Musos making good use of Aust-NZ bubble

·4-min read

Midway through one of her weekend shows at Wellington's San Fran Bathhouse, Melbourne singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett addresses the adoring crowd in sheepish style.

"It's so nice to be playing songs to you. It's been a little while since I've played songs," she says, as if COVID-19 restrictions mandated social distancing between her and her guitar.

Barnett's tour is a trans-Tasman bubble success story yet one of many. She's among a tide of Australian artists hamstrung at home who are heading to New Zealand to perform.

Australian music industry executives see New Zealand - without community transmission since February - as a more COVID-reliable place to hold shows than Australia, given varying border rules and gathering caps across states.

And Kiwis are keen to go to shows, full of confidence from a long streak without the virus on local shores.

Put simply, there's never been a better time for Australian artists to tour New Zealand.

"It's one of the few places in the world where you can tour," Mark Kneebone, managing director with Live Nation tells AAP.

"Artists want to play and it's incredibly hard to tour Australia at the moment. If New Zealand is the best option, they're going to go for it."

Barnett is one of the first big-name artists to try a bubble tour.

Her 12 dates, including both major centres Auckland and Wellington and tiny locales like Leigh and Raglan, have sold out.

"She wanted to play smaller rooms and use the solo format and people reacted. We sold every ticket," Kneebone says.

More will follow. Live Nation is surging past its pre-pandemic output.

"In 2019, we toured 15 Australian artists. Over the next 12 months, we've confirmed tours for over 20 so far," Kneebone says.

"That's confidence. Artists want to come over."

Performers across many genres will cross the ditch in coming months.

Lime Cordiale and Julia Jacklin follow Barnett this month before visits by Jimmy Barnes and Ocean Alley, Hiatus Kaiyote, Peking Duk and Fisher among others.

The Wiggles pulled off their biggest ever New Zealand tour last year and an Australian production of The Lion King is also concluding a monster run in Auckland.

Even acquired taste Kevin "Bloody" Wilson has decided to head over for an 18-date run, performing hits including Absolute **** Of A Day.

"Ticket sales have been very strong," Robyn Alexander, Wilson's promoter, tells AAP.

"Kiwis have been living in a reasonably free environment since June last year.

"They have an appetite to go to shows and Kevin loves New Zealand. He feels comfortable here more than anywhere else. It's like a second home."

In September, ambitious first-of-its kind festival Snow Machine, will land in Queenstown, filled with Australian artists - and Australian fans.

High-altitude winter festivals are popular in the northern hemisphere but this is the first time a ski-in, ski-out festival has been attempted at scale in Australasia.

With acts like The Avalanches, Flight Facilities, The Presets, Hayden James and Hermitude, the electronic-heavy lineup compares well with any recent show at home.

"I can't think of any Australian festival in the last 18 months that's as solid," promoter Quentin Nolan says.

"We've had a great response from artists. When we started sending out offers, artists were telling us they wanted to come and play.

"It's been a rough time for the industry and this is a bit different. Typically they'd fly in, do a show, fly out ... here they can do a show in the snow, do a show on the main stage and kick back a bit."

The festival sold out its 5000 tickets within a fortnight of going on sale in February.

However Snow Machine shows the ongoing COVID-19 threat can still hit trans-Tasman touring.

Over 80 per cent of tickets have been sold to Australians and many - particularly those in NSW - are now anxiously waiting to see whether they'll be allowed to visit given current border settings.

Nolan sympathised with his would-be patrons but said the show would go on.

"We'll offer people from NSW a refund and look to re-book people in New Zealand. We won't have any trouble selling the tickets," he says.

Given musicians and the live music economy have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic, Kneebone says any tour should be celebrated.

"It's been a challenging couple years for everyone involved.

"Take Courtney's tour. A dozen shows. That's a dozen venues that get people through the door.

"Road crews, artists get paid. So do ticketing companies, marketing ... every time an artist plays it creates so much work for the people around them. So it's huge for everyone, including fans."

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