How AJ Maddah plans to save the Big Day Out

Promoter AJ Maddah has appeared on triple j’s Hack program to answer questions about the future of the Big Day Out.

The interview was the first extensive statement from Maddah since the end of the 2014 Big Day Out tour and the publication of an investigation by Fairfax that alleges losses of between $8-$15 million. The Fairfax report also claimed that the Big Day Out had inflated its 2014 attendance figures, failed to pay staging and fencing contractors (which has been angrily refuted by Big Day Out co-promoters C3 Presents), angered sponsors, and is facing a legal battle over the losses.

Maddah addressed those issues and many others including Blur’s last-minute cancellation, the decision not to return to Perth in 2015, the future of the Adelaide show, the cancellation of the Harvest festival, and the many challenges of reviving the Big Day Out brand.

AJ Maddah on…

The difficulties of promoting the Big Day Out

“The Big Day Out always has a tough task because it tries to bring so many tribes together, rather than be a dance festival or be a metal festival. So that’s always going to be tough. But you do it by making sure your ticket is reasonably priced and that all of those groups you’re trying to get in, they need to get value. If a ticket’s $160, the dance crowd needs to feel like they’ve got $200 value, the rock crowd needs to feel that they’ve got $200 value, the indie people think they’ve got that much value. So it’s about coherent programming and making sure that all of the people that you’ve brought together feel like they’ve got good value for their ticket.”

Saving the 2014 Big Day Out

“As you know I got involved in November of last year, or late October of last year at which point the event was seriously wobbly to say the least. Obviously I walked into this knowing the full picture and knowing what had happened. I think that, you know, it’s been such a great as you said, you know, it runs so, it’s meshed so much with the Australian music industry and live music over the last 25 years that, you know, I think it is a brand that people will come back to.”

“I think it is a brand that people will come back to”

“It wasn’t going to go ahead this year until I walked in. They were literally, they were on the edge of the abyss, or the edge of cancelling the event. And to my mind if they cancelled the event then it would be completely lost and you could never bring it back. I kind of got involved for very selfish reasons, and that’s, you know, all my happy memories from my childhood are from the Big Day Out, from Livid Festival. It was the one or two days of the year where I could get away from my shitty home life or whatever else. And um, it would have been very sad for me to watch it die without putting up a fight, and ah, that’s why I came on board. I was rowing the lifeboat back towards the Titanic, rather than the other way around.”

“I was under no illusions that it was gonna to be a, you know, a financial catastrophe so say the least this year. So that was not, it was not even remotely in my mind that I was going to walk in there and make any money. ”

Blur’s last-minute cancellation

“We’d been getting a lot of things in the lead up saying that there were fractures between the band – ‘Standby for this, standby for that’ – and conversations were had: ‘Look, if the band breaks up or cancels will you let them go quietly?’ All of those things were happening in the lead up to the cancellation. Obviously there were a lot of other things afoot, at the time that they cancelled – up until the two weeks, three weeks before they cancelled they were really friendly. They were really happy. There was a really good dialogue going. They rang us to say they weren’t going to bring their lighting designer because they were playing in the day time. Then all of a sudden with about two weeks to go they started making ridiculous demands and basically pushing for a fight. At the same time other people in the camp were coming to me and saying ‘Things are fractious, if they cancel will you let them go quietly?’ All of a sudden without notice we got that Facebook posting on a Sunday.”

[Cancelling due to the “constantly shifting goalposts and challenging conditions of the organisers”] reads a lot better than ‘We went to South America and two members of the band had a punch up and we decided to cancel’. It always reads better if you blame the promoter.”

“That’s absolute nonsense [that the festival had canned Blur’s ‘Love’ stage because it was too expensive and they were going to be third last.] When they cancelled they were closing their own stage at four out of five Big Day Outs. In Perth they had the option of going earlier or playing against Pearl Jam because in Perth we had the times cut by the government. So at the time they cancelled they were closing their own stage at four out of five shows and they had the option to close their own stage at the same time as Pearl Jam, playing before Pearl Jam or playing earlier in the day on their own stage. They had the full gamut of options. It’s nonsense.”

Deciding not to take Big Day Out back to Perth

“Definitely no more Perth sadly. I’ve got a lot of ties to Perth. My wife is from Perth and Soundwave started there. I love the city – some of my favourite cake shops are there. At the end of the day when you look through the financial history of most of the touring festivals – especially a rock festival – you have to subsidise Perth. That’s been another reason for higher Big Day Out ticket prices. Generally speaking, you lose money in Perth. You’ve got two days to get there, three days to get back, all the trucking, all the production. And things in Perth are really expensive because of the mining boom. A hotel room that you would pay $180 for in Sydney is $320 in Perth in the same hotel chain. The price of hiring everything is ridiculous over there. Security is two-and-a-half times as expensive as on the east coast. It becomes a situation where it’s a financial struggle to go to Perth. Combine that with dropping public support for festivals and attendance figures and then for all of your trouble you get a kicking from the local government and state government. It just got to a point where its unbearable.”

The future of the Adelaide Big Day Out

“I’m pretty confident that we’re going back to Adelaide. Obviously I can’t make the decision myself, I need to speak to my partners and go through the financials for this year (which are pretty bad). I love Adelaide is a skip and a hop from Melbourne – it’s a nine hour drive – so it’s definitely a lot more feasible. Keeping the festival at the same time where you’ve got the festival up on the Gold Coast one weekend, a show on Australia Day, and then two shows the following weekend then we can definitely keep Adelaide in that model.”

The crowded festival market

‘It’s going to be tough. Yes, we have a lot of other festivals but the good thing is that most of those festivals cater to separate markets, separate groups, separate ages. There is a market here for various festivals to operate. I guess it gets tough where there isn’t enough talent and all the big bands are off their touring cycles. That’s when crunch time will come. Normally speaking in a market place where there is more competition then it tends to lower the prices and make it better for consumers. Sadly, in the festival market when there is more competition there’s more competition for bands and so agents and bands can drive up prices which is bad for the consumer because the ticket prices go up as we saw with Big Day Out this year.”

Balancing Big Day Out’s lineup

“Great bands are great bands and, let’s face it, the last 10 years haven’t thrown up many stadium bands but at the end of the day there needs to be a balance. There needs to be a balance in the festival’s appeal. Realistically not many people over 40 are going to festivals.”

“To be blunt about it, up until I got involved the original promoters of the Big Day Out are basically old-age pensioners at this point. That was a lot of the problem because they over estimated certain bands. 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 started to skew a lot older.”

The decision to cancel Harvest festival

“I made a mistake… with Harvest, in that I went ‘90s. It was very much a 90-centric line-up. 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.”

The ticket price

“The price was really, really dumb. $185 was ridiculous. That was decided long before I came in for this year. It’s just insane. If you have a specialty festival where there’s 20 bands that you want to see that’s one thing. Soundwave has something like 97 bands this year and 12 stages. If you’re into any kind of guitar music then there’s a full day’s programming for you. Big Day Out is more about the experience, more about the day. There are three or four bands throughout the programming that everyone wants to see and it’s a day of wandering around, doing the markets, doing the bands and everything else. For that $185 is completely unreasonable.”

“I don’t want it to be anywhere over $160 next year … It’ll be $160 or thereabouts give or take a couple of dollars depending on booking fees etc. When this was booked by Ken [West] and C3 they were expecting to have two bands out of Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire and Blur. When all three came in to accommodate them I think they they jacked up the ticket price, which I think that was a mistake”

Food and alcohol prices

“They’re absolutely ludicrous … most of the food and beverage is controlled by venues and there is definitely a certain amount of gouging that goes on. Sadly, we’re limited by the venues we can use for one-day events in the city. We have to put up [with it] or not have the events.”

“I was terribly disgusted with the situation at Big Day Out. They were charging $8 for a piss-weak beer. So what I’ve done is go back to the venues – and even though we didn’t have any bargaining position – I got that down to $6 for Soundwave. So if anyone is serving mid-strength beer, you can charge $8 for mid-strength, that’s just ridiculous. Starting with Soundwave you should see some lower prices and obviously I’ll be negotiating with venues next year. We’ll definitely fight. They’re never going to be excellent prices but at least you shouldn’t feel like you’re at gun point.”

The Fairfax report

“The thing about Fairfax – as you might have noticed – is that they’re essentially just enablers for gossip mongers with an axe to grind. Their priority is to get hits on their website and Big Day Out, Soundwave, me etc. gets hits. They will take any old rubbish and any old gossip from any old idiot even though they know it’s an ex-employee or an ex-owner and run with it completely irresponsibility.”

“These retards at Fairfax, I probably shouldn’t say that… these morons haven’t actually thought through the allegations that they’re making. Do you think that if we didn’t pay the suppliers that they would turn up to do the next show? Or the next show after that?”

“I actually offered for them to come in and go through my emails to see what’s really going on. They weren’t interested. I gave them several opportunities to come in and go though my emails and they weren’t interested because the truth isn’t sensational.”

“My management style isn’t my Twitter style”

His management style

“My management style isn’t my Twitter style. The two things are very separate compartments. As far as my interaction with people goes, I try to reply to 1,000 tweets a day. People that are polite or nice I try to help them. But just because I’m accessible doesn’t give people the right to come and be abusive. If you’re abusive you’ll get a shovel load back … I might have a short fuse in certain circumstances but I respect the respectful.”

Big Day Out CEO Adam Zammitt

”[His role] is something that we’ll review over time. He’s a really good guy and I’ve enjoyed working with him. He obvious has his own style of things, which is probably a bit tempered, but sometimes those liabilities are also assets.”

“Had I fired him [as Fairfax alleged] there would probably have been something on Twitter shortly thereafter. He would have also had his passes taken off him, been escorted off-site, had his bags taken out of the hotel room and so on and so forth. As none of those things have happened, you can take it on good authority that he wasn’t fired.”

The lineup for Big Day Out 2015

“I have no idea. Obviously we have a few target lists somewhere on the back of envelopes or what have you. We have a list of bands that we think are appropriate.”

Listen to the full interview below