This article appeared on the Advance Queensland blog via Medium – view it here. Advance Queensland is the Queensland Government’s innovation agenda.
What started 28 years ago as two friends reverse-engineering videocassette recorders (VCRs) underneath a house in Brisbane’s Red Hill has grown to become Australia’s leading commercial music and entertainment supplier. We sit down with Mark Brownlee, Nightlife Music’s Co-Founder and Managing Director to talk about how they have remained competitive in the constantly changing music industry, his love for music, and staying true to their point of difference.
“A DJ and an engineer walk into a bar… well it wasn’t really, it was me, the engineer walked into a bar and wanted to be a DJ,” says Mark.
Nightlife Music started back in 1989, when Mark was in his twenties, and was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the music being played in local bars.
“There were two things that used to annoy me when we used to go out: firstly, I didn’t like a lot of the songs played. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t play music that most people wanted to hear,” says Mark.
“And the second thing was, back in the ‘80s, video clips were huge but hardly any clubs were showing them. Bands were spending a fortune on their video-clips but you couldn’t see them in a club, or if you did they would only feature once or twice during the evening,” he explains.
“So you’d go into a nightclub, and they’d have this big screen just sitting there, or worse, they’d just play footage that never matched the song playing,” he says.
Mark called his best friend from school in London, Tim de Souza, a fellow engineer. They put their heads together and tackled the problem by initially building a video jukebox.
“Back then, if you wanted to play video clips you would have to use VHS tapes and VCRs. VCRs were pretty horrible clunky things to use because they were designed to play movies not individual songs. We had to work out how to queue up a song with enough time to play the next song,” he says.
“We connected a computer into the VCR so that while one VCR was playing a song, the other was madly rewinding to search for and queue the next song,” says Mark.
“I bought an IBM, a 286, it ran DOS, it didn’t have Windows, it was quite incredible but we started writing programs,” he explains.
“To make it affordable we bought domestic VCRs. Commercial VCRs were too expensive, so we had to reverse engineer the inside of the VCR and make a circuit board that could connect the two,” he says.
“It took us about a year before we built our first video jukebox, all underneath the house, then we put it in a bar.”
“People could just walk up, put a dollar in and the video would come up on the screen,” says Mark.
“Our first site was Tracks Nightclub and it just went off. It only had 120 songs on it, but they were all good songs and it sounded great,” he says.
Using the same system, Mark and Tim built a VJ system, so DJs could play videos in nightclubs and bars.
“Nobody in the world had built a computerised VJ system for DJs before,” he says.
“For DJs to be able to play back-to-back video all night long was a unique phenomenon in Australia in the ’90s and it’s because of us,” explains Mark.
Since then Nightlife Music has gone through many waves of technology, from those first video tapes, to video CDs, to hard drive systems and now to cloud-based apps.
Recently they’ve partnered with global streaming giant Spotify on an app that allows people to play their favourite songs in restaurants, bars and gyms from their phones. Called crowdDJ® the app also allows businesses to play their own custom Spotify music from a commercially licensed player.
When asked if crowdDJ® will let people play their favourite song in a bar, Mark diplomatically answers that yes, people will think it’s playing their favourite song.
crowdDJ® allows people to choose from a selection of their music that is suitable for the venue they’re in.
“For people music is plural, not singular, and people like lots of music in lots of different spaces with different friends. What you might play when you go into a gym might be quite different to what you play when you go out with your friends, when you go to a bar, or a nightclub,” he explains.
“Because of the business we’ve done and because of knowledge of curation, we know a bit about this, so we know how to put songs in front of you, that are your favourite songs, that you would want to play in that space,” says Mark.
Whilst the technology that Nightlife uses has changed over time their fundamental point of difference is their knowledge of music curation.
“The problem that we solved, which is really why we are still in business today, is picking the right music,” he says.
“Because we only had a limited amount of real estate 30 years ago, with such a small number of songs on a VHS tape, we had to make sure every song counted so we honed our skills. We had to make sure that all the songs we picked would be liked by most of the people who were going to that bar,” says Mark.
“It’s the curation of the music that works and that is our IP (intellectual property). The technology we use is innovative, but our fundamental IP is our knowledge of music,” he says.
“Every month we go through thousands of songs and curate them down to hundreds of songs and we arrange those in such a way that it is very easy for our programmers to match that music to different spaces,” says Mark.
“We put those songs in front of people, either on apps now with crowdDJ® or kiosks and restaurants and bars,” he says.
“Whether it’s a jukebox on a wall that you put one dollar in, or if it’s an app on your phone it means the same thing: You get to have your song in your space. That’s our secret,” says Mark.
It’s apparent when you speak to Mark that his love for music runs deep; so it’s no surprise that when asked what inspires him he answers that it’s the music.
“Every now and then I think they’ve already made every good song but then somebody comes out with a new song and you think, ‘that’s just great’,” he says.
Nightlife Music has been based in Brisbane since they began 28 years ago, and have seen the market and innovation ecosystem evolve in that time.
“If you told anyone that you were going to start a business in Brisbane or Queensland in ’89 they would have thought you were mad, especially if you were going to start a music business and a technology business.
“It was pretty tough for the first five years. At first no one wanted to do business with us, not only wasn’t it German or American technology, but it was from Brisbane and no one thought it could possibly be any good,” says Mark.
“We’d load a juke in the car and drive to Sydney and Melbourne to try and sell it. They’d always say ‘gee that’s pretty neat, does it come from America’ and then you’d mention that it comes from Brisbane and they’d just look at you and say ‘that’s not possible’,” says Mark.
While the knockbacks were hard at first, Brisbane was a really affordable place to live and run their business from. Mark’s wife, Vicki who later joined the business as a partner, kept working to support them so they could finance and run Nightlife Music without having to borrow too much.
“What’s happened now is, Queensland’s changed, and it’s actually a great place to live. It’s developed and grown over the years,” he says.
“The environment in Brisbane has changed a lot, and it is seen more as a tech environment, there are a lot of tech companies that we talk to in Queensland. We wouldn’t have done it anywhere else that’s for sure,” says Mark.
“It’s the same for our staff, we’ve got a big crew of people who love living here, and we can attract those people. Because Queensland is a great place to live, it’s very easy for us to get people,” he says.
The people that work for Nightlife Music are incredibly important to Mark, he emphasizes the importance of hiring good people, developing their career and acknowledging their contributions.
“We actually have quite a strong culture when it comes to our staff, we have very little attrition, we like it that they tend to stay. There is a fellow here that has been with us for 27 years now,” he says.
“The secret to our growth and longevity has been from having good ideas, which we still see as important; but these days it’s more about our staff. It’s about developing and growing people, it’s that simple. Hire people, develop them, keep them forever, and make sure they’re ‘all on the bus’,” says Mark.
When asked what his vision is for the future of Nightlife Music Mark says it hasn’t changed since day one.
“We are just going to keep on building systems where we make sure the right music is playing in their different spaces,” he says.
“We’re starting to talk to a lot of global companies about franchising our whole business model for other background music companies around the world,” he adds.
“We’ve actually just started our first partnership with a New Zealand company. We’ll expand into the US and then England,” he says.
“No one else has developed a comprehensive platform to deliver music into the public space. Because the music industry has been under such stress over the last 20 years and also because of cheap services, no one has actually kept on investing in technology and curation the way we have,” says Mark.
“So we’ve actually ended up in quite a unique position,” he says.
“We’ll grow organically, we’ll grow carefully; we have no intentions of being bought or buying anybody. We’ve worked out how to grow and survive in the music industry for this long, we’re just going to keep doing the same thing and use the same philosophy,” says Mark.
Good advice from the engineer who always wanted to be a DJ.