Eight years after opening and operating 1904 Music Hall, Jason Hunnicutt estimates that he’s probably booked 1,600 gigs at his Ocean Street venue. “We do four shows a week, and 52 weeks a year,” he laughs, after being asked for a ballpark figure. “Isn’t that crazy? I don’t think I had ever done the math on that.”
Like most music entrepreneurs, Hunnicutt’s entry into the business started out as a music obsessive. By the age of 10, he was already playing drums in the school band. Pulled into the undertow of punk rock, his first show was the 1997 Warped Tour. “I was 13. For my first concert experience to be that tour, it was pretty nuts,” says the 35-year-old Hunnicutt. “Your friend’s mom drops everybody off and it was an entire day of not knowing what was going to happen. It was amazing. We were like kids in candy land.”
The Paxon School for Advanced Studies grad grew up in the emo-punk free-for-all, when Inspection 12 ruled the local punk rock roost and clubs like Thee Imperial, 618, Club Five, and the Paradome were the turn-of-the-century go-to clubs. During his teen years, Hunnicutt played in the punk band Switch 26. “We just picked some random name and number,” he laughs. “I think we came in second place at some battle of bands.” In college he fell into the jam-band swirl, becoming a regular at marathon Phish and STS9 shows.
“Both the punk and jam scenes have that family vibe. They’re both places where outsiders are able to relate.”
In hindsight, his personal experience as both musician and fan of divergent styles of music seems to have guided Hunnicutt’s overall vision as a club owner.
As drummer for jam band Greenhouse Lounge, Hunnicutt started running the band’s live sound, and was soon dealing with talent buyers to book gigs. “I guess I was the most sober one most of the time so I kind of fell into doing it,” he laughs.
In March of 2012, Hunnicutt and business partner Duane De Castro opened 1904 Music Hall; taking its name from the year the Ocean Street venue was built. Years later, and Hunnicutt admits that they presented that first show—Lazer Sword with Vlad the Inhaler—before they even had a certificate of occupancy to open.
“We were dealing with the city and going through all of the permit things; we thought that was all squared away and had already confirmed the show.” But the club did have its business tax and alcohol licenses. The “bar” boasted three types of beer. “We didn’t know who was coming out or what would happen. But it was a great show and it was definitely a learning experience.”
Hunnicutt’s music roots are a template of the truly eclectic and varied types of bands that are key to the club’s ongoing success. In any given week or month, the 1904 online calendar reads like a savvily curated playlist: punk, hip hop, underground metal, reggae, jam band, Americana, techno-electronic, and all in between are given equal footing on 1904’s stage.
“It’s deliberate to be a ‘blanket’ music venue rather than to only have a particular-styled nightclub,” says Hunnicutt of the 300-capacity venue; believing that a genre-fixed club is inherently doomed. “The lifespan is usually two to three years and you’re always closing, repainting the place, and reopening. It’s because you literally burn out a crowd. You’re relying on a single demographic to come out every weekend and that’s impractical. So we diversify the bookings. Just like a financial portfolio, you have to diversify.”
If Hunnicutt and De Castro have a booking philosophy, Hunnicutt credits Jack Rabbits owner Tim Hall as a certain influence: “Anybody can play here once,” he says. “If you have a polka band and people are coming in to see them? Hey, we got a show.”
While bigger touring bands bring in crowds and more bar sales, Hunnicutt says it’s the local bands that are the foundation and base for this venue. “The local musicians are really the local scene,” he says. Hunnicutt still plays music: as the drummer with Universal Green, and the revamped Greenhouse Lounge. “As a business owner and someone who has a stake in the local music community, I don’t want to exclude anybody. That’s a recipe for disaster. In my opinion any win by any band in Jacksonville is a win for all of us. Clubs should treat local bands as well as they treat a national touring band.”
In 2015, Hunnicutt and De Castro opened Spliff’s Gastropub, located adjacent to 1904 Music Hall. Noticing a lack of quality late-night dining for downtown visitors, they decided to try their hand at the restaurant business. “For late-night dining, it’s still kind of a ghost town,” says Hunnicutt. “When we opened Spliff’s, the only other post-show option was 7-11.”
In the early 2010s, downtown clubs like 1904 Music Hall, Underbelly, and Burro Bar offered nightly music. First Wednesday Art Walk was usually capped off at those clubs, which invariably booked local bands to tie-in with the visual arts on display around the urban core. One could check out an exhibit at Nullspace gallery and then walk a few blocks to hear local or national music acts. 1904 Music Hall is the sole survivor of what was a brief but halcyon era of downtown culture.
Hunnicutt is well aware of his place in Jacksonville, a city that seems to be in an ongoing, precarious dance between free-spirited, creative culture and a desperate charge toward development and real estate.
“A couple of things happened. I think Jacksonville’s development has been one step forward, two steps back,” says Hunnicutt. “One Spark flopped and I think with the administration change from Mayor Brown to Curry cut some of the push from downtown development. In the early 2010s there were more independent, DIY people coming in and the landlords were receptive.”
This was followed by Urban Core hype, a volley of now-dormant hashtags, the demolition of the old courthouse (with plans of building hotels, a semi-mythical “Khan”-vention center, etc.). As the hype leapt, so did the rents. Hunnicutt gives credit to 1904’s landlord, who took a chance on sheer, if not naïve, entrepreneurial spirit. “We essentially had a piece of paper to show them our ‘business plan.’ But years later, I still have rose-colored glasses when I look at the possibilities of downtown Jacksonville.” At press time, it was announced that Hunnicutt and De Castro are re-opening Underbelly. They plan on bringing their same 1904 business vision to the revamped venue; including dining.
Eight years in and Hunnicutt admits there are days when “music” feels like a job. Fittingly, his punk rock roots guide his life, the message of the Bad Brains’ song “Attitude” as motivation. “But in my personal view is I wake up every day with ‘PMA – Positive Mental Attitude.’ No matter what the bank account looks like or who I’m dealing with, it could always be worse and this is honestly a gift to make a living by having shows and watching people have such a good time.”
This feature originally appeared under the headline “Maximum Capacity” in Void Magazine’s March 2020 issue.
-Obviously, great live music clubs like 1904 Music Hall are struggling to make it through the economic shutdown. If you’d like to help out the venue’s staff, there’s a gofundme campaign, here.