Turning guilty pleasures into a multi million dollar business

As a musician, songwriter and producer music has been Mark Duckworth’s lifelong passion, but it’s as a festival director where he’s really made his name.

For the past four years Mark has been the Festival Director of Blues on Broadbeach, which last week won Music Event of the Year at the Gold Coast Music Awards for the second year running. And while the event has been running now for 16 years, it’s under Duckworth’s direction that the festival has exploded exponentially. When he took on the role four years ago Blues on Broadbeach attracted some 80 000 fans, by last year that number had more than doubled with over 166 000 attending the event.

Those big numbers bring big dollars into the local economy, to the tune of around $20 million. The festival was originally designed to boost local tourism during the slow winter period and with around 8 000 people turning up for the inaugural event it was an unqualified success, but today Blues on Broadbeach is the most profitable week for many local businesses – bigger than the busiest weeks over summer, including New Year’s Eve.

With 30% of the festival’s visitors arriving from interstate, it’s a chance to beat the winter blues by soaking up the musical variety instead across a range of intimate and big stage venues. The beachside location, plethora of accommodation options and stellar line up of free entertainment within easy walking distance surrounded by a host of food and beverage outlets gives the festival a fabulous advantage. But without the right balance of artists in the line up it could so easily become a white elephant and that’s where Duckworth’s touch ensures Blues on Broadbeach as a festival has become a destination in its own right.

That balance includes a roster of local acts taking up a quarter of the available slots.

“As a local musician myself it’s really important to me that we support our own artists and let them showcase to a bunch of people that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to play for,” Mark said.

“I won’t just throw anyone on to the bill, it’s a genre specific festival so you have to stay true to that, but also you need people with runs on the board that will genuinely add something to the event.”

“Mason Rack for instance is clearly a leader in electric blues, we’ve also featured Felicity Lawless and others like BluesCorp. Benny D Williams is on the bill this year and then there’s a really cool Brisbane band called Little Billy. You know it’s such a cool thing if you’re a musician to have a festival call you and say ‘we’d love you to come and play at our event’ – purely on the merit that you’re doing good stuff. I get a kick out of that. On top of that they get to sell their own merch and for a lot of local acts it’s their best week of the year to sell their stuff.”

Mark Duckworth’s love of music began growing up in England with his parent’s record collection.

“My parents played vinyl all the time as a kid. Old records – 50’s and 60’s stuff – just classic rock n’ roll. There was early Beatles stuff but nothing psychedelic. I would play them over and over and sing along to them”.

The family emigrated to Australia when Mark was still a young lad and by the age of 10 he’d scored the lead role in a musical production of Oliver!

“I think I only got the part because I had a British accent, though at least I could hold a note!”

After school he won a scholarship to study opera at the Conservatorium of Music but he hated it and pulled the plug to join a punk band with his mates.

“It was that mid 90’s genre that was kind of punk with some funk in it and that appealed to me way more. It seemed like there was more theatre in that than opera”.

He soon found himself going into studios trying to make records but it was frustrating not being able to describe what he wanted.

“I could see the guys working, but as much as I explained the sound I wanted to hear I couldn’t get it. A few years later after we’d done some touring I moved into that space because I found it really interesting, particularly recording. I figured if I could study how to record music then it would be a cheaper exercise to make a record, so I enrolled at Griffith’s Bachelor of Popular Music course”.

Before long Duckworth was running a night club where he looked after production management and entertainment booking, investing in a PA that was good enough to lure bands in and it kicked on from there.

Since he began running Blues on Broadbeach there have been many highlights, when I ask him to choose one he nominates securing Eric Burdon.

“When I took on the job of running the event the first thing I thought was: ‘who would I like to see?’ I went back to my parent’s record collection and when I started thinking of blues artists Eric Burdon came to mind. I fired an email off to his management in America and that process took thre years to become a reality. When it finally happened and he was on stage wearing a Blues on Broadbeach shirt with the streets full of people singing it was one of those killer moments where you realise it had actually paid off and that it was all worth it”.

So what’s the secret behind the success? Can an event be all things to everyone and still maintain its cred? It’s something that Duckworth carefully considers when he’s curating his line up. Take this year’s festival, it’s a mix of big name draw cards (Bonnie Tyler, Ian Moss, Russell Morris and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats); but then you’ve also got exciting young talent like Harts, the gun guitarist who became a protégé of Prince – right through to a bona fide legend in the shape of Louie Shelton, who as a top session man with LA’s Wrecking Crew has played with James Brown, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Boz Scaggs, Joe Cocker and many more.

But it’s when I ask him what he’s personally most excited about that provides the kind of insight into his choices that really gives the festival some serious chops.

“I have a couple of acts that are essentially my guilty pleasure, bands that I just want to see or that I think will go really well. Personally I’m excited about Lachy Doley and the Horns of Conviction, Melbourne’s Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, but really I love any sort of jump blues or old school rockabilly – just that sweaty, late night pub stuff that I really dig. There’s a really cool band called Byron Short and the Sunset Junkies (I know these band names are getting ridiculously long, right?) and then there’s 19-Twenty – the blues scene knows them well, but outside of that they’re a bit of an unknown quantity. Those guys will just tear it away”.

I’ve no doubt they will and that’s why Blues on Broadbeach will deliver once again and why fans are already making plans for next year’s festival.

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Blues on Broadbeach runs 18 – 21 May, 2017

IMAGE (c) Dan Maynard


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