Mega concerts by Harry Styles, the Backstreet Boys and Jay Chou will rock Sydney over the next week, while other major acts including Snoop Dog, Ed Sheeran, Smashing Pumpkins, Paolo Nutini and Florence and the Machine are all lining up to take their turn.
Australia has arguably never known a time like it for top-quality music acts to be touring. And, from Billy Bragg and Red Hot Chilli Peppers to Charli XCX, Post Malone and Wet Leg it seems every known musical taste and era is being catered for.
It is what some have dubbed ‘revenge touring’ by musicians forced to sit on the sidelines for two years of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, and fuelled by an audience equally deprived of live entertainment.
Whether it’s a stadium show at Accor Arena or a humble Lansdowne pub gig, an Audience Outlook Monitor report shows “audiences want to move on from COVID-19 and regain a sense of normalcy” with a continued rise in people attending events.
Our borders were shut, and people couldn’t get in. This is an entire untapped market that they weren’t able to get.
Launched in 2020, the AOM is an ongoing study and presentation of data regarding audience sentiments during the pandemic. Government agencies such as the Australian Council of the Arts collaborate with research agencies to produce these reports.
“A lot of bands are coming at the moment just because there was three years of no tours,” Handsome Tours promoter Brinley Stanovsek said.
“Our borders were shut, and people couldn’t get in. This is an entire untapped market that they weren’t able to get.”
The past six months has seen the return of huge acts, Guns N’ Roses and Elton John as well as smaller acts like indie-folk singer Phoebe Bridgers, while also attracting first-time tourers such as British indie outfit Wallows.
In late 2021 the live music scene rolled back mask mandates, allowing standing and singing and removing other policies to return to a seemingly pre-COVID state, but with the accompanying delay around tour planning and booking Australia is only now reaping the benefits.
“I do think it will get back to a normal state, and it is getting back into a normal state in terms of the actual show experience and people going out,” Stanovsek said.
Describing a recent concert, she added: “It just felt like COVID hadn’t happened. People were moshing. It was the first time I had seen people crowd-surfing in ages. It was completely full. It just felt like we were back.
“I’ve had a couple of experiences like that so I do think in that regard things will go back to normal, but some of the changes are going to stick around.”
According to the AOM, audiences are starting to return to live music post-pandemic, with 51 per cent of audiences saying they expect to attend more events in the next year.
Since the return of live gigs, there has been an inflation of ticket prices.
“Indie bands playing at the Factory Theatre where maybe we would have charged $45-50 back in the day,” Stanovsek said, “now we’re looking at charging $55-$60, which is starting to make up for the shortfall a bit.”
According to the AOM “audiences are enjoying the buzz of more events… but financial barriers are slowing market recovery”.
Angelica Cotterell, a 27-year-old university student and enrolled nurse from Potts Point, has found the price rise restrictive.
“After COVID, prices of rent and inflation of pricing, in general, went up a lot,” she said, “so the rising price in rent obviously makes everything else in life harder to spend money on, sometimes concerts and live music and general has to be missed.”
She said due to the rising cost of living, she had missed some of her favourite bands, including British rock band Idles, who toured Australia for the first time in several years.
“It was one of those things where I kept saying I was going to be able to buy tickets, and then obviously the cost of living, rent and bills other things just kept coming up and unfortunately, the date crept up on me and I was not able to attend… It’s hard to miss things you enjoy… one of the most joyous things is going and seeing music,” she said.
According to the AOM report, Cotterell is not alone as financial reasons are now the number one barrier to attendance, surpassing COVID-19 risks, with 45 per cent of those under 35 now reporting financial barriers to attending live shows.
Another emerging problem within the live music scene is the increased number of no-shows, which refers to the people who are purchasing tickets to shows and then not attending, often because the shows have been rescheduled.
“Before COVID, if we sold out the show, normally 90 per cent of people would actually go to the show. Now because of these reschedules, we’re seeing sometimes 20-30 per cent of people just aren’t going,” Stanovsek said.
The rise in no-shows is resulting in a decline in profit at venues for items such as alcohol and food. As a result, some venues are increasing the standard commission taken from artists’ merchandise sales.
“Venues are upping their commission on merch,” said artist manager, Chris Thompson. “Not so much at smaller shows but at a big show… that cut that they’re taking is going up… even though they’re doing the same work.
“They’re trying to protect themselves from the loss at the bar because so many people aren’t turning up.”
This venue commission on merchandise has been criticised by artists with the lead singer of UK based band Architects making a tweet criticising the cuts.
In an email to fans, New Zealand-born artist Lorde discussed the struggle currently being faced within the touring industry, writing “profits being down across the board is fine for an artist like me. I’m lucky. But for pretty much every artist selling less tickets than I am, touring has become a demented struggle to break even or face debt”.
Stanovsek said the changes are giving people new perspective.
“Going out and seeing live music is something that I think we all took for granted since it was always happening,” she said. “Whereas now I think having it taken away people are more appreciative and happier to be there.”
Thompson said that prior to the lockdowns, gigging “kind of felt like a chore, so it was really nice to get back into it after not doing it for so long”.
Despite all this, the AOM shows that people are still showing up to support their favourite artists.
Cotterell said that being in the front row for Brisbane-based band WAAX was one of her most memorable shows since emerging from lockdown.
“I just had to stand there for a little bit and take it all in,” Cotterell said. “Everyone’s here. We made it. We got through those two years of sadness, and lots of loss and we were able to come together and enjoy live music. I think it was beautiful.”