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.
Sydney-based Chugg Music opens new Asia office
Sydney-based Chugg Music, the artist services branch of Michael Chugg’s promotions company Chugg Entertainment, is opening a new office in Asia, spearheaded by Michael “Mick” De Lanty.
Australian expat De Lanty is a seasoned music industry executive based in Bangkok and has worked across the board, with roles in A&R, artist management, marketing, sales, publishing, promotions and brand development.
De Lanty spent 15 years with Sony Music Australia and he has also worked with independent labels in Asia and Australia, as well as in the UK.
The veteran will expand on the success of Chugg Music artists Sheppard, Lime Cordialeand Mia Rodriguez in the Asian region.
“Having been involved in many projects since the late 80s I am excited to actually be planting the Chugg Music flag in Asia,” says Michael Chugg.
“Andrew [Stone, co-founder of Chugg Music] and I are thrilled to announce that my long-time friend and colleague, Michael De Lanty, is running the operations from his Bangkok base. After five months testing the waters we have no doubt that this will be a great step forward for both Australian and Asian music.”
“Having been involved in many projects since the late 80s I am excited to actually be planting my flag in Asia”
Michael De Lanty says: “I am delighted to be working with Chugg, Andrew and their team, in launching Chugg Music Asia and very excited for the opportunity to help develop the careers in Asia of the formidable roster of artists that they have assembled, including Sheppard, Lime Cordiale, Mia Rodriguez, Casey Barnes, to name but a few.
It is an exciting period for music in Asia and no better time to introduce these incredible artists to Asian music lovers.”
Chugg Music Asia will aim to build strong platforms across the 12 major territories, which includes the world’s second-largest music market, Japan.
Chugg Entertainment was founded in 2000 by music industry pioneer Michael Chugg and has toured hundreds of major international acts including Dolly Parton, Coldplay, Radiohead, Elton John, Pearl Jam, Robbie Williams, Florence + The Machine throughout Australia, New Zealand and Asia.
Subsequently, Chugg Music was launched in 2012 with the help of Andrew Stone, offering management, label and publishing services.
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Playing Politics: Are governments offering enough support for live?
Millions of people have taken to tuning in to daily governmental updates, where politicians and advisers perform the grim task of revealing the increase in the death toll, as well as the rates of new infection. That horrific routine is allowing journalists to compare Nation A to Nation B to Nation C etc, and for many, isolated at home, to engage in the morbid game of envying those in New Zealand, Germany, South Korea, or wherever the reported head count is statistically low.
However, to date, little has been said in the public domain about the response of the live entertainment industry, internationally, and its voluntarily shut down, which, in many places, had to come ahead of government guidance. Indeed, in speaking to numerous festival organisers, IQ has heard that many had been forced to play a waiting game with politicians to hear whether their events in, for instance, June or July, would be allowed to proceed.
“Without government intervention, force majeure clauses do not work,” says Christof Huber of European festivals association, Yourope, who cancelled his festivals OpenAir St.Gallen, SummerDays and Seaside after the Swiss government finally announced that events over 1,000 people would be outlawed until 31 August, following weeks of deliberation. Yourope has been “actively lobbying governments to make decisions about large-scale gatherings in a more timely manner”, says Huber.
In beginning to tentatively embark on reopening plans, governments in countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, France, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Norway and Finland have given some sort of insight into when events may be allowed to resume – or at least clarification as to how long bans can be expected to last.
Still, without cross-border co-operation, the situation remains precarious for those who depend on the live music sector for their livelihoods.
In the venues sector, Lucy Noble, who chairs the UK’s National Arenas Association, says, “We found the early stages of the crisis difficult, as government advice wasn’t clear enough. That delay was problematic because it created stress and confusion for artists, audiences and staff.”
“In Switzerland and Germany the trust in the government and politicians has had a really big revival”
The various loan schemes launched in each market have worked to varying effect (Switzerland’s five-year interest free loan of up to €400,000 paid in a matter of hours stands among the best), while employee furlough or protection schemes have further propped up companies, without which many would have collapsed.
Stuart Galbraith, of Kilimanjaro Live, recalls, “Although it was fairly chaotic to start with, the line of communication that we, as a sector, have had into government has been very good. UK Music [acting CEO] Tom Kiehl has done a great job and so have people like Julian Bird at [Society of London Theatre]. In that first week of chaos, we had four calls with either cabinet ministers or secretaries of state. They listened and have taken action. They’ve helped us with the loans, business rates relief, the furlough scheme.”
Vincenzo Spera, president of Assomusica, is lobbying Europe to adopt such concessions, having already secured them in Italy, where it’s estimated that, by the end of this month, 4,200 events will have been missed, depriving live music operators of €63million, while the deeper economic impact for Italy is estimated at €130m.
“We ask the European Commission, MPs and the Culture Committee to [introduce] vouchers to replace the tickets purchased,” says Spera. “[This] allows the spectator not to give up their concert, and companies not to go to default.”
Voucher schemes of some form are also in place in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Brazil, with promoters including Live Nation offering a voucher option to fans who have tickets for postponed shows.
While those working in the UK and other countries have been able to rely on their authorities for financial bailouts, notable live music strongholds like the United States have offered very little, resulting in previously unimaginable unemployment statistics.
Yourope’s Huber observes, “It’s difficult to compare, but in Switzerland and Germany the trust in the government and politicians has had a really big revival, because in the initial phases they communicated honestly about the situation. However, as time passes, left wing versus right wing politics seems to be creeping back.”
“We are making hard decisions and the more clarity we get from government, the more informed we can be when looking at logistics”
Down under, Michael Chugg laments a horrendous start to 2020. “To cop corona on top of the bushfire season, I think everyone is coping well,” he tells IQ. “The federal government, which had already been offering tax breaks, freezes on loans payments, and no evictions by landlords, came up with their ‘jobkeeper payment’ scheme, which covers the equivalent of 50% of all Australian salaries for the next six months, taking an incredible amount of pressure off everyone.”
Live Nation’s Herman Schueremans – himself a former politician – reports, “The Belgian parliament agreed to provide €1 billion to tackle the consequences of coronavirus, and we will work with them to ensure this money reaches those who need it most in our market.” He adds, “It’s never been more clear that we are in a global business. We all know we have to work together.”
Live Nation’s Phil Bowdery, who leads the UK’s Concert Promoters Association, reveals he is now asking for an exit plan from lockdown. The UK government, which is yet to announce how it plans to ease lockdown restrictions, is expected to release the first details of its plans in a press conference on Sunday (10 May).
“They must have modelling for a resumption to whatever our new normal will look like,” he notes. “The sooner they share this, the better. We are making hard decisions and the more clarity we get from government, the more informed we can be when looking at logistics.”
The gap between the ending of employment protection schemes, loan availability and other protection measures, and the business being back up to speed with healthy cashflow, is arguably the largest challenge on the horizon. And close, strong relationships with government will be key to keeping that gap as narrow as possible.
Associations and lobbyists need to prove their worth, just as governments will need to continue to prop up live entertainment for at least a few months yet.
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Tales from Covid: Michael Chugg Q&A
The impact that the coronavirus outbreak is having on the industry is plain to see, but the road to recovery still remains somewhat unpaved. As governments around the world crack down on the spread of the virus, the return to some kind of business as usual is looming. But just what will that look like and just how hard will the vestiges of the virus be for the industry to shake?
IQ is catching up with major industry players to determine how they are coping with the drastic changes to both professional and personal life, the path they will take to help business recover from the crisis and the long-term changes that we can expect to see.
Up first is veteran Australian promoter Michael Chugg, founder of Chugg Entertainment and co-founder of Frontier Touring, who reflects on the resilience of the Australian live community, the potential pushback on international touring in the country and his love for British crime dramas…
IQ: What lessons have you learned from the coronavirus outbreak?
MC: I have learned that taking care of one’s health with attention to personal cleanliness and home environment is a priority and a major helper of immunity.
What do you expect recovery to look like, both for Chugg Entertainment and the wider industry?
The Australian and state governments are very much on the ball after a slow start. With the border closures and great campaign to the public on how to manage ourselves in mandatory quarantine, together with the community social distancing efforts, we are seeing a drop in new cases daily which hopefully will continue.
We are optimistic that Australian live music events and other public gatherings could be back as early as October or November, but it could be as late as January. However, I think international touring could be back here a lot later than that. If we manage to clean up Australia, the government may be reluctant to take the risk on international visitors bringing the virus back to us.
“We are optimistic that Australian live music events could be back as early as October or November, but it could be as late as January”
How do you think this will change the industry in the long term?
We are very worried about the long-term effect on the hundreds of companies involved in the production, presentation and running of tours, festivals and events, as well as the thousands and thousands of contractors, crews, security and other workers who lost all their income immediately when public gatherings were banned.
The doubt about when or if live entertainment can recommence is causing a lot of stress and depression worldwide, and I’m sure the industry will be a lot more cautious and careful about saturating the marketplace from now on.
First the bushfires and now Covid-19, the Australian live industry has had a tough few months – how has the industry coped as a whole?
It has been a tough six months and to cop corona on top of the bushfire season, which is right up there with the most disastrous fires ever, I think everyone is coping well. My partner and friend Michael Gudinski’s calmness and leadership has helped to keep the entire Frontier/Chugg family together and has been a great vibe for many people in the industry.
My partner and friend Michael Gudinski’s calmness and leadership has helped to keep the entire Frontier/Chugg family together
This week, the federal government – who had already been offering tax breaks, freeze on loans and mortage payments, no evictions by landlords and other economic measures – came up with their JobKeeper Payment, which is a AU$130 billion (€72.4bn) fund basically covering the equivalent of 50% of all Australian salaries for the next six months. This is taking an incredible amount of pressure off everyone.
Finally, how are you keeping busy in self-isolation?
Being a lover of books, movies and music, there is plenty to keep one occupied. I am mad for British crime and mystery shows, so there is a ton of them. I am spending a lot of time on video calls through Zoom with the teams at Frontier/Chugg Entertainment and Chugg music, as well as with my family. I also loving cooking and now I’m able to do it every day.
Frontier Touring and Chugg Entertainment join forces
Exactly 20 years after parting ways, Australian promoters Michael Gudinski and Michael Chugg have announced a new joint venture between their respective companies, Frontier Touring and Chugg Entertainment.
Effective from 1 April, Chugg Entertainment and Frontier will co-promote all Chugg tours, with Frontier also joining Chugg Entertainment and Potts Entertainment as a partner in the successful CMC Rocks country music festival. CMC Rocks 2019 was held in Ipswich, Queensland, in mid-March, with a sell-out daily attendance of 24,000.
Gudinski and Chugg co-founded Frontier in 1979, and have remained friends since Chugg went independent in 1999. By joining forces with Frontier Touring (part of Gudinski’s Mushroom Group), the pair will “present a powerful, united and strategic promoting front that offers artists a first-class, professional and considered touring experience”, according to a joint statement.
While Chugg Entertainment gains “a world-class level of resources and opportunities that will allow a greater platform for business growth and development”, Frontier is keen to tap into Chugg’s specialised touring expertise, particularly its presence in country music.
Susan Heymann will continue as managing director of Chugg Entertainment, reporting to Gudinski and Chugg on all Frontier/Chugg Entertainment tours. Staff from the live division of Chugg Entertainment will additionally integrate with the Frontier team for Chugg/Frontier co-promotions.
“I’m excited to see what the Chugg Entertainment and Frontier Touring teams can accomplish together”
Says Gudinski: “Michael and I have been in and out of business together for almost half a century and we’ve both seen a lot change in that time. There’s no doubt that live touring in Australasia is undergoing its biggest transition ever, and we’re both equally passionate about ensuring we continue to set the bar for touring down under.
“Chuggi and Susan have built a great team that punches above their weight and I’m excited about what the Chugg and Frontier teams can achieve together.”
“Chugg Entertainment has had an incredible run of late, and it’s the perfect time for us to take this step to strengthen our place in the market and keep growing while the industry changes and evolves,” comments Chugg. “Michael and I share so much history and so many stories, it feels right for us to move forward into the future with Frontier Touring. We both love to wind it up and fight the good fight – we’re going to be louder and prouder together.”
“Frontier Touring has established itself as one of the most powerful promoters in the world and has a proven track record of delivering successful tours, time and again,” adds Heymann.
“With all that knowledge and experience, as well as the other music businesses in the Mushroom Group to lean on and collaborate with, I’m excited to see what the Chugg Entertainment and Frontier Touring teams can accomplish together.”