Ken West, co-founder of the Big Day Out, the Australasian touring colossus whose multi-stage, single-day format became the template for alternative rock festivals across a generation, has died at the age of 64.
“We bring unfortunate news that, Ken West; a father, husband, mentor and most of all a legend, has passed away peacefully in his sleep on the morning of the April 7, 2022,” reads a statement issued Friday (April 8) from his reps.
“Our family would appreciate respect and privacy during this difficult time. Ken was big and noisy in life, but passed quietly and peacefully.”
The BDO was a rite of passage for music fans in Australia, held during the hottest weeks of summer, with all the hottest acts in the world making the trip, from The Prodigy to Rage Against the Machine, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Iggy Pop and many more.
If you were on the BDO bill, you’d made it.
West, along with his business partner Viv Lees, created the BDO 30 years ago, borrowing its format from the successful Livid event that had made its home in Brisbane, Queensland.
The BDO started life as a one-date show in Sydney. The earliest incarnation of the event hosted performances by Violent Femmes and Nirvana, and played before less than 10,000 fans.
West and Lees moved fast, and took the show on the road.
The following year saw BDO visit Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth. The year after, the Gold Coast and Auckland were on the program. At its peak, BDO played each of Australia’s five big markets, sometimes with two dates in Sydney, and had a launch pad into New Zealand via the nation’s most populous city, Auckland.
In 2010, BDO reached the 100-show milestone, with ticket sales for that edition topping 337,000.
During its heyday, the Australasian BDO entourage numbered about 850, with about 20 side-shows.
Organizing BDO is “not so much (like) driving, it’s more like a car out of control,” West told this reporter in a rare interview back in 2011. “You can’t stop it.”
But the BDO would stop. When Lees departed in 2011, West was left to carry the load, at a time when the festivals industry was entering a state of flux.
BDO would run its final lap in 2014. C3 Presents and AJ Maddah would go on to join the leadership team, and Live Nation acquired Big Day Out. Despite speculation BDO would return in some shape or form, nothing tangible would transpire.
Earlier this year, in January, West announced a new project, a book to mark the 30th anniversary of the inaugural BDO, and a website at kenfest.org, where the entrepreneur would share his impressive collection of photographs and stories.
West is remembered by the music community as a visionary who fulfilled musical dreams. “Ken made the whole thing like a party for punters and artists alike,” writes Billy Bragg. “UK bands called it the Big Day Off. Lots of fun memories hanging with Ken and the BDO crew. So long mate.
Sorry to hear of the sudden death of Ken West, founder of the Australian touring festival the Big Day Out. Ken made the whole thing like a party for punters and artists alike. UK bands called it the Big Day Off. Lots of fun memories hanging with Ken and the BDO crew. So long mate— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) April 7, 2022
Grinspoon frontman Phil Jamieson thanked West for helping his band reach for the stars. “He lived 1000 lives in 64 years. He gave so much not only to me, but to thousands of music fans,” he writes on Twitter. “My first festival experience was 94 @bigdayout – I then was lucky enough to play at over 20 of them. The loss is indelible & hard to comprehend, thank you for everything Ken West.”
He lived 1000 lives in 64 years. He gave so much not only to me, but to thousands of music fans. My first festival experience was 94 @bigdayout – I then was lucky enough to play at over 20 of them. The loss is indelible & hard to comprehend, thank you for everything Ken West xxx— Phil Jamieson (@philjamieson) April 7, 2022
RIP Ken West. Clare Moore and I first knew him in the Moodists days when he was working first with the Laughing Clowns and also bringing out acts like the Fall and New Order. We first went from Melbourne to Sydney playing in some situations he was making happen. Then he and— dave graney (@davegraney) April 8, 2022
Big Day Out and Ken West launched and then carried the careers of countless Australian artists. His impact on the culture of Australian music and music festivals in general cannot be overstated. A big loss.— Hilltop Hoods (@hilltophoods) April 8, 2022
West is survived by his wife Cathy, son Oliver.