Up & Down & Back Again: John Collins on the live music industry’s wild ride

John ‘JC’ Collins, Aussie rock legend and venue director of The Triffid and The Fortitude Music Hall, took a seat On The Couch at the Brisbane Business Hub to discuss how he’s navigated the most challenging years the live music industry has ever faced. 

After spending 20 years touring and recording with iconic Brisbane band Powderfinger, JC turned his focus to running live music venues – eventually. 

“When Powderfinger broke up in 2010 there was no obvious transition for me,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I looked at a motor racing business, but I don’t know anything about motor racing. I looked at a printing business, but I don’t know anything about printing. But I really love music, so I came up with a plan to open a music venue, because I thought there was a gap in the market for a Brisbane venue that was between the size of The Zoo and The Tivoli.” 

That venue became The Triffid, and since opening in Newstead in 2014, it’s established itself as a Brisbane institution. In 2019, JC and his team joined forces with music industry power brokers Secret Sounds and Live Nation to open The Fortitude Music Hall, a world-class venue in the heart of Fortitude Valley. 

He’s even more deeply entrenched in Brisbane’s live music scene today than he was at the height of Powderfinger’s success – and he’s had a front row seat to the madness of the last couple of years. 

Sailing the wildest stretch 

Since the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, the live music scene has faced more restrictions and disruptions than most other industries – and JC doesn’t pull any punches about how tough it’s been. 

“I think this is the biggest challenge our industry’s ever faced,” he says. “As someone who co-owns and runs two venues, I can honestly say I’ve never had a harder time in my life. 

“COVID has been bloody awful to the music industry, and to live music venues, in particular. When you see a band put a record out that they can’t tour for two years… I just feel so sorry for artists, bar staff, roadies, lighting specialists, soundies, t-shirt companies, truck drivers and so on. There’s a whole infrastructure that sits around that band you see on stage. 

“The industry’s been devastated by the restrictions, and as a venue director, as a person who looks after people’s livelihoods, it’s just been incredibly tough. I can’t deny it.”

JC has made a couple of major moves to support the industry through this time. Last May, he ‘reunited’ with his Powderfinger bandmates via YouTube for an online concert, One Night Lonely. The virtual show raised $500,000 for charities supporting the music and arts industries, including Support Act, which provides mental health and crisis support to people in the music industry. 

John JC Collins

Earlier this year, as the rest of Queensland returned to a sense of relative normalcy, JC and fellow venue owner Brett Gibson launched the Play Fair campaign to advocate for live music venues.

“The public perception was that we were back to normal, but that wasn’t the case for live music venues,” he says. “I just thought it was unfair that, after we had the AFL Grand Final in Brisbane and we had State of Origin matches here, and you could have 50,000 people in a stadium, we could still only have 1,000 people at a live music venue with a capacity of 3,300 people. 

The public perception was that we were back to normal, but that wasn’t the case for live music venues.

“Instead of complaining about it, I got together with some friends in the advertising industry who lent their services for free, and we said, ‘Let’s see if we can get the Queensland Government to talk to us and see if we can improve our position’. Our stance was, ‘Either relax the restrictions on live music venues or talk to us about how you can financially support us, because we can’t survive. ’ Because that’s what was happening. 

“It just seemed like there was no one stepping forward from our industry. I think Michael Gudinksi would have stepped forward if he was still with us, but I think there was an attitude that this was all just too hard to handle, and we’d just have to see it out. I felt it was my responsibility to push forward and advocate for us. 

“The biggest win from the Play Fair campaign was that we got the State Government to come to the table and talk to us. It got us inside the tent. And the outcome of that was that when they couldn’t get us back to full capacity, they came out with a package to support live music venues in Queensland, which actually helped to keep the lights on. So it was important, and I feel great about the fact that I was able to get in there and have real discussions and make some real change.” 

Waiting for the sun 

From December 17 2021, capacity restrictions will be lifted on indoor entertainment venues, on the proviso that only fully vaccinated people are allowed inside. 

“I feel like I’m in Grade 12 and Schoolies is coming,” JC says. “I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out… unfortunately, I’ll lose some staff [because of vaccination requirements for staff]. That’s a really sad thing. And I’ll lose some important acts that I really like that won’t be able to play here. But it’s about being back at full capacity, so it’s a no-brainer for me. The industry has suffered enough, and I’m here for getting it back on track.” 

For venues that have been forced to operate well below capacity, the lifting of restrictions seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel – but JC says there are interesting times ahead. 

“I think the next few years are still going to be really challenging for live music venues,” he says. “We don’t know what things are going to look like next year. There was an inflation of ticket prices throughout COVID, because the costs of putting on a show were high and you couldn’t get the same yields out of a crowd. But I think that will swing back in the other direction, and we’ll see ticket prices go down because of competition. 

“There’s a big backlog of artists waiting to play this city, and I think towards the end of next year, from August and September onwards, when summer tours in America and the UK wind down, you’ll see a flood of international acts coming here… There might be five great shows on in a week, but people only have so much money they can spend on tickets. So that’ll be interesting.”

One trend born out of necessity that JC expects to carry over to the post-pandemic world is live music venues being used for non-musical functions and events. 

“We’ve worked on that side of the business, and I think the fact we’ve been able to open up other avenues and explore them will be a great asset moving forward for both venues,” he says. 

Developing other streams of income has always been something we’ve strived to do as a business.

“Developing other streams of income has always been something we’ve strived to do as a business. Even when we fitted out The Fortitude Music Hall… a perfect room would have a slanted floor, but we decided on a flat floor, because we wanted to be able to do gala dinners. We’ve worked to find other uses for these spaces, because you have to be flexible. 

“We’ve had boxing tournaments at The Fortitude Music Hall that have been broadcast on Foxtel. Our poor functions manager, Reggie, has never seen a boxing match in her life, and now she’s a boxing promoter. So we’ve all had to learn to do different things, and some of these learnings will be really useful moving forward.” 

Getting the band back together 

JC and Ian Haug recently got back together with the third founding member of Powderfinger, Steven Bishop, to revive their ‘side project’, The Predators. Fifteen years after the release of The Predators’ debut EP, they released their debut album, ‘Everybody Loves’, in October, and are playing shows together again. 

Whether that’s a prelude to a full-blown Powderfinger reunion remains to be seen. JC is quick to insist that last year’s One Night Lonely virtual concert didn’t really count, because the band members weren’t actually in the same room. But he’s not entirely opposed to the idea of getting the band back together, and dismisses any talk of a rift between them. 

“We just wanted to do something different as human beings and as individuals,” he says, “but there’s no rift. I actually spoke to Bernard (Fanning) today. I spoke to Haugy (Ian Haug) as well. He called while I was on the phone to Bernard. That doesn’t sound like a band that hates each other, does it?” 

When Brisbane hosts the Olympics in 2032, it seems only right that Powderfinger should play the Opening Ceremony – and Collins is ready for the challenge. 

“I’ll do a deal right now for Powderfinger playing in 2032,” he laughs. “Who do I talk to? Let’s talk 2032. I’m up for it.” 

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Brisbane Business Hub

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