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.”