20 Years Strong
This year marks two decades of the Big Day Out, arguably making it one of the most successful music festivals in Australia. Promoter Ken West explains how the festival almost didnâ€™t make it to its 20th year.
â€œThat was probably the hardest question of this year, whether to just end it all, and I was fine if that was the case. I went â€˜well, legacy is intact, Iâ€™ve been in the music industry for such a long time that Iâ€™ve got other things I could do with my lifeâ€™.
â€œI think Iâ€™ve achieved all I could really achieve, and the miracle of this process is that from the depths of not getting the line-up together, and then delaying, and then having two or three other festivals going on sale before us because theyâ€™d moved theirs back, all that mess that went on, the negativity of having too many Splendour acts, all that other stuff that fell into line with it, that ultimately (I) ended up parting ways with my business partner (Vivian Lees), and having to make that call then whether the show was going to go ahead at all, it just came down to simply that it couldnâ€™t go out like that.â€
West gives credit to his team of trusted friends and his new partnership with C3, Americaâ€™s third largest promotion company, for keeping the show on the road. â€œWhen it came down to possibly not happening I really needed the energy of everybody else to tell me what we could do and what we should do, because really, in this business, everybody you hire is your friend.â€
When Ken reflects on the festivalâ€™s history, heâ€™s optimistic about what the future holds for him personally. â€œItâ€™s a rebirth, and that really ties in beautifully with 20 years. Itâ€™s deeply looked at itself, weâ€™ve deeply looked at the past, and weâ€™ve looked at what weâ€™ve done right and wrong.â€
Of course with every silver lining, thereâ€™s a grey cloud, and one thing that has changed over the years is the rise in popularity of social media, bringing with it a new wave of critics. â€œWeâ€™ve been judged fairly harshly this year on the basis that itâ€™s not quite what people want. Itâ€™s primarily been judged quite harshly in the electronic internet world, of which most people with half a brain now know that there are so many agendas that go on in that world that youâ€™ve just got to try and find some truth in it, and not take in anything as personal.â€
But never fear fans, they arenâ€™t leaving anytime soon. â€œWhile the event itself remains needed for the Australian music scene, and while the audiences can respond in a level that itâ€™s sustainable â€” it doesnâ€™t need to be sellout shows all the time â€” I think the future is looking great, I think the future is looking really great because itâ€™s got a job to do.â€
In a recent interview with Fasterlouder, West had a number of interesting, if not controversial, things to say about the promoter of Soundwave Festival (AJ Maddah). But West stands by his words, believing thereâ€™s a lesson to be learned for other event organisers.
â€œI think part of the problem of that show is that it went down a particular path, and I think lots of festivals are having a similar problem. Theyâ€™re taking bands because if they donâ€™t take them somebody else will take them, and thatâ€™s a really bad way to work. Youâ€™ve just got to have a clear vision of what you want to do and just fight for it â€¦ Itâ€™s really important that the integrity of the Big Day Out actually stays, that itâ€™s supporting the local scene, and itâ€™s not just a pariah and itâ€™s actually there for a purpose. There have been way too many events started up because someone thinks that they can make some money, and a lot of them found out the hard way how much you can lose.â€
Deciding on which bands to book is never an easy task, and having bands cancel is part of running a festival. Ken believes youâ€™ve got to aim high and roll with the punches as they come. â€œIâ€™ll tell you what, it used to be a lot easier when they were all young and stupid and werenâ€™t in relationships! You'veâ€‚got to be prepared to take risks, where if it doesnâ€™t come together youâ€™re going to have some egg on your face, but if you donâ€™t do it then youâ€™re going to be mediocre.â€
The split from long-term business partner Vivian Lees, although difficult at the time, has turned into a blessing in disguise; emerging from the rubble is the partnership with C3, the team behind international festival Lollapalooza.
â€œWeâ€™d been talking to lots of people that werenâ€™t really suitable, that I wouldnâ€™t be prepared to partner up with, and C3 actually contacted us and asked if they could help, and that approach is fantastic. And from all accounts, from everywhere, itâ€™s a unanimous thumbs-up worldwide, theyâ€™re highly regarded, theyâ€™ve worked with Perry Farrell, so therefore I should be easier, I hope!
Which begs the question â€” what does the C3 partnership bring internationally for the Big Day Out? â€œWeâ€™re talking a lot, weâ€™ve got lots and lots of ideas, and everything sounds exciting, potentially a Big Day Out stage at some stage at Lollapalooza with Australian acts on it.â€
As the 2012 edition of the Big Day Out approaches, West is hoping the 20th anniversary reconnects with punters looking for the festival experience, and not just seeing their favourite band of the moment.
â€œPeople always ask me what band Iâ€™m looking forward to. Iâ€™m looking forward to a few people actually understanding the show. There is a feeling that this show is not going to be very good, which is much better than if theyâ€™ve got such high expectations about it being awesome. I think the chemistry of the show is really good, which is what itâ€™s meant to be. Itâ€™s meant to be a collection of bands that form one living entity for the day. Iâ€™m hoping that we can get the Big Day Out back to the idea that you trust us. Itâ€™s an experience that weâ€™re selling, not a collection of bands.â€
The Big Day Out lands at the Gold Coast Parklands Sunday January 22. bigdayout.com