If you’re a metalhead, you have thought about this question more than one occasion, and probably have discussed the topic with your friends and wondered why no one has ever done an open air festival in the US. Every year, Europe announce their never ending array of festivals across the entire continent, with mind-blowing lineups, dozens and dozens of bands from all over the world and the ability to host tens of thousands of attendees in their campgrounds where a lot of drinking and socializing takes place alongside the several day, non-stop bands playing. If it was as simple as someone deciding “let’s do it,” someone surely would’ve taken the opportunity, so what’s the problem?
First of all, there have been several camping open air festivals in the United States, and while some still happen every year, the magnitude of bands and promotion haven’t been as elevated as their European counterparts. Warrriors of Metal Open Air Fest, DeLand Rock and Metal Festival, Stella Natura among many others have done it in the past but I’m sure this is probably the first time you’ve even heard about them; others like Gates of Metal Open Air or Thunder of Gods Festival tried but couldn’t deliver the experience. We have the potential to do a big camping open air metal festival in the country, but the resonance is not there and most of it lies on promotion.
Recently, the interest on having an European-like open air festival has spiked and some promoters have taken the chance to push the idea that we can also enjoy what we, Americans, complain about every time we see the lineup for the next Hellfest or Brutal Assault. Let’s look at some examples:
Shadow Woods Metal Fest
This festival will have its first edition on September 25-27 in White Hall, MD just a half hour away from Baltimore, where the more-known Maryland Deathfest takes place, and the setting is what you can expect from a camping festival. Shadow Woods Metal Fest will have a proper camping ground for tents and also have on-site cabins for large parties; an area for several food, art and merch vendors just like the metal markets at most of the European festivals; three stages, most of them outdoors to host the 36 bands booked to perform during the 3 days; and even workshops in guitar maintenance, ancient Scandinavian runes and yoga.
The location is a children’s camp where all the common necessities like showers, bathhouses, toilets and even electrical outlets are available for the attendees, making the site perfect for the pesky complaints surrounding conventional festivals. You also have the expected BYOB encouragement to save on expenses like liquor or food.
Aside from the scale, everything seems to be the perfect emulator of those bigger festivals across the globe but there is one point you’re probably thinking about: what about the lineup? Here’s when it becomes tricky; the lineup consists with only US extreme metal bands, mostly from the underground spectrum and bands known to those highly involved in their regional scene. Falls of Rauros, Iron Man and Midnight are probably the ones with largest fan base among the masses from the bunch and, even though that’s not appellative to the quality of the music in relation to the lesser known bands, people may look at this lineup and do little to no research to find out if it’s worth their time and money. The attractiveness of having international acts is a big factor when it comes to festivals but, as an organizer, that becomes a difficulty when the first edition hasn’t shown to be successful to do such an investment.
This is a bigger league festival as it’s been happening for a while and the lineup is similar to the last few Wackens or Sweden Rock. Rock USA takes place in Oshkosh, WI and boasts bands of the same caliber as the headliners in Europe. In fact, it has the exact same bands like Alice Cooper, Def Leppard, Avenged Sevenfold, Kiss, Slayer, Megadeth and the list goes on and on with famous acts who can sell an arena by themselves.
Just like Shadow Woods, Rock USA offers all the amenities and services required at any open air festival, and goes further by having exclusive karaoke tents, ATM’s and even a convenience store at the campsite. How can a festival organizer afford such a big event, you may ask yourself right now?
Sponsors. Big time sponsors. If you have paid attention to the Eurofests, they all display logos from giant brands like Monster Energy Drink, Becks, or Jagermeister, giving them some cushion to invest more money into the bands booked. Sadly, European culture is more open to metal than the US and the only way you can have a brand like Budweiser or Ford (sponsors for Rock USA) backing your fest is by having mainstream acts which, even when they are still welcome for most, do not necessarily attract those clamoring for a proper open air festival.
Full Terror Assault
It’s possible that at this point of the game, you have heard about Full Terror Assault but if it’s the first time, there’s still some time for you to arrange your plans to attend. This Illinois fest just started this year with the promise to become the leading camping open air festival in the country and it took a great risk on launching at the scale it is set to do. 75 bands booked, mainly national acts with a humble dosage of international ones like Napalm Death, Inferia, Wretchedpain, Voltumna and Thell Barrio. Similar to Shadow Woods, the rest of the smaller bands are top quality representative of their scene and not as mainstream, yet highly demanded as Rock USA.
The camping site has the same services and amenities as Rock USA (karaoke tent to be confirmed) taking care of the basic needs of the campers and even more. The bands will play on three stages between September 10-12 with the usual DJ-after parties once the live music stops to continue the mood even after-hours. It also has some, not as many or big, but definitely some sponsors involved who provided that extra-push to help support the festival and promote it. Does this sound like the answer to the festivals we’ve been craving for so long to have in American soil?
Overall, the original question about the possibility to have a proper European-life open air festival in the country should have been answered at this point: Yes. Yes, we definitely can, but after analyzing many of the difficulties and different scenarios on the ones already happening in the country, we can at least be sure that we are on the right path to, someday, compete with those big fests across the ocean if we really focus on doing that. Full Terror Assault is the closest we have accomplished so far on getting the option to taste what could it be if more of these spawn out in the future years. The acceptance has been so good that they already announced the return of the festival for 2016, even before the first edition happened.
Just like any other event like a touring, non-camping or camping festival, the key is on the support and promotion it gets from the beginning, to get the interest of those truly invested on expanding the scene to the point where more promoters see the growing opportunity and decide to give it a shot themselves. The media bartering their usefulness with those already at the peak instead of pulling those up comers, pushing the community forward with just a few words, isn’t really helping, shown by the fact that there’s still people out there who don’t know about these festivals but know what Kerry King said about Mayhem. We are still facing an uphill battle as we would have to compete with the old continent if we want to do more of these, particularly during summer time but Shadow Woods and Full Terror Assault got that right by scheduling their events after the European fests already happened, giving us the chance to book bigger and better bands.
Everything big requires taking a big chance and, gladly, we have promoters out there willing to take it and is up to us to keep them rolling if we want another one of these to happen. Your favorite festivals now had to go through the same growing pains before becoming Knotfest, Maryland Deathfest or whatever other successful festival we have; and also the promoters who listen to the demands of those willing to provide a stepping stone for their next step are the ones who get the farthest and see the results of their efforts.