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Michael Chugg: “We’re all saying let’s look at 2022”

IQ editor Gordon Masson sits down for a Zoom chat with veteran Australian promoter Michael Chugg to discuss his decision to branch out into recorded music, the return of international touring, the domestic situation in Australia and, of course, the long-term impact of Covid…

IQ: What’s been keeping you busy during the last few months?
MC: The label and management side of my business is doing very well. We’re having lots of success with the albums and doing a lot of streaming events – we’ve done about 80 or 90 streaming events with our acts now. Lime Cordiale just had a No.1 album and eight nominations for the ARIA Awards; Sheppard have just played the Aussie Rules grand final in Brisbane last weekend, which was very exciting. I’ve also been helping Gudinski with a lot of his streaming shows, as well as series two of The Sound, which is a rock and music television show that he is involved with and got onto ABC – that starts again next week and I’ve been helping him with that.

We’re about to sign a big deal with a young artist called Mia Rodriguez, who is definitely worth checking out on YouTube. Chugg Entertainment is now part of the Mushroom empire, which I could not have done at a better time really. But Chugg Music is my own thing. I’ve always been involved with Australian music, but I started Chugg Music eight years ago with Sheppard and with Lime Cordiale, and it’s just built from there. My partner in it is Andrew Stone and I’ve got a team of people who work on it. And at least it’s given me something to focus on or I’d be going fucking stir crazy without it.

“Chugg Music has given me something to focus on…I’d be going fucking stir crazy without it”

You opened a Chugg Music office in Bangkok earlier this month. Would that have been possible had you still been full on with promoting concerts this year?
I’ve been dabbling in Asia since around 89 when I did a gig with Bon Jovi. But not having any live touring, I’ve had a lot of time to look at things and then a friend of mine who had been running a music business in Bangkok for BEC-TERO rang me up one day to say he was out of a gig, so I asked him if he could do some work there for me because Sheppard have had a couple of hits up there.

So he started to work on it and then started to see what else we were doing – getting enquiries from Japan about Lime Cordiale stuff, for instance. So after five months we could see there was a business and we decided to open up properly with a Chugg Music office. Gudinski and I have both tried over the years to do things in Asia – we’ve both done quite a few shows up there – we had Laneway [festival] in Singapore for a few years, for instance – and it’s not the easiest market. But there has been a lot of interest recently in the Australian acts, through streaming and things like that, so why not give it a go?

It looks like international touring could be a bit stagnant, to say the least…
Yeah, well ten days ago I got a call from Canberra, from one of the advisors there, and they told us that the borders will not open until 2022. That’s in general – the mainstream – but they’re still trying to do the tennis in January. There won’t be any audiences though.

The Melbourne Cup, on 3 November, our big horse race, won’t have any crowds. But for the tennis in January, they are going to start letting people into the country – and the Indian cricket team is coming in a few weeks’ time. They will be playing cricket and nobody will be there, except maybe in Brisbane and Adelaide, where they’re starting to have limited audiences. There were 30,000 people at the Aussie Rules grand final in Brisbane, but now it’s gone back to 5,000 people for anything else.

I can’t see any touring here until 2022. A friend of mine who works for the premier of New South Wales also told me that’s what they’re talking about.

“When it all comes back and we get to a decent level, there should be quite a bit of Australian touring”

While that remains the situation, is this the greatest opportunity you might have to develop domestic talent?
It’s definitely a good time. Domestic talent here develops anyway, but obviously we’re looking to see what we can do with the acts we can work with. However, it’s also harmed the local acts. If we had not gone into lockdown, Lime Cordiale would be playing 10,000-capacity arenas right now. When it all comes back and we get to a decent level, there should be quite a bit of Australian touring.

We could do a tour now and go play to 30%-capped theatres and things like that, or go play small outdoor shows, but you can’t get into any of the fucking places. At the moment, the borders between Queensland and New South Wales, and New South Wales and Victoria, and South Australia and Victoria are all closed, so you can’t do a national tour right now.

A couple of my bands have played small, 5,000–6,000-capacity festivals in Darwin lately, and there are very few restrictions on audiences in Perth, but nobody can get there, so that’s really only an option for local acts, and that’s it.

But there are some positives. So if it keeps going the way that it is, maybe by Christmas all the internal border restrictions might come down and we can start thinking more seriously about shows.

But we have not announced Laneway – we moved the dates to March, but we haven’t announced because we can’t. If we were to put it up now and there was an outbreak of Covid some- where and they closed things again in January, then we’d lose a heap of money.

Do you think the model for live music needs to be revised on the back of Covid?
They’re planning a big outdoor show for 12,000 people in Adelaide for New Year’s Day with local Australian acts – but at the moment they can’t use Melbourne acts – and the Covid restrictions that have been laid down mean everybody has to be seated. The restrictions are not going to break the bank, but obviously all the toilets and the bars and all the social distancing measures are going to cost money.

We could nearly go ahead with CMC Rocks, our big country festival in Queensland in March. We get about 20,000 people and 11,000 or 12,000 of those camp, but as things stand, if you want to have a campsite, people have got to be 15 metres apart, so you’re fucked, you can’t do it.

“The Live Nation global touring concept might become a thing of the past”

Do you think the spirit of cooperation between rival companies will continue after Covid is gone?
Good fucking question. Look, there has always been a bit of an unwritten code down here. Yes, there’s always squabbling, fighting over tours and artists, but it was an agreement that worked. The Live Nation global touring concept might become a thing of the past. Before all that started, if you had an act, nobody else would go and bid against you. That was pretty much how it was down here.

If Michael Coppel had an act, I would not go after it. The only reason I would, is if the act decided they didn’t want to go with him any more. But the Live Nation thing came along where they were buying acts for the world and for a while Gudinski and ourselves managed to hold on to acts, but then, with the likes of Coldplay and another couple of acts, they would just throw another US$20–30m at them, saying that if they want this money, they’ve got to get rid of Chugg or Gudinski or they’re not going to get the world tour.

I don’t think that situation will be quite as severe as it could have been, and I also think a lot of acts who did those sort of deals, in reflection, probably won’t do them again, because you go from having relationships in 40 or 50 countries with people you’ve worked with for 10 or 15 years or whatever, and all of a sudden they are no longer involved. I know that a lot of the acts who went down that route have regretted it.

“In all the conversations we’re having with agents – and the same with Gudinski – we’re all saying let’s look at early 2022”

When do you think we will see the next Chugg-promoted concert?
I’d love to tell you it will be before June next year, but I doubt it will be before January 2022. We’ve had a couple of the big Australian acts ask us if we’d like to do their tours, but as I said earlier, to go ahead and put something on sale right now would be inviting drama.

We had a couple of postponed Elton John shows that we were going to do in January 2021 and they’ve now been rescheduled until January 2023. But in all the conversations we’re having with agents – and the same with Gudinski – we’re all saying let’s look at early 2022.

One of our big current affair shows on TV did a thing about the companies that supply the coffee machines and barista set-ups for the big shows and conferences: country-wide they were doing about 150 a week and sometimes as many as 100 a day. And they reported they had done four in the past nine months.

People who build exhibitions have not built a single one in nine months. Factories that live on the conference and theatre shows have been idle – there’s no work and everybody is fucked. It’s terrible, but I’ve got to say how great Michael Gudinski has been – everybody is still on the payroll and everyone is still getting paid.

 


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Thai promoter charged over non-socially distanced show

A concert promoter has been charged with violating Thailand’s restrictions on mass gatherings after organising a non-socially distanced concert attended by thousands 2,500 people.

Paisant Vettayayong, the organiser of a 25 July show by popular luk thung (Thai country music) singer Jenny, is accused of violating an emergency decree banning non-distanced large-scale public gatherings until 31 August. Photos posted to social media appear to show hundreds of unmasked concertgoers packed into a temporary indoor arena for the Red Cross Fair charity event, held near Nakhon Sri Thammarat in southern Thailand.

In a 4 August news release, the Thai Ministry of Public Health confirmed that the concert, which was attended by 2,582 people, did “not meet government standards” and therefore posed a “high change of Covid-19 transmission”.

Paisant Vettayayong is accused of violating an emergency decree banning large-scale public gatherings until 31 August

Paisant, who admitted wrongdoing, is liable for a fine of up to ฿40,000 (US$1,300) or a two-year prison sentence, the Bangkok Post reports.

While the show attracted significant public criticism, including from Thailand’s prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, it emerged on Sunday (9 August) that no concertgoers had been infected with Covid-19.

At press time, Thailand had no new daily cases of Covid-19. Some 3,351 Thais have had the disease since January, 58 of which died.

 


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Tuk Tuk Fest: Thailand’s take on drive-in shows

Thailand’s capital of Bangkok is the latest city to offer its own take on the Covid-safe drive-in concert format, introducing the Amazing Thailand Tuk Tuk Festival, set to take place on 8 August.

Organised by Chang Music Connection, in cooperation with Woody World, ZAAP and Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the festival will see fans hop into their own auto rickshaws, or tuk tuks, a three-wheeled motorised vehicle used through Southeast Asia, to access the festival grounds at waterside promenade Asiatique: The Riverfront.

Each of the 200 tuk tuks will be allocated a 16-square-metre spot from which to watch the performances, with waiters on hand to provide food and drink, and escort fans to the restrooms.

Thailand’s capital of Bangkok is the latest city to offer its own take on the Covid-safe drive-in concert format

Rock band Potato will headline the seven-hour event, playing alongside singer-songwriter Stamp Aphiwat, hip-hop act Joey Boy, singer Palmy, boyband Three Man Down, indie group Taitosmith and DJ Taidy.

The tuk tuk festival is the latest wheely good idea to come from concert promoters looking to put on live shows while adhering to coronavirus regulations, and follows the adoption of drive-in concerts from Moscow to Mexico, and the creation of the world’s first bike-in arena in Italy.

More information about the festival can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

 


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AEG pushes into south-east Asia with new arenas

AEG is to make its first major investment in south-east Asia with two new music and entertainment venues in Thai capital Bangkok.

In partnership with retail developer the Mall Group, AEG will invest more than ฿10 billion (US$309m) into two arenas, dubbed Bangkok Arena and EM Live, each of which will anchor an entertainment ‘district’, a model seen in other AEG-led developments such as Brisbane Live in Australia,  The O2 in London, LA Live in Los Angeles, Mercedes Platz in Berlin and Nashville Yards in Tennessee.

EM Live will have a capacity of over 6,000, and be the centre of a retail and entertainment centre in Sukhumvit called the Emsphere, while the up-to-16,000-seat Bangkok Arena will be located in a new Bangkok Mall, described as a “city within the city”.

“These two significant developments will be a game-changer”

AEG will manage and operate both arenas, and work with the Mall Group to programme and market events including concerts, family shows, sports and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions). Recent AEG-promoted shows in Asia include Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Metallica and the Rolling Stones.

“South-east Asia is going through a transformation,” comments Adam Wilkes, president and CEO of AEG Asia. “As incomes rise and spending power increases, consumers in the region are demanding more sophisticated entertainment experiences. In the Mall Group, we have not only found an outstanding partner but also an innovative company that is led by an insightful and forward-thinking leader, Khun Supaluck. […]

“These two significant developments will be a game-changer, giving Bangkok and Thailand the opportunity to become the most important retail and entertainment hub in south-east Asia.”

 


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Several nights in Bangkok

As a teenager growing up on the north-east coast of the US, music was my everything. It was the passion and fabric of my life, something I not only consumed but meticulously analysed. So it was no surprise that, years later, a particularly unfulfilling post-university job would trigger my relocation to the west coast’s mecca of music: Los Angeles.

In LA, my lack of knowledge about music as an industry, and my equally empty industry contact list, did not stop me from talking my way into a prized internship at A&M Records, followed by my first gig at EMI/Capitol Records, and then a job on the live side of the business under Bill Silva at House of Blues Concerts/Hewitt/Silva.

It was during the House of Blues years that I discovered my second passion: a three-week holiday in Thailand opened my eyes to the wonderful world of travel. Exploring other countries, learning about different cultures, getting mundane things done (or not done!) on foreign soil – these still fascinate me. My love of travel is the reason why, toward the end of 2009, I once again pulled myself out of a state of comfort to pursue life abroad, somewhere in Asia.

That was almost seven years ago. Since then, I’ve helped produce shows and tours in Japan, Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia – both as an independent contractor and as a company man. In my current position as vice-president of Live Nation’s Asia tour division, I focus on producing western tours/events and developing touring platforms in the region, where some of my greatest challenges lie in bridging western expectations with cultural, operational or even political differences in each country. What works and translates well in the West isn’t necessarily desired, popular or appropriate in the East!

The Asian market, which is so often treated as a homogenous entity, can have radically different music tastes from country to country: a massive hit in the Philippines could sink in Singapore or South Korea, and vice versa. This makes touring significantly more challenging in comparison to North America or Europe, especially when an “Asia tour” needs to consists of more than just Japan and Singapore!

Essentially, there are three fundamental challenges:

1. Artists want to be paid more to come to Asia vs North America or Europe due to increased expenses for freight and flights

2. Despite the desire for higher artist fees across the board, many artists simply cannot command the same ticket value across the entire region

3. Promoters also shoulder increased expenses such as world-class sound, stage, lights, venues, etc., in comparison to western counterparts

Asia is an emerging market with a population that will continue to see an increase in disposable income… and has become a proven and viable touring route

In addition to these competing financial requirements, there are cultural and political issues that cannot be ignored if an artist wants to play in a particular country. These should not be taken lightly. Awareness of political hot-button topics and acceptable social norms as well as local holidays is crucial.

You don’t want to play China during Spring Festival [Chinese new year] or Jakarta during Ramadan! As a result of these market differences, Live Nation espouses a ‘boots on the ground’ philosophy where we self-promote our shows through nine regional offices that employ the best on-the-ground, in-market promoters.

Despite all these challenges, Asia is an emerging market with a population that will continue to see an increase in disposable income and a related interest in entertainment and technology.

The region has become a proven and viable touring route with the development of standalone Asia tours (such as the recent ones for Madonna, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi, Imagine Dragons, etc.) and by offering a high level of service through continuity of production, safety and transparency. We are also starting to see more Asian dates linked to an Australian tour. With Perth less than five hours from Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, travel time is shorter than flying from Singapore to Japan!

I think the sustainable future of the live entertainment business in Asia will depend heavily on a strong mixture of domestic and international talent. In addition, I believe a venue network that can grow emerging talent from clubs to theatres to arenas to stadiums, is essential, as some countries have a crippling shortage of venues and/or availability.

In conjunction with this, having a universal streamlined ticketing system in place would help add a layer of efficiency and transparency to the region. Finally, as the Asian market continues to develop, I see sponsorship playing a less crucial role in determining tour viability.

 


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