Red Hot Summer Tour promoter Duane McDonald has experienced the peaks and troughs of the music business throughout his time, but nothing could compare to the last 20 months.
As the Miners Rest resident prepares to relaunch the highly-popular rock festival in early 2022, breaking free from the shackles of COVID-19 with a huge Ballarat show planned for 19 March, the challenges of recent times remain clearly in his mind.
Enormous effort had gone into the preparation for the original 2020 shows, yet it was all yanked away in the proverbial blink of an eye.
"Hunters & Collectors has been a band you could never get," Mr McDonald said, reflecting on the past.
"They have never been on the radar for touring. I pitched to them two years ago for the 2020 tour, expecting them to say no, and they came back and said yes.
"We got about ten or twelve shows into a 25-date run and COVID hit. We were sitting in Kiama (in New South Wales) in March when Scott Morrison said everything was getting shut down so we packed everything up and headed home."
The cancellation of the Kiama show and subsequent performances had immense consequences for Mr McDonald and all involved in that Red Hot Summer Tour, yet the promotor clung onto a slither of optimism.
"We refunded all of the 2020 shows," Mr McDonald said.
"We said, 'Look, we don't know when these are going to happen', except for Ballarat. Ballarat traditionally has done 5000 or 6000 people and they've been great shows. This one was (set to be) well north of 10,000; it was just incredible. So I kept that one. We took the punt and pushed them into 2022 because we did not trust 2021.
"I kept that one, Kiama, and one in South Australia. We went out to the punters and said, 'You've got 30 days. Keep your ticket or get a refund'.
"We're going to relaunch and we will go again."
Intent on bringing live music back to the masses as soon as possible, Mr McDonald followed media reports on the pandemic with religious devotion.
"I watched every news conference," he said.
"There were days where I was watching Sunrise, flicking to Today, ABC News, four press conferences a day, reading Facebook.
"You're going for that glimmer of hope that something might open up."
An improving public health situation towards the end of last year provided Mr McDonald with the opportunity to get some concerts in motion.
"Things started to come good through the late part of 2020 and it looked like we might be able to get away with a few things," Mr McDonald said.
"I went to Jimmy Barnes and said, 'Hey, let's have a crack'.
"So we did Jimmy Barnes, Hoodoo Gurus, Jon Stevens (in early 2021). I picked all the states that I thought were safe, everywhere except Victorian and New South Wales, and I did all of those in February and March this year."
"I thought we'd be able to get around and do all these states. We pulled off every show."
The experience was challenging, but the mission was accomplished and Mr McDonald was buoyed by the outcome.
"It was tough," he said.
"We got into South Australia and we're rapid testing, we're chartering people in and out, getting exemptions, going to Tasmania where the crowd wasn't allowed to stand up with a drink or food in their hand.
"We did 80-odd thousand tickets in the middle of the pandemic."
Just when Mr McDonald thought difficulties had subsided, another curveball was thrown.
"The plan was February/ March and we'd then do October/ November in New South Wales and Victoria because, by then, COVID will be gone," Mr McDonald said.
"Then comes Delta and it just absolutely stuffed us."
A huge financial hit, over a million dollars, has been taken by Mr McDonald and there was nothing which could have been done to avoid it.
"Everyone says, 'Do you have war chests?' Everyone's got a war chest, but no one's got a war chest that's never ending," he said.
"I wanted to keep the staff that we've got on, but how many times can they wash a truck?"
Mr McDonald and a line-up of celebrated Australian acts, including Hunters & Collectors, James Reyne, The Living End, The Angels, Baby Animals, Killing Heidi, and Boom Crash Opera, are committed to kickstarting live rock in 2022, with the Ballarat show to be a highlight.
"I went back to (the artists) and said, 'Right, here's all the shows that we missed," he said.
"We'll put them on sale. We should be well and truly right by February. Ballarat gets its show; that was going to be the biggest show of the (2020) tour by a longshot."
While the financial impact of the pandemic has been significant for those involved in the creative field, Mr McDonald and others have also struggled emotionally.
"This October one, when we were supposed to be out of COVID, that hit hard," Mr McDonald said.
"A lot of musicians aren't financially set up for what they government is handing out. It's alright to say, 'They're getting JobKeeper', but a lot of them can't get it.
"That gets me down."
The musicians' way of life has also been affected.
"These are guys and girls that live out of suitcases. They don't know what it's like to be stuck in a house," Mr McDonald said.
"They're trying to learn a new life.
"A lot of these acts are getting up into their sixties and, to change their lives on them overnight, it knocks you around a little bit when you talk with them.
"When we had to move these shows, I thought, 'This is just going to hit them and it's going to hit them again'."
Mr McDonald has put many in the industry ahead of himself during these extraordinary times.
"Early days, I was getting JobKeeper and flicking it to artists, musicians who were really doing it tough," Mr McDonald said.
"I was grabbing the government money and flicking it to them as I knew they weren't getting any.
"It was horrible."
An artist behind a huge 1980s hit, who was living on a floor in Sydney, was one to benefit from Mr McDonald's generosity.
I don't think, even back in March 2020, they realised what was coming. No one knew what was coming.Duane McDonald
As time progressed, Mr McDonald became increasingly aware of more musicians in strife.
"They started raising their heads," he said.
"I thought, 'We're in a lot of trouble here'. They're not plumbers; they're not chippies. A lot of them, they know nothing else.
"When the Hunters & Collectors (show) went down, there were seven artists on the bill.
"Times that out by half-a-dozen musos, the managers, their agents, their roadies, their crew, their publicists, it's a big whack for them.
The flow-on effect of lockdowns has been immense with no end to those affected. Companies which own staging have had seen revenue dry up as millions of dollars of gear sits in sheds.
"I don't think, even back in March 2020, they realised what was coming. No one knew what was coming. Scott Morrison got up and said this could last six months. Usually, they talk in a worst case scenario."
The situation would extend well beyond six months.
When the nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, Mr McDonald approached his crew with them having just completed construction on the vast stage for the Kiama show. The group collectively broke down. At the time, they did not know if they were going to see each other again.
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In the end, a simple description can be used to address the entire health crisis situation.
"It's a train wreck," Mr McDonald said.
Yet, if anyone can get the train back on its track, it is Mr McDonald.
He is self-made, his promotion business having the most humble of origins.
It goes back to when Mr McDonald owned a hotel in St Arnaud, a small town 130 kilometres from Ballarat.
A cold call was taken from an agency; there was a proposal to have the venue host Diesel, also known as Mark Lizotte, who had hits such as 'Tip Of My Tongue', 'Come To Me', and 'Fifteen Feet of Snow'.
Mr McDonald was not automatically impressed.
"I had no idea who Diesel was," he said.
"Half the town didn't know who Diesel was!" We had the barman going up and down the street with the discman walking into shops playing his music. It went from there."
The show became a sell out with 100 people. It was deemed a great success.
The Diesel triumph resulted in further phone calls with agents keen to book gigs for their stars.
Screaming Jets, Shannon Noll, Lee Kernaghan, and Rogue Traders would also take the trip along the Sunraysia Highway.
The pub was no longer sufficient. The town hall, with a capacity of 1400 people, was required.
Things escalated when there was the possibility of bringing in icon Jimmy Barnes. Despite the financial demands, a punt was taken.
"We had no money," Mr McDonald said.
"We put the deposit on the credit card at 17 per cent and filled it to the roof."
Shows in Horsham, Swan Hill, and Bendigo would follow.
Barnes, on the back of his album 'Red Hot', wanted to play along the Murray River one January.
Mr McDonald took the bit between his teeth and ran with it, his first experience with outdoor shows. Here, he would grasp what was required to put on such spectacles and the idea to branch out into what would become the quintessential outdoor Australian rock concert was born.
The process of putting on a huge live show is demanding, requiring maximum efficiency. In the days prior to the event, the facility has to be built from scratch. Staging, toilets, and fencing have to be prepared. It is the opposite as soon as everyone's out of the venue at midnight.
Barnes, with whom Mr McDonald has a strong bond, would become a Red Hot Summer Tour staple.
"Barnes is as honest as you'll ever get," Mr McDonald said.
"If we're going to do 10 nights in a row, he'll be there. Early in the piece, he'd land in Melbourne and then drive five hours to Portland and then drive back. A real workaholic."
Arguably, Australia's greatest performer of the last five decades was also lured.
"I always wanted to work with John Farnham, but he was unreachable, like Hunters & Collectors," he said.
"There was a worry that his audience wanted to go to a theatre or arena and have a nice seat rather than sit in a paddock like North Gardens. I took the punt on it and it went through the roof, absolutely ballistic."
A point of difference between Mr McDonald and other promoters is how he engages with the talent.
"A lot of the promoters want to be their best friend straightaway," Mr McDonald said.
"It's always a battle between promoters as to who can wine them and dine them whereas I'll drive past them with a forklift and a port-a-loo on it."
He also knows what the crowd wants.
"If they haven't got songs on the jukebox at the Lexton pub, who are we selling tickets to?" he said.
"They're not going to come if they do not know the music. It's about what they've grown up with."
Despite all of the blows across two years, Mr McDonald knows the joy a show brings and he still hungers for it.
"When you're hands-on and you're there working on the ground, you don't really look at it as if you're promoting (the acts)," Mr McDonald said.
"You walk away going, 'Jeez, that was good to be a part of. That was great'."
The Red Hot Summer Tour hits Ballarat on Saturday March 19 2022. Tickets are through Ticketmaster.
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