Bringing big acts to our shores

16:00, Nov 23 2013
Michael Chugg
STAR DRIVER: Michael Chugg has made a career out of working with musicians.

"I couldn't sing for shit and I couldn't play anything. So here I am." That's Michael Chugg, who has, maybe in spite of himself, done all right in the music business.

Last year more than 900,000 tickets were sold for his shows and his company made more than $85 million. The 66-year-old Australian is one of the biggest players in the game today and he's been playing it successfully for more than half a century.

Chugg is - according to American music bible Billboard magazine - the fifth biggest concert promoter in the world right now.

New Zealanders can thank him for having the chance to see (in just the past 12 months) the likes of Robert Plant, Santana, Deep Purple, Elton John and Radiohead.

John Mayer is already locked in for a show here early next year and in January he will bring the fifth Laneway Festival to Auckland.

The Auckland Anniversary Day festival has a habit of breaking new acts just before they hit the big time - alumni include Florence and the Machine, The xx and Of Monsters and Men, who have all gone on to top the charts.


"And the first time we ever did Coldplay it was 200-seat venues and they were just shy boys standing on stage playing their songs. Now they're the greatest show on earth," Chugg says of the band that packed Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium at the end of 2012.

One night back in April, though, down the vanilla-coloured corridors that form the backstage maze of Auckland's Vector Arena, it's veteran singer-songwriter Paul Simon everyone's preparing for.

There's no sign of him before the show, although the burly, serious-looking bloke stationed outside one of the bigger rooms might point to his location.

Instead, it's the haunting warm-up wails of support act Rufus Wainwright filling the hallway. Chugg seems oblivious to the sound, plugging away at emails in a concrete, windowless room doubling as his office for the night. He flies back to his real one in Australia in the morning.

The only thing that tears him away from work is the prospect of watching a league game on telly. Manolo Echave, who has worked alongside the man known as 'Chuggy' for more than 30 years, hunts frantically for the right channel - it's the Melbourne Storm versus Sydney's Wests Tigers. Not that it matters: "I'll watch anything," says Chugg, who wanders out of the room humming You Can Call Me Al.

Returning with a cup of tea, talk between the pair turns to guest lists and reaction to the show at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium a couple of nights before.

Apparently one woman figured out who Chugg was and started hurling abuse at him before stomping on his feet. She thought there should have been more screens to see what was happening on stage.

Screens and stadiums are a long way from Chugg'searly days as a promoter; he ran his first dance at his Tasmanian home town's local cycling club in the early 1960s.

About 300 people came and Chugg pocketed an $80 profit for his troubles. He was 15.

"Music always played a big part in my life - it was just a natural progression. None of us really knew what we were doing [at the time]; we were just a whole lot of young people having fun. We'd fallen in love with this rock music and running dances and managing little bands and it just grew from there," Chugg says.

He's a little gruff, a bit hard around the edges (he's been known to walk on stage and yell at 30,000 punters), but underneath he's all lover, not fighter.

His dad made friends with a lot of American soldiers while serving in WWII and they'd send him the latestrecords by Frank Sinatra and Patti Page. Chugg was hooked.

"But the first real 'get the juices going' singer was Elvis," he says.

"I use to ducktail my hair and all that. I was lucky, too - my dad used to moonlight as an usher at the local movie theatre, so I used to go and watch all the Elvis movies. I think I saw Love Me Tender 20 times. And later on, when the Beatles came out, I saw Hard Days Night about 40 times.

"While he never got to work with the Fab Four or The King, Chugg graduated from running those small dances

in Launceston to work as a roadie and tour manager, travelling around the world with groups like New Zealand's own The La De Das and various Australian groups, before making his mark as a concert promoter.

He formed The Frontier Touring Company with fellow Aussies Michael Gudinski and Phil Jacobsen in 1979, leaving 20 years later and opening Michael Chugg Entertainment in 2000.

He describes the job as a "bit of everything": You find an act you want to tour, figure out where they'll play, then create a budget - how many people on the road, how much equipment, what sort of light and sound show they need, what their hotel requirements are, what sort of seating they want on their flights, the cost of the venue, accommodation, marketing.

"Then once you've done that, you make an offer," Chugg says.

Of course he's lost money in the past, but he's also made a lot.

"One of the reasons I left Frontier and started Chugg Entertainment was because we had done a tour with Radiohead early on and lost $40,000 - and they [Frontier] didn't want to do any more young acts. So I left and started my own business and of course Radiohead has gone on to repay that 200 times over."

The global financial crisis has been tough on the industry locally - too many international bands looking to tour Australia and New Zealand, where it didn't hit as hard, means punters can be choosier about what they spend their cash on. But Chugg reckons Kiwi fans have always been "wonderful" concert goers.

"When Robbie Williams was still breaking in Australia that first tour [in 2001], we did one-and-a-half shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre [capacity of 13,250], and one-and-a-half at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne [14,820] but we sold 120,000 tickets in New Zealand.

"Then you go back to ZZ Top, 77,000 people at Western Springs in 1987, and David Bowie, 80,000 in 1978, and New Zealand was always a great live market.

It sort of went to shit in the '90s because there were no live venues, but now that Vector Arena's there [that's changed]."

One of Chugg's proudest moments was watching 700,000 people across New Zealand and Australia experience AC/DC live - a band he began working with on their first ever shows in 1972.

"To do their tour three years ago... standing at the gate and watching Grandma and Grandpa and their kids and their kids all painted up and going off to see AC/DC together was great.

"Seeing 50,000 people with big grins on their faces, forgetting about their mundane problems and the reality of life for a while; everybody singing every song and the band feeling it. Like watching Robert Plant [earlier this year] and seeing the reaction he was having to what was coming from the audience - it's an amazing thing."

And Chugg hasn't gone without wider recognition for his work: along with the Billboard ranking, he's been named Pollstar's International Promoter of the Year three times, won APRA awards and even a Country Music Award.

"It's quite nice. I know that if I get arrested in LA I've got the keys to the city - I should be able to squeeze out of the county jail," he says. After half a century in the often naughty world of rock 'n' roll, Chugg has literally written the book on surviving the excesses; Hey, You in the Black T-Shirt was released last year, recounting the highs (both natural and chemical) of a lifetime of hard work.

"There are stories in there even I'd forgotten. There was a lot of smoking that went down in some of those decades and you forget things," Chugg says.

He's not kidding - marquees full of drugs when Fleetwood Mac toured, gun-pulling gangsters and affairs on the road all get a mention. But Chugg makes no apologies for any of it.

"I am what I am. I never really hid any of the drugs stuff - oh hey, sex and drugs and rock and roll is real; who knew?"

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