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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