Four decades of production in paradise tells a story
I first met Brownie, as everyone calls him, one dark 1980s night in Surry Hills at Graftons. I was selling lights and sound and he was buying. He’d called to order some Par cans and an LSC lighting desk, and due to the nature of the crazy world of production it had to be after hours. Transaction done, cash trousered, and he drove back to Orange in the NSW Central West.
It’s about four hours over the Blue Mountains, with Orange boasting many wineries and being the central town in an area that has Dubbo, Parkes, Forbes, Bathurst, and Mudgee all within a few hours’ drive.
Because I had a hobby farm out that way, I kept an eye on Centrestate Sound and Lighting over the years that followed, as Brownie kept coming down to Sydney to buy more. He ordered a whole lot of Australian Monitor amplifiers and speakers, which my guys built out the back.
Back at the start of the Australian rock tidal wave, bands played cover tunes. 1970s hit parades had bands like the Stones, Free, Jimmy Hendrix and Cream. Brownie was a young panel beater by day, and a drummer by night in a band called Australian Jigsaw – well, they were plain old Jigsaw until someone from England turned up at a gig they were doing at a B&S Ball expecting the UK version. They were slightly disgruntled, but anyone who has been to a Bachelor and Spinsters Ball will know the music is a sideline – sex and booze is the order of the night.
When Sydney bands came and played at local gigs, Brownie noticed they were adding column PA systems and starting to put a microphone on the drums. He wanted his drums to be the same, so we went and saw Henry Freedman in his shop at Ashfield and bought a Freedman column PA.
Then the rock tidal wave got a whole lot bigger with Countdown starting up and bands like Sherbet, Hush, TMG and Stevie Wright bursting onto the scene. Soon they were touring the regions, and Brownie started doing advance work for Michael Chugg and Steve White, two legendary promoters and artist managers who still do the business today.
Every year these chart-topping bands had more PA and newer lights and effects, and it was an enormous push that saw every band want the same thing. Brownie built a horn loaded PA – Cerwin Vega W bins, 4560 mids, horns and ring radiators. He bought a Yamaha PM 1000 – the gold standard for early 1980 PA operators, added lights, and got a bigger truck.
Soon Brownie was doing gigs for every kind of music, and he noticed the young country music acts were building a market. He scored the Tamworth Country Music Festival contract and worked alongside the biggest names in the land. His horn loaded system was replaced with the Australian Monitor rig, and then a Martin Wavefront PA came along as the outdoor gigs grew larger. Soon he had a 48 channel Allen & Heath desk, and in recent times added a Martin W8LM line array and a new Allen & Heath digital desk. With the ability to pair up with another local operator using identical kit, Brownie was routinely quoting almost any sized event.
The business moved out of bands and into events, following the growth in population and changes in tastes. Nowadays he does shows like the Temora Air Show, the Elvis Festival in Parkes, an Abba festival, Fire & Ice, the Condobolin grey Mardi Gras, Tunes on the Turf at Dunedoo and a Balloon Festival in Canowindra.
Early last year Brownie prepared the business for sale – and the pandemic hit exactly when the sales campaign was ready to go. Everything stopped. The sale was put on ice.
Brownie sat in his shed, looking at his equipment, as a tumbleweed rolled slowly past and the paint peeled. He pondered how his family – wife Maree, son Jason (41), daughter Melanie (39) had grown up, been fed and schooled from constant work in live production over all those years. Now there are five grandchildren on the scene too.
“I had to find another source of work. But it was looking me in the face. For forty years I’d done a few installations in between productions. But I wasn’t focussed on it. I don’t advertise, have no social media, no website. I knew there was plenty of installation work, because clubs, pubs and schools are getting more teched up and there are a lot of them. So I hit the phone”.
To his surprise and delight, the work quickly piled up. Being local was a distinct advantage!
“I’m competitive with anyone else from Sydney and have a lot of distributor wholesale accounts. The only guys out here were some local electricians doing ceiling speaker systems, but not schools and theatre. They were calling in Sydney firms who lose two days of travel just to do one day’s work. They definitely favour a local supplier; it’s a lot faster if something goes wrong.”
From May last year until now, Brownie has done considerably more installation turnover than he ever did in production. It has been full time, flat out, and shows no sign of slowing down. And in the last month, production bookings have started to return. So he is riding a new tiger.
“The challenge right now is expansion – I don’t advertise. And there’s more out there. I haven’t really pushed myself further out west or indeed up and down the state. I am in an expansion phase and it’s tiring, I don’t want to burn myself out. Age is a problem, I have two new knees (Brownie is 73) and increasingly rely on contractor crew – and I’m lucky with them.”
Brownie has a core group of sub-contractors, such as local theatre lighting and sound techs, and a couple of electricians. He can sell and install virtually anything audio visual, and is very experienced with theatre drapes and equipment that he sources from all the major suppliers.
“There is a real population boom at the moment as people move out of the cities. We will need new schools. Real estate prices have hit the roof. Everyone is moving out here into new estates.”
Having decided to sell out and retire, Brownie is happy he has kick-started the business into the installation area, proving that even with a pandemic, Centrestate is resilient. Add on the inevitable growth in the region – which doesn’t rely on overseas students, tourists or migration – and you have a very real and tangible shift up that some lucky operator will enjoy when they buy him out.
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