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Live music returns as venues seek cover

More than a year since the death of tour promoter Michael Gudinski, the team at Frontier Touring’s Melbourne headquarters often finds itself asking, “What would Michael do?”

While the absence of the legendary showman is felt every day according to chief operating officer Susan Heymann, she hopes he would be proud of the company’s resurgence.

“The industry is adjusting to a different post COVID reality … I don’t know if I can say we’re back on our feet completely but we’re moving in the right direction,” she tells AAP.

After two years in which Australian tours were all but shut down, there’s no shortage of big names hitting the road under the Frontier banner including Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber and Elton John.

With inflation yet to bite, ticket sales are healthy but Ms Heymann worries about flagged price hikes as international artists push for higher fees.

The industry is still dealing with artists, crews and punters getting sick. Even airline staff shortages can be a concert killer, with cancelled flights leaving performers stranded.

And the army of casual workers that run large-scale music events has been depleted, with many leaving the industry in search of better job security.

Veteran promoter Paul Dainty is facing similar issues.

The TEG Dainty chief executive, who has toured U2, The Rolling Stones, ABBA and Paul McCartney, is glad to see the back of a “really horrible” two years.

Yet while artists are desperate to get back onstage, he says audiences are more wary as they try to avoid postponements and cancellations.

“Sales are very promising. It’s a bit of slowly, slowly coming back to it but at least we’re out there doing it and things are coming back,” he says.

Among others, Dainty is this summer touring Guns N’ Roses, Kings of Leon and Michael Buble.

In Victoria, the industry has recently received a taxpayer-funded boost, with the state government-backed Always Live slate bringing big-ticket events like Nick Cave, Billy Joel and Dua Lipa.

But at shows that are less stadium seating and more sticky carpet, particular challenges remain with knock-on effects for the broader industry.

Insurance is still a big problem, with venues unable to renew longstanding policies or facing astronomical price hikes, according to the Australian Live Music Business Council’s Stephen Wade.

He warns that without smaller venues able to access the insurance needed to stay in business, artists touring with outfits like Frontier and TEG Dainty would never get a start.

“It’s a massive, massive issue for our industry because if these venues can’t get adequate public liability insurance, it’s the very fabric of where every artist gets a start, in venues of this type,” he says.

He wants insurers to issue one big policy to underwrite a large group of venues but after months of negotiations, the deal is yet to be brokered.

As 2022 Splendour in the Grass ticketholders would be all too aware, there are also new issues for festivals with the increased risk of extreme weather.

In the wake of an almighty east coast low, some 50,000 fans braved ankle-deep slush to attend the annual Byron Bay show but only got to experience a two-day event instead of three thanks to the deluge.

Susan Heymann says the industry as a whole would welcome government help.

“I think all promoters would be happy to see any kind of government support for an industry that is high risk and has had a lot of pressure in the last couple of years,” she says.

Whatever the summer of live music brings, the pandemic has meant punters no longer take live music and the industry behind it, for granted.

Wade says music lovers now have some awareness of the logistics required to tour their favourite acts.

“If you go to a stadium show, it could be that hundreds and hundreds of people worked on that show to bring it to you,” he says.

“COVID has opened the door to see that they are real people doing real jobs.”

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