There’s nothing mysterious about Mark Duckworth. He’s an old-school music nerd and he tells it like he is. Much-respected at all levels of Gold Coast’s music scene, he’s the Music Director for both Blues on Broadbeach and Groundwater Country Music Festival – both significant events on the city’s tourist calendar. And he has his finger in other pies too. Involved in the Gold Coast Music Awards as both advisor and judge, recording and producing music for his own projects and others, he still finds time to get to gigs, write songs and keep up to date with what’s going on across the global musical landscape.
“Duck”, as he’s known to most of the city, has quite the musical heritage. From listening to 1950s and 60s early rock ‘n’ roll and soda-pop ballads, he started singing musical theatre when he was ten performing in amateur theatre and school productions including a stint as ‘Oliver’ at Somerset College and a role as Kurt in Spotlight Theatre’s ‘The Sound of Music’.
Mark’s older sister set the tone for musical diversity early – Killing Joke, Madonna, The Cure, Dire Straits. Mark said the fact that she had cassettes meant she’d play them over and over and over again. Loud.
“My ears were just opened to so many genres…” he said.
You can imagine a young man on the Gold Coast with aspirations to be a performer may have copped a bit of grief. But Mark had some gnarly talents that helped smooth the path.
“Being a young kid and wanting to be a performer wasn’t cool, but I could skateboard really well, so I kind of got over the line,” he said.
As a young teen he picked up a guitar, started to sing, learnt the ‘Beatles Complete’ and found himself emerged in skateboard videos which opened his ears to even more genres.
“That opened my mind to so much music,” Mark explained, “punk rock and Sonic Youth and Primus and Black Flag and Minor Threat, The Breeders, that American old post-punk thing.”
After a nine-month stint at the Conservatorium studying opera which he “hated”, Mark joined a punk band called The Julian Date, started working on large festival stages and finding his feet. Five years later he went back to the Conservatorium – this time to do the Bachelor of Popular Music, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I asked Mark what the problem was with the opera course – wondering if it might be the first genre where we find he has a disconnect. But that’s not the case.
“I just didn’t connect with the structure of having to learn,” he said. “I studied for 12 years and then you leave and have more boundaries again and also – having to learn Latin.”
The end goal – what I was working towards in that course – wasn’t something that I wanted to have.”
That said, Mark is proud of the fact that he can have a conversation with just about anyone about music of any kind.
“When I started working in music and putting on shows and dealing with different genres, I could talk to people at any level about their genre, because I spent so long studying it,” he said.
And even though he’s been working on both Blues on Broadbeach and Groundwater Country Music Festivals for five years now, he’s still studying it.
“There’s definitely parts of the blues that I’ve always listened to as a fan,” he said, “mostly jump blues, a lot of soul and rockabilly. That stuff was already in me from those early 50s records. It’s just an evolution from rock ‘n’ roll – blending blues and country. “
I listen to lots of records – it’s my day job, I’ve got the time.
“I’ve always studied music my whole life – whether musical theatre, or skateboard videos, punk rock stuff or working with a band saying ‘we want to sound like this’. I study music, it’s what I do.”
Of course the other critical component to Mark’s role at Broadbeach Alliance – particularly when it comes to programming both festivals – is relationships. He says because he was stage managing these bands before he was booking them, he had some good connections.
“I was rolling road cases for them – I had built connections with them before I’d even started. Once you’ve helped people out of a situation on stage and they’re stressing and you’ve assisted that, they know you. They’ve got trust in you,” he said.
Blues on Broadbeach had already gained serious momentum before Mark Duckworth was on board but he has focused strategically on building the event’s credibility internationally.
“We do this by putting on acts they want to see and bringing credibility to people who are loyal to the gig,” he said.
“So, bringing in Melbourne Ska Orchestra is something that probably would have logistically scared people in the past,” he said, citing the band’s sheer size and the fact that they’re slightly off-blues as examples.
“But you know, all that brass, it tips its hat to the whole soul sound – ska does – so bringing them into the event brought a whole different set of people who have now experienced the event who previously probably wouldn’t have come.”
He says likewise Eric Burdon and the Animals gave the event serious street cred and respect from people outside of the country and “therefore, trust to send other acts.”
So, five years in, what’s the biggest change for Blues on Broadbeach?
“It’s gotten bigger and wider in demographics and I think the festival has gained more of a real festival fringe about it rather than just a concert,” he said.
And while our tourism bodies love to spruik an event’s growth, for Mark, his success is measured in multiple ways.
“I think the challenge for me is to not try and make it bigger year on year but to sustain a credible event that’s attractive for people to come to year on year regardless of who’s playing.”
How does an old punk rocker end up with a gig like this? Mark says he has a great outlet in making records for other people but that he’s always appreciated the rule-breakers.
“For me, listening to all the rules I’d been told you had to stick to and seeing them being broken especially at a time in my life, you know when you’re a teenager and you want to explode out of your own body – it just made sense.
“Funny enough the records I get asked to make now – the people who always come back to me – the whispers always seem to be with those punk rock kids and I’m always making those kinds of records. I don’t know why. I just understand what they’re trying to do without making it sound too thought- through – I just capture the rawness of it.”
Mark’s working on a new album with Radolescent who sought him out a few years back and he has his own post-rock project Greys – an ongoing project with Morris Lauga.
“Greys is sort of a cross between rock and cinescape music and lends itself to an art rock thing. I like bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky and I think I just wanted to learn how they make those records,” he said.
So, we’ve covered musical theatre, blues, pop and punk. Have we missed anything? Only the city’s signature country music event. It’s been running six years and Mark’s been at its helm for five. Now renamed Groundwater Country Music Festival, Mark says it’s aiming to capture the whole of the Gold Coast rather than just Broadbeach.
“I had a vision with the country festival that we didn’t want to put on a similar kind of cliché country focused festival – we wanted to bring in elements that would make it more festival and fringe-like. So, we worked really hard to bring in acts from other parts of the country as well as Canadian and America. This year we have acts from Nashville and Texas – and just delving into more than just “safe Australian country” – there are so many cool things going on in country and this is about showcasing all of them as a full festival,” he said.
“People wondered why we bothered to change the name,” Mark said, “but now, since we’ve done the first announcement, people just call it Groundwater and we have just moved on. It definitely is a brand now and much more than a Council concert.”
Blues on Broadbeach takes place in May and Groundwater Country in July. On the surface it may seem Mark has the perfect job working on events that take place over two months, but he assures me there’s a consistent workload.
“I’m constantly working 12 – 18 months ahead,” he said. “For instance yesterday I had a conversation with a major touring artist that’s releasing an anniversary album in 2020 and enquiring about the event.. So, there’s literally no down time. It’s just a constant job.”
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