Auckland City Limits, the new festival headlined by Kendrick Lamar and The National, is as ambitious a live music project as New Zealand has seen in a decade or more. During its assembly Duncan Greive twice interviewed its promoter, Campbell Smith, who gave very candid insights into the business of music festivals.
I first heard rumours about Auckland City Limits while on tour with Sol3 Mio in early 2014. The gulf between an opera tour in historic theatres and an alternative music festival in a park is pretty broad, but the same promoter was behind each.
Campbell Smith had just completed what would turn out to be the last Big Day Out, but was also running Sol3 Mio’s tour. I was covering the group for a Metro feature, and spent a bunch of time with Smith in the endless downtime between shows.
We’d once had a prickly history – I was frequently (and, with hindsight, excessively) critical of the Big Day Out through the mid-’00s, which he understandably took exception to. Once the 6pm news even covered our disagreements. It was good fun. But we got on well as we travelled through the lower North Island, watching the brilliant spectacle of ancient white women fawning over young Polynesian men and their soaring voices.
Smith was almost in mourning for the Big Day Out. It had reached an aesthetic peak when it moved to Western Springs, a terrific park venue for a festival. I attended and was deeply impressed – it felt more like Coachella or Meredith than the gross, sweaty bunker of Mount Smart.
Unfortunately the moment coincided with the Big Day Out falling victim to the festival glut in Australia, and starting to look very old and stale next to the likes of Laneway.
Many wondered whether big, broad tent festivals were dinosaurs, destined to be over-run by younger, nimbler competitors.
They still might be, but Smith was haunted by that last Big Day Out, and what it promised. He spent the next couple of years working to bring another festival back to the same venue. Only this time, on his own terms. We kept in touch through that period, having beers and conversations about the process periodically. I felt like it was a fascinating and risky endeavour, and was curious about how it worked from a business and creative perspective. We sat down for a pair of interviews in December and January, during which he spoke candidly about the process of creating this thing, essentially from scratch. I’ve edited and condensed them below. Together they hopefully give an insight into what it’s like to stage an event on this scale, in something like real time, with all the attendant anxiety and hope that goes along with it.
Interview one – conducted at Kingsland’s Portland Public House in mid-December 2015.
Describe where you’re at right now with the lineup?
I realise now there’s great logic to having a band come and play six shows down under because you pay them six times the amount of money and they do a whole tour and it’s easy. You try to say to an artist ‘come down and do one show’ you have to either pay a ridiculous amount of money to pay for them to do a one-off show or you have to find them other things to do in the market.
That’s not easy. So we’ve got a bunch of artists who are also on Blues Fest but then we’ve got a bunch of artists who aren’t on Blues Fest so they have to do something in Australia off the back of us. That’s been more stressful than just trying to book one show. Then there’s been just a few artists who have been kind of critical to the lineup composition, one of which fell out and one who is constantly going “I’m gonna confirm tomorrow, I’m gonna confirm next week” and I think eventually that artist will confirm but it’s just so pivotal to what I’m trying to do with the the whole thing that I can’t go out without it.
We’ve done 16 bands and there’s 40 overall. This second announcement I pretty much had everything else down apart from two spots. For the second announcement I have twelve of the thirteen spots that I want to announce pretty much done but the missing one is the peg so that’s holding us up. I’ve been thinking that I needed to get that second announcement out before Christmas because I had the perspective that we should have that in the market before Christmas but I actually think that I’m not going to go out without that key artist. I’m gonna hold the whole thing until the new year. Let’s get that period between Christmas and New Year, where we all know nothing happens, out of the way. We never sell anything in that period so just leave it. Then come back in January, do the full second announcement – hopefully we’ve secured that missing artist by then – and go hard from that point on.
That’s probably what we’re looking at doing right now. Our analytics are showing us great interest in the show and there’s a lot of people going to our ticket page every day so you know the interest is there.
Tell me how the Big Day Out became Auckland City Limits.
I think the Big Day Out had kind of run its course, to be honest. In Australia they had a not-great year in 2012, but it wasn’t a disastrous year like what we had. Then in 2013 they had an okay year. But in 2014 it was completely blown out in Australia.
So it was more like the last few years were a bit of a downhill run. Whereas we had that really disastrous 2012. We thought ‘OK we’re out, we’re finished’ because it was so bad. Then we didn’t do it in 2013 and I think there was that hole in people’s hearts or diaries of what they ought to be doing that time of year is going to a Big Day Out. So I think people really missed it.
But the key motivator for us bringing that back here was the venue. That was just because I kept driving past Western Springs every day and thinking why don’t we put a festival in there? When we thought we weren’t coming back with a Big Day Out, I was looking at doing another festival because I didn’t want to stop doing it. I sort of feel like I’m addicted to those things.
I thought I want to do something in Western Springs. Then I started talking to C3 who had come in at that point and they were like “we should do the Big Day Out back there.” They got excited about that idea. I think that we were successful that year because we’d had the year off. And we were going into that new venue which kinda made it like a new event. And the fact that the new venue was in the middle of the city. After punters had more offerings in the world of festivals and they were a bit more discerning about what they were going to go to, I think that trekking out to Mt Smart was a more difficult thing for people to get their heads around. Having that in Western Springs was a big plus for that show. I think those factors made that show successful.
But with the demise Big Day Out in Australia it meant that there was never going to be just a Big Day Out in New Zealand. So when we came out of that Big Day Out with the most successful show of that run, and again I went back to the idea I had two years earlier about continuing with a new festival.
How much control did you have of the BDO?
Control over local programming. Control over most aspects of marketing and selling the show. Tangible control of how that show went together, particularly the Western Springs one because it was new. When it was in Mt Smart, there are a lot of cons with an annual event like that but there are a lot of pros as well. You just roll out and put everything in the same place. That show kind of grew into Mount Smart like water flowing into cracks, so every space was utilised. You would just roll out there and put the same thing in there in terms of setup. How to market and sell the show, the publicity for the show was done by us, as well as the local artists’ programming. But not the international artists’ programming and not the artistic or creative look and feel of it. All the art elements were generally brought in from Australia.
What drew the audience?
You sell most of your tickets on the top four artists on the bill. The goal or ambition is to try to create an event where that doesn’t matter so much. If you compare that to a Winery Tour, that grew into being its own thing to the extent that people would go to that show going “I don’t really know who that is but I love that event”. Taking the family and sitting in the bush and having a wine. You trust the that the promoters aren’t gonna deliver up some hard rock or metal band that no one knows about. That’s the ambition of those shows and that’s why you put a Glastonbury on sale and it sells out without anyone knowing who’s playing, because they have an expectation of where the artists are gonna sit but they love the event.
I’m not sure that we ever got to that point with a Big Day Out – where the lineup didn’t matter. 2012 was a testament to that where people were like “I don’t like that bill to the extent that I’m just not gonna go.” In very large numbers did they not go. I actually like to think that we’re just more discerning. We were just like we really don’t like that.
We end up piggybacking Australia because of geography, not taste, which is unfortunate from a promoter’s point of view. Will ACL be independent of that?
I still have to try to put things together for artists that I want to come here to do in Australia. So you can’t really actually get rid of that geographical factor. As romantic as you want to be about creating a bill that’s entirely for here, there’s reasons why you have to some things with Australia. But the idea was to go “Well I really want that artist so I’m going to suggest things they could do in Australia rather than just get told what was coming to us.” I think the audience felt that as well. It was a pretty learned audience. I think there was some degree of them feeling like this was an Australian show coming here.
Is the council a friend or foe in trying to get this thing done?
Really friendly actually. There always exists the butting up on commercial negotiations, which is understandable. You want to get the best deal you can on renting someone’s venue and they want to get as much out of it as they possibly can.
Leaving that aside, there’s a real willingness from the city, both from RFA and Auckland Live who control Western Springs, and from ATEED, the city’s tourism and economic development department. A willingness from both of those parties for this show to be established and to succeed.
The good thing about putting music shows on in Western Springs is that it’s just not Speedway. Almost any resident you talk to goes “anything but Speedway” so say you’re putting on a concert for twelve hours and they’re like, “fine.”
We never really got any negatives apart from the old lady that told me I should fuck off to the farms with my festival. She said that she was born in a house on Great North Road and lived her whole life there. She said “when I was born here this was all farmland which is where you should go to with your festival.”
Why were you so set on Western Springs as a venue?
If you think about music venues in Auckland, that’s definitely the most iconic music venue. It became rarely used for a long period of time but significant shows have taken place in that space. Did you know that David Bowie show that was there in 1983? 83,000 people. It’s actually the biggest show ever, anywhere in the world, per head of population of a country. I don’t know what the maths was but you look at the population of New Zealand at the time and that’s like one in 40 people were in that show.
I went to it and I remember thinking how funny and interesting it was that people were in the trees, just sitting in the trees. And now, being a promoter, thinking OSH can’t have existed. Promoters would just keep selling tickets and sold out was when no one bought a ticket anymore, that’s how it was sold out. Imagine today, if you had anyone four or five metres up a tree you’d shit yourself.
So what’s capacity this year?
Fifty thousand is the capacity of that venue. Actually fifty five. They had something close to that for the Eminem concert. Realistically though the capacity is probably forty. Because you can get fifty thousand people in there for a static show but with patron movement, fifty thousand people would have bottlenecks. I think forty thousand is probably the likely capacity for that venue.
I feel like Auckland’s changed a tonne over the last five years or so – will ACL reflect that?
It is trying to. You go back to the last Big Day Out, where it was super successful – I think even at that point we were thinking ‘this feels a little bit one note-y’. It was a tremendously successful one note-y, but how long can you sustain before people go “we want something more.”
So our thinking was about trying to create this new broader offering. Because people living in the city now have a different expectation of what they should be able to get. I think we’re quite an aspirational audience for entertainment and culture.
Never underestimate the importance of Vector Arena and how much more music is coming here because of Vector Arena. There are big concerts on here weekly, if not more than once a week. If you think pre-Vector, there were stadium shows and then there was nowhere.
That’s great – but the fear factor for us is that we still are living in a city of a million plus people and a country of four million plus. Auckland’s the same size as Austin but we don’t have a Dallas and a Houston two hours in either direction. We have high expectations but we’re still a small city in a small country in a very geographically isolated space.
Why would you attempt something as vast as ACL – surely doing Vector shows is a less risky proposition?
I have some sort of addiction to this, I think. Because I know it’s not really too rational. My career to date as a promoter is a weird one. I didn’t start doing little shows at the King’s Arms and then work up. The first shows I ever promoted were Big Day Outs.
I do other shows now. We do Vector shows and Town Hall shows and Powerstation shows but that’s where I caught the bug, at that level. And from ten years of having a really really great time producing that show, but essentially producing it for other people. I have the love of doing those shows and I have this tremendous ambition to create something myself that I think will really work here. Most people that have a bug like that, or have an ambition to do something like that, sometimes reason and rationale play less of a role. I would’ve done it myself with just Paul [McKessar], my business partner.
Does the bloodbath in the Australian festival market make it more difficult?
There was a period in the last few years where the arms race drove prices up so madly. Particularly when Soundwave had that year when they had Metallica and Blink 182 and it was a big, big year for them.
But moving into mainstream rock acts, that was traditionally the Big Day Out domain and that just was driving prices up. It was just whoever would pay the most. I think you have to be careful about that, and I think that’s one of the great things about working with C3 is sticking to budget. Because you can get really carried away in the emotion of it because you look at your grid… there’s nothing more romantic as a promoter than looking at a festival grid and going “fuck that’s good. This flows really well and that’s playing against that and people are gonna go here then there. Shit this looks really good as a jigsaw.” Then the fourth act down on stage four wants X-thousand dollars more and you go “I can’t afford this. I’m gonna blow our budget… but god that looks good.” Just saying no you can’t. We’ll have to find somebody else.
Laneway has been great for Auckland, but they’re only looking to sell 10,000 tickets, and can load up on relatively unknown artists. Because they have that trust with the audience. Broad looks harder to do.
When you’re putting on something that aims at 45,000-plus people, there is a certain middling that has to go on. That is really the goal, I guess, when you put on something like that size. To have a mass market offering that offers something to all those people that has little pockets that those niches or those small groups of people are going to be into. The things that will go on at the Golden Dawn thing are going to appeal to a certain sector of our audience only. Maybe each year there’s a completely different activation that wasn’t there the year before and it appeals to a different part of our audience. I dunno, maybe we’ll put midget cars on the speedway track next year.
At the moment my primary focus is trying to get this damn lineup over the line. There’s one artist that I really, really want. They are definitely not saying no, and I think it’ll eventually happen. You go “but this is my timeline” and they don’t care. And there’s nothing you can really do about that. It would be really interesting if I sat down with a lineup and went to you “that was a backup, this was different…”
You may recall from the last Big Day Out, I got a shit tonne of grief on social media about programming Deftones against Pearl Jam. People were going “you’re a fool, you obviously don’t know how to do this, you don’t know what people are like.”
People are assuming we are just chucking names on a board. People don’t understand. We added Deftones late because Blur pulled out. Deftones was one of the bands we brought in to fill that gap, which was a great replacement. But by that stage, Pearl Jam were obviously the headliner and were booked to play 8-10 on the main stage. Major Lazer was already booked to close the outer stage and Deftones wanted to play in the dark. So do the math. But of course people don’t know that.
Second interview, conducted at Mash Inn, Kingsland in January 2016.
Did you get your second big act? The second line-up came out [in early January], and while I love Modest Mouse, I didn’t think they were a band you’d delay an announcement for.
It was Beck. Just timing wise we couldn’t make it work. It was frustrating not to get it but like I say, maybe I just saved myself a whole lot of money.
Shit. I can see why you waited and waited. It’s still a strong line-up though. How are sales?
The two things that are putting a knot in the middle of my back were trying to get that lineup finalised – and I think to a certain extent that dream you have of trying to build a festival for here and make it entirely about us and what suits. It’s nice but there’s a whole lot of reality that goes along with this. The major reality is that 40 international acts aren’t flying into New Zealand for a show and then flying off again. So you’ve gotta line this thing up with something that’s going on in Australia. Or they’ve gotta have something else to do in the territory afterwards.
So we’re talking to a lot of acts and they’re like “yeah we’d love to do this but we can’t fit it into our schedule” or “what else are we going to do around it?” So that’s been a real interesting learning, I guess.
Is weather also an important driver for sales?
You’d be surprised about that actually. Of those Big Day Outs where there were a few rainy ones, you sell just as many [tickets] on the day. Torrential rainstorms in Hamilton one year for a Winery Tour show, and we sold 150 tickets in the hour before we opened the gates. It didn’t make any sense.
What the cancellation of Soulfest and Echo Fest and Soundwave in Australia has done is terrify the market. Because I could talk to you and the people around us and go “well yeah we know those people, we know they’re gonna put the show on no matter what”. But if I’m a chap living in Panmure and think I’d like to go see that show, I don’t know the difference between me and a guy that’s cancelled a show.
Have the refunds been paid?
That company’s in liquidation so they’re all subjugated to the secured creditors. I know, for example, the liquidator’s trying to claw back deposits made to artists. It’s just not a good look for the rest of us. I can’t really go out to the market and say don’t worry the show’s going on no matter what and you’re quite safe. So that’s the thing that’s been sticking a knot in the middle of my back.
Do these amateur promoters piss you off? You all suffer, in a way, when a festival falls.
When that Echo thing first went down I felt kind of sorry for him and the situation. But I don’t really anymore. The thing about being a promoter is you can make a lot of money and you can lose a lot of money. But when you lose a lot of money, you better bloody pay the money. The whole idea of just walking away from it? I don’t like that.
Are you doing that thing certain other festivals have done where you have a bullshit festy currency that you wake up with fistfuls of the following morning, with no way of getting it refunded?
No, I don’t want to do that. I hated that. It is a cashless festival, so you have to pre-load the chip on your wristband but things have developed in that world since it first started here. So when you buy a ticket you can go ‘okay I want to put on forty bucks, a hundred bucks on my wristband, so when I walk in there I’m ready to go’. Or there are banks all over the site where you can load up. But the reason for that is just simple efficiency. Just one swipe and it’s done.
What happens with leftover money?
You can refund on the night. So when you’re leaving you can go back to the bank and scan it and it’ll give you cash. Cash only, so it won’t put it on your credit card. Or up to six weeks afterwards you can have it refunded.
The other things that’s happened to us recently is we’ve just been advised by licensing that they’re going to give us a GA Wet Site licence. I think this is the first time this has happened here. The whole site is GA and there’s no bar pens. So you can buy a drink at a bar and take it anywhere on the site. It’s big.
We’ve worked through that with licencing and the police. My personal position on bar pens is that it just encourages binge drinking.
Do you know your demographic?
I know where they come from but I don’t necessarily know what their ages are at this point. We find that out post event.
What does financial success look like for you guys?
The likelihood of financial success – in terms of it making money – is probably not great.
Who takes that bath – you or the other investors?
It’s me and C3 and Live Nation – but of those three entities involved it’s a much more significant consideration for me and Paul. But this is a long-term commitment for us. The idea that we could just uproot the Big Day Out audience and make it an ACL audience is a false one. We need to consider this as something new that we’re starting from scratch, and need to build an audience for and that takes time. We need to do the things that we do extremely well so that people leave going “I’m going to go next year” and you just have to build that, I think.
In terms of the sponsorship piece of the revenue pie, sports seems to have a greater hold on sponsors. Why does music struggle there?
It’s extremely frustrating to have those conversations with the people who might be interested and are interesting potential sponsors for your event, because sport just holds this hallowed [ground]. It’s cyclical as well. They think that’s what people what and then people go to those events by and large in bigger numbers, so it’s sort of self-fulfilling in a way.
Ironically, New Zealand sport’s live audiences are mostly plummeting.
Look at the Nines and the Sevens. Before the 2011 World Cup one of the requirements from the IRB for the event to be staged here was that there needed to be legislation in place. Mostly to do with ticket scalping and ambush marketing. So I made submissions to the select committee – and don’t forget, at the time this was 2010, Big Day Out was doing 50,000 people a year, had significant international visitors and hotel nights, and if you went through the criteria of what defines a major event, we ticked more of them than any rugby test would tick.
And yet it was an exercise in absolute futility, because they humoured me by being there but you could tell it really was just something that was being put through to suit the IRB. So when they defined what a major event was, they excluded Big Day Out. The Big Day Out did not qualify, by definition, as a major event. We were trying at that stage to stop ticket scalping because it was becoming a really big issue for us. I thought after that that this was a really good indication of how these things are seen. Big Day Out was still some alternative teenage event compared to the grown-ups’ sporting events.
On the other hand, fuck it. You do what you do. You don’t decide to do this or not do it because of the level of sponsorship you might gather. There’s something also greatly freeing about going “well fuck you all anyway, we’re gonna do it.”
Auckland City Limits happens at Western Springs this Saturday, March 19. For tickets, click here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.