Australia / New Zealand Focus: Live Sector Responds To Country Music’s New Stars & Fans

Australia’s CMC Rocks was held at Willowbank Raceway in Ipswich, Queensland March 17-19, 2023 / Photo courtesy of CMC Rocks

As Luke Combs kicked off a nine-date Australasian run Aug. 9 at Auckland’s Spark Arena, where all 12,000 tickets were snapped up in minutes, the crowd’s diversity was astounding.

Alongside the Stetson sporters were first-timers, people under 30 and pop females, all of who related to his lack of pretension.

He related how he shot a red stag while hunting in NZ’s South Island that week, and went to a rugby match to see the All Blacks team play.

Days later when he flew into Sydney in a private jet, fans waited in the rain to say hello.
With three albums on the ARIA Top 25 and the single “Fast Car” in the Top 10 after 19 weeks, Combs sold over 100,000 tickets in the run.

“We could have done many so more shows if he had time,” Frontier Touring’s Michael Chugg said.

Michael Chugg / Photo by Ian Laidlaw

A generation of U.S. country acts with global audiences in their sight from the get-go are generating the latest country music boom in Australia and New Zealand.

It was initially festival-driven. “CMC Rocks is as much about building acts as showcasing the superstars,” explained Chugg, of the influential festival he co-founded almost two decades ago.

Using strong Nashville links, he introduced Combs, Morgan Wallen and Kip Moore as unknowns.

By 2023, Wallen and Moore could headline CMC’s 23,000-strong crowd March 15-19 at Willowbank Raceway in Queensland.

Wallen went on to sell 50,000 tickets in other states, with two albums in the ARIA charts and his single “Last Night” reaching Number One.

“This boom is a long way from peaking,” suggested Brad Cox, chart-busting Sony Music act whom Apple Music tapped to host the “Happy Hour Downunder” show.

“There are so many opportunities for performers within every aspect of country music and everyone wants to seize the moment.”

Both Spotify and Apple Music rate Australia as the third largest country music market after the United States and Canada. Country music is estimated to have a 10% market share here.

Last year 650 Australian country singles were released, or 13 a week.

Country music’s live sector is moving to grow the boom and open up opportunities for newcomers.

In June, Chugg’s management arm Chugg Music, booking agency Select Music and artist manager Dan Biddle launched Wheelhouse Agency focusing on Australia’s growing country and Americana music sector.

Frontier Touring is in early November launching Ridin’ Hearts festival near the Sydney and Melbourne central business districts, expected to draw 10,000 in each city the first year.
The bill is made up of newcomers from the U.S. and Australia as a “one-day music extravaganza for loyal country fans, the country curious, and any music lover.”

“We saw a great opportunity to bring the country vibe to the city, acts are breaking in the city that don’t get played on country radio,” Chugg noted.

TEG won’t bring back Country To Country, which showcased major names in city venues prior to COVID. But it has major tours in the pipeline, maybe a festival or two.

Live Nation Australia and New Zealand have plans to tap the new acts in its North America, UK and Europe networks which have sussed out the importance of breaking global markets.

The long-running Tamworth Country Music, which over 10 days in January hosted 40,000 a day, adjust its marketing for its growing number of younger city slickers “who don’t realize that what they’re loving on streaming platforms is country music until they arrive at the festival,” according to General Manager Barry Harley.

The Deni Ute Muster (Sept. 29 and 30) in regional New South Wales added more pop acts to cater for new fans in its 20,000-strong crowd.

Groundwater Festival / Photo by Bianca Holderness

Groundwater which drew 20,000 over three days last October to the Gold Coast, amped up its KIX-Start competition “for a host of emerging male and female artists needing a launchpad,” said its director Mark Duckworth.

Last September, the Country Music Association began expanding activities in Australia and New Zealand under Vice President of International Relations and Development Milly Olykan.

It included live shows, songwriting camps, seminars and networking receptions at events.
Olykan, born in New Zealand before moving to Nashville, believed NZ could sustain a major country music festival – the current ones are regional and small – like CMC Rocks “which would allow more artists to view New Zealand as one of their stops when they tour.”

Veteran promoter Brent Ecces of Auckland-based Ecces Entertainment agreed but added the media needed to change its attitude.

“What’s happened in New Zealand has been phenomenal. It’s great to see that genre back with high production and giving a great night out.

“But radio has pretty much ignored it. Luke Comb and Morgan Wallen had their shows here without a radio partner, which is very unusual.

“But as for the call for a local version of CMC Rocks, absolutely. The scene is strong and moving fast and (he chuckles) I’m waiting for the phone to ring.”