Hard News by Russell Brown



Did the Big Day Out promoters announce that Friday's show would be the last in Auckland in an attempt to juice up flagging sales? Of course they did. And fair enough. There will actually be people who'll want to buy tickets for the show because there won't be another one like it. That's okay.

I do also believe  that it really is the end. The brand is over in New Zealand. So it's worth looking back at what this event has been for us.

I wrote a feature for Unlimited about the business of the Big Day Out in 2000 (ignore the dateline on the story itself), the year 55,000 people turned up for a bill led by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nine Inch Nails. The site didn't cope -- and neither did the mobile networks:

January’s Big Day Out may have become the most successful youth festival in the country, and Auckland’s version may be the most successful of the Australasian tour, but the local cell sites fried. Voice calls on either network were a lottery for 12 hours. The sight of young people staring blankly at their non-functioning handsets was one of the enduring images of the day. Not all of them were looking down in anger. Happily for the techno-literati, Vodafone’s text messaging stayed up throughout. It was the heaviest day of messaging so far, says Vodafone.

It was, essentially, the day that texting really arrived in New Zealand. The story also covers the reasons The Big Day Out worked for as long as it did, starting with the fact that, right from the first Auckland show in 1994 (with 8500 payers), the event covered its costs. Over the years, the Big Day Out essentially mapped itself onto the Mt Smart venue and its facilities, to the point where actually running it was a matter of following the handbook.

Getting to that point was not a trivial exercise. The Big Day Out promoters and their agents worked with local authorities and service providers at a level no one had ever done before. And they did so without smothering it in corporate sponsorship. Naming rights to features at the event were accorded only to a handful of companies -- Converse had its name on one of the alternative stages for years, but no brand ever owned the show.

But the festival business has changed: there are more, smaller festivals. Laneway will get by if it attracts 5000 punters. That would be a disaster at a venue the size of Mt Smart, with a Big Day Out-sized bill and tickets only $40 more at retail. There were rumours last year that cost and venue problems would scuttle this year's show. Eventually, it did get the go-ahead -- but without Kanye West and with half the usual production. (The Perth show also struck venue problems and almost didn't go ahead at all.)

There is a backdrop. Last year the Australian promoters Vivian Lees and Ken West -- who had been bringing acts to New Zealand since the infamous Birthday Party tour of 1983 -- parted company, leaving West with the brand. He spent much of the year holding on for Prince to confirm as the headline act -- and how different it might have been had that happened -- but could not get a signature. The weekend when Prince's people promised to confirm, the Artist was unreachable. He was staying in a hotel opposite one of the buildings bombed by Anders Breivik in Oslo.

West made what seems like a poor and hasty decision to bring on board Kanye West, a ruinuously expensive act with a huge entourage requiring private planes and limousines. Perhaps that, as much as anything else, was telling. In 2000, the biggest year ever, the Chili Peppers played for way under their usual rate because they just wanted to do the festival, and that was the rule for most of the big acts.

West has tried to adjust to the new reality: he recently signed a partnership agreement with C3 Presents, the American company that owns Lollapalooza and the excellent Austin City Limits festival (nerds will note that the Big Day Out website is already using C3's registration system). Sadly, it does not seem that New Zealand can expect versions of either of those franchises next year. Our lot seems likely to be a few side shows from the major acts.

But that creates an opportunity for someone else. And as the wonderful #BDOMemories meme on Twitter is demonstrating, the event lives on in memory, even when the memory in question is decidedly hazy.

It was more than music. Through the Big Day Out's heyday, it functioned as a window on popular culture -- something the witless Simon Sweetman doesn't seem to grasp. As I wrote in 2005:

It’s the annual meeting of the tribes: long, colourful, busy and noisy as fuck And it’s actually better than it used to be. In the first couple of years, the staging arrangements weren’t as good, and there was a background danger of encountering drunken idiots. People generally weren’t as nice.

But somewhere along the line – I think from about the time that girls stopped schlepping around after their boyfriends and started getting themselves about in girl gangs – it evolved into something better. Last year was a kind of peak of tolerance and good attitude. As a Public Address reader noted, "I’ve never, ever, been asked at the Big Day Out if I could see the band properly, and had people shift to get me a better view."

I guess it’s extra welcome this year as a conscious break from the wowsers and moralists. For a few hours on a sunny day, you can be with tens of thousands of people who probably, to some extent, see the world a bit like you do.

I'll be going with some friends on Friday (yes, I got comps as part of the show's advertising deal with us) -- and I'm also going to Laneway next week and Splore (first time!) next month. I'm looking forward to precisely nothing in the stadium on Friday (not after 2.30 anyway), but Nero, Royksopp, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foster the People, The Adults, Best Coast, Battles, Bassnectar, P-Money and Jakob should be enough to be getting on with.

Memories? Neil Young played what I think was the greatest Auckland Big Day Out show, rivalled only by the magic of the Flaming Lips. LCD Soundsystem were blinding, twice, and Hot Chip were gorgeous. There was Lady Saw at the Lilypad, and The Stooges, with Ron Asheton peeling off licks of thunder, in the stadium. Lily Allen in the tent, Dizzee Rascal and the utter madness of 2ManyDJs. Not to mention getting up to mischief in and around the bFM broadcast room. There's been a hell of a lot to like.

But one band above all others has owned the Big Day Out stage. Pardon the awful quality of my video, but Shihad were majestic in 2008:

And, although it's fashionable to bitch, I'd like to thank all the people who have actually brought us the show over the years -- Lees and West, Doug Hood, Bridget Darby, Campbell Smith and their teams -- and every mad stranger I've ever rubbed shoulders with. By Saturday, I'll have been to every Auckland Big Day Out since the first, in 1994. It's been a blast. Thank you, everyone.

PS: Here is something special. In 2002, thanks to a last-minute scheduling switch, New Order closed the stadium bill. They played Joy Division's 'Atmosphere', it was brilliant, and our own Jackson Perry capured this great recording of it:

New Order - Atmosphere: Live at Big Day Out 2002 by tpjr


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