Flight of the Conchords at Soho Theatre, London on 25 February 2018 (PHOTO: Raph PH)

Are Flight of the Conchords the biggest NZ live act ever?

This week Flight of The Conchords play three nights in a row at the O2 Arena, one of the UK’s biggest covered venues with a capacity of 20,000 people. Gareth Shute determines how they stack up in the history of New Zealand live performers.

Back in 2010 it was big news when Flight of the Conchords announced they were going to play in front of 12,500 people at London’s Wembley Arena. It did make sense though – at the time they were coming off the back of their HBO show, a cult hit across the world. In the years since the duo have only played the occasional show, so it was a little surprising when late last year they announced they were doing two dates at a much larger venue, the O2 Arena in east London. Would they still draw enough of an audience to pull off such a large event?

If anything, they underestimated demand. The first two shows sold out quickly and a third date needed to be added (these shows were originally meant to be back in March, but were postponed due to an injury to Bret McKenzie’s wrist). They are now a week into the tour, with a sold-out show in front of 13,000 in Dublin over the weekend (all their UK dates are this size) and the first of the O2 Arena shows last night. After a quick tour around the UK’s major cities, they’re back in London at the start of next month to play to 10,000 more fans across three nights at the Hammersmith Apollo.

If the scale of this achievement isn’t clear, it’s worth considering Lorde’s last tour of the UK. Her sole London date was a night at Alexandra Palace, capacity 10,000. Which leads me to the obvious question: is it possible that ‘New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk duo’ have become New Zealand’s biggest live act of all time?

Flight of the Conchords at the US Comedy Arts Festival 2005 (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

To find out how the Conchords got so big in the UK, we need to go back a long way. They first played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002; the following year they were nominated for the Perrier Award for the festival’s best comedy show, which led to them being offered a radio show by the BBC. They were signed to Sub Pop Records, the Seattle label which first broke Nirvana and was undergoing a resurgence at the time with gold records by The Shins and The Postal Service. The resulting self-titled album hit the Billboard 200 album chart at No.3 while their follow-up hit No.19 and won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. Even before HBO, Flight of the Conchords were a breakthrough success story.

The two seasons of their show ran in 2007 and 2009, and they were riding a wave of success when they booked their show at Wembley Arena in 2010. In subsequent years the duo only toured occasionally, but neither of them were out of the public eye. Bret McKenzie was heavily involved in two Muppet movies and won an Academy Award for the song ‘Man or Muppet.’ Meanwhile, Jemaine Clement took a run of high profile roles (often in animated films), including playing the villain in Men In Black 3 and the crab Tamatoa in Moana. Both films grossed over $600 million worldwide. Meanwhile, the music of Flight of the Conchords continued to gain new fans – a single live video of their classic ‘Business Time’ has now been viewed 34 million times on YouTube.

So, returning to our original question, could Flight of the Conchords be New Zealand’s biggest live act ever? It’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Their main competition right now is certainly Lorde, but she has some advantages over them – a pop act like her can play large music festivals which wouldn’t suit a comedy act (for example, she played in front of 40,000 at the Lollapalooza festival in Brazil) and her tours are far more extensive (her Melodrama tour is 70 dates, even if some venues weren’t full).

Lorde at Lollapalooza Brazil on 5 April 2014 (Photo: Getty)

It does seem likely that Flight of the Conchords could tour further afield if they wanted to. Indeed, their US dates last year were certainly of a similar size to their UK dates – their New York show, for example, was at Forest Hills Stadium which has a capacity of 14,000. But their reluctance to announce more dates makes some sense. If you had the choice between a long, grueling tour and a short but lucrative appearance in a multi-million dollar grossing movie, which would you choose?

Of course, there is one other New Zealand musical group that Flight of the Conchords would need to outdo in order to be considered our biggest live act ever. Back in the 1990s Crowded House were at a similar height of fame as the Conchords today. In the UK, Crowded House were big enough to book Wembley Arena in 1991; in 1994 they headlined the Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park in front of 50,000. 

Most impressive of all was the band’s ‘final show’ outside the Sydney Opera House in 1996, which drew upwards of 150,000 spectators on the peninsula itself and an estimated 100,000 more in the surrounding area. Granted, it was a free show, with donations taken for a Sydney children’s hospital and a blood bank – though if sheer scale is our metric then we should also mention Hayley Westenra’s appearance at the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington DC before an audience in excess of half a million people.

Now let’s look at shows at home. It’s worth noting that in the 1960s the Howard Morrison Quartet headlined a variety show at Western Springs in Auckland that attracted a crowd in excess of 20,000; in contrast, Lorde’s 2014 show a few kilometres away in Silo Park held 10,000. But even when it comes to NZ shows, Flight of the Conchords still reign supreme. Their 2012 tour included three nights at Auckland’s Vector Arena (now Spark Arena), with at least the first two nights being filled to capacity with 11,000 fans (and it is estimated that overall they sold 40,000 tickets nationwide).

Crowded House at the Sydney Opera House, 24 November 2006 (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty)

In the end, while it’s true that even at the height of their fame neither Lorde nor Crowded House could have sold out a London venue with a 20,000 person capacity three nights in a row, it hardly follows that Flight of the Conchords must be the bigger live act overall. For one thing, music-only live acts are able to tour further afield, since their shows don’t rely on audiences understanding every lyrical nuance. A quarter of Lorde’s recent tour dates were in countries where English isn’t the main language – would Flight of The Conchords really be able to draw big audiences in such places?

But the mere fact that Flight of the Conchords are up there with New Zealand’s most successful musical acts ever is pretty insane when you think about it. Two Wellington comedians with acoustic guitars playing to over 100,000 people in the space of a month? It’s business time alright.


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