Big Day Out in fight for its life
Nobody goes into the rock'n'roll business for an easy life. With Big Day Out 2012 to hit the Gold Coast today, promoter Ken West is rampantly enthusiastic about the festival's future, talking of "refiring imaginations" and the "rewarding educational process" that will "rebuild Big Day Out from the ground up".
It is only a few months ago that a perfect storm of outside commercial pressures and internal conflict was about to wipe out the 20-year-old festival for good. "But I don't believe in death by accountancy," says West. "As a creator of the event, I need to be the person who calls it, who determines that the event is over."
Music fans have big expectations of the Big Day Out, which for two decades has retained its tent-pole status as Australasia's top musical event through waves of musical change. Unlike more specialised events, it was seen to champion any genre as long as it was cool; like Lollapalooza in the United States, it wasn't just a concert, but a travelling show with multiple stages, an atmosphere of its own and wacky theatrical extras. West and his partner, Vivian Lees, weren't the usual kind of entertainment mogul either; fans and followers of the music they were presenting knew them as fans themselves. West was the Sydney extrovert who talked a mile a minute, jumping between subjects unpredictably; Lees was quieter, identifiably from the arty end of Melbourne.
The hail of online criticism of this year's line-up, in which grunge rockers Soundgarden were a late inclusion as a headliner and Kanye West will perform as a closing act only in the eastern states, thus constituted an event in itself. The problem was in the top line. West says Prince had approached the festival but never confirmed; Eminem was on the cards, but Big Day Out's offer of $6 million wasn't enough to close the deal. Scant early ticket sales confirmed the audience's sense of let-down.
Big Day Out had its beginnings in a Violent Femmes tour when the promoters West and Lees were looking for a middle-level support for their star act. They scored spectacularly by inviting Nirvana to join them at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion just before Nevermind was released, an event that turned into the first Big Day Out. "They got them for a good price and it took off from there. They always had great taste," says Neil Wedd, an industry veteran who worked as Big Day Out's promoter in Perth. "They've done it their way the whole time - not things that appealed to everybody, but mostly things they liked. They'd go overseas and say 'what's great?'"
But the turf has shifted under Big Day Out's Doc Martens. Specialist festivals have mushroomed and compete for both bands and punters. The alternative scene that used to support the event no longer exists, having dissolved into the mainstream.
Ticket sales have picked up now, according to West, as audiences register the depth of the line-up behind the headliners. He feels the organisation has lost touch with its audience.
"When we started, there wasn't the internet or email. There were thousands of people in the music industry and people went to record stores," says West. "I used to go to door to door, but there's no direct face-to-face contact any more; those things have frittered away." In the years when tickets sold out within minutes of the announcements, he says, there was no opportunity to learn anything or to explain what they were doing. This year's crisis represents a "learning curve", he says, that was "very, very necessary".