Good 'ol Geelong. It's now the second most populated area in Victoria, and seems befitting that co-owner of The Workers Club (Melbourne), John O'Brien, and director of Spinning Half (Geelong music bookers) Steven Nichols, have joined forces to create a second addition to the family, The Workers Club Geelong. With a soft launch scheduled for Friday 20th March to guests, the industry, family and friends, O'Brien laughingly admits, "It's a race to the finish. I've got all the staff and backend systems, I'm getting it in there and making sure it is ready to go. The wall separating the band room and dining room needs to be sound proofed, then … we open the doors!"
With acts like British India, Jeff Martin, Jake Clemons and Steve Smyth on the bill, audiences are in for a great dose of music. "There's a couple we are working on in the pipework," I ask O'Brien who exactly, and he breaks into laughter, "I'll be killed by a number of agents (if he reveals), they are pretty ruthless down here!" He does tell me however, they are focusing on different genres. "It's not all about 18-25 year old's who want to hear Chet Faker. We want to push it with things like Ben Elton on a Sunday afternoon, then move the goal post again." Depending on what happens in the way of trends, he says, "the innovation we are trying is to be a venue for everyone, all music and places. That's definitely the idea."
Melburnians will know The Workers Club (Melbourne) only too well, an iconic band room, bar and dining room venue located in Fitzroy. Who to date, have proudly hosted over 1,000 gigs and certainly pushed the innovation goal posts. O'Brien has been at the forefront of this, a fellow musician and originally from Geelong himself. "I grew up in Geelong and spent 12 years in Melbourne. I was with Mushroom records, had fraternity with industry ... such a wanky word! (his reference to 'fraternity') sorry, had friends in the industry, and then Patrick Delves my business partner, and I reexamined Geelong."
Now, according to APRA, postcode 3216 (Geelong surrounds) has the highest percentage growth of royalty earning songwriters in Australia in almost 10 years." O'Brien found it, "massively different to when I left in 2002, when it was a backwater town" and the explosion of singer\songwriters reigned true. "People are retiring home, and setting up shop. Melbourne is now the most expensive city in the world to live in, it falls just behind Sydney. It's bloody expensive, and it is getting harder and harder to live in the suburbs of Collingwood, Carlton and Fitzroy. Especially to rent and buy."
Steven Nichols and John O'Brien
With Geelong changing significantly in the last decade, "Steven (Nichols) and I got in contact again. It made sense to do another in venue in 2015. Geelong has just undergone a pretty good cultural shift, there is a coffee revolution – with specialty coffee cafes popping up – art installations, exhibitions, events and music down here."
He sees the passion for live music helping the shift in people coming down and O'Brien himself has relocated. He encourages punters to take the drive, saying it's, "50 minutes to the venue [from Melbourne], and it is still on the east coast. [It's] easier down here, closer to the beach, which is a major player. It's more conducive to writing, you get to work on an album in a beach shack." I agree, it's a pretty sweet deal.
Having relocated to Perth myself for similar reasons, I ask O'Brien about his thoughts on small to medium venue closure (in Perth & Melbourne), and the lay of the land for operators in general. "I've got a very opinionated viewpoint! My take on the situation, is that it's not economically viable to be a live music venue. That is my hunch, there's an adverse impact on the music venue. What we try and do in Melbourne, is diversify the revenue."
Pausing for a moment, he adds, "another factor is really old school owner\operators not fitting with the current trends." He sees a market for, "multi-purpose venues that can accommodate gigs launches, international functions, art openings and exhibitions."
The Workers Club (Geelong) business model still emulates Melbourne with the traditional big band room, functions and dining room, but factors in different food options including vegetarian or vegan. Having travelled a bit, O'Brien advises his other passion is food, "I love food. Texas BBQ is pretty big in Melbourne, but now it's new and fresh to Geelong."
The day I spoke to O'Brien (Tuesday 11th March) they announced a partnership with BlueBonnet BBQ (Collingwood). "Chris (chef), has worked in Michelin star restaurants, and perfected the art of the 18 hour brisket. [We're] really excited to have those guys on board." No doubt the carnivores amongst us will be relishing that prospect.
When asked if he'll take the model interstate, "I'm certainly thinking about Perth and Brisbane ... if someone handed me a million dollars!" He confides, the one he's learnt, is to take baby steps. "Brisbane and Perth have great scenes. We are reticent of all the bad news stories, and I think there is a real misunderstanding that hospitality have rivers of cash."
He sees the hardest thing as being making a return. "It's not always as glamorous as it seems." With the Geelong venue all clear to go as a 300 pax venue (same as Melbourne) and 100 tickets sold already, "we are giving people choice and option. The strongest form of promotion is word of mouth."
The Workers Club, Geelong (opening late March)
Address: 90 – 92 Little Malop Street, Geelong VIC 3220