Big Day Out promoter reflects on 30 years since the festival began: “It’s been an amazing ride for me”

Ken West shared chapters from a forthcoming book on a new website to celebrate the festival's birthday

Big Day Out promoter Ken West has launched a new website to celebrate the festival’s 30th birthday.

Dubbed “Kenfest” – Big Day Out’s original working title – the site features seven chapters from West’s forthcoming book, currently called Controlled Kaos. The e-book is expected for release later this year, and reflects on 30 years since the first iteration of the festival took place on January 25, 1992.

“Seeing as the world, and in particular, the live music world, (thanks Covid), are still running on chaos theory, I thought this might be the right time to drop some of my ramblings covering the path to and the first 6 years of The Big Day Out,” reads West’s introduction.

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“Needless to say, it was a bumpy road with tales of caution mixed with elation. It’s been an amazing ride for me. The joy and pride that I still carry in my heart for those crazy days can never be erased. I was, and still am, a lucky man.”

Speaking to NME, West said that he started working on the book in 2002, “as I felt days were numbered and I had better document what went on for historical purposes”.

He drew on resources such as his old tour itineraries – dating back to New Order’s 1982 tour – as well as Clinton Walker’s book Inner City Sounds, his own memories, and Big Day Out memorabilia, including the original promotional posters. He stopped writing in 2003 to refocus on the festival, before picking up again a few years ago.

West and Lees with the 1996 Big Day Out poster. Credit: Supplied

In the published chapters, West reflects on launching the festival with business partner Vivian Lees in the early ’90s. He’d been a tour promoter for years, but felt that “on a creative front, touring was losing its charm”.

In 1992, Lees and West secured Violent Femmes and Nirvana as headliners for their first Big Day Out festival, held at the Sydney Showgrounds. Other acts included Beasts of Bourbon, You Am I, Yothu Yindi, Hard-Ons with Henry Rollins, and many more.

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They sold 9,700 tickets, including three purchased by then Prime Minister Paul Keating for his kids.

“Pretty much as soon as the first Big Day Out was over, I realised two things,” wrote West. “It was a huge success & that the big promoters would be very pissed off.”

“What we had achieved was something that made us different from the others. We could offer something special that the others did not have. I immediately had a feeling of urgency & dread of what was ahead. Deep down I knew the only way to protect the event from duplication or bidding wars was to make it as strong as possible, as quick as possible.”

“The only solution was to go national.”

West setting up for Big Day Out in 2004.
West setting up for Big Day Out in 2004. Credit: Supplied

Aside from missing a year in 1998, Big Day Out continued until 2014, taking place in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, the Gold Coast and Auckland. A plethora of well-known international and Australian acts graced the BDO stages during those years, including Soundgarden, M.I.A, Muse, Powderfinger, The Prodigy, Arctic Monkeys, Rage Against The Machine, Arcade Fire, Chemical Brothers, The White Stripes, Metallica, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more.

The business partnership between Lees and West dissolved in 2011, with West then partnering with American company C3 Presents (who run Lollapalooza).

Soundwave and Harvest Festival promoter Arash “AJ” Maddah joined the BDO family in 2013, but the festival’s longevity was waning.

In 2014, headline act Blur pulled out just eight weeks prior to the event. The Perth leg sold half as many tickets as it had the previous year, and Maddah went on to sell his BDO shares to C3.

Months later, in June, C3 announced that the festival would not be returning the following year. “While we intend to bring back the festival in future years, we can confirm there will not be a Big Day Out in 2015,” they said in a statement.

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