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Australia’s Indie Music Juggernaut Mushroom Group Survived the Death of Its Founder — And Is Thriving at 50

Mr. Nimbus | 12/12/2023

Whenever Ed Sheeran has toured Australia and New Zealand, he has partnered with Frontier Touring, the live division of the dominant independent music company, Mushroom Group. And he breaks records with almost monotonous regularity.

He did it with his Divide tour in 2018, which sold more than 1 million tickets in the market, according to Frontier, breaking Dire Straits’ record that had stood since the 1980s. And Sheeran did it again with his most recent trek, The Mathematics Tour, which filled stadiums across the country earlier this year, smashing the all-time ticket sales record on consecutive nights (March 2-3) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, according to Frontier.

But this year’s tour was different. Mushroom Group’s legendary founder, Michael Gudinski, was not waiting at the airport to greet Sheeran. No Michael to see him off, either, or run amok on the adventures for which the good friends were famous.

“The reason I’m here right now,” Sheeran told the 105,000-strong Melbourne audience on March 2, “is because of an idea that he formed about eight years ago, and said, ‘Ed, you need to play in the round, in the MCG, with a band.’ I’d only started playing stadiums at this point, and I was like, ‘That place is really big. I’ve never played with a band.’ ” But Gudinski “convinced” him, he says, after his Divide tour ended. “I really wish he was here tonight,” Sheeran added.

Michael, the larger-than-life chairman and founder of Mushroom Group, which includes Frontier Touring and more than 20 music company brands, died March 2, 2021, at age 68.

The Mushroom Group and its staff was a family under Michael, and it remains so under his son, Matt, who now helms the company as chairman/CEO.

Players, Mushroom Group, Matt Gudinski, Michael Gudinski

Michael (left) and Matt Gudinski in 2019.

Mushroom Creative House

Matt, 38, steered the business and its 300 staffers through the pandemic that crushed the live industry. Now Mushroom’s touring and agency activities have bounced back, and business is booming. As the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, Matt has taken the opportunity to look ahead and to remember the company’s achievements and challenges.

Matt had little time to grieve the death of his father. With his appointment to the top job confirmed in April 2021, he hit the ground running. He was at the helm when Mushroom announced its new talent management division, Mushroom Management; a multilayered international pipeline deal with Universal Music’s Virgin Music; the realignment of Frontier Touring; the launch of new booking agency MBA and events/touring company MG Live; and a partnership with hip-hop specialist Valve Sounds.

In 2021, he navigated Mushroom’s break with Harbour Agency, following claims from former staff of past management misbehavior at the agency.

On Nov. 26, dozens of Australia’s leading artists performed at Mushroom’s 50th-anniversary concert at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena — a venue where a statue of Michael, holding aloft his finger in the familiar No. 1 gesture, stands outside the entrance. Such Mushroom family acts as Jimmy Barnes, The Teskey Brothers, Amy Shark, The Temper Trap, Vika & Linda, DMA’S, Paul Kelly, Ross Wilson, Kate Ceberano and Missy Higgins joined the event that aired on the Seven Network, performing a mix of originals and classics from across the Mushroom catalog, including “Working Class Man,” “Holy Grail,” “Sweet Disposition,” “Riptide,” “It’s Only the Beginning,” “Before Too Long” and “Living in the 70s.”

The countdown to the concert included the Nov. 24 release of an all-star covers collection, Mushroom: 50 Years of Making Noise, and the theatrical release in August of Ego, The Michael Gudinski Story, a documentary on the executive whose death was mourned by many of the superstars he worked with, from Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen to Dave Grohl and Sheeran.

Players, Mushroom Group, Paul Kelly

Veteran Mushroom artist Paul Kelly was among those on the bill of a Nov. 26 televised concert to mark the company’s anniversary.

Tim Lambert/Mushroom Creative House

In 1972, when Michael was just 20, he launched Mushroom Records, which soon became Australia’s indie music juggernaut. The company has shaped the country’s music culture like no other brand. Today, Mushroom Group embraces touring, booking agencies, publishing, merchandising/marketing services, venues, exhibition/events production, neighboring rights, branding, labels, talent management and more. (Warner Music acquired and absorbed the Mushroom Records label in Australia over a decade ago.)

“To survive 50 years as an independent music entertainment company is something we’re extremely proud of,” Matt says. “And throughout this year, we’ve tried to celebrate not only the history of the company, but the future.”

What were the first business challenges you took on when your father died?

We were still deep within the pandemic. And there were a lot of unknowns about how the music industry and the wider entertainment industry would move forward and recover from that. Without live music, it was an extremely challenging time for Mushroom Group and its survival. I’m really proud to be sitting here two-and-a-half years on from that, and I can confidently say that the Mushroom Group as a whole is in its best shape it has ever been.

What is your earliest memory of your father at work at Mushroom?

I’d always come into the office from a very young age, after school or even on holiday. We’d be going on tours together, whether it be Jimmy Barnes or Billy Joel. Before I’d even hit double [digits], I had a real passion for it. I was a budding concert promoter and entrepreneur, similar to my dad at a young age.

What was your first job in the music business?

When I was around 12 years old, I started trying to run some different events at different town halls, mostly for [those] under 18 and promoting bands. The first event I did wasn’t that successful; then
I started to hit my stride and was pretty much hooked. When I was about 16, I started getting involved with managing some upcoming artists and began to have influence in the A&R side of the group.

Your father was such a boisterous individual. What’s your management style?

It’s always an open-door policy and very collaborative. My dad was obviously a larger-than-life figure, and maybe some people out there thought that Mushroom was all about him, a one-man band. It was never that, never will be. Now there’s an opportunity for so many great people who’ve been part of the Mushroom Group for a long period of time to build up their profiles and really make a mark on this company and its future. Bringing their vision to life is something I’m very passionate about.

A U.S. No. 1 hit was high on your father’s wish list. What’s on yours?

At the time he had that dream, Australian artists having success [in] the biggest music market, the U.S. — outside of a very select few — was a foreign concept. Now there are so many artists that are making noise, having success globally. International success is a big priority, a big goal of mine. We have some artists who are doing really well, but we’d like them to go even further.

Players, Mushroom Group, Michael Gudinski

Michael Gudinski in 1979.

Mushroom Group Archive

You’ve recently had Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney, Sam Smith and Paramore tour Australia with Frontier Touring. Foo Fighters are next up. How would you describe the live business right now?

We’ve definitely had the biggest touring period in our history since the return to live. More artists are wanting to come here than ever before, and so many artists are selling more tickets than ever. But there’s still so many challenges to deliver these tours, whether it’s rising costs, economic challenges or just the competitiveness in the market. Everyone’s selling more tickets, but it’s more competitive than ever.

Your father was very proud of you for landing a Drake tour. How did that come about?

Drake was an artist that I was following from quite early and had been trying to get to come to Australia for many years before we finally landed his tour in 2015. It was a coup to get such a global superstar like Drake to tour Australia when we did. And we’ve had a few successful tours with him since then. Bruno Mars was another artist I brought to Australia very early.

Taylor Swift’s last tour in Australia was with Live Nation. Now Frontier Touring is producing her tour, which is scheduled for February.

We’ve worked with Taylor many times before. She loves Australia. And we’re looking forward to hosting her again. To get her back working with Frontier is something that we’re really excited about. I know it would have meant a lot to my dad, who had a great relationship with Taylor. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that demand for a tour like this, not just for Frontier, but for any promoters. For every one person who has bought a ticket to her tour, there are probably another 20 in Australia who want a ticket.

Your father was a relentless traveler and loved it. Is that something you enjoy?

My dad loved getting out there and building relationships, showing up anywhere in the world to see an artist that we worked with or that we wanted to work with. I definitely do the same. Travel in our industry coming out of the pandemic has probably changed a little bit, and the technology has evolved, but that’s how you create, maintain and grow great relationships.

How has Mushroom survived as an independent while so many other indies have gone belly up or been absorbed by multinationals?

The core of Mushroom is to invest in supporting Australian talent and to take it to the world. My dad was big on the saying of being a leader, not a follower. We’ve continued to evolve and adapt; it’s why we sit here with so many different business arms to the Mushroom Group, because we’re not reliant on one. If we were just a record label, we would have struggled to survive to this point. [We’ve been] able to continually evolve and ensure that we’re looking for the next thing, not the current thing. And investing in great people and other great entrepreneurs has really allowed us to stay successful over such a long period of time. Part of what makes us unique is the fact that it is a family affair. So many people at Mushroom have been there a long time. And we’re really an extension of our family. That’s what else has made us survive.

How did your father prepare you to take the reins at Mushroom?

It’s all about reputation in our business. He just instilled into me those key fundamentals: how to ensure that the business moves forward and all the foundations that he’d laid go on for a long time. Mushroom’s success is really down to amazing people, great artists, loyalty and strong overall values. I was lucky enough that for a number of years my dad and I were working closely together, and the Mushroom Group expanded so much over the past 10 years. A lot of the areas we moved into were things that not only were we driving together, but that I was driving and really taking the reins on. I was well prepared to take on the greater responsibility. I’ll always say it: My dad and I love what we did so much because we did it together. It’ll never be the same doing it without him.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Distance

A restructured Frontier touring continues to bring superstars to Australia.

Players, Mushroom Group, Frontier, Dion Brant

Dion Brant was named CEO of Frontier in 2022.

Ian Laidlaw

Australian promoter Frontier Touring has come roaring back from the 2021 death of founder Michael Gudinski and a pandemic that hobbled the live industry.

“We’ve completed around 160 tours since the restart of touring in mid-2022,” Frontier CEO Dion Brant says. “It has been a strong 18 months,” he adds, noting the company had 44 tours on sale as of early November. According to year-end Billboard Boxscore data, Frontier ranks as the No. 7 promoter worldwide for 2023.

Founded by Gudinski in 1979, Frontier was established on the core value of prioritizing artists and fans. The company has continued to channel this ethos since touring restarted following the health crisis.

In recent months, Ed Sheeran, Paul McCartney, Billie Eilish, Sam Smith and Luke Combs have played stadiums and arenas across Australia as part of Frontier-produced tours. Sheeran’s Mathematics Tour sold over 830,000 tickets across 12 shows in Australia and New Zealand and left excess demand, Brant says.

The heat isn’t dissipating from the market anytime soon.

Throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer, Frontier will promote treks for Robbie Williams, Foo Fighters and Taylor Swift, whose Eras Tour has sold out seven 2024 stadium shows across Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s most populous cities.

The so-called “tyranny of distance” — a phrase coined in 1966 by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey — makes the country a challenging touring market. “It is more expensive” post-COVID-19, Brant says. The cost to “move people and freight is much higher than pre-COVID. An already marginal business is even more marginal.”

Even the price of replacement turf has soared. “Artists and their agents are working harder than ever to make touring viable, to get their artists in front of audiences in a way that still stacks up financially,” Brant continues. “We all play our part in that.”

Brant was promoted in March 2022, heading up a new leadership team, part of wider restructuring designed to help the “legacy, mission and culture” of Frontier to flourish following Gudinski’s death in March 2021.

Brant reports to the Frontier board, which includes Michael’s son, Mushroom Group chairman/CEO Matt Gudinski; Jay Marciano, chairman/CEO of AEG Presents, which has a joint venture with Frontier; and AEG Presents Asia Pacific president/CEO Adam Wilkes, who was appointed Frontier chairman as part of the restructuring.

Legendary Australian concert promoter Michael Chugg, executive chairman of Chugg Entertainment, reunited with former business partner Michael Gudinski to form a joint venture in 2019. More recently, Chugg joined the Frontier leadership team alongside Matt, Frontier senior promoter Gerard Schlaghecke and others.

As live entertainment returned, Frontier has welcomed a new golden age of stadium shows, promoting gigs by Billy Joel, Foo Fighters and Elton John. In years past, Australia would host “two to three stadium tours a summer for all promoters, if we had a big summer,” Brant says. “That seems to have changed.”

“Twenty years ago, people were lamenting what would happen to the business when The Rolling Stones, Eagles and Neil Diamond-type acts stopped filling stadiums,” he says. Not anymore. Brant points to the evolution in stage production and the quality of new artists now making their mark.

Adds Brant: “To be in stadiums eight times over a couple of summers is big for Frontier.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 9, 2023, issue of Billboard.

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus

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