The Hot Seat: Jaddan Comerford, UNFD Director

Published in The Music Network

 

It’s been a particularly busy start to the year for yourself and the company. What’s been going on?
We’ve taken Boomtown Records and Staple Management and put them together. We’ve brought together eight staff, and added four more. And we’re now providing full-service under the one brand, UNFD.

What’s the reasoning behind the new structure?
I just want to simplify things. I want to strategically align our business and our artists. The position we’re in, and the deals we’re able to do coming at it from a management point of view, it allows us to be much more flexible. We’re seeing right now 99% of major labels saying the line ‘we must have ancillary rights’. For us at management, that’s not an issue at all. We’re already managing those rights for the artists under our management agreements. We’re looking at what the major labels are trying to do and coming at it from a different angle and essentially making it artist-friendly.

You’ve just come off the inaugural No Sleep ‘Til festival tour. How did it perform?
It was kind of like wrestling a bear; it was huge. But it went unbelievably well. All the numbers were really strong, the turnouts were great, the reviews were fantastic. It was an amazing learning experience for us as a company moving up a level, as far as our knowledge, our experience and our networks.

How were sales?
We sold over 40,000 tickets nationally, which exceeded what we were forecasting. Sales were excellent. You don’t start something like that with huge ambitions. We started very small, and we want to allow it to grow. We wanted to give the punters a really good experience, and I think from 90% of the reviews that’s exactly what we did.

Can you co-exist with Soundwave?
Sure, there’s always room. There’s enough bands out there for everyone. There’s no need to fight. There’s plenty of room for everyone to exist.

It’s a really tough market though, right? That’s what most festival promoters are saying.
Because it’s been our first year it’s hard for us to say we felt it. All we felt was a great response. We learned a lot.

Will you be coming back?
Most likely. There’s a lot more to learn, and a lot to discuss. But yes, it will return in some way, shape or form,

Last year you also launched the creative agency ONE: Meaning Communicated Differently, and electronic music agency Archery Club. What were the outcomes of those new units?
They’ve both been fantastic. Archery Club brought in Dayna Young, formerly at Jam Agency. That allowed us to move into a completely new space, into the electronic world with DJs and live [club] acts. That’s been a great business move but it’s also been a great learning experience and it’s another network of people for us. With ONE, we brought in Jai Al-Attas, who originally ran Below Par Records, a very similar label to Boomtown Records. So the two of us coming together made a lot of sense. Both of those relationships really showed what the Staple Group is all about. It’s about finding good people who we believe in and signing people in a way that we’d sign an artist. And setting up an infrastructure around that person and an idea they have, and helping them execute it.

You’re only 26. Are you a regular guy? Do you have beers with your mates at night, and kick the footie around on a weekend?
Yes, sure. I play golf, I exercise. Obviously I work a lot, but I’m not completely consumed by the whole thing. There’s definitely a balance in what I do.

The record biz is down, the live biz is apparently near saturation. What do you see as the trends for the year ahead?
I’ve really been enjoying listening to Triple J of late, because there’s so much good music out there right now. And I don’t think that’s going to slow down, it’s going to continue. But it’s also going to be a year of change. People that are working hard, doing what they’re doing and placing the best people around them and being creative, they’re the ones who are going to come out on top. We’ll definitely continue to evolve and be dynamic and react to what happens. I can’t tell you exactly what that is, and even if I did I probably wouldn’t tell you because it would be our secret. But I’ve never been more excited about the business I’m in than right now.

 

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Big Day Out: The mechanics of awesome

Published in The Music Network

 

The Big Day Out is nothing short of a touring juggernaut. Pulling in more than 300,000 punters across two markets, the travelling festival is a huge money-spinner with a profile the envy of all international impresarios.

Behind the scenes is a giant road-readied circus. For the cast and crew, it’s truly a big month out.

:: Read TMN’s interview with co-founder Ken West
:: See Tony Mott’s BDO Gold Coast photos
:: Read Lars Brandle’s Gold Coast review

Consider this year’s six-city-seven-date program. To get this show on the road requires 35 semi-trailers hauling some 800 tones of equipment from city to city. And then there’s the trans- Tasman leap. And the 20-plus sideshows.

The Australian BDO entourage has swollen to roughly 850, all of whom need to be moved, accommodated, fed and looked after. That figure includes more than 60 bands, many are from abroad. Most are big names. A large site will accommodate up to 60,000 ticket- holders and on show–day will count upwards of 3,000 staff. The production crew numbers 65, and 160 stage hands help pull, assemble and deconstruct the place. Everything about the BDO is, well, really, really big.

The core team behind the Big Day Out is a well-drilled one. Creative Entertainment Australia owners Ken West and Vivian Lees have called the shots since the inaugural one-off BDO show back in 1992. Many key insiders are “lifers.”

Production Director Matt Doherty has been on-hand since day one. Doherty is tasked with overseeing all the day-to-day intricacies of the world’s biggest touring festival. The BDO’s four production managers report to him. If there’s a problem, Doherty’s onto it. “This is the biggest one we’ve ever done,” says Doherty. “I thought we’d reached critical mass two years ago, but apparently I was wrong and we could put more trucks on the road and we could put more people on the road and we could fit bigger bands on our stages.”

The 2011 edition has thrown up its share of traditional challenges, and some unexpected headaches. The floods, which spread across Queensland through the early part of the year, have spared the Gold Coast site, but the flow- on effect has been felt. 35 generators are required to run the site, and are all sourced locally. In the case of the Gold Coast Parklands, the generators were to be hired from a business in Brisbane’s Rocklea area. But they all went under with the floods, much like the rest of the suburb. The widespread water damage has meant generators in South East Queensland are extremely hard to come by.

Those that haven’t been wrecked, have been commandeered by Energex to help get the capital back up and running. Several BDO key staff have also been caught up defending their homes from the floods, and extra production staff were recruited from Sydney and Melbourne to shore up the show. Companies providing the backstage structures had their offices in Toowoomba, a town smashed by flash-flooding. “It’s about managing all those factors,” notes Doherty, “and constant negotiating.”

This year, Rammstein’s pyrotechnic-laced show has presented its own set of challenges. Concussion charges are set off during the show. In Melbourne, the BDO this Sunday is situated on the Flemington Racecourse, where there are “literally a billion dollars worth of horses some 200 meters away from us,” adds Doherty.

“We’ve got everything the rules require us to have, but I’m sure there will be some surprises from them.”

Skipping the ditch from the opening show in Auckland always requires its own set of logistics. A skeleton crew works the site at Mt Smart Stadium, with much of the equipment sourced from the region. Some 50 tonnes of equipment, mostly the performers’ backline, then makes its way across the Tasman. BDO organisers chartered a Boeing 767, whose cargo limit was reached at 40 tonnes. Upon arrival, a convoy of semis at Brisbane International Airport carried the cargo 70 kilometres to the Gold Coast Parklands.

As the Big Day Out has grown, its dance music component, The Boiler Room, has undergone its own evolution. Once a niche corner of the event, the dance arena these days is a large, thumping ecosystem. The Boiler Room accounts for four semis, which carries its 80 strobes and 180 moving lights. “We need a 500 KVA and a 400 KVA just to run the lights. A 500 KVA is a very big generator,” explains Jamie Centofanti, who has overseen The Boiler Room’s lighting configuration since 1995.

Performances by the Prodigy and later Fatboy Slim convinced organisers that the Boiler Room needed more space. “There wouldn’t be a Boiler Room without the Prodigy,” recalls Ben Suthers, producer of The Boiler Room since 1999. Liam Howlett’s electronic punks played a monster set in the Gold Coast shed in 1996. It was so hot that frontman Keith Flint was put on a saline drip after the performance.

Until the late ‘90s, the scene of that Prodigy performance was housed in what has become the site storeroom. Now, the Boiler Room is the largest covered venue on site, and it attracts a regular crowd of some 12,000-15,000. When the Prodigy closed the 2009 BDO, an estimated 30,000 party-goers squeezed under the tent.

The Prodigy almost took BDO down a different path. In the late ‘90s, the BDO organisers decided it was entirely possible to take an act like the Prodigy and build a dance music festival around it. A bespoke dance-oriented fest Starbait was pencilled in for 1998, but the shows didn’t get off the ground. When the BDO returned from its 1998 hiatus, the Boiler Room had become a tent in all markets except Sydney.

Keeping an eye on the bucks and ensuring everyone gets paid is the task of Katrina McBeath, BDO’s National Event Accountant. It’s not the glamour job, but it’s one of the most important. Cash from ticket sales are held in trust until the show starts. So balancing the cash flow pre-tour is often on the agenda. The moment the money hits the BDO coffers, McBeath begins processing payments.

All told, McBeath will personally process some 1,000 individual payments over the course of the BDO. There’s no hierarchy in the payments run, though cash-flow companies are rarely late getting paid. “The runners are as important as the top bands as far as getting payment done. If anything, they’ll miss it more,” she says. From the middle to end of tour, she typically develops symptoms of RSI in her right hand, the hand she uses to calculate. “The last few years I had to wear a brace on my right hand to protect it,” she muses. “It lessens two weeks after the tour has finished.”

Security at the BDO is another big job. The security budget tips well over $2.5 million. Working on a general ratio of one security staffer for each 100 punters means some 450-600 security staff are deployed on each of those concert dates. On any given day, up to 170 police are patrolling the venue. “We are trying to build a theme park in each city for a day,” remarks Jeffrey Gray, who coordinates National Crowd Management and Safety across the BDO. “Everything revolves around, and starts and finishes with the kids who bought the tickets. What we do has to be about making sure everyone has a great a time and we keep them safe.” Gray joined the BDO as an 18 year old, and has spent his entire working life of 15 years with the show.

BDO merch is a tidy business. Brian Taranto, Managing Director of Love Police, has had a big hand in that. Since 1999, Taranto and his teammates have designed the BDO branded merch, and all the visual elements of the tour; artwork, tickets and posters. “We follow trends to a degree, and our gut to a bigger degree and come up with a range of merchandise, from clothing to headwear to stubby holders and specialty items that we feel fit the BDO demographic.” Merch has its own dedicated semi-trailer. Along the way, all the bands’ sales figures after each show must be tallied to ensure they have enough product.

“Through the festival, we’re reordering and topping up numbers,” says Taranto. On site, a team of up to 50 people are shifting the goods, working anywhere up to 20 hour days.

BDO-branded merch is a big seller, he explains, without giving away any numbers. “When we started, it was more band merch. With the iTunes generation, a lot of those fans don’t necessarily know a whole album of a band to have the devotion to wear their shirt. They can wear the BDO shirt and they can stake their claim to that.”

On paper, the Big Day Out had an inauspicious beginning. Its 1992 one-off show in Sydney drew 9,500 punters. But its formula of smoking hot bands across multiple stages on a single day was right on the money. And West and Lees realised the only way forward was to corner the market.

In the early 1990s, the indie rock scene was literally exploding, and Triple J expanded its reach into the country’s regional areas. The BDO arrived at a juncture of events that would shape the Generation X landscape.

“We knew we had to do this nationally right away, and get more bands because everyone would try to copy it,” recalls West.

“We had to move real fast, get real big, real quick and defend ourselves. We had to become ‘Woolworths’ as quickly as we possibly could.”

The second year was a four-city trek, which gathered an audience of 46,000. By year three, the BDO visited six cities across Australia and New Zealand, more than doubling its visitors to 130,000. That figure had reached 210,000 in 1997, the year before BDO took a break, its first and only gap-year. By 2010, the attendance figure had topped 337,000.

The Australian’s music writer Iain Shedden regularly covers the event for his publication. “It’s the big start to the year for music,” he explains. “As a rule we cover the Gold Coast event as it’s the first in Australia each year, although I’ve travelled to Auckland several times to do interviews and to get a feel of the festival before Gold Coast.” The Australian, like most national dailies, always runs ‘news’ the day following the Gold Coast event. “On occasion,” he adds, “we’ve taken out a whole page of coverage.”

News is something the BDO has generated a lot of over the years, from the banning from the BDO of the Australian flag, to the crushing of Jessica Michalik during a 2001 Limp Bizkit performance. Shedden covered both, and on the lighter side, reported the tale of Machine Gun Fellatio being left with thousands of condoms after they were prevented from throwing them from the BDO stage.

It’s a tough market out there for concert promoters, and the Big Day Out has certainly felt the pinch. At deadline, tickets were still available for the shows in Auckland, Adelaide, Perth and the second Sydney show, at which organisers have decided to let ticket holders bring a friend.

“This year we’re competing for less disposal income from punters and there’s been an awful lot going on, especially in the month of December 2010 with about eight massive international acts all coming through,” notes Doherty.

West says he’s keen for the BDO to take another sabbatical and recharge, but he admits it’s a big machine to grind to a halt. “It’s a few hundred people’s full-time job now.” But was there ever a chance BDO could have disappeared for good? “Sure, plenty of times. No worries,” notes West.

“1996 was a gamble, which is why BDO 1998 didn’t happen; we were up against Summersault. And in 2001 when Jess died, and the inquiry went for a year and a half. There were times when we thought, ‘are we going to do this or not?’”

There won’t be a break in 2012, when the BDO will commemorate its 20th anniversary. West and Lees are already thinking of next year’s show.

“With the Big Day Out, I’m trying to cast a movie. I’m looking at key players, secondary players,” says West. [2010 headliners] Muse we scheduled two years out and they honoured that. We’re putting the next one in motion pretty early.” Talent booking will kick off in earnest in June for BDO 2012. Expect it to be another Big Day Out.

Strength in numbers

– 300, 000 punters

– 35 semi trailers

– 1 Boeing 767

– 800 tonnes of equipment

– 60 + bands

– 850 + personnel entourage

– 20 + sideshows

– 3, 000 + staff

– 65 + production crew

– 160 + stage hands

– 200 + generators

– 1, 000 individual invoices paid

– 170 police, dogs included

– $2.5 million on security

– 1:100 security guards to punters

– 450-600 guards/event

Unspecified units of Panadol and Mylanta

 

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The Hot Seat: Ken West

Published in The Music Network.

 

In a rare interview, the Big Day Out co-founder discusses their “perpetual motion machine”, The Black Keys, taking a year off and why the festival craze can’t sustain itself.

Ken, what drives you and your team to get this show out on the road each year?
It’s not so much driving, it’s more like a car out of control. You can’t stop it. It’s a bit of a perpetual motion machine. There’s already momentum for the year after. In some ways, the process is about trying to think outside the box, to keep it as volatile and on-edge as possible without compromising audience safety or let it backfire on our own plans.

These days, it’s a much more calculated process to hit those same goals, which was originally to achieve “organized chaos.” Only now it’s more organized.

How soon after this show will you and Viv Lees leap into plans for 2012?
We’re doing a bit of that on the road already. We’re moving into the next stage of getting some acts to make commitments.

Is it a stressful gig?
Yeah, if you take it seriously. It’s stressful with the authorities trying to strangle it. Be it the government, the police, the venues, the licensees, the anti-smoking lobbies, the anti-drink folks and people who want to make it over-18 because they’re worried that the under-18s will be corrupted by us.

Is scalping still a problem?
It’s been an easy problem to solve this year because there’s been so much oversupply [in the concerts space]. To eliminate scalping, you oversupply. Like the second show situation in Sydney, that’s partly to do with it. If you didn’t have the second show, you’d have a lot more scalping problems.

The Black Keys pulled out at the eleventh hour. Do late cancellations throw a big spanner into the works?
If it’s a major act, yes. But you’ve just got to roll with it. Yes, it’s a shame for the Black Keys, which had sideshows which now have to be refunded. You just hope they’ll honour it and come back next year. There’s more than 800 people on the road, and here’s just two people. We’re dealing with about 60 bands and we’re booking six months out. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

Are there plans to expand the BDO even further?
Considering how difficult the year has been for everybody, it’s more about consolidation. We’ve got six solid cities. We’ll try to do some kind of spin-off event, it might be a special event, a joint-venture perhaps. There are many ways we can expand what we do rather than just trying to build BDO bigger and bigger. The sideshows are doing really well, and they’ve all sold out. Whether those sideshows end up being more multiple-band bills is something we’ll look at after these shows.

Can the festivals craze sustain itself?
No, it can’t. Yes it’s a social phenomenon. The festivals’ structure was a form of social gathering where you would hook up with your friends at a certain time and that became a neighbourhood. Some people argued that it became a religion, but that’s too far-stretched. Eventually, quite a few people will decide they’re over them and do other things. If it’s fashionistic, then chances are it will go out of fashion. There are a lot of good value shows, and there’s a whole lot of shit ones. They come and go.

With the Aussie dollar flying so high, is that helping promoters? Or is it a “false economy”?
The danger of that is it can swing both ways. If you buy a band in a one-to-one [currency] ratio and find the Australian dollar drops to 70 [U.S.] cents, you go under. That’s going to be the big cruncher. We’ve been through it about five times where it’s dropped about 30%. It can happen again. It’s a big test. We don’t as a rule pay bands in overseas currency, because we sell our tickets in Australian dollars.

How much longer do you plan to keep doing this?
For myself, there’s a few more years then we’ll work out what’s going to happen after that. Whether it’s a change of the guard, or rather a change in the relationship. The coalface is pretty hard. It might be a possibility where we take a break once every four years.

Michael Eavis at Glastonbury Festival has a “fallow” year every four or five years.
Well, he owns the property and it’s a farm. We don’t own the properties. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if we had a year’s break. Homebake had a year off. No big deal, they’ll come back and it’ll be back to normal. Next year’s the 20th BDO show.

Let’s see what we can come up with, and let’s look at [having a temporary break] after that.

:: Read our BDO behind-the-scenes cover story
:: See Tony Mott’s BDO Gold Coast photos
::
Read Lars Brandle’s Gold Coast review

:: Click here for the original story.

The Hot Seat: Duncan Campbell

Published in The Music Network

 

In the wake of big management and programming shake-ups last year, Australian Radio Network’s National Content Director Duncan Campbell discusses ARN’s strategy to leapfrog Austereo and Nova in 2011.

Let’s start with last year. It was a dramatic one for ARN. Mix’s ratings didn’t fare well in most cities and ARN underwent a major management shift.  What were your immediate thoughts on arrival?

I didn’t think they had the strategy right, certainly on the Mix stations in Sydney and Melbourne. That was the greatest concern. There was a lot of frustration with Mix Sydney and the direction it was taking; it wasn’t reaping the rewards. It was fairly obvious the strategy wasn’t right. The goal was to reposition both those stations by the end of the year and to find ourselves a new breakfast host for Sydney, which we’ve done. It was quite an eventful last quarter.

ARN is regarded as No. 3 behind Austereo and Nova. Is the ambition to move up? How do you plan to do that?

Absolutely. We’re not content with being where we are. We’ve got a big challenge ahead of us culturally, to change the way we work inside ARN. Our clear objective in 2011 is to be more competitive. We want to challenge the other major players.

Is there a timeline on leapfrogging the other two?

As soon as we can (laughs). We aren’t sitting back satisfied with where we are at the moment.

ARN axed four state GMs late last year. Are you seeing the results of the new system?

It was really a structural shift. It was designed to set-up ARN to be a much more competitive. I worked under a functional management structure when I was in the U.K. [with Bauer Radio]. During that time we probably had our greatest success. It allows for a much more dynamic organisation, which ARN definitely needs to be, and allows for much quicker decision-making.

What are the first steps to recovery for Mix?

Consistency would be the big one. We’re very clear on where we want to go, and we have to be very consistent in that direction. Also, to attract new listeners we have to be creative with the execution strategy. That’s going to be the challenge. Sydney and Melbourne are two very competitive markets. Sydney has two very strong music stations in WSFM for over-40s and 2DayFM for under-40s. We researched the market and found our position – 30-39 year old females. Certainly the key for Sydney is the Mix breakfast show. So far, we’re fairly happy with what we’re hearing.

Last year Sydney Mix experimented with a younger, poppier sound with Jess Mauboy appearing in commercials. Will that continue?

No. It’ll move back toward a solid, adult-sounding radio station. The decision to go younger was flawed. We were up against a really strong radio station in 2DayFM. But that was the decision taken at the time. Our focus now is on a new adult contemporary path – the best mix of the ‘80s, ‘90s and now. It’s by no means a return to the soft AC of previous years, but it’s certainly more adult in its presentation and feel.

I don’t get a sense that ARN’s websites have really explored what they can do. Is there an online plan in place?

A whole new web strategy will be unveiled in 2011. The foundations of that are being worked upon as we speak. Austereo are very good at what they do online. And to some degree so is DMG. People inside ARN have not been terribly proud of the web presence, so we need to make sure we get that right.

Which quarter will we see some activity?

It’s too early to tell. We’re not taking our time; we’ve got to make sure we get the strategy right first.

How important is social networking now to modern-day radio?

It’s an avenue which, while it’s used a lot, isn’t necessarily used as effectively as it could. The challenge for all radio stations in terms of social networking is to create communities that are large enough to mobilise in a way that will impact listening. That’s what we’re looking to do. No stations are really doing that yet. They’re doing it as a source of content for shows and a source of feedback into the radio stations.

What are your tips on radio-programming trends this year?

It’ll be back-to basics. We’re going to see a very interesting, competitive environment. The dominant player Austereo will be challenged by DMG and also by ARN. Everyone will lift their game and ultimately it’ll offer better radio for listeners.


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