Germany's Wacken Open Air Festival: Heavy Metal's Socialist Dream Struggles to Break Even

Courtesy photo

Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Savatage perform on two stages during the 2015 edition of Wacken Open Air.

Festival founder Thomas Jensen talks to Billboard about the economics of running music's heaviest three-day event.

Thomas Jensen, founder of Germany’s Wacken Open Air, also known as the largest heavy metal festival in the world, is in the midst of an interview with Billboard on July 31 when he’s mobbed by well-wishers backstage. Despite the rain, “Everyone is having fun,” says Axel Kunkel, the mayor of Wacken, a farming village with 1,800 residents that sits 50 miles northwest of Hamburg and has hosted the three-day event since 1990. “I stood on stage and cried my f--king eyes out,” Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery confesses. “This is the most metal festival on the planet.”

It took 26 mostly money-losing years to get to this point. Wacken, whose 2015 headliners included Rob Zombie on night one (the rocker inserted four surprising covers into his set, including James Brown's "Get On Up" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop"), a two-stage collaborative performance featuring Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra on night two and Judas Priest as closer, now boasts attendance of 75,000 with minimal corporate sponsorship and the undying devotion of metalheads from Germany and beyond who arrive en masse to take in some 150 bands from all over the world. Many camp out, slugging out days of living in the mud (as was the case with the persistent drizzle of 2015) -- their main defense against the chill: what Germans call the “beer jacket.”

Shirley Halperin
Members of Savatage with festival founder Thomas Jenses (far right) backstage at Wacken Open Air 2015. 

But the beauty of Wacken is that all are in the same open air boat. The festival doesn’t sell VIP access or upgrades and all purchases are for the three days without a single day ticket option, something they did away with a decade ago. The reasoning: “Communism,” says Jensen with a laugh. “Metal socialism -- the idea being that a kid who’s clever can buy a Christmas ticket, get a free T-shirt and a discount. If somebody has the faith and trust [in us] to pay a year in advance, you have to give them something.” (Earlybird tickets start at 170 Euros, approximately $186.)

Like most established multi-band weekend gatherings -- U.S. offerings Coachella and Bonnaroo among them -- Wacken does not announce the names of its headliners before tickets go on sale. Still, this year’s edition sold out within 12 hours and tickets to the 2016 fest are already long gone. It’s cash that’s sorely needed, says Jensen, “to pay last year's debt.” And those bills are sky-high thanks to the fest’s paid crew of 2,500 -- a number easily doubled when you count additional help needed, from bartenders to the local fire brigade -- and its insistence on branding everything with its own W.O.A. logo, from beer mugs to coffee cups, napkins to silverware, even the little flag that adorned a piece of cake backstage (see below).

Indeed, Wacken provides the spectacle -- and a first-class one at that -- but essentially leaves money on the table in its decision to minimize signage by outside brands. This year, Beck’s beer and Monster energy drinks had a presence on the grounds, but in general, says Jensen, they prefer to work with companies that offer something in the way of “an extra benefit.” For example, a soap company might sponsor outdoor showers or a shaving company could provide product “so that everybody gets something.” Also important to the founders, who hail from the town of Wacken, that purchases at the festival be affordable. Daily intake of “a sausage and four beers should cost a reasonable amount,” he adds.

Wacken’s 2015 lineup also brought in some pricey talent, among them: Sepultura, Queensryche, Opeth, Black Label Society, Cradle of Filth, In Flames and Cannibal Corpse, not to mention the Savatage-Trans-Siberian Orchestra appearance over two stages where, after each performed for 40 minutes on their own, the two groups launched into a coordinated, cross-stage set of favorites. The headlining turn marked Savotage’s first show in a decade and TSO’s festival debut. 

Backstage on July 31, Jensen seems unfazed by the financial pressure, telling Billboard, “We’re surviving. Every year is a challenge and this one will be hard -- I don't think we'll lose money, but the profit will be eaten. But we have to get the best experience for the fan. If we're not doing that, we're not successful. It's as simple as that.”