Punchy, insistent keys and breathy female vocals spill out from the makeshift parking lot stage. It’s a warm night in Australia’s third-largest city and Fortitude Valley, home to the country’s first dedicated entertainment precinct, is playing host to BigSound – a national music conference and festival that attracts the biggest industry players and up-and-coming acts in the international scene.
The VIP-heavy crowd hums, dances and cheers as it listens to the tunes of indie-pop siren Megan Washington – a successful graduate of Brisbane’s music incubator whose debut album would later peak at number three on the Australian charts. Once Washington wraps up her short, 20-minute set, the BigSound crowd pours back out onto the sidewalk. Feet patter the pavement in every direction, following different beats through The Valley’s – as Fortitude Valley is affectionately known – brightly lit, busy streets, seeking the night’s next sonic thrill.
While the annual BigSound event is the crown jewel of The Valley’s entertainment offerings, the area is far from a stereotypically lifeless suburb during the rest of the year. On any given evening, it’s a thriving hub of cocktail bars, bass-heavy clubs, live music venues and late-night pizza joints. Chinatown Mall’s row of cheap restaurants pack down tables as groups of people step out of taxis and into the streets, while a stumble down the nearby Brunswick Street Mall late on a Saturday night yields young men and women – seemingly in endless supply – kissing, smiling and swaying to the bass emanating from the nearby establishments.
Punters zig-zag up and down the Brunswick Street pedestrian mall, few noticing the two dozen brass plaques below their feet that make up Brisbane’s music walk of fame that names local artists and bands that have made it big internationally. Indeed, the star walk is a wade through a mélange of music history that sits at the center of The Valley’s downtown core – an area that houses a trove of live music venues like The Zoo, Ric’s Bar, Black Bear Lodge, The Foundry and The Brightside, among many more.
BUT IF NOT FOR THE TIMELY INTERVENTION of the city’s government, The Valley would look extremely different today. Back in the day, the inner-city suburb was the heart of shopping in Brisbane, until the growing allure of drive-in suburban shopping malls killed retail trade in the 1960s. The Valley’s multi-floor blocks, once home to big department stores, lay vacant before a new darker crowd – think operators of a ring of illegal casinos and brothels – moved in. That was until 1987, when the collapse of a famously corrupt state government that had held office for nearly two decades brought the area’s shady dealings down with it.
The empty buildings – combined with cheap rent – enticed a creative boom around the turn of the 1990s. Old structures along Brunswick Street were carved up into rehearsal spaces used by the likes of now-international music giants Powderfinger and Regurgitator. Local street press like Scene Magazine and public radio station 4ZZZ also found homes in the district, and live music venues like The Zoo and Ric’s Bar popped up as well. While the district’s daytime economy has never bounced back to what it was during its shopping heyday, such developments served to transform the former red-light district into a progressive, inner-city suburb with a thriving cultural economy that never lost its edge.
However, a new problem emerged at the turn of the millennium as urban renewal of Fortitude Valley’s old commercial buildings saw them reinvented as apartment blocks that attracted new residents to the suburb. Tenants moving into the once-industrial area became a vocal threat to the area’s buzzing music scene as they voiced concerns about noise pollution.
“Within weeks of residents moving into the former Sun [newspaper] building, I was getting complaints about noise and vibration,” the city’s former deputy mayor David Hinchliffe says. When state-wide noise regulations forced a small bar at the base of the old newspaper office block to halt live music, it launched Brisbane’s forward-thinking city planners into action. “We said, look, this is going to kill the entertainment precinct that we want to establish as part of Fortitude Valley’s character,” Hinchliffe explains. “We wanted to revive Fortitude Valley as a residential hub, but we also wanted to maintain it as an entertainment precinct.”
And so in 2006, Brisbane launched Australia’s first dedicated entertainment precinct, changing the town plan to allow higher decibel levels within 10 central blocks of Fortitude Valley, plus two small satellite areas in the built-up suburb. “The public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of us creating an environment in which music could flourish,” Hinchliffe says.
The public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of us creating an environment in which music could flourish
Thanks in a large part to these new regulations, Fortitude Valley is now home to a dozen live music venues, twice as many bars that support live shows weekly and a handful of festivals that shut down a few streets each year. The highlight of these is BigSound, which attracts around 8,000 annual participants every September. Now in its 16th year, the event has been instrumental in uncovering huge names in Australian music such as Flume, Courtney Barnett, Megan Washington, Rufus, The Temper Trap, AB Original, Gang of Youths and more.