the 80s.”

Underlining the local appetite to find entertainment, Sharp adds, “Overall attendance has been similar to what we’d expect in any other year. It shows that New Zealand crowds have confidence that they can safely enjoy events, which they continued to voraciously attend.”

International artists
New Zealand’s strict border controls make it tricky for anyone who is not a citizen of the country to visit. It’s not impossible for overseas acts to perform shows, but it’s not simple, either.

Sharp says international acts can secure a border exemption place on the grounds of their importance to the local events industry. “These exemptions aren’t granted lightly, but they do show [that] the government understands the importance of live events to both the cultural and economic wellbeing of the country.”

WellingtonNZ has benefitted from a number of acts who have taken the time to process through the quarantine procedures

But outlining some of the hurdles, Clumpas explains, “For anyone to get into the country now, you first have to book a space in the quarantine hotel, three months in advance. When your flight arrives, you go straight from the airport in a bus to the hotel, which is fenced off. The army run the thing and you are there for two weeks in managed self-isolation. If you leave without permission, you face three months in jail.”

WellingtonNZ has benefitted from a number of acts who have taken the time to process through the quarantine procedures. “We had Belgian drum and bass DJ Alix Perez play in November, and UK DJ Sub Focus on 7 January, both playing to sold-out crowds,” says Sharp. Elsewhere, the Wellington-based organisation has focused on securing alternative format events that can run for multiple weeks, such as Grande Experiences’ Van Gogh Alive concept.

“The exhibition was staged twice in New Zealand. The first was Digital Nights – Van Gogh Alive, which was the first time it had been held outdoors. It proved so popular that it returned for a run of indoor exhibitions at venues throughout the country,” says Sharp.

And with Spark Arena remaining dark for much of the time, Clumpas is currently exploring the idea of hosting dance events. “Perhaps by getting overseas DJs to go to their local club to set-up a video link so they can play to Auckland – they see us, we see them. I don’t think you can do that with a band because they need the interaction, but it might work with a DJ set,” he muses.

“Part of the issue is working out how we can scale up [crew] while making sure we retain that watertight border”

To attract others to physically visit, Spark Arena’s management is even looking at getting into the hotel business. “We have an idea to set-up luxury accommodation that we can run in conjunction with the army and security firms, and we pay for it,” says Clumpas. “So maybe we set up 20 suites where we can bring in an artist and they can rehearse there and stuff but keep isolated. It means that anyone who is prepared to come in and maybe do ten dates in 3,000-seater theatres, will be able to do that. I like to think we can get there.”

But looking at bigger international tours making their way to NZ is not on the cards, even though the likes of Six60 are visiting stadia. “We don’t have the likes of 140 crew places for people going into managed isolation, because we don’t have enough nurses and health professionals to manage the facilities,” Clumpas clarifies. “New Zealand is only five million people and you run out of people fairly quickly here. So part of the issue is working out how we can scale up while making sure we retain that watertight border.”

Lessons
As the only significant market to properly reopen after a national lockdown, New Zealand has the eyes of the world on it, as live entertainment peers examine its successes and failures to try to piece together their own strategies for relaunch.

Sharp applauds everyone that WellingtonNZ has worked with over the past few months for being flexible enough to reorganise their operations, name-checking the likes of Live Nation, Frontier and TEG; homegrown promoters Eccles Entertainment, Liberty Stage, Breaking Beats and Plus One; and resident outfits such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Royal New Zealand Ballet.

“Everyone, through to our smaller promoters and community organisations, has been deeply affected by the pandemic”

“Everyone, through to our smaller promoters and community organisations, has been deeply affected by the pandemic and shown their resiliency and adaptability in rolling with the punches,” he observes.

Our NZ professionals, meanwhile, warn others around the world not to bank too heavily on a surge of interest when markets come out of lockdown. “There’s no pent-up demand with people think- ing I must see loads of gigs,” says Clumpas. “But that might be different in the US or the UK or Europe, because we were not locked up for that long compared to elsewhere.”

Eccles agrees. “In our experience, the market didn’t come back as hard as people thought it would – it eased back in,” he tells IQ. “Demographics-wise, if the show is aimed at kids, or even teens into the late-20s, then they don’t seem to care. But the older age groups are definitely more wary.”

Sharing some of the negative lessons Eccles Entertainment has learned, he continues, “Looking back at 2020, when we came out of lockdown, we experienced quite a bit of attrition, which was hard to take. So, for a show where we’d originally sold 4,000 tickets, maybe only 2,000 actually turned up on the night for the rescheduled gig. It was quite demoralising.”

“We’ve seen some strange behaviour where pre-sales were soft but the general sale was strong”

But there have also been some pleasant surprises. “We’ve seen some strange behaviour where pre-sales were soft but the general sale was strong. That’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect and I’d never come across any pattern like that before. It’s very odd and I can’t explain why it happened.”

Sharp comments, “The NZ market is recovering well – we’ve seen a strong appetite for live events, which has largely been a result of the competent handling of the crisis by the New Zealand government.

“Having coped so well (so far, at least), it may be easier for us to see things in a more positive light. But there really isn’t much use looking at it any other way.”

It’s a precarious situation though, and Eccles is all too aware that the business is constantly on the precipice. “One thing is for sure, if we have another lockdown in New Zealand, then all the confidence in the market will go,” he states. Clumpas concurs, but he believes a better touring industry may emerge in the long run.

“What it might do, going forward, is that audiences might be more demanding in their expectations. So, bluntly, the venues that take care of the fans and who have got their shit together will do fine or probably better. But it could flag-up some of the venues that have been slack, as people will be more discerning and make choices on how safe they feel, according to the customer service they’ve experienced in the past.

“We will get out of this, but will the business be the same? I’m not so sure,” laments Clumpas. “But I’m hopeful that we will no longer see tours with 247 people on them, where artists might tour with a core of maybe 30 or 40, with advance teams of ten who go to a territory early and get local people to do a lot of the work. It would mean a shift but not necessarily fewer jobs: just less people touring, complemented by more people in each territory, which would mean much less of a carbon footprint, as well as giving places like New Zealand a real chance to grow.”

 


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