Op-Ed: Why This Year’s Mayhem Festival is Failing


rockstar energy drink mayhem festival logoWhen a tour’s founder and its headliner are both publicly making excuses for why shows aren’t selling well you know there’s trouble in paradise. Such is the state of Mayhem Fest this year — excuse me, the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival — with reports of half-filled venues and near-empty side stages filtering in from more than a few of the tour’s stops.

Now in its eighth year, Mayhem Fest has become a fixture of the metal scene, a tour that metalheads eagerly anticipate before the lineup has even been announced. After its launch in 2008 it quickly established itself as *the* summer touring package for metal, a run that continued right up through last year. So why exactly is a tour with such a rich and successful history suddenly shitting the bed?

1. Weak headliners

Mayhem’s organizers reportedly made hefty offers to both Guns N’ Roses and a reunited Pantera to headline this year’s festival. It was not to be. Those are just two of the potential big-ticket names that were being considered as headliners this summer.

Kerry King’s comments on the matter are right on the money: all the true headliners took gigs at the European festivals this summer or booked headlining tours on their own.

Implied, but not stated: Slayer aren’t big enough to headline a tour of this size, and all the extra bands added to the Mayhem bill don’t justify the higher ticket price in the minds of fans:

(Without the extra stages) It’s basically a glorified Slayer show. Let me put it to you this way, last year Slayer, Suicidal (Tendencies), and Exodus played the Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee and sold it out. Mayhem came through 10 days ago and didn’t sell it out. That’s what I’m going up against here.

Slayer also tour way too often. Seeing them in the year 2015 simply isn’t special.

King Diamond, this year’s co-headliner, suffers a similar problem: the King did well selling out 2,000-3,000 cap rooms when he toured last fall, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was his first time touring the States in forever. Some fans may’ve missed that run, or might pony up the dough to see him again (his audience is, presumably, a bit older and with more disposable income), but his audience is still limited; he’s not a suitable headliner for a tour the size of Mayhem either.

2. Metal HAS gotten “gray, bald and fat”

Kevin Lyman may have chosen his words incredibly poorly, but the sentiment of his comment was dead-on: metal has not developed a new, young crop of headlining bands. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the state of things. As the metal scene has become more and more fractured into smaller sub-genres, no one band or group of bands is able to get THAT big. This is neither a bad thing nor a good thing, it just means that metal has an INCREDIBLY healthy middle and lower class of bands right now but no real upper class, and while that’s a good thing for the Saint Vituses and Irving Plazas of the world it doesn’t mesh with Mayhem’s business model. That’s why Mayhem is forced to trot out legacy acts like Slayer and King Diamond to headline.

3. Slipknot

Mayhem’s organizers allegedly made an offer to Slipknot to headline this year for the third time (following 2008 and 2012), but Slipknot decided to do their own headlining tour instead. Which makes sense: if you’re a band as massive as Slipknot and you can sell out arenas on your own, why do it along with 15-20 other bands with whom you’ve got to split the pie?

Slipknot’s own summer tour, meanwhile, is murdering. So much so that they’re reportedly getting ready to announce another run of dates in October. Simply put, general metal fans decided to spend their money on Slipknot tickets this summer instead of Mayhem Fest tickets.

4. Mayhem went too mainstream

Mayhem Fest’s lineup has always had a diverse array of acts from across the metal spectrum. But in recent years, as that balance has tilted more towards metal’s radio-friendly side with bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Asking Alexandria and Rob Zombie pulled in to hold top-billed spots, the fest lost a bit of its mojo and appeal to prickly metalheads. It doesn’t matter that Jungle Rot, or even Whitechapel, are on this year’s bill because the image of Mayhem as a more mainstream tour has been solidified in the minds of metalheads.

5. Destination festivals

While they still don’t come close to touching the size and scale of the legendary European metal festivals, the U.S. and Canada have finally had some success with one-off, destination festivals in recent years. Heavy Montreal, Rock on the Range, Aftershock, Skate n Surf, Long Beach Deathfest, Carolina Rebellion and so on and so forth have all made an impact in recent years. And while many of those festivals might also skew mainstream, they’ve been taking more risks with extreme metal as time goes on… the opposite of the direction Mayhem has been going.

If a two or three-day festival that offers an all-encompassing fan experience comes to my area, why would I go to the simple, one-day Mayhem?

6. An aging clientelle

The same people that were willing to stand in a hot-as-fuck parking lot for hours on end eight years ago — the group with which the words “Mayhem Fest” have the strongest branding — are older and not as willing to do so these days. And for whatever reason, Mayhem hasn’t been able to brand itself as strongly as, say, Warped Tour, by constantly refreshing its base with youth. Perhaps that ties into #2, above.

7. It doesn’t feel like a festival anymore

Having just a main stage and a side stage doesn’t feel so special these days. Sure, it worked for Ozzfest for years, but when you’ve set the precedent with four stages it’s hard to convince concert-goers that any less is worth going back to.

8. Perhaps Mayhem’s time has come

Ozzfest had a remarkable 11 year run before Sharon and co. finally threw in the towel as a touring festival. Eight years for Mayhem is pretty fucking impressive, and massive amounts of respect are due the organizers. But perhaps it’s just run its course, leaving a spot vacant for something new and innovative to take its place.

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