The day before the Big Day Out in Melbourne - as minimal staff at the once iconic but now deeply troubled music festival were frantically setting up - chief executive officer Adam Zammit went fishing.
Back in September he had been involved in mass sackings of long-time Big Day Out staff to cut costs. ''Production managers, event managers, site managers, logistics people …,'' says a company insider. ''People who knew a lot about how to put the festival on.''
The fishing trip was with rock band Portugal The Man from Alaska. For the previous five days Zammit, 39, had been on a motorcycle ride. His wife, Michelle Leslie, the lingerie model jailed in Bali in 2005 for possession of ecstasy, was also on the boat. According to those at the venue, Zammit arrived for the event's vital production day at 8pm.
The touring festival ended a week ago in Perth against a backdrop of financial disaster, claims of sponsor walkouts and record low crowds, about about half the number of the year before. Sydney-based festival organisers - Zammit and partner Arash ''AJ'' Maddah, both well-known figures in the industry - have refused to say how many people attended, but accurate crowd figures obtained by Fairfax Media show 135,000 went in total. The biggest turnout was in Auckland and both Perth and Adelaide struggling at about 12,000 each. Perth will not have a Big Day Out next year and Adelaide is also unlikely to be a host.
Maddah owns close to half of the company in a split with his wife Joanna Ward. Insiders say losses will be more than $10 million. The festival needed 300,000 patrons to make money. The Big Day Out's major investor, giant Texan events company C3, which runs Lollapalooza, has stayed mainly quiet in the wake of the stricken tour as it prepares to float its shares on the US stock market.
Now it has emerged Big Day Out ticket buyers in several states have complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over alleged rip-offs with VIP Like A Boss tickets. For an extra $100 on top of the $185 tickets, buyers were promised ''exclusive boss main stage viewing areas'' and ''real boss amenities, including bars, toilets and more''. VIP patrons last year had hostesses serving cocktails, lounge furniture, cloakrooms and lockers, good views and entry to the festival through queue-less gates.
But this year, Melbourne investment banker Marc, 25, who asked that his surname not be used, says he had a better view of headliners Pearl Jam from the general admission area. He has complained to the ACCC and Scamwatch. In Sydney, musician and salesman Mark Littler says his viewing area was in the concrete grandstand at the back of the Sydney Showgrounds, ''the worst vantage spot in the whole arena''.
Mr Littler has been to every Big Day Out since 1993. ''We got nothing for the extra money,'' he says. ''There were no lounges or furniture. It was quicker to get drinks outside. The food hut was cheap and nasty, just chips and hot dogs. The toilet was very good, though, I must admit.'' He says he, like many, left the Like A Boss enclosure for better views in general admission areas.
Neither Zammit or Maddah would comment but a spokeswoman said: ''No Like A Boss issues have been raised by Fair Trading or ACCC. There was no decline in sponsorship revenue and hasn't been for several years. Sponsorship revenues, ticket sales and other financial matters are commercial-in-confidence and will never be confirmed to media and no obligation is on the business to do so.''
About 6000 Like A Boss tickets were sold last year. Company insiders say staff who were sacked would have been responsible for implementing the program. Other cost-cutting measures this year, according to sources, were cloakrooms shutting early and some Australian bands getting little or no ''rider''.
Fairfax Media has also established that cost-cutting in the midst of poor ticket sales was responsible for the quitting of the popular headliner Blur, who were to get $4 million. Blur were given the last slot, after Pearl Jam had finished, on their own stage, closing the festival at night. Yet, in late November, they dropped out, saying they had ''done our very best to work with the organisers … they have let us down''.
Music industry sources say production costs on Blur's separate stage were deemed too high. They were made a new offer to play before Arcade Fire and Pearl Jam, in daylight on an existing stage, and refused. The spokeswoman did not deny the claim.
The Big Day Out has another year in it at least
Music industry veteran Toby Creswell, the editor of Rolling Stone and Juice while the Big Day Out was developing in the early '90s, says, under founders Ken West and Vivian Lees, it was ''a vanguard of that generation and at the cutting edge of things''. Lees and West have left the organisation.
''It doesn't seem exciting now,'' Creswell says. ''It doesn't seem well curated. Laneway Festival is what the Big Day Out once was.''
Others are positive about the festival's future. Graham ''Asho'' Ashton has worked with record labels in Australia for 20 years and runs the annual conference Bigsound.
''The environment is very competitive,'' he says. ''There are ups and there are downs. Blur was a disappointment, but they scrambled well and everyone tells me the Big Day Out has another year in it at least.''