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 reveals he considered pulling the plug on the festival altogether in the weeks after the bust-up with Lees.
"It was really those two to three weeks of feeling like it could fall over at any time,” West recalls, “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.”
To a degree, the tide did eventually turn — for all their troubles, the East Coast legs of the festival were still widely acclaimed. More importantly, West 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 BDO’s 21st anniversary edition. The line-up — 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 ‘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.
“But we're all pretty happy with it. We've passed last year's sales, in total ... 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."
According to West, this instalment of his festival signals a sea change for the Australian music industry as a whole. He believes local acts need to change their approach to touring, and start treating an event like BDO more like ... well, an event.
“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 so 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.
"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 returns to Gold Coast Parklands on Sunday January 20.