Culture

How Melbourne Lost An Iconic Music Venue To Hillsong 

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Melbourne’s Festival Hall has been bought by Hillsong church, and it’s sparked huge backlash among music fans.   

Local artists are saying it’s essentially the loss of another music venue for Melbourne. 

I want to find out what this new ownership really means for these artists, and how Hillsong got its hands on the iconic venue. 

How Did WGet Here? 

Hillsong announced they were buying the Festival Hall in a video on their YouTube channel. 

They said that it would very much stay a ‘community venue’ during the week, and that only on Sundays would it transform into a house of god.  

Heaps of people took to social media in anger over the change of ownership, like Aussie rapper Illy who pointed out that musicians aren’t crashing religious venues. 

People are mad because the Festival Hall has always been an iconic music venue. 

It’s hosted big international names like The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and more recently artists like Ed Sheeran and Lorde.  

It’s also been home to local bands, like Queensland-based metal band Amity Affliction. I spoke to their lead singer, Joel Birch who in a Twitter post said he’ll be boycotting the venue in the future. 

Joel Birch: “How can you not feel disenfranchised as a Melbourne music fan? That’s like an iconic venue … and then to have a church swoop in and buy it. It’s just like ok, what about heavy music that they decry as satanic? And what about dance music that they have a problem with because, you know, they tie it to gay culture and drug cultureBands need a home, and for as long as I’ve been playing music that has been an iconic venue, and now what happens? 

Hillsong have promised that bands will still be able to play there in the future. But, like Joel pointed out, once they own Festival Hall they’ll have the right to do whatever they want. 

If we zoom out and look at Hillsong beyond what’s happening with Festival Hall, they are a really powerful organisation. The church has global reach, with 150,000 members across 30 different countries. 

They also hold a lot of political influence. 

I spoke about this with Andrew West, who presents the Religion and Ethics Report on ABC Radio National. 

Andrew West: “This is really fascinating case … while Hillsong is a Pentecostal church, it comes from a relatively small base. Around the country Hillsong, or Pentecostal, are only about 2% of the population. But politically, they’ve been able to leverage that power – that growing appeal – and not just to young people.  

That brings with it a certain amount of political power and influence. Let’s not forget that – apart from the fact that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a member of a Pentecostal congregation, not Hillsong – he is very friendly with Brian Houston, the leader of Hillsong.  

In addition to Scott Morrison, a succession of political leaders including John Howard [and] Bob Carr (the former NSW Premierhave all addressed Hillsong conventions because they saw in that, the power of Hillsong, an organisation representing millennials … so yes, it’s got a lot of political power.” 

The Takeaway 

Andrew told me he isn’t overly surprised that Hillsong bought Festival Hall, or that people are upset by it. He hopes Hillsong will keep their promise and ensure all musicians are still welcome at the venue in the future. 

But Joel from Amity Affliction isn’t so sure and like a lot of people, is mourning what he sees as a loss of another beloved music venue.