“The [coronavirus infection] rates are up again, the numbers are all going up, and they’re slowly squeezing stuff down.”
Absinthe reopened in November after nine months shutdown, as a summer of temporary pandemic stability saw Vegas return to life. The show normally seats 660 but as infections soared again it “was crimped back, from 153, to 50. We normally sell eight to nine thousand tickets a week and now we’re doing 500. It’s crushing us.”
From that vantage Australia looks like paradise. Where he could make money.
Mollison has reached out to his promoter in Australia to test the waters for bringing his show Atomic Saloon here early next year – potentially to his favourite spot on the roof of Crown in Melbourne.
“We can run [Absinthe] for three weeks but if the Nevada governor doesn’t let us go back to a higher [audience] number we’ll have to shut. Our other two shows have now been shut for nine months. These kids have got nothing, and unemployment runs out in Nevada in two weeks.
“It’s becoming a desperate situation. We’ll know in the next week whether we have any chance getting [Saloon] on by February, and if not, maybe we’ll bring it to Crown.
“Our creative team would love to come and do a show in Australia right now – it sounds like a great place to be. We can bring Vegas to Australia.”
Evelyn Richardson, chief executive of industry lobby group Live Performance Australia, says there is “big potential” for the Australia-New Zealand touring circuit in 2021-2.
“We’ve done well suppressing the virus and creating a much more stable environment than any other markets,” she says. “We feel there is an opportunity for Australia, from an international point of view, to be able to leverage that and invest in that.”
International tours could be even better for the local economy than usual, because they would likely come with smaller entourages, employing more people locally, Richardson says.
But there is a big hurdle: it is impossible to get business interruption insurance. With governments still hovering their fingers over the pandemic lockdown trigger, it would be a brave entrepreneur to put up hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to secure a big tour.
Roger Field, head of Live Nation Australasia, has overseen huge tours by the world’s biggest musicians.
“We’re definitely the envy of people overseas,” he says. “There are very few artists that aren’t keen to get in front of fans, that need to work because live is such a significant financial input to their business. Fan research shows they’re desperate to come out and see shows.
“But it’s about choosing the right time, so you can plan with confidence and not outlay significant money to no end.”
He and LPA are lobbying the federal government to back business interruption insurance for live acts, just as it’s done for screen production.
“We just need that protection, in the intervening period when government restrictions could force at very short notice a change of plans,” says Field.
“There are deals on the table to be done,” says Richardson. “[Insurance] is the biggest disincentive to reactivating the industry right now.”
“Nobody’s going to put Usher or whoever on a plane to go to Australia if they’ve sold all the tickets and then it had to be cancelled.”
He’s caught between a rock and a hard place.
“In Melbourne live entertainment will be packed when it reopens. They’ll sell every ticket, there’s such an innate human desire to get out and compared to the way we’re living in America it sounds incredibly safe.
“But if I was opening a $5m show I wouldn’t open it in Australia, because if 20 people catch COVID in Melbourne the Premier will shut it down and I’ve just blown my money.
“Controlled reopening and certainty is what this industry needs. Australia is a very difficult market because of that zero tolerance policy. I’m not arguing against it. I’m just saying.”
Nick Miller is Arts Editor of The Age. He was previously The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s European correspondent.