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Dark Horses: The resilience of metal

As metal roars back to life, James MacKinnon surveys how some of the genre’s prime movers weathered the pandemic and what the future holds...

By IQ on 30 Sep 2022

Download Festival, UK

Download Festival, UK


Cranked amplifiers. Pyrotechnic firepower. Mosh-pit mayhem. As a genre where the blood, sweat and riffs of the live experience are both an integral part of fan appeal and artists’ revenues, the fortunes of metal are intrinsically tied to the live market, in sickness and in health.

After nearly two years of silence due to the pandemic, metal is steadily finding its feet again as a return to the summer festival touring circuit continues apace. At the time of writing, Wacken Open Air had recently wound up its 2022 edition, where 80,000 diehard metalheads summed up the loyalty in the genre with more than 95% of them rolling over their tickets from previous years. And just one day after the curtain came down, fans took just five hours to snap up all 80,000 tickets for the 2023 edition.

Elsewhere, live juggernaut Rammstein are resuming their record-breaking global stadium tour after it was rudely interrupted in 2020, concluding with three nights at Mexico City’s 65,000-capacity Foro Sol stadium. Newer boutique events are also performing well, such as Italy’s Rock The Castle, which is offering fans the opportunity to see legendary headliners Judas Priest and Megadeth within Scaligero Castle grounds.

“Metal fans are fans for their whole life,” affirms Andrea Pieroni, CEO of Vertigo who promoted the event. “We sold almost 20,000 tickets over the weekend, which is good if you consider we sell only daily tickets and capacity is 9,000. It’s a new renaissance, literally!”

The road back to live has been rocky, and the issues beleaguering the entire live industry – crew shortages, skyrocketing fuel prices, ballooning production costs – are keenly felt. Yet, unsurprisingly, for a genre that has always punched above its weight and boasts fans regarded as the most loyal in the world, in this report IQ hears how many artists and show organisers have not only survived but thrived, through a mix of passion, community and grit.

“Metal fans are fans for their whole life”

Riders on the storm
When it dawned on the industry that 2021 would not see a return to business-as-usual, several no-table metal festivals embraced digital technology like never before by staging online editions rather than let another year pass unmarked.

One such festival is The Netherlands’ tastemaker event Roadburn, whose organisers launched Roadburn Redux in April 2021, a four-day streaming event with live performances from Tilburg’s lynchpin club venue, 013. “We pulled out all the stops to make Roadburn Redux something really special, and it was affirming, as an independent festival, that we might still have a future,” recalls artistic director Walter Hoeijmakers. Performances were broadcast in real-time by local production specialists, LiveWall, who also created the online portal, which saw 79,000 fans from 132 countries tune in.

The carefully curated programme recreated all the regular hallmarks that have earned Roadburn an engaged following and a reputation for “redefining heavy”: spotlights on emerging underground talent, panel discussions, and exclusive commissioned projects, made possible through grants from the Dutch government. “We approached 16 bands and told them, ‘We want to give you a portion of this grant to create new music that we can premiere at Roadburn 2021,’” explains Hoeijmakers. “That was the main goal: to inspire the community and give bands an opportunity to grow and keep them visible.”

France’s Hellfest also got in on the action, creating a virtual “metalverse” for Hellfest From Home, where visitors could navigate between stages and interact with other headbangers. Alongside live performances, video content catered to the wider festival experience, from cocktail recipes to cooking tutorials with rockstars, racking up nearly three million views overall.

“We don’t treat festival goers as customers: it’s more like a community”

Significantly, both festivals made the online experiences open to all, free of charge. Roadburn opened donations, raising over €56,000 to help cover costs, while Hellfest sold specially produced merchandise. As Hellfest communications manager Eric Perrin explains, the focus was to repay fans for their loyalty: “It was a ‘thank you’ to everyone who had held on to their tickets. We don’t treat festival goers as customers: it’s more like a community. As an independent festival, ticketing is 60% of our budget, so we maintain a special relationship with our community because, ultimately, they’re our lifeline.”

Both festivals have been rewarded this year with sold-out attendance for their respective physical comebacks, with nearly 90% of original tickets purchases rolled over. 5,500 visitors returned to Roadburn this year, with around 80% of attendees travelling from outside The Netherlands. Meanwhile, Hellfest celebrated its 15th anniversary by spreading a stacked bill over two weekends, welcoming 420,000 people to Clisson over seven days.

Younger bands, like Static Dress and Sleep Token, have also been able to build anticipation with fresh music over the pandemic and return to larger audiences. Canadian metallers Spiritbox were on their first tour playing support to 800-cap rooms or less when the world locked down. Now, they are one of the hottest properties in metal, recently notching up a much-anticipated debut at Download Festival and two sold-out nights at Islington’s O2 Academy venue as headliners, selling 1,600 tickets.

Back in the saddle
A few tentpole events can be seen as paving the way for metal’s return to heavyweight commercial performance. Most obvious is The Metal Tour of the Year which packages together Trivium and Lamb Of God with thrash icons Megadeth, which in its first leg in 2021 alone sold over 170,000 tickets across 24 North American dates, grossing nearly $8m (€7.9m) according to Pollstar.

More impressively, demand proved so high that a second leg of 26 dates was undertaken earlier this year. Over in the UK, Bring Me The Horizon launched a fresh tour of six arenas in 2021, which sold over 60,000 tickets, while Don Broco’s 11-date run of academy-sized venues (25,000 tickets sold) has set them up for their first arena tour next year.

“We need to take more chances on new headliners”

But, in Britain’s metal calendar, no event speaks louder than Download Festival. In 2021, the UK government tasked the festival with putting together a 10,000-capacity camping festival with zero social distancing, as part of the wider Events Research Programme that would make the case for large-scale gatherings post-lockdown. Oh, and with just four weeks’ notice. No pressure.

“John Probyn and his team at Festival Republic did an incredible job pulling together the production in such short notice,” recalls Live Nation promoter Kamran Haq. “We managed to confirm the entire line-up in four days. Some bands thought we were joking when we told them we were going to do a festival in four weeks’ time, but thankfully every band we approached jumped at the chance.”

The result was a scaled-down Download featuring a best-of-British line-up headed by Enter Shikari, Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, and Bullet For My Valentine. While the event was never going to turn a profit with reduced capacity and reported production costs of £2.7m (€3.2m), Haq affirms that the exercise was worthwhile. “It was a loss leader, but its success allowed other festivals like Reading and Leeds, Creamfields, Latitude etc., to go ahead later in the summer. It also showed us that we need to take more chances on new headliners, and we will do.”

By all accounts, metal festivals and tours have been back in full force this summer, with many circuit mainstays reporting bumper attendance numbers, including: Download (110,000, UK); Rock Am Ring and Rock Im Park (150,000 combined, Germany); Graspop Metal Meeting (220,000, Belgium); Welcome To Rockville (160,000, US); Resurrection Festival (145,000, Spain); and Good Things (90,000, Australia).

Perennial favourites Iron Maiden resumed their mammoth Legacy Of The Beast tour to sweep up 170,000 tickets over five German stadium shows alone. In most cases, ticket retention ranges from 75% up to 90%. Yet that diehard loyalty of holding on to tickets for the past two years has also come at a cost this year – namely that touring budgets and ticket prices drawn up in 2019/2020 do not square with the costs of staging shows in 2022, with many reporting at least a 30% increase in production costs.

“We’re going to be forced to analyse comfort levels for increasing ticket prices”

“I have never seen anything like it,” says Ossy Hoppe of Wizard Promotions who, with almost 50 years’ experience promoting hard rock’s elite under his belt, has seen it all. “We have a completely different situation now, where neither promoters nor bands are making the money they expected on deals. If bands can’t get trucks, they’re getting busses. If they can’t get busses, then they’re chartering planes. The only way we will get through is if we all pull on the same string.”

5B Artist Management president Justin Arcangel observes that 2023 tour sales vary wildly, and while per-head merchandise sales at shows are double pre-pandemic levels, selling VIP packages has become essential to mitigate risk. “Maybe in 2019 our guarantees would pay for the tour and VIP would be a profit centre. Now the VIP is necessary to help the tour break even,” says Arcangel, whose clients include heavy hitters Megadeth, Slipknot, and Behemoth. “We’re going to be forced to analyse comfort levels for increasing ticket prices, but we also have to figure out how to make these tours profit if touring is going to be sustainable.”

Globetrotting
Latin America has proven itself to be a hotbed for a thriving, passionate metal fanbase across the continent. In our 2020 report, CKConcerts managing director Christian Krämer stated that development of venues and tour infrastructure would be necessary to truly open up the region. Fortunately, from his perspective, the pandemic has not set back efforts in this area.

“A few venues had to close, but the vast majority are still there, and we are even seeing new venues being opened, such as Coliseo Live arena in Bogotá,” he says. Appetites for continent-spanning tours with Airbourne and Obituary are looking promising, but not all sales are equal. “Both tours are selling very good, but I have seen several other shows that only sold very late. The market will be oversaturated until late 2023 probably, so it is still too early to see how everything will play out.”

But, as Christopher “Bitz” Ruvalcaba of metal powerhouse Cobra Agency observes, uncertainty is par for the course in a territory where political stability and currency values can, and will, vary year-to-year, state to state: “It’s not just Covid for us. You might have riots in Chile or you do a deal where the value of the dollar was worth five pesos, then three months later the dollar might be worth ten pesos. Tour cancellations happen all the time. It’s a case of resilience and adapting to bring the best opportunities to your artists.”

“The metal fans in South America are more passionate than anywhere in the world”

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine may have exacerbated existing problems, such as the costs of flying and freighting, which are a logistical necessity for a band crossing the Andes, but Ruvalcaba’s optimism for metal’s growth in the region remains unchanged. Having worked with promoters from grassroots to stadium-level and built strong relationships with artists such as Slipknot over the past ten years, he has seen touring infrastructure for metal bands across the region go from strength to strength.

The success of Mexico’s Hell and Heaven Metal Fest (30,000 cap), and the high-profile expansion of Knotfest into the territory are proof of long-term commitment bearing fruit. “We have been trying to stage Knotfest in Brazil and Chile for five years, and we have only just found the right bands and right time to do it,” he says proudly of the Slipknot-affiliated festival, which this year will also be staged in Colombia and so far has sold 30,000 tickets for each event before the full bill has even been announced. “You need passion and patience to make shows happen here, but the metal fans in South America are more passionate than anywhere in the world. It’s a culture. It’s a message.”

Forging ahead
As a heavy metal summer of festivals and touring draws to a close, conversation naturally turns to how tours set for winter 2022 and spring 2023 will perform. After all, once rollover tickets have been used up and punters start to feel the pinch of winter energy costs, how will tours sell?

Whether at a major league or independent-level, both 5B’s Justin Arcangel and Sarika Rice of London-based Desertfest have noticed a trend for customers to wait until the 11th hour to buy tickets. “I think people are wary of parting with money in advance or [concerned] that the shows are even going to happen,” says Rice, who as Desertfest’s booker and marketing head is finding the last-minute ticket sales challenging when it comes to projecting budgets for 2023’s festivals in London and New York. “Going into this year, we had 1,000 tickets rolled over for London. Will we see a quick uptake when we put tickets on sale or will it be down to the wire? We’ve got to be prepared for that.”

Yet Alan Day of Kilimanjaro Live and Action! Presents is bullish about the sales coming in. “You hear, ‘Oh, this autumn is going to be tough,’ but people say that every year! It’s always busy, but I think the market is very strong for rock and metal bands,” says Day, who has major UK tours with Bullet For My Valentine, Saboton, and Don Broco scheduled for Q1 2023. “I am very wary of the cost-of-living crisis, and we are being careful in how we position younger bands, but people will do everything they can to ensure their pay cheques stretch to go to see a show. The metal audience is loyal – that will never go away.”

“The future of touring itself will be about having much stronger packaging and not an increase in ticket price”

The opinion among many promoters and bookers is that rewarding that loyalty and delivering value-for-money at the barriers will prove crucial when it comes to ensuring good turnouts while navigating the rising costs of touring. As Adam ‘Rad’ Saunders of X-ray Touring cautions, simply offloading touring costs onto the consumer by hiking ticket prices simply won’t cut it.

“The future of touring itself will be about having much stronger packaging and not an increase in ticket price,” says Saunders, who believes that co-headline packages such as Amon Amarth and Machine Head’s upcoming UK arena tour are the way forward. “You need to put more on the table. The ticket buyer needs more value for their money, and I think that is what is needed for the confidence to return and for advance ticket sales to come back to what they were prior.”

One thing everyone IQ spoke to agrees upon is that metal continues to gain a fresh young audience, whether through well-placed syncs creating a “Stranger Things moment” or through rock lifers introducing their children to the visceral thrill of a metal show turned up to 11.

“I see young kids between 12 and 17 going back and listening to UFO and Thin Lizzy, and it’s amazing that there’s a new generation coming up that are really into hard rock and heavy metal,” marvels Ossy Hoppe, concluding that whatever the upcoming years bring for bands and their teams, the future of metal is loud. “Long live rock and roll and hopefully so will we!”


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