20 Years Ago: The Unexpected & Total Failure Of Alternative Nation

14 April 2015 | 12:35 pm | Steve Bell

Too mainstream to be alternative, too alternative to be mainstream

BRISBANE: 13 & 14 April 1995, Chandler Sports Complex

SYDNEY: 15 April 1995, Eastern Creek Raceway

MELBOURNE: 16 April 1996, Olympic Park

Twenty years ago, when the one-off Alternative Nation travelling festival took place in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, from purely a punter’s perspective it was impossible to predict that the event would go down as possibly the biggest festival flop in Australian music history.

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Sure, it was clear even from a distance that things hadn’t all gone to plan: in Brisbane in the weeks leading up to the event, tickets were being offered as incentives to have pizzas delivered by certain firms and, on the day of the event, car park scalpers were trying to offload tickets for a fraction of their face value, there had been rampant rumours circulating of the event being a “Big Day Out rip off” and there being a covert war between the two camps, plus while the two days that Alternative Nation was held in Brisbane (those being Easter Thursday and Easter Friday, with the Sydney and Melbourne instalments being one day events) had enough people in attendance to make it a fun outing, the crowds still weren’t very large at all given the calibre of bands on offer.

Which, as an attendee, was great, because the line-up was pretty top-notch (despite the complete lack of mid-‘90s indie-rock cognoscenti with whom this scribe was so enamoured at the time ie. Pavement, Guided By Voices, Superchunk, Archers Of Loaf, Weezer et al), and this all made it easy to get up close and personal with whichever band you liked on a bill which must go down as amongst the strongest and most diverse in Australian festival history:

Nine Inch Nails
Faith No More
Lou Reed
Pop Will Eat Itself
Body Count
Ice T
The Flaming Lips
The Tea Party
Violent Femmes (Syd, Melb)
Suiciety (Syd, Melb)
Cosmic Psychos (Bris, Melb)
Supergroove (Bris, Melb)
Dreamkillers (Bris, Melb)
Insurge (Bris, Melb)
Def FX (Bris, Melb)
Nitocris (Bris, Melb)
Custard (Bris, Melb)
Chalk (Bris)
Budd (Bris)
Fur (Bris)
Downtime (Bris)
Horsehead (Bris)
Don Walker’s Catfish (Bris)
Andy Prieboy (Bris)
Skunkhour (Bris)

So how did Alternative Nation become such a massive flop, losing its consortium of big-name owners millions of dollars and — despite being initially floated as an ongoing venture — never appearing on the Australian festival circuit again? It seems to have been mainly due to a staggering run of bad luck topped off by a healthy dose of ordinary decision-making, a perfect storm of fate and misadventure.

Festivals had been part of the Australian musical landscape for decades by 1995, the idyllic ’60s dream of Woodstock having been mimicked at dozens of events in Australia throughout the early 70’s (the most famous being Sunbury Pop Festival which ran in rural Victoria between 1972-1975). They seemed to drop off throughout the ‘80s as the pub circuit ruled the roost, but by the early ‘90s the burgeoning success of Livid Festival in Brisbane (which started in 1989 and grew quickly in both size and reputation) had been replicated in Sydney by the Big Day Out (BDO).

The BDO had been started in 1992 as a Sydney-only event by co-founders Ken West and Vivian Lees, who were buoyed in their initial year by signing the then-relatively unknown grunge band Nirvana as one of only a couple of internationals on the bill just before they busted the zeitgeist entirely by blowing up overnight into one of the biggest bands in history. In 1993, the BDO extended its scope to include Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, and by 1994 they had added Auckland and the Gold Coast to the itinerary and spread the event out over a three-week period. The 1994 BDO line-up had been a killer, featuring an array of acts such as Soundgarden, Bjork, Ramones, Teenage Fanclub, The Breeders, Urge Overkill, The Smashing Pumpkins, Primus and a strong Australian contingent including You Am I, TISM, The Cruel Sea, The Meanies and The Hard-Ons. They’d proved categorically that a travelling festival was viable in Australia, and of course the old guard of Australian promoters had no choice but to sit up and take notice.

Thus was born Alternative Nation. In industry bible Billboard at the time Christie Eliezer described its formation as such: “To be held in three Australian cities over the Easter weekend, Alternative Nation is a first collaboration between major players Frontier Touring and Michael Coppel Presents… Originally to be the Australian leg of the Lollapalooza until negotiations fell through, Alternative Nation also includes side attractions such as poetry, comedy, body art, interactive media, and a love-match tent”.

So, suddenly, the three big fish in Australia’s small music industry pond — Michael Coppel plus Frontier head honchos Michael Gudinski and Michael Chugg — were joining forces to take on the new upstarts behind the BDO. In 2000 tome The Sell-in: How The Music Business Seduced Alternative Rock, BDO founder West told author Craig Mathieson, “I’m surprised they let us go that long. But I was shocked at how naive they were about it. How naive they were about the work involved”. In his autobiography (co-authored with Iain Shedden) Hey, You In The Black T-Shirt (2010), Chugg recalls:

“Early in 1995, a group of people, including me, came up with the idea of staging an outdoor festival called Alternative Nation. Its primary purpose was to wipe the Big Day Out off the face of the earth. BDO promoters Ken West and Vivian Lees had succeeded in turning a Sydney one-day event into an annual, national touring rock carnival in the space of two years. What a nerve!

“Alternative Nation was a collaboration between Frontier and Michael Coppel. I was in on it, but the real driving forces were Coppell and Gudinski. Gudinski had a thing about Lees and West, but Coppell was worse. Their only intention was to blow the BDO out of the water.”

In his 2003 book The Promoters: Inside Stories From The Australian Rock Industry author Stuart Coupe posits:

“Why Coppel, Chugg and Gudinski didn’t just let Lees and West have their little acre plot on the Australian touring landscape came down to two things: greed and ego. The older guys could do the figures and they knew that Lees and West were raking in a massive profit from their series of concerts around the country at the end of January each year. And Lees and West were considered hip. They were the arrogant new kids on the block flipping the big finger to the old guys who they reckoned were out of touch with the youth market in this country. Lees and West had it cornered — and the other guys wanted some of the action. So, in what they thought was a stroke of genius, they created a beast known as Alternative Nation. It might as well have been billed ‘Certain Disaster’.”

Coupe further explains that market forces seemingly made a union between Coppell and Frontier a more viable option than them starting a bidding war by taking on the BDO separately, and that the usual competitors joining forces — despite underlying differences in approach and almost certain mutual distrust on some levels between key protagonists — made a lot more sense than starting an all-out conflict.

"Red Hot Chili Peppers’ management rang to say they weren’t coming. One of them had a drug problem, had gone into rehab and all touring had been cancelled. Sorry. We were fucked from that day on." — Michael Chugg

As mentioned Alternative Nation had originally been slated as the Australian leg of the Lollapalooza festival, which had been started in the States in 1991 by Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, and when that didn’t pan out they named their new event after a phrase Farrell had coined to describe the masses of counter-cultural youth who had been flocking to Lollapalooza: the ‘alternative nation’. They also leaned heavily on previous Lollapalooza line-ups for inclusion on Alternative Nation’s own bill, with Nine Inch Nails (1991), Stone Temple Pilots (1992), Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992), Ice T & Body Count (1992), Ministry (1992), Primus (1993), Tool (1993), L7 (1994) and The Flaming Lips (1994) all being veterans of past Lollapalooza campaigns.

The inclusion of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots on this list may seem incongruous given that they didn’t end up playing at Alternative Nation, and it’s here that the problems really started manifesting for the fledging festival. Both of those acts were announced as headliners early on but eventually pulled out, causing mistrust from punters as well as starting a public spat with the BDO crew. In You, In The Black T-Shirt Chugg recalls, “We announced the tour. Tickets went on sale. First morning sales went really well. At 2pm that afternoon, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ management rang to say they weren’t coming. One of them had a drug problem, had gone into rehab and all touring had been cancelled. Sorry. We were fucked from that day on.”

Coupe says of the cancellation in The Promoters, “Losing a headline act so early in the piece was a major setback and established the tone for what was to come: whatever could possibly go wrong did go wrong”. According to Eliezer in Billboard, West contended publicly that, “the organisers of Alternative Nation were aware of the Peppers’ no-show before ticket release and has reported the matter to local consumer affairs authorities”, causing Gudinski to label the accusations “in poor taste” and respond, “The people who run Big Day Out think they own alternative music in Australia. That’s not the case. Alternative Nation has a wider appeal, and I intend to present it for the next five, ten years as a two-day festival.”

There was further conflict between the two camps, with allegations coming back that Australian bands appearing at Alternative Nation would be blacklisted from future Big Day Outs, which West denied (although he conceded that he’d signed some big names such as TISM and Silverchair early for the 1995 BDO run to pre-empt offers from Alternative Nation).

All of this airing of dirty laundry in public didn’t seem to endear the interlopers to ticket buyers, and their choice of replacements for the bands who pulled out also brought a new plague of problems — even though both Nine Inch Nails and Lou Reed both proved to be among the event’s musical highlights (the former’s set to close the first night in Brisbane remaining among the most breathtaking and visceral festival sets this writer has witnessed), their addition to the bill in the long run added to the event’s financial woes rather than helping.

“[Trent Reznor] hated being on tour. He was the nominal headliner and he didn’t help us sell any tickets. We paid him half a million dollars US ten days out from the first show and he didn’t help us sell any tickets anyway.” — Michael Coppel

Chugg recalls in his autobiography that “we had to pay them a fortune to come out at short notice”, while in The Promoters Coupe offers, “the last straw was when Coppel confirmed Nine Inch Nails a week and a half before the tour ‘for a ridiculous amount of money’, and then went and confirmed Lou Reed ‘for an even more ridiculous amount of money’… This was desperation stuff. Promoters throwing any amount of money at what everyone already perceived to be a dead duck of a tour”.

Although, as it turns out, Lou Reed played a stellar solo set, the idea that he would attract older audiences to Alternative Nation didn’t pan out because there was little else of interest on the line-up for people of that vintage. Plus, randomly, the fact that he refused to meet with Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor — a huge fan of Reed’s desperate to meet his idol — purportedly caused all manner of damage to hotels as the singer — already on a dressing room and equipment destroying rampage during the tour — vented his fanboy frustrations. Furthermore, Nine Inch Nails had not put the expected amount of bums on seats either, Coppel telling Coupe, “[Reznor] hated being on tour. He was the nominal headliner and he didn’t help us sell any tickets. We paid him half a million dollars US ten days out from the first show and he didn’t help us sell any tickets anyway”.

Then there was the fact that the new consortium had no experience running a national touring festival, and — as West intimated earlier — had underestimated how much work went into such an enterprise, moving so many bands and their equipment in such a small window of time. Coppel continued to Coupe in The Promoters, “We were desperately trying to organise consecutive overnighters state-by-state, which is impossible at the best of times. And this was, in the case of Brisbane, in a brand new venue, the Chandler Velodrome, which no one had ever used before.”

(Click to enlarge)

Indeed, the selection of the suburban sporting complex for the Brisbane leg of Alternative Nation was a bad move, the fact that the venue was unknown to music followers, was in a remote location and not easily accessible by transport not doing much to help less fanatical fans with their ticket purchasing decision. The decision to hold the Sydney event at the much-maligned Eastern Creek Raceway, not a big favourite of punters due to either its location or (lack of) facilities, probably didn’t work for that market either, with only Olympic Park in Melbourne not coming in for much criticism prior to the weekend in question.

Then there was the weather. Much has been made about the incredible bad luck afforded Alternative Nation in terms of climactic conditions — all three events faced storms and deluges of rain, with Melbourne being the worst affected although Eastern Creek also turned into a complete mud bath by the afternoon. Yet even though Melbourne’s show was postponed for four hours and ticket buyers were getting hypothermia, the bad weather should only have ruined punters’ and bands’ experiences rather than the financial bottom line, given that only walk-up ticket sales should have been impacted and these aren’t traditionally massive components of ticket revenue at such gatherings.

Alternative Nation had been doomed to failure long before the storm clouds started brewing, so what other reasons might exist to explain the poor traction the festival gained in the marketplace?

“The kids were saying that this is a bogus festival — the presenting radio stations will not play any of the acts that are on so why should we go?” — Michael Coppel

The festival’s overall branding and media partnerships were a point of contention from the get-go. Farrell’s nebulous concept of an ‘alternative nation’ might be all well and good in the context of the counter-culture but it loses its lustre when perceived to be being co-opted by the ‘old guard’, so even the festival’s name caused a great amount of distrust among the notoriously insular community that it was targeting. The same went for their major media partnership with Triple M — a station keen to tap into the burgeoning alternative market but who refused to play any of the Alternative Nation bands on their playlists. As Coppel admitted to Coupe, “The kids were saying that this is a bogus festival — the presenting radio stations will not play any of the acts that are on so why should we go?”

Then there was the timing — having the event over the Easter weekend didn’t pan out for the organisers in many ways. Weather aside (BDO had a mortgage on the prime summer slot), having it on this religious holiday caused unique problems: in Brisbane, the first day of the two-day bash was on a work day — which put off many potential ticket buyers with jobs; I was a uni student at the time and remember catching the bus out alone and meeting job-wielding friends later in the evening — and then the second day fell on Good Friday, which meant they couldn’t sell alcohol (leading to the farcical sight of people offering to swap substantial amounts of illicit substances for smuggled cans of warm beer, the usual festival black market flipped on its head). Similar licensing issues apparently caused headaches in the other states as well.

"Check out your favourite band's CD ROM. The way of the future!" (Click to enlarge)

Also, strangely, despite the massive names on the Alternative Nation bill, it’s perhaps arguable that they were “too alternative” to attract the massive numbers of people needed to break even. Coupe argues, “…the promoters had lost control of the monster they’d tried to create. There was no real budget anymore as costs spiralled out of control”. But many of the bands they booked to recoup these massive expenses — while household names now — weren’t yet massive pullers in 1995: Tool had only their debut album Undertow to their name and were best known for their single Prison Sex, The Flaming Lips were only known for quasi-novelty hit She Don’t Use Jelly and had yet to concoct their festival-slaying live show, Pennywise had yet to build the massive Australian fanbase that they would accrue in coming years, and even great bands like Pop Will Eat Itself and Cosmic Psychos were only niche acts in the overall scheme of things, at the top of their respective games though they might have been.

Gudinski told Nathan Jolly for his piece Michael Gudinski: Thirty Years (which ran in The Music Network), “I think Alternative Nation was a great mistake. I think we should have kept going with it, and if you have a look at the line-up, some of them hadn’t even broken yet, it was just so far ahead of its time. We were always pretty ballsy and the shows went on, but just seeing the fans getting absolutely rained over, seeing the acts have the balls to perform and to back it up in three different cities in a row; it was just so sad.”

"Everything about Alternative Nation was a disaster, not least having to lick our wounds and admit defeat to our BDO rivals without them having to lift a finger." — Michael Chugg

So was Alternative Nation’s biggest mistake pulling up stumps too early? Gudinski told Billboard’s Lars Brandle in 2010 for his article Frontier Touring Turns 30, “I frantically wanted to continue. That’s probably one of my biggest regrets. Still, to this day, one of the biggest things missing in our organisation is a festival. Had we continued with Alternative Nation we would have become a huge resounding success.”

Chugg doesn’t sound so sure in his autobiography, concluding, “Everything about Alternative Nation was a disaster, not least having to lick our wounds and admit defeat to our BDO rivals without them having to lift a finger, although they might have done that. ‘Mudstock’, as it became known, lost us $3 million”. No other festival really took on BDO in the travelling festival market with success until relatively recently with Soundwave, and even Livid fumbled the ball when they tried to take their successful Brisbane operation national in the early part of the millennium.

So, while Alternative Nation was probably started for all the wrong reasons, had a terrible run of luck and then disappeared altogether from the Australian landscape (only to be mentioned in the context of other similarly failed enterprises), 20 years down the track it probably deserves to be remembered as being a pretty damn cool music line-up that just didn’t quite work for some nebulous mixture of intangible reasons. I’ll always recall fondly being staggered at the volume — both numerically and sonically — of “motherfuckers” uttered by Ice-T during his consecutive solo and Body Count sets, seeing L7 on stage singing ragged backing vocals for Lou Reed, realising that Andy Prieboy was responsible for Tomorrow Wendy, seeing Cosmic Psychos on a big stage for one of the first times, fully comprehending how weird both Ween and The Flaming Lips actually were, watching Faith No More in pouring rain, seeing Trent Reznor in the crowd during the afternoon and being gobsmacked by how diminutive he is, going crazy for Pop Will Eat Itself, watching some of the upcoming local bands on the side stages, even having a Beavis & Butthead moment in the movie theatre when they played the film clip to Helmet’s Unsung at Guantanamo Bay torture levels.

Despite the setbacks for this fan at least Alternative Nation represented two fun days of pretty great music and good times with friends, and at the end of the day that’s pretty much all you can ask for in a music festival. Happy 20th anniversary, Alternative Nation.

FURTHER VIEWING (rough footage)

Tool during Melbourne Alternative Nation:

Faith No More during Melbourne Alternative Nation: