With less than a week to go, the Mayhem Festival seems to be slowly derailing. In between a frustrated comment by co-founder Kevin Lyman, dwindling attendance and even the acts on the tour sniping about how it’s being run, the tour seems to be ending just in time before it completely self-destructs. It’s been happening for eight years, and launched with an incredible amount of good will from the fans and the bands that are playing it. What’s wrong with this year? Our homeboy Vince Neilstein wrote a pretty solid article about it over at Metal Sucks, but we thought we should discuss it as well. Why didn’t Mayhem work this year, and can it be saved?
Chris Colgan: I attended the Mayhem Festival the first four years of its existence (2008-2011) and again in 2013, and every year that I went, I had a good time. However, 2013 differed greatly from my other years of attendance because the influence of corporate and label sponsorship was so much more obvious than it had been in previous years. The number of vendor tents, the roving promotions teams, the layout of the festival grounds – everything just screamed, “We’re here to take your money and dictate what you should pay attention to!” It was no longer about the music, as has happened in so many other ventures in the past. When viewing the lineups of 2014 and 2015 (and even 2013, to a lesser extent), it becomes quite obvious that this mentality crossed over into the lineup selection as well.
O.k., now that I’ve gotten the cranky, elitist, old man answer out of my system let’s discuss this from a business perspective. Why is Mayhem crashing and burning this year? Couple reasons. First, you can’t keep repeating main stage bands (even Slayer) and expect people to get excited. It’s just common sense. It’s like that local band that plays seven shows in a 15 mile radius within ten days and then wonders why no one comes to their shows. Over-saturation is a problem most bands and promoters just don’t comprehend. Second, you can’t cut back on stages and expect people to get excited. If you’ve offered 3-4 stages in years past and then announce you are only doing two it better damn well be because you’ve scored the best line-up ever. This year Mayhem did the opposite. They dumped two stages, rolled out their weakest line-up to date and expected the lowered ticket price to make-up the difference. Not how it works on any level, and frankly they should have seen this train wreck coming. If a fest like Maryland Death Fest decided to cut down to only one stage next year do you think their ticket sales would remain as insanely good as they are now? Nope.
Third, mix up the fucking line-up! This year every single second stage act was a carbon copy of each other. My 15-year old daughter turned to me during Thy Art Is Murder and said, “Didn’t we see this band already?” True story. Unprompted. Oh, and dear dude from TAIM…you play for a ‘shit-ton’ of people every night? You played for about 500 kids in Hartford last weekend. if that was a club show that would be HUGE. But you aren’t playing club shows anymore Toto. Which leads me to #4: You better make sure all these bands will sell X number of tickets on their own. Mayhem bookers clearly didn’t do that this year. Slayer and King Diamond had about 3,000 people watching them in Hartford (based on the naked eye solely). The problem with that is that those two acts could go on tour together without any other bands and sell out 3k capacity venues every night.
Will Mayhem Fest be back next year? Probably not. Let’s be honest, if this festival had to cut down to two stages this year then they were probably already in financial dark waters. The guess here is that they are getting raked over the coals pretty much every night out. I can’t imagine the promoters would want to take on that financial responsibility. The other problem they are going to run into, and another reason why this festival is probably toast, is the bad press it’s received. Artists talk. The talk back stage at Hartford was not pleasant…from anyone. Good luck trying to get bigger bands who could sell out shows on their own to commit to a festival and some type of profit share when the last time out even the second stage bands were running their mouths to the press. No bueno for anyone involved.
The bands: for christ outloud, they are just like 70000 tons of metal. Relying on the same bands they’ve booked before or the ones who already toured the US within the past 6 months, expecting for kids to be excited. While I keep seeing the same dudes raving over having bands that almost tour every single year (Slayer being one of those) i don’t see many people interested enough to drop their weekend plans and catch to almighty Kerry King and Friends playing the same set they did last year. King Diamond was this year’s savior, cause none, NONE of my friends ever said “I’m going for *not-KD* to Mayhem this year”.
Corporate absurdity: do you guys remember Summer Slaughter back in the days? It had bands from every background although we all know is a gigantic Sumerian Records jerk-off. From having Necrophagist to having Whitechapel every year basically explains what branding can do to a tour that expects to have a bigger appeal than European fests (I’d take the crappiest European fest over the best US “fest” lineup) and Mayhem has become exactly that. While they try to keep it “fresh” by bringing big names to get the largest crowds, you can still see them plugging bands that are business related to Rockstar Energy drink which happen to be the same as last year’s or previous year edition.
What could save the fest? Going back to the roots will definitely help; let me have many stages to choose the music of my liking instead of sticking to metalcore and deathcore i don’t care about; get bands that I’d be impressed and interested to see. Have Emperor headlining that fest and I would go in a heartbeat even if I have to deal with 10 hrs of horrible bands; reach out to upcoming BIG bands. That’s a thing that festivals ignore and shouldn’t. Remember when Rings of Saturn was starting? Band was green but hell those fuckers could draw a crowd. As someone before said, this fest has been the gateway for many upcoming bands, is just a matter of having an eye for them.
And get black metal! Ok that’s just me but I’d go if they did.
Zach Shaw: Mr. Neilstein really hit the nail on the head regarding all the reasons why Mayhem Fest struggled this year. While the lineup is certainly the top issue (and don’t be fooled, the Slipknot tour absolutely was a big blow), there’s something to also be said about the growth in popularity destination hard rock festivals have gained in the States. These festivals are really upping their game with both its lineups and the overall experience they’re giving fans (even if many of them have overlapping lineups, they’ve done a great job marketing each festival’s own identities to a degree). And bands are realizing that rather than commit to a single festival tour, they can build their own headlining run to coincide with multiple festivals.
Yet this very surge in popularity is the exact reason why Mayhem Fest CANNOT turn into a destination fest. This could’ve been a solid plan a few years ago (in fact, I fully believe Ozzfest was heading in the right direction when they did just that in 2008, only to screw up by returning to old form in 2010), but now the market is cluttered with festivals. Mayhem Fest may be a recognizable brand, but it’ll have an uphill battle competing with the other, already established names in the field.
So how can Mayhem Fest save itself? Well, we all agree that Mayhem Fest needs a stronger lineup (which as this year proved turns out to be easier said than done). But the bigger battle Mayhem Fest has ahead of itself is re-capturing a sense of uniqueness; that special reason why anyone into loud music HAS to go to the tour or else they’ll regret it forever (whether it’s because of a specific lineup of bands, or just the unique environment the tour brings once a year to your local amphitheater). One small but effect start to fixing this is to bring back the multiple stages. Cutting it down to only two stages (a main and side stage) may seem like a solution to a smaller lineup and costs, but having those three stages (and fourth last year) really helped enhance the festival vibe. It’s a needed expense, and it’s not like they’d need more than five bands per stage.
But let me propose this: what if Mayhem Fest took a cue from their punk siblings Warped Tour, and book a handful of bigger names for select legs of the tour rather than the entire run? Sure, you risk alienating some fans who are disappointed that one of their favorite bands jumped off the tour right before it hits their town, and it might get expensive to book additional bands just for specific dates. However, that tactic might help attract bigger names who otherwise wouldn’t want to commit to an entire summer tour (for whatever reason), while still letting the tour flaunt that said band’s involvement. It could also help boost individual shows’ distinctiveness, without having to worry about an entire tour lineup turning stale midway through the summer. But then again, it still comes down to booking a better lineup (even if just for select dates), which given the pool tour bookers have to choose from lately, it may be a bigger problem beyond any tour’s control…
Zach Fehl: First thing’s first, I always have and still do love the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, and I have attended six of the eight years that it has been around and come through Pittsburgh. As a fan, I have seen it from the very beginning, to (what I believe was) its peak years of 2011-13, to it’s 2014-15 slump. I can definitely say that I always have fun whether or not I’m thrilled by the line-up, but these past two years have really sat with me and I’ve spent a lot of time pretending to be the expert that I like think I am on the subject. Mayhem has always been a great middle of the road metal festival, bringing in the acclaimed acts like Slayer, Slipknot, Five Finger Death Punch, and Lamb of God while sprinkling the rest of the festival with the kind of treat bands that give the festival the niche credibility that metalheads demand (Let’s face it, we’re a picky and pretentious lot at times and I am certainly no exception to that).
I would argue that the headliners for these kinds of festivals really are the least important aspect of the show in terms of who brings in the crowd. Slayer has been through Pittsburgh at least four times that I know of in the last seven years with three of those shows being Mayhem Festival headline shows. They are very important in the regards that they should tie the whole festival together by being a generally agreeable show in the scene (Example: I don’t like Slayer but still think they’re a great band to see and hear.), but they are not the kind of acts that are going to make somebody want to jump in their car and drive 100 miles to see them when they’ll probably return next year. I stand firm when I say that I think that the main stage openers and side stage headliners (Yeah, you’re going to need more than just one) are the most important aspects of bringing in the fans of various metal sub-communities. Look to 2013 for example, those slots were filled by Mastodon, Amon Amarth, Machine Head, and Children of Bodom. Each of those bands is big enough to headline their own US tour, together they made a force to be reckoned with and then you still had two more bands after them to close out the night, Rob Zombie and Five Finger Death Punch.
Pick bands with simpler shows. When Godsmack played a few years ago, they said to the crowd that they weren’t going to play a big fancy show, they were just going to go out and rock. They then proceeded to absolutely kill it live, like they always have anytime I’ve seen them. While seeing Slayer with giant inverted flaming crosses as well as a custom video show behind them on stage is cool and all, at the end of the day I quite frankly do not care if they are there or not. Don’t get me wrong, I went to see King Diamond but from far away in the lawn where the majority of your patrons are going to be standing for these big festivals, nobody outside the pavilion cares about the elaborate stage show they can’t even see. It’s the band and their music that gets fans in the door, not the fancy pyro and light shows. Save those things for the destination festivals, they have no place being there if you’re trying to be economical. Hypothetically speaking, if I can’t even tell which shifting blur on stage is King Diamond himself from the lawn, what makes you think that his grandma dying on stage has any affect on whether or not I enjoy the show? Every band besides THE headliner will be playing during the daylight and the amphitheaters with screens for the lawn won’t even have them on or they’ll be too dim to be seen with any clarity. Trim the fat, make it about the music.
I still have high hopes for the festival, and believe that based on the lessons learned from this year that the organizers will take this year in stride as a valuable learning opportunity to better help themselves for future years. If it comes down to it, and you can’t put on the best show that you can, it might be best to just take a year off let the hype build up awhile. I’m looking forward to seeing what the organizers do to shut up all the dissenters and doubters.
Also if Alix is allowed to request black metal, consider this my request for more power metal. *wink wink* Sabaton would be a great choice.