There were many poignant moments watching Powderfinger streaming their first show in a decade on Saturday night, but the biggest one was seeing bassist John Collins playing (like all the band members, in isolation) to an empty Fortitude Music Hall, one of two venues he part-owns in Brisbane. The grand 3,300-capacity room opened less than a year ago, and the empty space served as a symbol of what we have lost, what we are missing, and what was at stake.
Live music is a billion-dollar industry in Australia, yet the rooms that host it run on the smell of an oily rag and are in constant danger of being run out of town by governments and developers (Brisbane is fortunate in that both Fortitude Music Hall and The Triffid were built and are co-owned by one of those developers, Scott Hutchinson, a bona fide music tragic). Covid-19 lockdowns will drive many more venues to the wall.
So Powderfinger were back, singer Bernard Fanning told us, to put some smiles on people’s faces. The half-hour gig, watched by close to 100,000 people, aided both music industry charity Support Act and mental health organisation Beyond Blue, with Fanning in northern New South Wales, guitarist Darren Middleton in Melbourne, drummer Jon Coghill on the Sunshine Coast and Collins and lead guitarist Ian Haug in separate locations in Brisbane.
This, too, was poignant: the band was back together, yet alone, playing to an enormous audience who couldn’t get close to the band, despite the illusion of intimacy. And yet what was most immediately apparent was how tight they sounded. It was hard to believe Powderfinger were not playing in the same room; indeed, if you closed your eyes you could easily have been playing one of their albums.
To that extent, it barely sounded like a live gig at all: the recording was made weeks ago, and post-production had sanded away any rough edges, a common criticism of Powderfinger over the years. Nothing had been left to chance. One moment broke the earnestness: Middleton standing in front of a whirring fan, pulling stage moves in the privacy of his own home studio, hair flying. It looked ridiculous, and was meant to.
None of these caveats, though, deny the strength of Powderfinger’s set. By the time the band broke up in 2010, their ubiquity was working against them. After a decade’s hiatus, they’ve been away long enough to be missed, and to be reminded why they were so popular in the first place. The answer is simple: heartfelt classic rock songs, sold by an outstanding singer and a band that never overplays or gets in his way.
The band’s best and biggest-selling album, Odyssey Number Five, turns 20 this year, and rumours are rife of another reunion to go with the inevitable reissues. Three of the seven songs performed are pulled from it, the most surprising being Thrilloilogy (time has not softened the dreadful name, but it’s a fan favourite). My Happiness and closer These Days already felt nostalgic at the time they were released, and are more potent now.
Special credit must go to Coghill, who has barely picked up sticks since the band dissolved yet was as dexterous as ever behind his kit; his unique feel keeps Powderfinger on their toes, with a boxer’s punch and swing. Collins proposed a heck of a party when venues reopen, pleading with audiences to support live music. If Powderfinger do follow through with a tour, a warm-up gig at Collins’ own venue in the band’s home town would be appropriate.
It’s Good Friday in Brisbane and most of the city is dead quiet, with pubs and clubs not opening until midnight due to Easter trading laws. In the inner suburb of West End, however, something very noisy is stirring.
On a makeshift stage in a large room, a three-piece band called Hexmere is playing a raucous, raw brand of grindcore punk to a small crowd. There’s another gig planned for the following night, with many more people expected.
These all-ages shows are being sporadically staged by the Outer Space art collective, which won the Brisbane city council’s tender to operate this 300-capacity venue for two years, rent-free. The space needs work. But it represents an experiment, a gamble and a new hope for the city’s youth culture.
The fact that the city council chose to make the space available is important. Despite a rich history, live music in Brisbane, as in so many other cities around the world, struggles to survive against the pressures of gentrification, regulation and competition.
The music industry’s inextricable links to alcohol and bars has left a dearth of venues accessible to under-18s, raising concerns about how the complex ecosystem that sustains a vibrant local music scene – comprising everything from record shops to independent labels to public radio – will reproduce itself without engaging audiences from a young age.
Live from Outer Space is an attempt to buck that trend in Brisbane. Coordinator Alex Campbell watches Hexmere as sound technician Hannah buzzes around the room, checking noise levels and sonic balance. Campbell says she has encouraged women and non-binary people to get involved in the male-dominated space of sound engineering especially.
In the crowd tonight are the three members of the Goon Sax, back home in Brisbane after seven months in Berlin. Their 19-year-old frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the Go-Betweens’ Robert – less than half a mile from the venue, the Go Between Bridge spans the Brisbane river. But surfing the city’s next wave hasn’t been easy, even for a band with such pedigree.
While the Goon Sax’s members were under 18, the venues they played required them to be accompanied by a parent and to leave immediately after their set, while their friends were unable to attend.
“It’s cool something like this has opened up,” says Forster. “I know my sister’s psyched about it – she’s 16 and she’s coming tomorrow night. I was pretty frustrated by it when I was a kid growing up. I remember going to soundchecks and standing outside venues and listening, stuff like that.”
“There were all these shows, and you could never go to them,” says Riley Jones, the band’s drummer. “You could go to the [radio station] Triple Zed car park shows sometimes, and that was a nice treat, but it was very frustrating.”
“There’s all these young kids who don’t have any places to go,” says Louis Whelan, who is director of Outer Space’s all-ages live-music programme and also plays in his own band, the Mouldy Lovers. “Most events are really alcohol-focused. Playing somewhere where people are just going to get wasted, it’s not the same thing as playing where people want to see music.
“If there’s a whole new generation of people who are much more engaged with the arts and music, then when they get out and they have disposable incomes, they’re going to go to galleries, to venues, to buy local bands’ music and start their own labels. I think there’s a lot of value in it.”
It’s not just kids who are struggling to find places to play. In Sydney – once a live-music Mecca to rival London or New York – bands now struggle to play at all, with venues under pressure from soaring real estate prices, noise complaints, punitive regulations and a cosy relationship between government and developers. The city’s longest-serving live venue, The Basement – which, over 45 years, has hosted artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Prince – closed last week, though its owners are hopeful of finding other premises.
The situation has become so difficult that the state of New South Wales is now holding a parliamentary inquiry. Dave Faulkner, singer and songwriter of enduring Australian garage band the Hoodoo Gurus, told the inquiry that live music was treated like the sex industry, “as something to be shunned. We employ so many people, we generate incredible amounts of money throughout the economy – and yet we’re treated so badly.”
Faced with similar issues, music scenes around the world have been forced underground, into house parties or often illegal warehouse gigs, accessible only to those in the know. “It starts to get a bit worrying when kids are in those scenes,” says Emily Collins, managing director of the government-funded advocacy body MusicNSW.
“We’d much rather them be in venues where we can make sure it’s safe and they can learn to love music in a safe and supporting environment. At warehouse parties there are no security guards, there’s no regulation, no one monitoring alcohol consumption. And they’re more focused on over-18 activities anyway – not that anyone is checking ID.”
All-ages shows have a twofold benefit, says Collins: they foster a self-sustaining community of audiences and performers that in turn helps nurture a creative city. The sticking point, particularly in Australia, is breaking the nexus between music and alcohol.
Venues, already under severe financial duress, are reluctant to put on events where no money is coming over the bar and the regulatory environment is forbidding. “There are multiple bodies that need to be satisfied, so there is considerable complexity, high costs and red tape in running a compliant venue,” says Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW and a professor of music at Macquarie University.
“There is no agent of change law in New South Wales that puts the responsibility on developers to soundproof new developments near music venues. If new residents make noise complaints, the venue is held accountable and must meet acoustic treatment costs, so it’s very risky for venue operators. At best, it erodes business confidence and at worst it can shut down venues entirely.”
The introduction of controversial lockout laws in 2014, imposing curfews on venues in a bid to curb alcohol-related violence more associated with nightclubs than live music events, have been relaxed to some degree, but otherwise only worsened the operating environment.
Against this backdrop, MusicNSW offers funding to promoters and venues to stage all-ages shows, but Collins says applications are few. “People say it’s too hard as a venue – $15,000 won’t cut it.”
Often bands are paid literally out of beer takings. “They’re basically saying: the more heavy drinkers attend your gig, the better you’ll get paid,” says Ray Ahn, bass player of another longstanding punk band, the Hard-Ons. “With that kind of a working model, it’s harder to organise all-ages shows. Where’s the money going to come from?”
The parliamentary inquiry underlines what a cautionary tale Sydney has become. Dave Faulkner said the city’s culture was dying. “When people come to Sydney they don’t just come to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, they also go to have a night out and to see music – it’s what I do when I go to London or New York. But Sydney has been doing everything it can to destroy those places of entertainment and turn them into apartment buildings.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of pubs and clubs throughout the city and suburbs kept artists busy, with major Australian bands such as Midnight Oil honing their live skills by playing upwards of 200 shows a year.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Ahn says, the Hard-Ons would often play an all-ages show in the afternoon and another for over-18s in the evening. Now, they might have played one all-ages show in Australia in the last 10 years. When the band tour Europe or Japan, though, it’s a different story.
“A lot of the shows we do in Europe are in purpose-built halls that have the bar on the outside,” Ahn says. “Inside, there is no bar – it’s like a flat-ceilinged room with a massive PA and volunteers running around everywhere. So where are they getting the money from? They’re getting it from the city council.”
The environment in Germany was more easygoing, says Louis Forster, even when he was younger. “I spent a lot of time there growing up, and I could always get into venues – it was never a problem. Parents would bring their kids to shows, which was really fantastic.”
In Australia, Melbourne actively promotes itself as the live-music capital, and with good reason. A Deloitte study in 2011 valued the sector’s economic contribution at over half a billion dollars, with small venues providing the bulk of revenue and employment. Though many venues have closed in recent years, the value of investing in the live-music sector at grassroots level has long been recognised.
The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation, has been operating in Victoria since 1986, providing a launch platform for countless bands. As well as all-ages shows, it puts on mentoring programmes and skills workshops.
Shaad D’Souza, a music journalist who used to coordinate all-ages events for the organisation, notes that it is a cultural investment as well as a financial one. “Lots of kids, when they grow up they’ll only really go to big festivals or big arena shows because that’s all they’ve had access to,” he says.
“Whereas if you’re investing in all-ages shows, they develop a relationship with venues, they develop a relationship with artists, and then they know: ‘I want to support my local scene.’ They want to go to smaller venues; they don’t just want to go to arena shows or festivals.”
At the end of the night, Alex Campbell’s band, Bad Bangers, will launch their EP. The band are in their 20s now. “But that’s kind of why we started this – because there weren’t many all-ages spaces when we were younger.”
Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.
So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.
For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock & roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.
It’s about memories, the loss of a rare mid-sized venue that can hold between 4500 and 5500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.
So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.
The subsequent passing of the agent of change principle by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.
But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.
In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”
But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.
And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.
Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.
Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.
Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built mid-sized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.