Published Mar 26, 2010As a working Canadian band, comes a time when you just can't face another midnight haul through the frozen wasteland of Northern Ontario. Yet to be successful, you have to keep moving, developing your artistry and your markets. And while we'd all love to break into the States, most artists are just as likely to stub their toe on the Holy Grail. Our next biggest export markets are the UK and continental Europe, but why not consider a country that is in many ways a sister to our own?
Among the many parallels between Australia and Canada: we're in the Commonwealth, we're both vast countries with diverse and often difficult climates, and we're both new-ish states who've struggled to forge a national identity and culture. On this last, Australia seems to have been more successful than we relentlessly identity-obsessed Canucks: Australians actually go to Australian movies, and they support their homegrown musical talent even before said talent makes it big elsewhere. They still buy CDs and happily pay $20 covers to see local bands. Overall, Australia is home to some serious music fans. (On the downside, they can have questionable taste. How else to explain the career resurgence of Jeff Martin? Or the fact that they proudly boast the band Sherbet as international hitmakers. Sherbet, for god's sake.)
Mid-'70s mulleted curiosities aside, Australian musical culture is as diverse as our own, and although some Australian radio is clogged with the latest American dreck, it's generally a country open to non-American musical imports. In recent years Canadian acts have found Australia to be a profitable secondary market and a good source of new fans. So although it's truly the far side of the world, touring Australia might be worth your while.
The chief problem is the cost. Cheapest available return flights run close to $2,000 just to get on the continent. The cost of living in Australia ― especially around Sydney ― is higher than Canada's. Based on my informal Cup of Coffee Index, you can expect to pay 20 percent more for food, drink, gas and supplies. Gear rentals are more costly and vehicle rentals are nearly twice what you might expect for Canada. You need expensive entry visas and a sponsor (see Meet & Greet, this issue).
On the other hand, domestic flights can be pretty reasonable. For example, you can fly from Sydney to Melbourne for under $100. Also on the plus side, gig fees tend to be higher, even for baby bands, and concert-goers like to buy off-stage and will pay 20 bucks and more for a CD. If you are eligible, FACTOR provides funding for international tours. Canadian bands with an established sales history might access the Radio Starmaker Fund for international tour support and marketing funds. Check these out as far as possible in advance of your proposed dates.
With a population of about 4.5 million souls, Sydney is the commercial capitol and home to a major chunk of the Australian music industry. Like the greater Toronto area, Sydney's population base extends far out into suburbs and neighbouring towns. But unlike TO, surprisingly, there is a live music scene in the suburbs and good shows to be booked there. Happily, Sydney bookers don't seem hung up on exclusivity and will book you even though you just played across town the night before. There are also bookings at a number of small towns within a few hours drive of Sydney; wonderful places like Katoomba, where you can play a few nights and get a fabulous tourist experience hiking the Blue Mountains.
In the same way that most of Canada's population lives within a couple hours drive of the 49th parallel, most of Australia's population is concentrated along the eastern coast. Thus popular tour routes will take you as far north as Cairns, down through Brisbane and the Gold Coast (home to many beach resorts and surfer towns). The southern route will take you as far south as Tasmania and the cities of Hobart and Launceston, and as far west as Adelaide.
At 3.5 million, Melbourne is Australia's second largest city and an important music centre. Renowned for its dedication to the arts (fine, visual, architectural, culinary), Melbourne has wonderful bohemian neighbourhoods and a vibrant restaurant and bar scene. Because it's cheaper to rent and live in Melbourne than Sydney, it might make a better base of operations for a long-term stay.
Apart from Perth and nearby Fremantle in Western Australia, the rest of the country has too low a population density to make touring feasible. Isolated in the northwest, the cost of getting there makes Darwin prohibitive, and it's crawling with saltwater crocs and deadly box jellyfish. You might want to give it a miss.
Touring Australia is an exercise in from-zero market development. Do not expect to go there and make money. Do expect to go there and have a brilliant, rewarding musical and personal experience. Given the cost to get to Australia, it makes sense to stay as long and book as many shows as you can. Many Canadian artists have sensibly planned tours around one or more summer festival appearances, which brings us to the absolutely best part of touring Australia: summer there = winter here. To which I say: so long, Sudbury and g'day, Sydney!
Frequently Asked Questions
As a busker, can I work in Australia without a work visa?
Attempting to enter any country on a tourist visa when you intend to make money under the table is always a risky venture. If you're 18 to 30 though, you can try applying for a Working Holiday visa, which allows you to work and play in the country for 12 months.
Our album is available digitally in Australia and we have sold a couple hundred copies without a label. Is there any point in us trying to get a physical release though a label the first time we go there?
That probably depends on whether you're a band who can attract retail sales. If you're generally not known in Australia, you might want to try a tour to start building your fan base before you sign away the label rights. Having a fan base always gives you more leverage with labels and retailers. Or, consider starting with distribution on a consignment basis.
We are playing some big festivals and have been told we'll get dinged with a big withholding tax. Is there some way around this?
Withholding tax on performance fees for non-residents can get up to 46.5 percent. Depending on the expenses you incur in doing the shows (flights, rentals etc.), you can apply for a variance, but you'll need an Australian tax accountant to act as your agent. The concert promoters will have probably been through the drill and can recommend someone. It will cost you a couple hundred bucks but if you get your tax varied to zero, it's worthwhile.
Download the Canadian Trade Commission's updated publication Southern Compass: A How-To Guide to Touring Australia and New Zealand