Did nostalgia kill the 2014 Big Day Out?

The Big Day Out’s year to forget could throw up some hints about the future of Australia’s festival scene, writes DARREN LEVIN.

A lavish industry function with flashy production and canapés provided by one of Sydney’s best restaurants seemed like the perfect place to unveil an “impossible” Big Day Out line-up. It was late-July, and as the seconds ticked down to an 8.45 announcement, we inched closer to discovering what on earth Ken West was talking about when he said he booked three elusive White Whales. A trippy video flashed up on the screen, revealing each act’s name against a backdrop of lava lamp goo:

The 1975 … Peking Duk … Bo Ningen … The Algorithm … The Lumineers…

A good start

Kingswood … Loon Lake … Cosmic Psychos … Big Gigantic… Rüfüs…

OK, keep ‘em coming

Mac Miller … Pez … Flosstradamus … Mudhoney … Flume…

Seriously, this is killing us!

The Naked And Famous … Tame Impala … Major Lazer … Snoop Dogg…

Twenty more seconds of agonising floating goop followed, and then…

Blur … Arcade Fire … Pearl Jam…

The White Whales had their Free Willy moment, and Ken West and 600 VIP revellers toasted the Big Day Out’s best lineup in years – if not ever. “It’s been a very, very long road to get to this point,” West told FL at the time, “and not in our wildest imagination did we think that they’d all hit at the same time.” This was supposed to be a game-changer for Big Day Out, who were in the midst of a much-needed transformation under the watchful eye of new partner, Lollapalooza promoter C3 Presents. Confidence was so high that, for only the fourth time in their history, they booked a second Big Day Out at Sydney Showgrounds well before pre-sales had even begun.

How quickly things can change.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but no one expected the wheels to fall off the 2014 Big Day Out so dramatically (if at all). By November Ken West’s 50 percent stake had been purchased by Soundwave boss AJ Maddah, almost the entire production team had been sacked, the second Sydney event was scrapped and organisers were looking down the barrel of an $8- to $15-million loss. Blur’s cancellation, of course, was another dagger in the heart of the iconic festival, but that’s not the real reason why the 2014 Big Day Out lineup missed the mark. It failed largely because it catered to the wrong demographic: a 30-plus market that, with the exception of a handful of rock’n’roll lifers and diehard fans, simply don’t go to mainstream festivals. And it failed because the experience offered didn’t meet that audience’s needs.

So how did organisers get it so wrong?

They assumed bands that were popular then are still popular now

Pearl Jam have had an illustrious career. They’ve sold 60-million records worldwide. But ask a 16-year-old to tell you their favourite Pearl Jam track and they’ll probably just laugh at the fact you just said “pearl jam”. Pearl Jam are still releasing albums, but there’s no evidence to suggest they’re actually gaining any new or younger fans. The last time one of their records went double-platinum in Australia it was 1996 and Flume was five years old. Lightning Bolt was described by many as a return to form. And while it debuted at #1 on the ARIA Albums Charts it finished up as the 75th highest-selling album of the year, selling somewhere between 35,000 and 70,000 units.

Pearl Jam fans still pack out stadiums, though. They played five sold-out dates in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane on their November 2009 Backspacer tour, which equates to roughly 200,000 tickets (that’s 75,000 tickets more than the entire 2014 Big Day Out). Do the maths and you can see why Ken West was desperate to snare them. But there’s a strong argument to be made that Australian Pearl Jam fans don’t attend festivals – and that’s not a slight on Pearl Jam fans, just the reality of how a 30-plus demographic like to experience gigs.

“Not one other single act on the lineup that would get me in the doors”

In the months following the Big Day Out’s lineup announcement, diehard Pearl Jam fans took to social media to practically beg for sideshows. “I would prefer to share [the experience] with people my own age,” said one fan, “not a bunch of teenagers.” Others wanted to make it clear they were reluctantly attending, but just for Pearl Jam. “You should have special entry zones at the BDO for fans that only want to see PJ, instead of potentially standing around for hours on end, listening to absolute crap that is the rest of the BDO lineup! Not one other single act on the lineup that would get me in the doors.”

The same gripes were playing out on Blur’s Facebook wall.

“Yeah, not going to BDO for one band.”

“I will come to BDO to see you but I’d rather just see you!!!”

“I hate the Big Day Out, but I’ve got my ticket. I’ll be the old mole judging idiots in flower crowns, saying how great the ‘90s were.”

“Big Day Out is horrible horrible, PLEASE do side shows!!”

And so on.

It’s interesting to note that the largest venue Blur played on their first and only tour of Australia in 1997 was the 5500-capacity Hordern Pavillion (off the back of two sold-out Metro Theatre shows). That’s roughly 8000 tickets in Sydney at the height of their popularity, when ‘Song 2’ peaked at #4 in the ARIA charts. They released two more albums – 13 and Think Tank, which peaked at 12 and 30 on the ARIA Albums Charts, respectively – before going on hiatus in the mid-2000s. And there’s nothing to suggest Blur’s popularity stocks rose in Australia in the intervening years. So why were they so sought after?

Partly because of Ken West’s blinding fandom – “I don’t care if nobody goes,” he told FL back in July. “I’m gonna be at the front. I’ll be broke, but I’ll be happy” – and partly because he overestimated the excitement surrounding their reunion.

“The original promoters of the Big Day Out are basically old-age pensioners,” AJ Maddah told triple j’s Hack program on Friday. “The big bands that they remember are the big bands of their time. You need to remember that Blur when they came out at the height of powers did a Hordern Pavillion [in Sydney]. Pearl Jam are an amazing band – the shows were amazing, as everyone who saw them will attest – but there needs to be a counter balance if you have two or three headliners. You’re covering an age range that’s appropriate for a festival audience … Definitely in the last five or six years [that] started to skew a lot older.”

(Photo by Mikey Hartt)

So what is the Big Day Out’s ideal audience?

No one’s sure and that’s arguably its biggest problem. According to a festival insider, the demographic is predominately 18-25, but it shifts year upon year depending on the headliner. Around 20 percent of the crowd were under 18 at the 2013 event, but it wasn’t Red Hot Chili Peppers that brought them through the turnstiles – it was Vampire Weekend, The Bloody Beetroots, Alabama Shakes, Childish Gambino, 360, Sleigh Bells, Foals, Death Grips, B.O.B and Crystal Castles. Even The Killers, through sustained commercial airplay, have a wider appeal than, say, Snoop Dogg and Arcade Fire.

And there’s evidence to suggest organisers were trying to cater more effectively to an older demographic through initiatives like the Like A Boss VIP ticket system and Chow Town. At $100 extra per ticket, Like A Boss offered improved sightlines, a private bar and better toilet facilities, while Chow Town enlisted acclaimed Sydney chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz to curate pop-up style eateries serving gourmet takes on festival fare. Chow Town was one of the success stories of the 2013 event, but was scrapped as one of several cost-cutting measures in 2014. There’s no doubt who it was aimed at, though: Absolutely no one under 20 goes to a festival because they’re suddenly serving lobster rolls on brioche and Chinese duck baos.

(Photo by Cameron Stewart)

It seems almost counterintuitive for a mainstream festival to try and create an experience that suits an older demographic, but Big Day Out not only had Pearl Jam on the horizon, but a model that lives and dies on the strength of its headliners. Trouble is, there’s only a small pool of acts that A) Appeal to that 18-25 demographic; and B) Can command top billing at an event of this magnitude. This is what AJ Maddah meant when he told Hack that the “last 10 years haven’t thrown up many stadium bands”.

But it worked for Lollapalooza Chile…

Just a few months before the Big Day Out’s first announcement, an enormous crowd of 70,000 (more than double the attendance of the Sydney Big Day Out) watched Pearl Jam close the first day of Lollapalooza Chile at Santiago’s O’Higgins Park. Does this mean that Pearl Jam are more popular with young people in Chile? No, but it does illustrate how different the festival experience is in Australia compared to overseas.

The first thing to note about Lollapalooza Chile is that it’s booze-free. And when you remove alcohol from the equation, you create a family-friendly environment that appeals to people that gave up getting blotto every weekend to have kids in the burbs. In other words: The people that still buy Pearl Jam records in 2014.

The second is that Lollapalooza is an anomaly in Chile. It doesn’t exist in a crowded market and it doesn’t have the kind of baggage the Big Day Out accumulated over 21 years. “Lolla in Chile is still a novelty because they haven’t had 20 years of great festivals there,” says FL writer Andrew Murfett, who attended the event last year. “It was a very wide demographic with club kids there to see Deadmau5 and older dudes to see Pearl Jam. It worked well because they probably don’t have the same angst towards festivals people have here.”

“There are 40-year-old dudes with their 15-year-old kids [at festivals]. You never see that in Australia”

The reason Glastonbury gets away with booking The Rolling Stones while still remaining relevant to a younger audience is cultural. Its cool factor doesn’t live and die by its lineup, because it provides a mythological rite-of-passage experience that the Big Day Out lost to Splendour and Soundwave a long time ago. It also creates an environment in which teens, Gen-Ys, baby boomers and ‘90s tragics can coexist. “If the show was presented like it was last year, with all the bells and whistles, then I think Pearl Jam fans would’ve been more keen to go,” a source close to the Big Day Out told FL.

However, another industry insider said that regardless of what festivals are offering, when Australian punters hit a certain age they prefer experiencing music in theatres, stadiums, arenas and at intimate club shows. “They don’t want to stand in a paddock. It’s different in Europe. There are 40-year-old dudes with their 15-year-old kids [at festivals]. You never see that in Australia. It’s to do with licensing laws, the culture and how events have evolved.”

Bluesfest and WOMADelaide buck this trend, but it’s important to remember that these are genre-specific events that understand their market and curate their experiences accordingly. They may cast a wide net – “blues” and “world music” mean totally different things to different people – but it’s still very far off Big Day Out’s famed “gathering of the tribes”.

A rock fan and her kids at Lollapalooza Chile:

Survival of the youngest

After dabbling with heritage acts like Echo and The Bunnymen, and “older” bands like The Hold Steady, The Dirty Three and Stereolab, the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival now focuses on booking bands you know nothing about now, but will want to see in 12 months time. Laneway’s biggest “nostalgia” act for 2014 was Four Tet, who released his debut Dialogue in 1999, and nearly half of this year’s bill put out debut albums in 2013 including co-headliners Lorde and Haim. They sold out three out of five legs, with Adelaide and Brisbane coming very close. It’s no wonder Maddah heaped praise on its organisers when he spoke to Hack last week. “The chaps that work on Laneway really have their finger on the pulse,” he said, “they know exactly what’s going to break and when it’s going to break … By the time they get to Australia it’s a really good buzz.”

This approach has paid off for Groovin The Moo and Falls – even though Falls had Violent Femmes and Johnny Marr on the bill. Marr played a clutch of Smiths classics at Falls Marion Bay including ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ and ‘How Soon Is Now’ to a crowd, that according to FL’s report, was at least four times smaller than The Rubens. The year before at Falls Lorne, the set “clash” between the Flaming Lips and Flume was not really a clash at all. “Overheard countless times was the invariable conclusion that Flume was going to be sick and that The Flaming Lips – whoever they might be – were probably from the ‘80s,” read FL’s review of the show. The inevitable happened: The Lips played to a sparse crowd, while Falls’ Grand Theatre stage was “packed-out well before Harley Streten took the stage”.

Maddah’s failed Harvest Festival is perhaps the starkest example of what happens when you market a festival to an older, arguably less engaged crowd. The surrounds were stunning, the facilities were decent (after a few teething problems in year one), there was a fun and well-curated visual arts program, but when push comes to shove, a 30-plus demographic doesn’t want to trundle around in that proverbial paddock watching bands they loved as teenagers. “I made a mistake … with Harvest, in that I went ‘90s,” Maddah acknowledged on Hack. “I made the mistake of booking a festival of bands that I liked rather than being a bit more current with it and the marketplace didn’t like it and therefore didn’t buy tickets.”

So why is everyone so excited about Outkast?

Because they tick all the boxes of a marquee festival headliner – newsworthiness, exclusivity and buzz – without actually having the proven pulling power to back it up. Outkast were a relatively big band in Australia in their early-2000s heyday. Their first album to chart, Stankonia, came in at a moderate #33 on the ARIA Charts, and while ‘Ms Jackson’ went platinum (70,000 units), it didn’t crack the Hottest 100 until The Vines covered it in 2002. ‘Hey Ya’ came a year later and changed everything. It scored them their first Australian #1 with double platinum sales, came in at #2 in the Hottest 100 (behind Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl?’) and helped Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to #9 on the ARIA Charts.

But, like Blur, Outkast’s popularity was on the decline until the time they went on hiatus following 2006’s Idlewild, which managed no charting singles and a paltry #27 on the ARIA Chart. The closest Australia got to an Outkast tour, was a one-off promotional gig by Big Boi in Sydney for a car racing videogame and a run of 500- to 1800-capacity theatre shows with Theophilus London in 2011.

Outkast are a much bigger band in the US, where they’ve been confirmed for Coachella and New York’s Governer’s Ball. While Coachella sold out (it always does, but for experiential reasons not just lineup alone), the response to their reformation from younger fans on social media has been overlooked amid the frenetic media buzz. In the days following the Coachella line-up announcement, Twitter alternated between “idk who outcast is” and “if u don’t know who outkast is you’re too young to go out with me”. There was even a “”Who Is OutKast?” tumblr (now deleted) set up to shame younger fans, presumably those who were listening to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ when ‘Hey Ya’ came out.

And yet given the sheer glut of genuine headliners, Outkast – a weird southern hip-hop duo with years of bad blood, an unproven stage show and a 10-year drought of hit singles – have just been confirmed for 40 festival dates around the world. The response to those shows will be telling, but if the Big Day Out’s taught us anything, it’s that sustainable festival models cannot live and die by their headliners alone.