It’s safe to say the 2012 Big Day Out was not the event’s finest hour. Sales were sluggish, stages were scrapped, and bombshells were dropped in the form of co-founder Viv Lees’ departure two days after tickets went on sale and the demise of the Auckland leg of the festival.
"I think I delivered everything that I could," says Ken West, who founded the BDO with Lees in 1992, "and I tried to keep the good will of people that have been supportive of the show and understand that you can't always get it right. Which, in this case, was obviously fairly apparent, especially with my business partner's departure two days after going on sale! I inherited a lot of issues, and unfortunately, I had to be less honest than I possibly could be, even though I was much more honest than people told me I should have been."
Honesty is not a problem in this interview, as West points the finger for the BDO's near-collapse squarely at the saturation of the festival market by the likes of Soundwave promoter AJ Maddah.
"Bless his little heart, AJ, and his idea to use Australian acts as cannon fodder or not at all," West says, before taking issue with the sheer abundance of international acts on the Soundwave bill. "The '73 international bands' thing does my head in. The ten stages don't make any sense for the same genre. You can do the same effect with half the bands, and people would have a lot more fun. There's not much curating going on when you take everything. If I took everything, we'd have 200 acts. We wouldn't be able to stay in business very long, nobody would have a good time and the audience would just be confused.
"You know, we got offered the Blink[-182] thing, too, and I just thought that we already spent a year on that, and if Travis [Barker] gets on a plane, good on him, but we went right down that path and it didn't happen. They wanted to use Big Day Out to get him on a plane, and that didn't work, obviously. Who knows if he's coming or not with this one? You never know these things… but they still wanted the maximum money, whether he came or not! And I said, 'well, you've got to get the full band to commit before you get the top dollars'.
"We had [Blink-182] in 2000. They're a good band, nice people, but it's not worth the headache. You're trying to hire somebody for a job. You don't want to be too many steps removed from the process, and you don't want to think you're putting somebody under such emotional pressure that they're going to go to a loony bin because they've got to get on a plane! Just chill out, if that's the case. [But] I think it's fine, I think it's great, it's there and it's done. I'm not quite sure how the time sheets are going to work out, because who knows? They could be playing against Metallica. You're dealing with a guy who doesn't like doing time sheets!"
It wasn't the first time West has found himself in a bidding war with Maddah. Once the biggest (and, to a degree, only) player in the Australian festival game, it's no longer shocking for BDO to lose out on a major artist to another event. Contrary to popular belief, West insists this competition is bad for both promoters and punters ("it's one of the few markets in the world where an excess of supply makes everything more expensive"), and points to the "shrinking market" as proof.
Rather than backing trucks filled with money up to the houses of coveted acts, West now relies on a less conventional bargaining chip. "You've just got to try to talk people through common sense as much as you possibly can," he says. "Taking the highest offer doesn't mean it's the best thing for the band. Coming out here three times in two years isn't going to make you bigger here, it's going to make you smaller. They've got this weird attitude that it's OK because they do it in America, but America's got 300 million people now… Lollapalooza and Coachella don't have any crossover!
"You don't have any festivals in Australia that don't have some sort of crossover, maybe because of triple j presenting too many. I wouldn't want to offend them, but you know, you're meant to be listening to somebody who's recommending something, but they're not really recommending anything anymore because they're recommending everything! They're not standing behind anything in particular, to say that's where they want their listeners to go. That's made it really hard, too. There's all these things that just make it harder.
"The game is to convince as many acts as possible, like The Chili Peppers and The Killers, that this is the right thing to do. Don't rort it. They've both been really good about it. All the bands have been really good about it, actually. But that's part of the thing... there are a few acts on the Soundwave bill we had to pass on in the end, because the offers were just so ridiculous. I just can't justify it! You can't have one act that's being paid three times what they're worth, because the other acts will find out. You can't have everybody doing the right thing and just pay the people who don't want to do the right thing… Maybe it's the socialist in me, but I just think that's wrong. Sometimes you pay an act more because they're your headliner, but you don't pay them more just because somebody else is going to."
West admits the challenges of today's market made him consider pulling the plug on the festival altogether in the weeks after Lees' departure. "Oh, those first few weeks when I had to carry the weight of the whole show," he recalls, "and say, 'ok, let's tear all the budgets apart, let's look at this whole thing again, let's renegotiate'... you know, I had to renegotiate with the main bands, and I had to lose the stages in Adelaide and Perth. I really should never have gone to Auckland, but I felt that maybe Auckland would be supportive, because I've got a lot of people there that really champion it. It was a big, confusing experiment, especially taking Kanye off the bill. Education, for everybody, is pretty important, and it was an expensive education process.
"So it was really those two to three weeks of feeling like it could fall over at any time, if, say, somebody wouldn't renegotiate, or if it just got any worse, really. It was already gone by that point in time, but I just needed more time to think... the simplest thing to say is that it wasn’t going to be killed by an accountant.
"I've had 20 years of great joy in this. I've had 30 years in the music industry, of doing the most ridiculous and impossible things. If I had to give it all back at any stage, financially, and just go, 'oh, fuck it, that was the run'... that's what I've been brought up with every year! Every year, you're putting your house on the line and your livelihood and people's jobs. That part of it hadn't changed. The problem was that we'd entered a world of unknowns. But I couldn't possibly have turned it off, knowing that it might have come home. And I've killed everything, and 200 people have lost their jobs.
"In the middle of the world financial crisis, which was still at fever pitch at that point in time, there were so many examples around you of other people doing it tougher than a promoter, that you just go, 'well, I'm not that pathetic'. I couldn't say, 'oh, that's too tough, I'm not going to try it'. Also, everybody pulled together. It actually created a great degree of camaraderie with everybody working together, which has now followed through into this year. We've just got such a great team. Instead of just working with the Big Day Out when it was just selling out, and going, 'oh, great, that's done', they've all been at the coalface of the real adversity of what can go wrong. Therefore, their optimism and enthusiasm for this show and this lineup is really great. It's probably the best it's been for ten years, so it's a pleasure to work on. As long as I can keep doing it, that's it.
"It's nice to come to work. The only way from straight sell-outs is down, isn't it? So the only way now is back up. That's really the simplest thing about it. In the past, it hasn't been that enjoyable, even though it's been financially rewarding."
West's salvation arguably came when he formed a partnership with US firm C3 Presents, promoters of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, weeks before the first leg of the 2012 tour. C3’s influence has already been felt on the event's 21st anniversary edition. The lineup — headlined by Red Hot Chili Peppers (who also headlined Lollapalooza, and are celebrating the 21st anniversary of Blood Sugar Sex Magik), The Killers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, Band Of Horses and Bloody Beetroots — is clearly stronger than last year’s.
The return of the Lilypad; cheaper, all-inclusive tickets; and new features such as Chow Town (food stalls operated by gourmet chefs) and the ‘Like A Boss’ ticket have also generated excitement. (West is at great pains to point out that, despite appearances, the ‘Boss’ ticket is not a VIP ticket. “I can’t stand that shit,” he says. “People who pay more aren’t VIPs, they’re just people who pay more.”)
"I'm really proud of this show," West says of his revamped festival. "I'm proud of the acts on it, I think the freshness with it is there, I know the dynamics of the day and the flow from the time sheets I've done...we want to make sure bands get to play their full sets this year. Animal Collective will play for an hour and a half. Chili Peppers will play for an hour and a half. We felt the result of last year was that the brand was damaged, but not unrepairable. Otherwise I wouldn't be sitting here doing it and C3 wouldn't have foolishly gotten involved.
"We're all pretty happy with it. We've passed last year's sales, in total, and we're still a week out [from when tickets went on sale last year]... we're probably six weeks away from selling out Sydney. The Gold Coast may not sell out this year, but it's going to come pretty close. It's just a question of making sure the show delivers on the day, and to get us into a position where we've already got a lot of acts that are very excited about being involved with Big Day Out 2014."
Despite the influence of his international partners, West is keen to assure bands that some things about the BDO experience will always be the same. "The one thing I got resoundingly from overseas," he explains, "mainly from the international agents, is to make sure when we make changes to the Big Day Out that we don't sacrifice any of the amazing experience the bands come back with. They come back and say it was great, that they were taken care of, that it was spaced out properly and they had time off.
"Everybody else has tried to compress it. They're saying, 'we can do all this in six days!' Of course the agents think that's a good idea, because they can sell more shows somewhere else. But I look at these things and think... I mean, bloody hell, how are they going to Soundwave on Saturday in Brisbane and Sunday in Sydney? With Metallica, for fuck's sake! I've toured Metallica, and I can tell you, that ain't easy.
"So the experience has got to be good for everybody, including, obviously, the crew that's working on it. It can get to ridiculous levels where nobody backstage is having any fun, and that permeates through the audience. So keeping that 'jamboree' feel going is vital for the atmosphere that goes through the whole event, and for getting those big international acts, because they want to know they're in safe hands."
Part of maintaining that 'jamboree' feel involves choosing a line-up that will be able to play nice together. "Off! went on the list because Chili Peppers liked them," West says, "so we figured we'd get 'em. Same with The Killers. They said, 'we think we should headline a festival, but we will play before the Peppers'. They wouldn't be playing before Metallica, that's for fuckin' certain, purely because they know the audience waiting for Metallica would be booing them. There's all sorts of things like that involved. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are really excited to be playing before The Killers, because they think the Killers fans won't give them a hard time. Animal Collective had a whole show they wanted to do, and they were happy for part of their time to clash with the Peppers, because they've got a different audience and they want to play to their fans."
Ultimately, West's approach to curating a line-up (a process he claims he wasn't heavily involved with in 2011) hasn't changed all that much. "I'm interested in the best artists we can get," he says matter-of-factly. "I've always said, it's artists first and entertainers second, and an artist who can entertain is the best you can get. The artists are the ones who'll survive, more than the entertainers, than the ones who don't take risks. I mean, not as big a risk as Metallica doing a Lou Reed album, but even though that was a faux pas, it was a good tribute thing for them to do.
"The acts that take the risks are the ones who are going to have their lows and highs. They're the ones that'll have a career. The ones that keep trying to re-do their last album? They won't survive. They're just not good enough. They don't think they need to grow, and the ones that do — and I'm not talking about growing in popularity, but musically — and the ones that challenge themselves, they're just... they're more interesting people to be at the bar with. That's why we get on, artist to promoter. Right back to my background working with Nick Cave when I was 21 years old and so was he, it's a pleasure to work with people like that, no matter how dysfunctional they are. If you don't help the dysfunctional geniuses, then they can just disappear."
If you're an Australian dysfunctional genius, however — or a functional one, for that matter — West thinks it might actually be a good idea to disappear for a while. It'd certainly increase your chances of landing a spot on his festival's bill.
"You're going to have to start thinking like this is another country, and not your backyard. This is a period of adjustment, and we have to get this through to local agents. We want the younger bands that are on the way up, that we think are going to be getting somewhere. We don't want to be doing replays. The Big Day Out's not a retirement home.
"When I was in the early stages of promoting, I remember [INXS manager] Chris Murphy telling me he had to keep INXS out of Australia for four years before people could realise they weren't going to play the next week. They went out and played everywhere else in the world, they were on the road, they released two albums, before they could finally come back to Australia... and then they were finally accepted like they were a major band. Australian acts are forgetting that.
"Go and fuckin' tour the world! Go and crack the world! Stop milking the thing in the backyard! And I think that's really what Australians will respect more, is an Australian act that's big worldwide. Powderfinger almost got there, but unfortunately there were a lot of bands like Powderfinger in America.
"A lot of the big [Australian bands] from last year have been on Splendour and too many other bills. I won't name names because there's nothing wrong with them, but they'd just say, 'well, we need to do this run and then this run', and I went, 'well, maybe this isn't it'. You know? We can't compensate them for all of that, so maybe they should do that instead. They like the idea of not playing around, but they want to get paid for not playing around, and I can't pay for that. We can't buy them out. We just have to say, 'we think this is a better plan for you, if you want to actually get the profile'.
"Here's the simplest thing: We said to all the Australian acts that we need acts who, when people ask them what they're doing, they say they're doing the Big Day Out! Not, 'oh, we're doing Falls and then this and this and this'. We want them emotionally connected to the event, like an international band is. When you interview an international band and ask them what they're doing in Australia, they say, 'we're doing the Big Day Out!' You interview a local act that's touring, and they'll say, 'oh, I'm doing this and I'm doing that'. That didn't used to be the case. When they were on the Big Day Out, all they talked about was the fact they were on the Big Day Out... until we got too many festivals.
"It's a period of adjustment. It's fascinating. As long as we don't go broke in the meantime, it'll be great!"
The Big Day Out rolls into the following towns on the following dates:
Fri Jan 18 — Sydney Showgrounds
Sun Jan 20 — Gold Coast Parklands
Fri Jan 25 — Adelaide Showgrounds
Sat Jan 26 — Flemington Racecourse (Melbourne)
Mon Jan 28 — Claremont Showgrounds (Perth)
For the full lineup and sideshow information, head to bigdayout.com.
The print edition of this interview appears in the Wednesday October 10 issue of Scene Magazine.