Big Day Out a festival of big decisions

By Chris Ormond

Choosing bands for the Big Day Out is a juggling act between artistic integrity, entertainment value and commercial logic.

When only 56 tickets were bought on the first day of sales for the Big Day Out in Sydney 17 years ago, co-organiser Ken West must have been anxious.

But having booked a band called Nirvana when it's groundbreaking album, Nevermind, was about to explode globally, it turned out there was little to worry about.

These days the Sydney festival is one of six, and sells out of its 60,000 tickets in less time than it takes to listen to Nevermind.

Scalpers treat that - and any other Big Day Outs which sell out - like a gold rush.

But the rip-off merchants are only one of the challenges faced by the guys who run the show.

West, who shares Big Day Out organising duties with Vivian Lees, says when he originally pitched the plan of holding a multi-stage rock festival people didn't warm to it.

"No one knew what was going on. Everybody had this idea stuck in their head that the biggest band is last and the smaller ones go down to the opener.

"But when I threw it into the mix that it was three stages they couldn't work it out. I was saying 'you've got to think left to right, not up and down'."

West said he put slow initial ticket sales for the 1992 event down to a lack of understanding about the multi-stage format, but watched it gain momentum as the popularity of Nirvana hit the roof.

"In fact it was a scary type of momentum. Because obviously if you're promoting something that a month before was totally obscure and unheard of world-wide, and then a month later is the number one album across the world...it's a very confusing time."

West and Lees were both involved in bringing bands to Australia before starting the Big Day Out , but the festival offered more scope for personal input.

Once a commitment was made to tour an individual band, the job became little more than ticket seller, West says.

"The band will choose the support, the artwork...I found that was eating into the creative process of doing what I wanted to do."

He didn't like being told what to do and found the festival-type shows provided the opportunity to get involved.

He says adding Auckland to the Big Day Out schedule a couple of years after Sydney was an obvious step forward.

It has been a popular stop-off for many of the artists, rounds off an ideal touring timeframe for the northern hemisphere contingent, and has easily held its own in terms of attendance.

These days West and Lees don't need to sell the festival to big bands, and instead often find themselves having to make tough choices.

"Artist number one and entertainer number two - and if you've got both you've got a winner," West says.

He says there are artists who are "important", and uses the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Joe Strummer and Kraftwerk as examples.

"They are important people who have been visionary and will stand the test of time."

Neil Young, who headlines January's festival, falls into the same category.

West realises the choice may have raised eyebrows but makes no apologies to Big Day Out fans who are traditionally young, hard rockers.

He says the fact that Young had Pearl Jam supporting him through America a couple of years ago speaks volumes as to how he is regarded, and that his set will be geared to the audience.

"To be able to get Neil Young when he is playing, for lack of a better term, a greatest hits set, he is not going to do that again because he's not like that."

"It's been 22 years since he's been to New Zealand, this is probably it.

"If you've got an opportunity to do it, you have to throw commercial logic a little bit to the wind and say 'well this is important'."

West says management for David Bowie inquired about a Big Day Out appearance in the late 1990s but organisers decided the set he planned to perform wasn't suitable.

"And then he went and did Glastonbury and got booed because all he did was obscure material from the new album that he wanted to test drive and use the festival like a rehearsal room. You don't do that to a hundred thousand people."

American punk band Good Charlotte recently complained publicly about being repeatedly left out of the tour.

West has a simple explanation for it: "That's because they're s***. They're at the bottom end of the table, they're purely entertainment."

They're part of a string of bands he calls "American bull**** punk", coming thick and fast out of that country.

"It's not real. I preferred My Chemical Romance, which seems to have some integrity in its weirdness. They believe in what they're doing..."

An unusual choice at the last festival was Bjork, followed by a reformed Rage Against the Machine.

Bjork had much of the crowd mesmerised with a mellow set and then it was like "Armageddon" when Rage appeared.

"That was pure art," he says of how Bjork reacted, knowing what she was preceding.

Four years earlier there were a few headaches over a potential showing from Metallica.

Their reputation threatened to reduce the rest of the lineup to minors - something which goes against the spirit of the festival.

"We kind of went to Metallica and said, 'well, we are going to have to spend a lot of money to make it not about Metallica and you are going to have to work with us on that.

"And they did, that was the condition of it. They didn't force us too hard on the fee because we needed to get the Strokes and Flaming Lips and Joe Strummer..."

West goes to every festival every year. There have been ups and downs, including an expensive court battle with online auction site eBay relating to a battle against scalping.

He says he's noticed the price of tickets being resold online are lower this year and suggests it's a sign of the financial times.

In recent years scalpers have reaped up to $500 for tickets to the Sydney show.

"That was really driving us crazy because it was converting all the audience into scalpers," he says.

Ticket buying rules have been tightened, but there is an awareness that going too far down that road can be counter-productive.

Either way, it's a festival the fans - and the bands - look forward to and West says that's pleasing to know.

He says Bernard Sumner from New Order admitted to having camped out in a motel room during tours down-under, but saw the light during some time-off while in Auckland in 2002.

"He said 'I never left my motel room because I was paranoid. But Auckland is beautiful. I go up to the beaches and want to bring my son back here'."

Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols told NZPA this year the band couldn't believe their luck when they joined the circuit in 2004.

"That was super fun. It was a crazy bill with The Strokes, Jet, Metallica, Peaches, Kings of Leon...that was one of the most amazing group of friends on tour together,' he said. "That was a phenomenal tour, such a good time."

* Big Day Out is on January 16

- NZPA

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