What Happened To The Big Day Out?

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For almost two decades an entire generation were bound through a single ticket to the Big Day Out.

It defined what live music looked like in Australia, and at one point it was the biggest touring festival in the world.

This summer marks the 30th anniversary since the first ever Big Day Out, which means it’s been 30 years since two guys came together with an idea that ended up shaping Australian music history forever.

The Beginnings Of The Big Day Out

The Big Day Out was created by Ken West and Vivien Lees.

Ken was a music promoter in the 80s who teamed up with Vivienne Lees, the manager of Aussie rock band Hunters and Collectors.  

Ken was based in Sydney and Viv was in Melbourne, which made them the perfect puzzle pieces to create some gold class Australian music touring.

When the 90s rolled around they brought out the Violent Femmes on a national tour, and for the opening act locked in a band on the rise — Nirvana.

But Ken had bigger ideas in his sights as a couple of years earlier, he’d been at Summer Fest in the US.

It had multiple stages with heaps of different bands playing a bunch of different genres, which back in the early 90s had never been attempted in Australia.

So Ken decided to build out the Sydney Violent Femmes show into a full day of music.

Originally it was called ‘Can-Fest’, but a week out from launch the biggest musical festival in Australian history was christened — The Big Day Out.

21 bands were going to play across 3 stages, but weirdly tickets to the first Big Day Out weren’t selling well.

That was until the January 11th 1992, when Nirvana hit number 1 on the US charts with their album Nevermind.

And just like that, The Big Day Out was the hottest ticket in town.

Nearly 10,000 music lovers showed up, which was more than the Hordern Pavilion could handle.

It’s been said that when Nirvana played, it was so hot and packed that it rained inside from the sweat that dripped off the roof.

On that day a cultural icon was born; Ken and Viv had created an era-defining event.

Building A Cultural Icon

The Big Day Out never really planned to go beyond that first show. But it came back, and from 1993 the festival hit the road.

In the years that followed it grew fast, with shows in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, the Gold Coast, and even across the ditch in New Zealand.

The Big Day Out brought with it unparalleled line-ups of some of the biggest artists in the world like Iggy Pop, Kayne West, Bjork, The Killers, Rage Against the Machine and The Prodigy.

It put those big artists alongside local acts and bands that were on the rise — like in 1995 when the festival organisers booked a band who’d just won a national competition, which turned out to be none other than Silverchair.

1997 was going to be the final Big Day Out and it was huge.

Ticket sales spiked by nearly 100,000 and Patti Smith, Soundgarden, The Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Powderfinger and Paul Kelly all took to the stage

But just two years later, The Big Day Out came back — in fact it came back for another 16 years.

The End Of An Era

The Big Day Out grew into such a cultural phenomenon that nothing was able to slow it down, not even the global financial crisis in 2008. That year audiences were treated to Arcade Fire and Dizzy Rascal.

Fans started to expect line ups that were bigger and better than the year before, and eventually this took a huge toll on the people making the festival come to life each year.

In 2014 the festival reached breaking point.

Both co-founders, Ken and Viv, were no longer working on the festival, and 2014 inevitably became its final year.

The final Big Day Out was the end of an era for a generation of Australia music lovers.

It was a rite of passage that gave many Australian artists a chance in the industry and even shaped how live music operates in Australia.

We had 22 spectacular years of the Big Day Out, but the phenomenon just grew so big that it eventually burst.

When Ken West was asked by Double J what happened to the Big Day Out, he said that the simplest thing he’d say was that it “collapsed under its own weight”.