Live music is coming back in Australia, but with some borders still shut and COVID hot spots in play, artists will be touring in very different ways.
Live music is coming back in Australia, but with some borders still shut and COVID hot spots in play, artists will be touring in very different ways.

How musicians will tour in 2021

Live music may be returning around Australia, but border closures are forcing our musicians to pivot to get on the road again.

Missy Higgins has had to replace the Sydney-based members of her band with Melbourne musicians to perform shows in Victoria this weekend.

Artists in Sydney's hot spot regions are being axed from some festivals while many acts are unable to lock in full national tours for fear of having to do costly quarantine in West Australia where strict border restrictions remain in place.

Higgins has found a positive in scrambling to find a local band, and teach them her songs, for her shows in Geelong tonight and at a COVID-safe Myer Music Bowl on Wednesday.

Gordi, Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey and Missy Higgins. Picture: Rob Leeson.
Gordi, Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey and Missy Higgins. Picture: Rob Leeson.

"It's a good idea to have a Melbourne-based band ready to go, because it's also an unknown at the minute, who knows how long it'll keep going with borders opening and closing," Higgins told News Corp Australia.

"It's ultimately a good thing and it means less flying."

Higgins has shows in Fremantle in March still on sale and, like many musicians, is watching the news daily for updates.

"We're wondering if we will be able to get into WA," she said. "They want 28 days with no community transmissions but you can't wait until the last minute to cancel a show either. Do you take a chance? Interstate shows are a real gamble at the moment. Everyone has a lot of insurance in place.

"There's too many unknowns to plan any tours too far ahead right now. We don't know what it's going to look like in six months. You can plan shows ahead of time but you have to be very prepared for them to not be able to go ahead."

The COVID-safe template varies from state to state but generally means smaller capacities, mainly seated audiences (except in Darwin and parts of Queensland) and punters being spaced out.

Jimmy Barnes is ready to get back on stage. Picture: Tony Mott
Jimmy Barnes is ready to get back on stage. Picture: Tony Mott

However smaller capacities means smaller revenues for artists, promoters and crew who have all lost revenue in 2020.

Musician Kate Ceberano relocated to Sydney last October after live work dried up in her native Melbourne.

While she's toured around NSW and played shows from Bribie Island to Tasmania, Ceberano said even with work becoming more regular she's struggling to break even.

"It's good to be working again, but because the capacities are reduced you often do two shows in one night," Ceberano said.

"Because you can only sell a restricted amount of tickets, it's a false economy. The ones doing better than most are the ones who can accompany themselves (on an instrument) or who have a small band. Gone are the days of 15 piece ensembles, you have to be lean machines right now. It's a juggle between what you want to do and the ever-changing restrictions."

Even the country's biggest artists have to adapt to the new rules. Jimmy Barnes played his first COVID-safe shows in Rooty Hill last year.

"It was half-capacity, people were well spread out, they couldn't get up and dance," Barnes said. "There was a line on the stage I wasn't allowed to go past so I couldn't get too close and sweat on people, which is probably a good thing. You could see the audience were so happy to be at a live show again.

"Everyone has to be smart about it - with social distancing; hand sanitiser. It's the new way of doing shows, it's going to be like this for a little while. We've all been doing stuff on the internet but there's just something special about playing live music in front of an audience."

Barnes is playing Victorian shows tonight and Monday, but it's taken some strategic planning and hotel isolation while waiting for his negative COVID test - luckily a lot of his band members are Melbourne-based.

Kate Ceberano has relocated to Sydney. Picture: Supplied
Kate Ceberano has relocated to Sydney. Picture: Supplied

"Live music is a celebration, it's almost like going to church," Barnes said. "It's where people get together and share energy, it's communal. We become human beings again and interact with the people around us. It's an important part of this life. Victoria in particular did it really tough but look what's happening overseas, we've been really lucky, and we realise how much we missed banding together and seeing live music and letting off steam. It's a good, healthy thing to do."

Barnes will headline the Red Hot Summer Tour, joined by Hoodoo Gurus, Jon Stevens, Vika and Linda, Diesel and Chris Cheney due to start in Tasmania in March before moving around the country - including dates in the unknown quantity that is West Australia.

"At the moment it's looking good," Barnes said, "but it's a flux situation. Something could break out the day before a show and everything will change.

"With a bit of luck and if nothing crazy happens it'll go ahead as planned. All the bands are cautious. There won't be mingling backstage, we'll all be wearing masks. If I was coming to a gig at the moment I'd wear a mask. I wear masks anyway, what have you got to lose?"

Melbourne band Something For Kate have all interstate shows pencilled in, however a hometown show tomorrow - with restricted capacity - sold out in less than a minute.

For musician Gordi, who is also a doctor, she's now played a COVID-safe show and watched one as a punter.

Missy Higgins has had to put together a Melbourne based band. Picture: Julie Lowe
Missy Higgins has had to put together a Melbourne based band. Picture: Julie Lowe

"I wore my mask, I survived, it wasn't too uncomfortable," Gordi said.

"The public health advice is constantly changing and adapting to suit whatever the current numbers are, people just have to respect that."

Gordi is putting her medical work on hold to try and resurrect the tour for last year's album Our Two Skins that never happened. However with bandmates spread between Melbourne and Sydney it means she has to wait for hot spot restrictions to lift until she can plot a tour that can run smoothly.

"The costs of getting on the road are so much more expensive if you split up the tour," Gordi said. "With hiring equipment it's better if you can do it all in one shot, so we're hoping we can get a window of time where we can do it all.

"But a lot of musicians are thinking 2021 might be another watch and wait year and touring might not be back until 2022."

While there are international tours locked in for this year, including Guns N'Roses in November, it seems increasingly likely most of this year will be devoted to Australian artists playing to Australian audiences.

"Music scenes have become really parochial again," Gordi said. "From Iceland to Ireland to here, people can only see artists from their own country right now, but there's something nice about that, it's a silver lining in all this. We only have Australian artists playing shows, you're not spending money on overseas artists, you're keeping it here."

cameron.adams@news.com.au

Originally published as How musicians will tour in 2021


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