Brisbane is no longer the undersized younger brother, with a nutty streak. Nope, with its bustling network of spanking new tunnels, skyscrapers and high-density blocks, it’s a city all grown up. Its live music scene is also set to mature with the dawn of the Fortitude Music Hall, a 3,300-capacity venue in the heart of the Valley’s entertainment district. Any unforeseen glitches aside, the new site should open to the public in mid-July.
The multi-million dollar project is spearheaded by Scott Hutchinson, CEO of construction giant Hutchinson Builders, QMusic patron and an avowed music fan; former Powderfinger bass player John “JC” Collins; and the band’s former manager Paul Piticco, in partnership with his Secret Sounds Group co-founder Jess Ducrou. It’s the same brain trust behind the 800-capacity Triffid venue in nearby Newstead, which opened its doors in 2014 and has been booked solid since. Same winning team, different game. The Fortitude Music Hall is grander in every sense. The new site will have a mix of retail stores and an events space and is situated in the centre of the colourful Brunswick Street Mall, just opposite Ric’s cafe and about 400 metres from the Judith Wright Centre, the host venue for the annual Bigsound conference.
In September 2018, during Bigsound, Live Nation announced it had signed on as a principal partner in the project (Hutchinson owns the property). This is one giant leap ahead of Triffid 2.0.
“At the moment, there’s a lot to do,” Collins tells TIO. “Obviously I’m part of the design, the building, construction. The fit out, the website design, staffing, contracts.” One assignment he no longer needs worry about is bands. Experienced Century Venues booker Mark Gibbons joins the team as Head of Bookings, and will also take on the role for The Triffid from Feb. 4. Gibbons will relocate from Sydney, where he booked some of the city’s most iconic venues, including the Enmore, the Metro and Factory Theatre.
Gibbon isn’t working with a blank page. Collins has already pencilled in 25-30 bands, though he can’t announce any just yet. All of that will come. “I’ve got some ideas around the opening,” Collins says. “I’d like to have something very Queensland or Brisbane-based. That would be very fitting.”
Until now, Brisbane has had a dearth of venues at this scale since Festival Hall, a 4,000-capacity room which opened 1959 in the city centre, was flattened a little more than 15 years ago, in 2003. Festival Hall lives on in name only; it was converted into an apartment block, Festival Towers, which displays photos in its lobby of the famous artists who graced its stages. A black & white photo of the Beatles hangs from its walls.
“Over time,” Piticco commented late last year, “we hope The Fortitude Music Hall can become as iconic as Festival Hall was.”
Valley venues The Zoo and The Tivoli respectively cater for about 800 and 1,400 concert goers. On Brisbane’s Southbank, the Great Hall at Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre holds 4,000 punters and has hosted performances from One Direction, Rodriguez and many more, but its atmosphere is sterile compared with the sticky hard floor of the old Festival Hall. The West End’s Max Watt’s (formerly The Hi-Fi), a mezzanine format with a 1,200 capacity, has had well-reported troubles. At the upper capacities, the outdoor Riverstage at the City Botanic Gardens holds 9,500 and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre at Boondall, in north Brisbane, accommodates about 13,000.
The powers behind Fortitude Music Hall are keen to see it become Brisbane’s premier live music venue. But first, the roof. Its trusses are up, and construction is on track for the roof to be fitted by the end of February. “Once that’s on, we can get a plan because you aren’t affected by the weather,” Collins says. “Then we can, hopefully by the end of February we can get an opening date.”
Award-winning Queensland architect Andrew Gutteridge, from Arkhefield, was tapped to design the front façade, adding a modern twist on Art Deco style, recounting Brisbane’s classic theatres, many of which are now gone.
Collins and his associates are getting good vibes from the local businesses and council. “If you have 3,000 people going to the Valley on a Thursday night to see an artist, everyone will benefit out of that,” he explains. “All the restaurants and bars are going to benefit. I’m hoping it’s a positive thing for Brisbane, and the Valley in particular. Everyone says they’re waiting for the Valley to pick up and go well, I’m hoping this is the thing that promotes that and becomes a popular destination not just Friday and Saturday night but throughout the week.” In time, the venue could also become a leg of the annual Bigsound route, a drop-in for the visiting music industry.
Launching the Triffid brought with it a swag of lessons in life and business. “I had this naïve opinion that you build a great venue and it’ll take care of itself. Bands will come,” Collins admits. “I realise now you have to work really hard every week to keep it fresh, keep the momentum going, the staff going, I’ve learnt operationally what to do. Construction wise, I’ve learned how to work to a budget better this time. I’ve learned a lot that will hold me in good stead for this time.”
Collins doesn’t see himself as an empire builder. He’s giving back to a city which lost something important. “I’m not an empire sort of guy. But I’m excited about having a bigger venue, about having a venue the next generation of young people can go and see their artists like I did growing up in Brisbane. I used to see artists at Festival Hall. I can’t wait to get bands in there.”
Next year marks a decade since Collins dropped the bass and donned the hard hat. While touring the world with the homegrown heavyweights Powderfinger, Collins looked, learned. “I’ve found it enjoyable and a different challenge,” he recounts. “I work a little harder than I thought it was going to be. I do pay out the bands when they say, ‘I’m flat out.’ I’m like, ‘mate, you don’t know what flat out is, buddy.’ With the band, you’d come home, rehearse or write, practice and you’re done for the night. And go back and do it again.” In his new life, “You don’t really turn off.” And what does he miss about performing with Australia’s biggest band of the noughts? “The playing, totally. The touring part, toward the end of it particular overseas, I don’t miss that. I don’t miss airports and that lifestyle, but I definitely miss getting up on stage. And having an hour and a half to perform for people. I’d always like to do that. But you can’t do it forever.”
Collins is looking forward to the big payoff — facing the stage on opening night of the Fortitude Music Hall with a beer in hand. “When you go there, you start getting excited about seeing bands. I was standing up in the mezzanine the other day and I could start to feel the space, you could see the heights. I’m so pumped.”
Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.