Metal's Monster Comeback: 'It's the 90s All Over Again,' Rock Promoters Cheer

Mick Hutson/Redferns
Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath performs in December 1997.

Rock is dead, long live rock. 

Hard rock, that is. After years in the shadows, metal is experiencing a renaissance on the live front.

"It's the mid-to-late 90s all over again," says Cory Brennan CEO/Founder of 5B Artists + Media, the management firm for Slipknot, Stone Sour, Megadeth, Danzig, The Misfits and Lamb Of God, among other metal bands, and producers of KnotFest.

Look no further than the May 13 announcement of a merged OzzFest/KnotFest -- with headliners Black Sabbath (featuring OzzFest founder Ozzy Osbourne) and Slipknot -- as evidence of a scene that's seeing renewed prominence in the musical landscape. Already so far in 2016, metal acts grabbed headlines for reunions -- chief among them: by Guns N' Roses, whose headlining slot at Coachella came with word that GNR frontman Axl Rose would step in as singer on AC/DC's rescheduled European tour, but also the Misfits at this summer's RiotFest.

"We announced Ozzfest Meets Knotfest and the original Misfits reunion on the same day and literally the media world exploded," marvels Brennan. "We were No. 1 trending topics all over the world, and took over every form of media out there. Not bad for what many thought was a dying genre."

Live Nation Australasia, UNIFIED Team on Heavy Music Touring Venture

Indeed, nowhere is heavy music making more noise than in the festival sector. That's due in part to a dearth of hard rock package tours like Mayhem and Sounds of the Underground (a notable exception: the Make America Rock Again tour featuring Trapt, Saliva, Saving Abel, Alien Ant Farm, Crazytown, 12 Stones, Drowning Pool and Tantric, which runs August through October). Taking up the slack are more than a half-dozen rock fests, most launched in the last three years, which are selling tickets briskly. Also worth noting, says Brennan, "Pop and alternative are the same format, and people are looking for something deeper -- real, non-manufactured artists, real lyrics, and real stories that are relatable."

While Ozzfest Meets Knotfest producer Live Nation and AEG Live have plenty of skin in the game with multiple tours and events, many of the rising rock fests are produced solely or in partnerships by Danny Wimmer, founder of Danny Wimmer Presents (DWP). A rock fest branding platform DWP calls "The World's Loudest Month," with fests running every weekend from late April through May, moved 500,000 tickets this year for such events as Fort Rock in Ft. Meyers, Fla., Welcome to Rockville in Jacksonville, Fla.; Carolina Rebellion in Charlotte, N.C.; Northern Invasion in Somerset, Wis.; Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio, and Rocklahoma in Pryor, Okla. Still to come are DWP-produced or co-produced events Louder Than Life (Louisville, Ky.), Aftershock (Sacramento) and Rock Allegiance (Chester, Pa.)., the latter two sponsored by Monster Energy.

"I hear 'rock 'n roll is dead,' and it drives me crazy, I have no idea what they're talking about," Wimmer says. "Maybe it's just that rock had to become uncool to become cool again. That's when the spirit of rock 'n roll starts popping its head out; the rebellion of it -- the angst of it and the release."

The hard rock fest explosion is clearly playing a role in all of this, adding fuel to the metal fire and providing a boon to agents, managers and artists in the genre. "The metal bands are taking up a lot of slots [at these festivals]," says veteran metal agent Tim Borror at UTA, whose clients include Lamb Of God, Clutch, Trivium, Asking Alexandria, Between the Buried and Me, and Monster Truck, and are populating all the new fests. "I've got at least 10 bands from my roster on Rock on the Range, and there's a ton of metal at Rock Allegiance, Carolina Rebellion, Aftershock in Sacramento, all of these."

Watch President Obama Shout Out Avicii, ABBA and Heavy Metal Bands at Nordic Summit

Wimmer, often partnered with global promoters Live Nation and AEG Live, has quickly become a pivotal player in the sector. With 580,000 fans attending DWP festivals in 2015, the company continues to build its fest portfolio, adding Chicago Open Air (co-produced with Live Nation) and Houston Open Air this year, the names a nod to European fests that have long been summer staples.

"We Embrace the Black T-shirts"

Secondary and tertiary markets are also key in this resurgence. Indie promoters like Frank Productions specialize in bringing bands like Breaking Benjamin, Five Finger Death PunchVolbeatShinedown and other Active Rock format favorites into the heartland, where rock has long lived and prospered.

"You get outside of L.A. and New York, there's a lot of nooks and crannies out there," says AEG Live promoter/produce Joe Litvag, who directs the promoter's festivals in that genre. "There are rock fans in every one of those nooks and crannies, and our job is to speak to them. We embrace the black T-shirts."

Adds Brennan: "The fact that L.A. and New York have no rock radio station blows my mind. Sponsors, brands and media may think that Tame Impala and X Ambassadors are sexy and exciting to talk about, but the rest of the country couldn't give two shits."

The economics are another positive as the talent pool offers up scores of acts with significant name recognition but not the hefty price tags. "A lot of these bands have been around for a long time, they've got very loyal and rabid fan bases that come out and support their bands," says Litvag, who believes affordable pricing allows producers to stack the deck without busting the budget. "Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, those bands work in our financial model and -- in the past at least -- bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers just don't," he adds. "Ultimately, it allows us to keep our financial model in check and not have to jack ticket prices up so much to where we have to leave our fans at home because they can't afford to come. That would be a devastating blow if we did that."

In fact, some fests are capitalizing on the buzz by expanding their budget and broadening their offerings. Rock On The Range, one of several partnerships between DWP and AEG Live which launched 10 years ago and is now considered the largest and most-acclaimed rock festival in the U.S., features the Chilis as a headliner for the 2016 edition (taking place May 20-22 at MAPFRE Stadium). Others on the bill include Rob Zombie, Deftones, Shinedown, Five Finger Death Punch, Bring Me The Horizon, A Day To Remember, Megadeth, At The Drive-In, Lamb Of God, SIXX:A.M. and Hellyeah.

Wimmer calls nailing down the Peppers "an incredible moment" in the evolution of Rock on the Range, bringing it closer to the more open booking policies of European fests (Metallica, too, remains on the wish list, he says, "but we have to worry about the price."). "That means I'm aligning the Chili Peppers with Rob Zombie, which, in America, those two probably haven't played together in years," he explains. "With Red Hot Chili Peppers, now we're bridging the gap to go farther off into the alt world. You can't just do that overnight, you've got to have 'bridge' acts. The first Rock on the Range sold out at 30,000 tickets about three months into the campaign, and we really knew we had something." This year's edition should do double.

Ozzy Osbourne & Geezer Butler Look Back at 20 Years of Ozzfest; Sharon Osbourne Calls on Beyonce to Relaunch Lilith Fair

Kevin Lyman, founder of the Warped tour and co-founder/producer of the Rockstar Energy Mayhem tour (the latter sidelined the latter after a less-than-successful run in 2015) gives Wimmer credit for coming up with a formula that works. "His shows… are weekends, and he has found markets that still have strong active rock radio to support his line-up."

Lyman also says that Wimmer has found a "secret sauce" balancing "elder statesmen" acts like Zombie, Slayer and Korn, with up-and-comers -- many of the Warped alumni -- like Horizon, A Day to RememberAsking Alexandria, and Of Mice and Men, and Active Rock stalwarts like Breaking Benjamin and Chevelle. "It took people from within the genre to create the festivals --  Sharon and Ozzy with Ozzfest, John Reese and Kevin Lyman with Mayhem, Danny Wimmer with Rock on Range, and myself and Slipknot with Knotfest. We've all seen the vitality of this genre and did it ourselves. Now the industry is waking up and taking notice and seeing how strong the genre is with consumers."

You could say the same of the numbers: last year, Rocklahoma, Rock On The Range, and Carolina Rebellion grossed over $10 million combined, according to Boxscore. Live Nation is already heavily invested in hard rock and AEG Live is also doubling down on the genre building a portfolio that includes the aforementioned along with River City Rockfest and the first Texas Mutiny festival, set Sept. 24 at Texas Motor Speedway in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. 

Sponsors are increasingly interested in aligning with these festivals, too, which Litvag characterizes as a "pleasant surprise" and a focus for the last few years. After all, Litvag points out, headbangers' "money spends just like everyone else's, and I think a lot of times they get passed over or ignored. We've been able to tap into a lot of great sponsors that really are interested in speaking to this audience, and they've come up with some really creative activations and things to do on site that gives the the opportunity to speak to these fans."

Ticket to Rock

With value in mind, Live Nation this year rolled out its Ticket To Rock program for its amphitheaters, hoping that the "season pass" promo can do for hard rock what the Mega Pass did for country music. On board are tours by Disturbed and Breaking Benjamin, Korn/Rob Zombie, and Slipkot/Marilyn Manson. Creative Artists Agency's Ryan Harlacher was involved in putting the program together with Live Nation, and says it has had a significant impact on sales. Harlacher reveals allotments ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 per market sold out everywhere. "For each of these artists, this will be the biggest tour that they've had as a headliner or co-headliner in the last 10 years," he says, adding, "Frankly, we were a little concerned with all these tours going out up against each other. This proves that point, if you provide value for fans they want to go to as many shows as they can afford to, the whole point is making it affordable for them to go."

Harlacher admits that it was "a lot of work to get six managers on the same page" to split Ticket To Rock revenues equally six ways. "It almost seems like a socialist way to look at hard rock and metal," Harlacher says, "Now that it has been done, it shows a lot of promise moving forward that this is still a healthy genre and this is probably the best year it's had in a long time."

Rock's Long Climb Back

Rock's return comes after what Brennan calls a "dip" in popularity due to "everything from radio and media support to the quality of records being made." He points the finger at the "many bands in the genre -- and the people involved with their careers -- who went looking for the dollar and stopped focusing on the fans and the music. Fans recognize when you've lost the plot."

Borror describes the discovery for hard rock fans as "just like other fans, which today includes social media and streaming services," adding that, "it's a little subset, a culture with its own breeding ground to it, like an infection. It's just easier to spread the infection now, but it's the same pulse, with the same kind of person." (Among the noteworthy new and breaking artists are acts like Amon Amarth and Motionless in White.)

Meanwhile, Wimmer sees signs of hard rock music's rising cultural impact everywhere, from the branding for craft beers to metal-influenced imagery in craft beers and vape shops to the emergence of hipster metal and an arena-level rebound for Slayer. "Nirvana didn't break alternative, there was something already brewing and Nirvana was just the band that you could point out," he says.  "Go to your grocery store, there's metal imagery everywhere. Foo Fighters are selling out stadiums, that's a rock act. Black Keys is a rock act, Jack White is a rock act. I want AWOL Nation and Kings Of Leon playing with Avenged Sevenfold; it's good for music and it will help grow both sides. The key is to keep investing in all the genres and subgenres. How many times can Red Hot Chili Peppers play a dance event?"

Asked about potential roadblocks for rock, Brennan says they've always been there, and include a "mainstream media [that] hears 'hard rock and metal' and thinks black shirts and devil horns." To put it even more bluntly: "Hard rock and metal are often considered second class citizens," he says, "which is partly why the fans are so fierce and loyal. So, really, the less Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Wall Street pay attention may be for the better. Leave the genre to the people who care about it, as opposed to those looking to expand their stock portfolio."

Litvag says that every rock fest on his watch currently on sale is showing an increase in ticket sales, with Range selling out a month earlier than last year. "The pendulum is going to swing back, guitars are coming back, and hard rock is going to be back in style. The future is bright."