Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Ken West | Lefsetz Letter

He was inspired by Christo.

Like I said, I’m working hard for the money. Which is cool, since Felice is not here, it’s good to be occupied, but I’m wondering whether it should have been labeled the “Bob Lefsetz Festival” instead of “Australian Music Week.” I quoted them a price, my standard overseas fee, but they kept adding on obligations, like a podcast with Ken West.

I didn’t even know who the guy was. They told me he started the Big Day Out. That I was familiar with. I said yes, but I was worried, there was little biographical information online, I like to talk to people whose work I know by heart, having studied it for decades, so I was wary.

I didn’t need to be.

That’s what the newcomers don’t understand, the ethos and viewpoint of the oldsters, who were inspired by the music and built the business, before the corporations, before it was fully-formed.

So Ken West went to art school. Which was kind of funny, because it was a good ten years after everybody in the U.K. did. He testified about the oddballs, those are the ones who used to make music, the fringe, those that couldn’t fit in anywhere else, they couldn’t be brands because not only did they not know anything about corporations, that’s not what they cared about.

Ken didn’t care about money, he cared about art. I told him he’d been pushing the envelope…he said he’d thrown it away.

But you need money to live. Ken didn’t want to be on the victim end of it, he said he was not a self-promoter, he did not want to be dependent upon other people buying his art, listening to Christo, he saw another way, events, spectaculars based on great art.

Now the Aussies have accents. And my hearing is not great. Was Ken really talking about Christo? The guy who sets up umbrellas and gates and encircles islands? This is the first time I’ve ever heard anybody in the music business mention him.

But it got even better. Ken started talking about the danger in events as they got bigger. How the tendency is to play it safe, but you shouldn’t. Three people lost their lives with Christo’s Umbrellas installations. Ken decried the Gates in New York, it was too safe. But Floating Piers, those 24/7 walkways in Italy? Where people in wheelchairs could roll off and die? That rang his bell.

So Ken hired a band because they came with a PA, and he wanted the band he was managing to play, and it was cheaper to hire this band with their equipment than hire a PA by its lonesome.

And then his friend Nick Cave… Whoa, how did Ken get here?

Well, he flew to England and convinced New Order to tour Australia, when they hadn’t even performed ten dates. Their soundman was held up at the border, he filled out his visa form wrong, they hired a studio engineer who got it all wrong and the first night sucked. Live is a crapshoot.

And Ken becomes friends with the Violent Femmes, they’re big Down Under, they ask him to be their tour manager in the States, which he does, $250 a week and he had to get himself over the ocean. He learned people were the same everywhere, but he’d rather live in Australia.

The Femmes wanted Ken to be their manager, but that’s not his interest, but inspired by Lollapalooza, Ken started a festival, to sell more tickets he booked Nirvana to open, just after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke. He had them for $5,000, but he gave them $4 per head on the merch, they walked out with 38k. It was the right thing to do, no contract said Ken had to.

And now Big Day Out is rolling, all over Australia, even New Zealand. But when you have a success, money is attracted, but Ken credited his TLC with keeping Big Day Out going. Then again, he was thinking about it 24/7, it took over his life.

Now if you know your history, the Big Day Out ultimately cratered, went kaput, even though C3 got involved. And Ken’s been sitting on the sidelines for five years.

Is he coming back?

Probably not. He’s following the scene, but he believes science is driving the culture. That you can make mistakes off the radar, make breakthroughs that can change the world.

Ken laments the fact that acts can no longer woodshed in private. He says sampling killed the music, now you can’t tell whether a track was cut in the seventies or today.

And I’d like to explain both of these concepts to you, but I’m not sure I fully grasped them. The mics were turned off, but we kept on talking, because it’s these personalities who built the business. Not MBAs, not pencil-pushers. Alas, one of Ken’s initial tours was funded by a dope dealer, who got his 30k back a year later.

And every Big Day Out was a roll of the dice, where Ken had his entire fortune at risk. Was it worth it?

His partner said no, took money off the table.

But money is not what excites Ken, he wants to wow people, catch them off guard and impress them. He wants to change the culture. He wanted the bands to hang during Big Day Out, get to know each other.

It was a traveling circus.

But they put Ringling Brothers’ out of business. They don’t do that no more.

And they not only don’t make the Big Day Out anymore, they don’t make people like Ken West in the music business. Where the money is secondary to the effect, where you want to transport people to somewhere they’ve never been, where you want them to remember to the point they keep coming back.

You’re born with it, I tell you.

And it’s these limit-pushers who are changing the world.

Are you one?


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