Big Day Out promoter Ken West: “We won’t make the mistakes of the past again”

The Big Day Out’s 20th anniversary was meant to be a time for celebration and reflection; a time to bask in two decades of unrivalled music history. However, in the lead up to the festival a ‘perfect storm’ of events transpired that would mark 2012 as the straw that (almost) broke the camel’s back.

Despite the dramas of the last twelve months – which included the very public departure of co-founder Viv Lees, downsizing of events and a decline in ticket sales – when I speak to the festival’s fearless leader Ken West he assures me, “Last year was paramount in redefining what [we were] about… it’s why we are in such great spirits now.” And there is no doubt that, having survived the storm, West has good reason to be buoyant.

With a new team (which includes Lollapalooza promoters C3) the BDO crew has put together one of their most dynamic lineups yet for 2013. Not only have they taken a seriously considered approach to the bill but, in West’s own words, they’ve also undertaken “a ground-up rebuild on the total festival experience.”

Throughout an hour long conversation with FL West speaks candidly about just what this rebuild means for the festival faithful, his ‘divorce’ from Viv Lees, booking the Chili Peppers and why there will never be another BDO in New Zealand.

How are you feeling after surviving ‘the perfect storm’ last year?

Last year was paramount in redefining what things were about. So if you eliminate the financial aspects of it, which I have always tried to do as much as possible, it’s why we are in such great spirits now. Because we went through such a difficult stage last year as a unit and once you’ve been through that you can have the fun. If you’ve been through the hard stuff together you can have all the fun stuff together, but it’s very hard if you are out of sync.

You and Viv Lees were obviously “out of sync” how did that partnership end?

It was a very clean break and let’s just leave it at that. It had to be, it couldn’t be any other way. You know, it’s sad and it’s shitty and it’s a shame that after such a long period of time it couldn’t be done any other way and it’s a shame it was public and everything but 30 years in the entertainment industry is a long time, it’s a miracle. So therefore that was the only way it could work. We were getting divorced and [so] other issues [were] really sideshows. And yes it was extremely public but as you know at the end of any of these tumultuous things you come off with a much clearer definition of what you want to achieve, what you think you can achieve and what you did wrong.

I’ve always been the Big Day Out’s harshest critic, and that’s partly because I’ve got to be. I don’t like people around me that high five me every time I come up with an idea, but I certainly don’t like people around me that tell me that ‘We don’t want any ideas’ and ‘We want it to be as formulaic as possible’. We don’t want it to be formulaic; we want it to be well run [but also] changeable and less predictable. But not [unpredictable] to the extent that we would put Kanye on after he had just done Splendour, that’s for sure. Prince would have been unpredictable!

“I’ve always been the Big Day Out’s harshest critic”

Do you feel like the BDO brand was tarnished because of everything that happened so publicly?

Yeah sure, I mean but if you follow the feedback [from the public] that’s been going for a while… it’s been dysfunctional for a while. And it is a miracle that we got the things together we did, considering how dysfunctional the process was and the way we were working and the lack of change that went along with it.

I remember a beautiful movie [Julian] Schnabel made about the life of [the artist Jean-Michel] Basquiat and there is a great line in where he says something like ‘You don’t want to be successful; if you’re successful they’ll make you do the same shit all the time’. And part of the problem with the success of the Big Day Out was that part of it was wanting to reinvent it all the time and part of it was trying to keep it status quo because it [was] working. And that never works. I mean my arts back ground has always been as soon as it’s calm throw a hand grenade in. You can’t work off predictability just ‘cause you think it is the safest way to go – that is the most dangerous place to go.

We won’t make the mistakes of the past again where things are left too late. We can’t be put in a situation where we are waiting for [a band or album] to be successful to decide if we want it – we really need to put our arse on the line and look at the year ahead and see what is going to happen. Part of the problem with the process [in the past] has simply been that it was more of a reflection of what was going on rather than having faith in the great artists that we know and being in direct communication with them and nurturing that process, and going ‘We think they will deliver’ even though the album is five months away, I know what they are up to and I think it’s going to be great. We have about 20 new albums coming out between now and [the festival].

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