The Hot Seat: Luke O’Sullivan, The Hi-Fi

Published in The Music Network


Luke O’Sullivan has kicked a lot of goals. A former AFL star, O’Sullivan made the switch from Carlton Football Club to the live music business in 1997 with the launch of Hi-Fi Melbourne. In 2009, Hi- Fi launched its brand in Brisbane’s West End. Now, O’Sullivan and his team are preparing to tackle Australia’s largest market when Hi-Fi Sydney opens its doors next February or March in the Moore Park Entertainment Quarter. TMN caught up with the entrepreneur.

Why did it take so long to find a Sydney site?
I looked at a couple of hundred buildings. Pubs, warehouses, disused cinemas, bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks. We needed a minimum of 1,000 square meters. It’s pretty precise in terms of the space you need for the right capacity to make the business work. We learned that Sydney had very few spaces big enough, and property prices were overinflated.

You searched for eight years?
On and off. In the last three-to-five years, it’s been pretty concerted and focused. Prior to that, we dabbled for three or four years. Had I known it was going to take so long, I probably wouldn’t have started.

Sydney’s live scene is currently going through something of a wash cycle. Smaller venues are changing hands or putting themselves up for sale. Is now a particularly risky time for Hi-Fi to launch there?
I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know. We’re committed to do it, we’ve always wanted to do it, so we’re doing it. There’s been such a phenomenal response. We’ve already got about 35 gigs we’re close to contracting in the first two months. Capacity is key. For the smaller capacity venues it’s really challenging. It’s hard to make it work at the 300-500-capacity mark. Most internationals can’t do it at that level because it’s not viable for them to. And most headline domestics need more tickets to sell to make it worth their while. It almost gets a little easier the bigger you go.

When you opened the Brisbane venue, it had a “multi-million dollar” fit-out. Are you putting-in a similar amount of cash for the Sydney site?
Yes. We’re ensuring we’ve got scalability. We’re going to compartmentalise so you can do 500-600 in that venue, and not have those punters swimming. And then we can scale it up to 900-1,000 and then scale it up again to the mezzanine with 1,200. And then scale it up again to 1,400. Originally the capacity was 2,000. But we compressed it because we realised size is not the answer. A lot of people get carried away and want a bigger capacity but the action is all around the 1,000-1,400 mark.

Some folks complain about the sound at The Forum. You’ll be tackling that?
We’re completely gutting the site. All that will remain from the original building will be the stage, the toilets and the air- conditioning unit. We’ll deliver the same level of production, sound and lighting that we have in Melbourne and Brisbane.

What is it about the Hi-Fi brand that is working?
We all just fell into it about 15 years ago. Once you work it out, and you’re in the space, you live it and breath it, you get pretty familiar with what bands want, what punters want. And if you stick to that and get it right in one city it makes sense to replicate that in other cities. We don’t have to get too caught-up with being cool and hip and being the latest and best-looking bar in Melbourne. It’s all about the bands. It’s all content-driven. We’ve got to make sure everyone can see the band and everyone can get a drink. When you distil it all, it’s pretty simple.

The Academy Music Group in Britain bares a resemblance. Their plan is to have an Academy in every city in Britain. Will the Hi-Fi do that in Australia?
There are similarities with the models but differences with the markets and populations. Perth we’d certainly have a look at. If we were to take it any further we’d look at opportunities in Asia.

You tried a joint-venture in Vietnam?
We licensed our brand to an operator to have a look. It was good fun, we really enjoyed it and we learned a lot from it. After a period of time it wasn’t working. But it was a low risk, and we went in carefully.

Are there other Asia markets you’re looking at?
Singapore makes a lot of sense. It’s not a big market in terms of population, but strategically it’s critical because it’s a major hub. Most of the international artists coming to Australia fly through Singapore, and none are playing there.

During your sporting career, did you know you’d get into live music?
No. But I was always interested in the entertainment industry, and in business. By the end of my career, I was running out the door.

What skills from the field do you bring to nightlife?
Whatever attributes you bring to both, I dare say, is probably innate. In certain cases, sportspeople do get a leg-up because they made good money which has funded them into business opportunities that maybe they’re not well-equipped to handle. I wasn’t that. I made nothing (laughs).

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