We talk to Etienne Marais, event producer of Auckland City Limits and probably the only person to work at every New Zealand Big Day Out.
Etienne Marais is one of the most experienced music event managers in New Zealand. He started by selling water at the first Big Day Out in Auckland in 1994 and has been working his way up ever since. ACL promotor Campbell Smith says if Marais (“ET” as he’s known around the office) wasn’t there, there’d be no festival.
When The Spinoff met him recently to talk about ACL, the first thing he did was open his laptop and bring up a Facebook page with this image:
Etienne Marais: I thought that perfectly summed it up. Especially the last bit…
The Spinoff: Yeah, ‘cos most people would think you just…
Hang out with bands?
Yeah. So what’s your title?
On this event, I’m event producer which encapsulates almost everything that happens on the site. It’s a role that’s grown ad hoc from years of working on the Big Day Out. There was a lot that changed over the years and I was the only thing that was constant. So I found myself taking on extra parts of the puzzle and ended up doing a big cross-section of things. I build the site, oversee the production manager who’s booking the stages, build the stages, book the PA, do all that stuff, also ticketing, leasing with artists, making sure they’ve got visas, that they get picked up from the airport. I’ve ended up being the person who everyone asks about what they have to do. So I just field lots of questions from lots of people over small details.
I mean, doing events isn’t exactly rocket science – it’s quite a simple idea, but when an event is on it gets really intense. And I’ve got to this place where I’ve gotten good at making other people feel quite comfortable about their own little issues.
Where did you start?
The first event I worked on was the first Big Day Out in Auckland in ‘94. I sold water.
How did you get from selling water to managing the whole thing?
I went from water to helping run the site, helping third party vendors get tents and stuff like that. And slowly it just morphed into more involvement. I was always keen to try and do something more interesting. And the grass is always greener – I always thought ‘I wanna do what that guy does’.
So you’ve gone from the Big Day Out to ACL which is kind of its offspring in a way.
Yeah, it’s a large format festival, which is what I think is awesome about shows like this. The stages will be awesome and the PA will be wicked, that sort of stuff. And the scope of the site – it’s big, there’s lots to do.
Is this your entire year, setting this up?
No, I do all sorts of other events as well.
How much of your year is ACL?
I should spend more time on it but I also do Northern Bass, and lots at the Logan Campbell Centre, Powerstation, Trusts Arena, those sorts of shows. This has been the busiest year I’ve ever had in my life and ACL is part of that. There’s two or three months of pretty intense preparation and about four of five months of general planning and that’s always the chiller bit.
What’s your day like on the day itself?
It’s intense. We’re there at 5am, we’re starting to shut down roads, put the perimeter up, stop people coming in to bury alcohol and doing all those things they love to do. People will try and come in and spend seven hours hiding in the bush to try and get in. And there’s a lot of bush around Western Springs. At ACL in 2016 we had quite a battle with people jumping the fence so we’ve put some pretty significant steps in place this time. At the end of the day, it’s for the people who bought tickets.
People are resourceful. They’ll come in with barbwire cutters, blankets, carpet. So we’ve found some ways we can stop people doing that this year.
So do you go around looking for signs of digging into the grass?
It’s really obvious if it’s on the paddock but people do all of those things, they’ll come in with a spade, dig a hole, bury some vodka.
So yeah, the day starts like that. There’s usually some milestones during the day. Gates opening is a big one. Getting security in position is another big one. Getting vehicles offsite, making sure the fences are up, signs are up. Gates open. There’s a slight repreive when everyone runs in, usually then a bunch of different problems start coming up. Bands start arriving, so can they find the place? Is their dressing room alright? Is there a bottle of champagne in there? Even though Western Springs is a venue that’s already there, there’s no infrastructure to deal with that many people – even just the backstage people. So we’re bringing in 30 portable buildings to put dressing rooms in; 15 generators to run power. It’s pretty major.
When the day gets underway, it starts to become about security. We have hourly meetings with alcohol licensing, security, all those things.
What can go wrong? What are you most worried about?
Because you’re prepared for the weather, right?
As much as you can be. Everything’s waterproof these days. The rain can fall on your electrical stuff but if it gets to a level that it’s coming in at an angle, that can be an issue. But usually, it’s about the behaviour of people. In 2016, someone managed to climb up one of the speaker towers during Kendrick’s set, so obviously that’s major. The other things you worry about is an equipment failure. You’re running on power and you’ve got generator backup but it takes a while to kick in. Or a desk fails or someone plugs in something in the wrong place. Every time a different act comes on they have to prepare the entire stage, all the instrument feeds and mic feeds for a different desk for the next band. There’s so much happening in those changeovers that if something goes wrong…
Do you see any music?
Yeah, I definitely watch bands for sure. Usually in the course of what I’m doing. One of the things I forever love about festivals is the big production. I love that shit. That’s the pay off at the end of the day.
Auckland City Limits, sponsored by Spark, at Western Springs Stadium and Park on 3 March 2018. Tickets are available here.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.