A big day's work

Big gamble: Big Day Out promoter Campbell Smith on the main stage at the Big Day Out set up at Western Springs.
Big gamble: Big Day Out promoter Campbell Smith on the main stage at the Big Day Out set up at Western Springs.

Concert promoter Campbell Smith talks of his exhilaration and fear ahead of the Big Day Out's return to Auckland on Friday, writes Matt Nippert .

The Big Day Out, a 12-hour orgy of noise and moshing, may pull in nearly $10 million in ticket sales revenue but Campbell Smith is understandably nervous.

The promoter, in high-vis vest, shorts and a baseball cap branded with Pabst Blue Ribbon - the beer of choice for American hipsters - speaks a mile a minute only days out from the festival's relaunch at Auckland's Western Springs park.

Reportedly solid ticket sales, mean the venue's capacity of 50,000 may be met. But management fees to the BDO's Australian and American owners and the dizzying costs logistics - employing at its peak 2,500 people - make high-end concert promotion a high-stakes game.

"I'm approaching it with a mix between exhilaration and fear," he says. "The breakevens are ridiculously high."

So Smith's trepidation isn't just because he believes the flock of water fowl occupying Western Springs are stalking him.

"I don't know where it comes from," he says of his fear of birds. "I've had it all my life. The ducks are all right, but I don't like swans, and the geese and the chickens. I don't like chickens."

The nerves come more from when this music industry jack-of-all-trades got badly burned in 2012.

Smith also manages bands and for a time headed industry body the Recording Industry Association.

But in 2012 BDO struggled to sell a third of its tickets at former venue Mt Smart Stadium, leaving Smith's promotions company in a hole of more than $2m. It was, he says, a rare example where he misjudged his ability to pull punters and was caught short by an unappealing line-up.

These numbers suggest previous BDOs broke even at 30,000 sales, with packed houses at Mt Smart generating profits of $1.5m.

"When you're an experienced promoter you do have to have the ability to measure these things - otherwise you'd be fucking broke. It is high risk: You only have to have one show that doesn't work and it's such an expensive downside."

Clearly this comes with a possible upside, but Smith is unwilling to reveal details of his deal struck with BDO owner C3 Presents, who run the American Lollapalooza festival, and Australia-based promoter AJ Maddah.

"There's risk and reward, and it's based on how many we tickets we sell or don't sell - that's the deal," Smith says.

The roller-coaster ride of live music performances seems a shaky business proposition. Smith talks of writing six-figure cheques to book acts at Vector Arena based on "hunches" he can fill the 12,000-seat venue. But the industry itself is teetering.

Industry statistics, particularly out of the United States, show while revenue from concerts continues to grow, other revenue streams are withering.

A recent story in online magazine Grantland called 2013 "The Year Music Failed to Blockbust" pointing out recorded music sales, particularly of albums, hit an all-time low last year.

Most worryingly digital downloads - long hailed as the saviour to replace collapsing sales of physical CDs - also registered their first decline.

The prolonged slump has been particularly damaging for record labels, whose standard contracts with artists typically were based on claiming the lion's share of recording income.

It's a situation Smith sees as ironic for the record companies.

"Some might say it's the completion of a delicious circle. For so many years they've, quite frankly, been creaming the situation and it's fair to say not treating artists that well. It's karmic," he says.

For artists struggling to adapt, Smith says the album - long treated as the cornerstone of the music business revenue statement - has been downgraded to the point where in many cases it becomes just a promotional exercise.

"At best it's one stream that measures equally alongside several others. At worse, it's a loss-leader," he says.

Smith splits his time between Auckland and the US, living a perpetual summer, and says there are benefits to being from New Zealand in surviving the storm.

"If there's one benefit of coming from a market where it's hard to make a living, it's that we're well-trained for it," he says.

This training ground, more particularly the limits of our domestic market for music, are best illustrated by recent sensation Lorde who is closing on 10 million sales of her single Royals as well as shifting nearly 1.5 million copies of her album Pure Heroine.

To put this into perspective, every single New Zealand act combined sold 790,000 singles and 280,000 albums locally in 2012, the most recent year for which New Zealand Music Commission figures are available.

Being number one in New Zealand - population four million - won't earn you a living, Smith says, drawing unenviable comparisons that emphasise the importance of getting - and selling - overseas.

"It's not even Portland. It's like, maybe, Boise, Idaho," he says of the New Zealand market.

"The approach we take with our artists is that it's nice to be successful in New Zealand, because it's your home country and that's important. But that's much more of a personal thing - it's certainly not a viable economic decision."

How unviable? Smith says there are plenty of acts that are doing no better than getting by.

"Some would call it a career and they eek out a living by being very frugal. But living well off the back of music? Only a very few are doing well," he says,

He's unwilling to name names of the handful of local acts he figures have made it by loyally focusing on the domestic market.

"I wouldn't want to name artists for the fear of them coming back to me and saying ‘What do you mean I'm only big in New Zealand?"'

For his stable of artists, Smith is walking the walk and has spent large chunks of the past 12 months in the United States touring with The Naked and Famous. Their album In Rolling Waves did remarkably well, charting as high as 48 on the Billboard 200.

But perhaps the best example of Campbell's stable selling overseas is Brooke Fraser, whose Something in the Water was the most-played New Zealand song internationally in 2012.

Counter-intuitively, Fraser's success has coincided with a low local domestic profile.

"That's because she's left," Smith says of Fraser's relocation to Sydney.

"She comes back and tours here but spends most of her time working in foreign markets. Her last record was the third biggest song played on German radio in 2011 - the second biggest music market in the world. And the top two songs were Adele and Bruno Mars."

German royalty cheques are enough to make a living, it seems.

"The Germans as very organised, as we all know. When you get a song being played wall-to-wall on radio, that's generating good income and that's a career right there. You should call Brooke successful, she's definitely successful."

Sunday Star Times