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Headbangers Brawl: Can Mayhem Fest be saved?

Posted by on July 24, 2015

With less than a week to go, the Mayhem Festival seems to be slowly derailing. In between a frustrated comment by co-founder Kevin Lyman, dwindling attendance and even the acts on the tour sniping about how it’s being run, the tour seems to be ending just in time before it completely self-destructs. It’s been happening for eight years, and launched with an incredible amount of good will from the fans and the bands that are playing it. What’s wrong with this year? Our homeboy Vince Neilstein wrote a pretty solid article about it over at Metal Sucks, but we thought we should discuss it as well. Why didn’t Mayhem work this year, and can it be saved?

Chris Colgan: I attended the Mayhem Festival the first four years of its existence (2008-2011) and again in 2013, and every year that I went, I had a good time. However, 2013 differed greatly from my other years of attendance because the influence of corporate and label sponsorship was so much more obvious than it had been in previous years. The number of vendor tents, the roving promotions teams, the layout of the festival grounds – everything just screamed, “We’re here to take your money and dictate what you should pay attention to!” It was no longer about the music, as has happened in so many other ventures in the past. When viewing the lineups of 2014 and 2015 (and even 2013, to a lesser extent), it becomes quite obvious that this mentality crossed over into the lineup selection as well.

Look at the early years of the festival and the bands that populated the second stages. At the time of their stints on the tour, most of those bands were capable of headlining their own mid-sized tours or being main support on larger tours. We’re talking about bands like Machine Head, Underoath, Suicide Silence, Behemoth, Trivium, The Black Dahlia Murder, Hatebreed, Unearth, and Whitechapel. These bands and most of the others on the second stage were probably not cheap to book as part of an already-expensive festival, but their draw for the fans was huge. Most of these bands have gone on to even greater success since their time on Mayhem, and even those that are no longer active were still successful before calling it a day.
Fast-forward to the past few years, and you see a lot more bands that would be considered opening acts on tours, without a lot of large-scale touring experience and not carrying nearly as much crowd draw. There were also a lot more bands chosen that were pushed by labels for their mainstream appeal. Translation: Mayhem chose to book cheaper acts to save money, as well as bands that would bring in a more mainstream audience to supplement the crowd of metalheads. I suspect a lot of that may have been to appease those same corporate and label sponsors that made their presence so heavily known. However, as we have seen this year, that tactic backfired massively.
Now I understand that, at the end of the day, Mayhem is a business venture that needs to be profitable. But we metalheads are not easily swayed by product placement, and we certainly don’t like having things shoved down our throats. So, for Mayhem to be a success with the fans, the organizers will have to return to the ideals that made it a success in the early years – booking a lineup that justifies the cost of a ticket and that will keep attendees interested for the whole day, while minimizing the amount of big-money corporate and label sponsorship that is in the open air. If that makes it impossible for Mayhem to be a financially sound festival, then I suppose Mayhem will be going the way of Ozzfest and Sounds of the Underground, destined for eventual failure due to conflicts over how to fund it.
Matt Brown: I’m speaking as someone who’s only attended Mayhem Fest once, and that was this year’s edition. The only bands I really cared about were Slayer and King Diamond and, honestly, if the latter wasn’t on the bill I probably wouldn’t have gone. Why I never went before ties into my thoughts concerning today’s topic. It’s not that I don’t care about Mayhem at all, but whenever I weigh if it’s worth going I always end up deciding no, it isn’t (unless I end up getting my ticket for free like this year). I’ve thought the same way about pretty much every touring summer festival. It comes down to two things: the lineup and enduring the festival (fighting the elements, having money for food andmerch, being on my feet all day, etc.).

Now, let’s run a few scenarios:
1. There’s a lot of bands I like that are playing earlier in the day and I don’t really care for the headliners. That means I get to see these early bands play 15-30 minute sets. Maybe 45 if they’re the first band on the main stage. And then I have a choice between sitting through the rest of the bands to get my money’s worth or leave to avoid traffic. Not that satisfying of an ending.
2. I love the headliners but don’t care about most of the bands that came before (a.k.a. my thoughts on this year’s festival). That means I have to spend all day waiting for the main stage, and by the time that happens I’ll be too tired to be fully pumped. I could come way late in the day, but then I basically miss out on the whole festival/don’t get my money’s worth. Not the big, kickass experience the festival tries to advertise.
I’m not going to do a scenario where I like almost all the bands because, let’s face it, there’s always going to be a handful of bands you don’t care about at these things. You can call me cynical, say I’m not embracing the spirit of the festival, or that I’m a party pooper who just outright hates festivals in the first place. Some of that is true. Not all, but some. There are people who love going to these sorts of things, but I’m not as gung-ho about them. My time and money is valuable when it comes to shows and I want to be at least 75% certain I’m going to enjoy the bill, not look at a list of fifteen bands and think “Hmm, I’d like to see five or six of them.” I’m just one guy, but judging by the numbers for this year’s festival I’m not alone in my opinion.
On the other hand, I’ve been to New England Metal Fest twice and had a grand ol’ time. Sure it’s not a touring festival, but a lot of the same elements are there (early bands playing short sets, long day, etc.). The main difference is that it’s spread across three days, meaning if I don’t like the lineup for one day, chances are I’ll like one or both of the others better. Better yet, three days means chances are more bands I like will be spread across the board, making that 3-day pass look like a good idea. There’s a reason European festivals like Download are still going strong.
Can Mayhem be saved? Maybe. It’s kinda teetering right now between still salvaging its future or going the way of Ozzfest like Chris said. It needs to take a look at what didn’t work this year and try to reinvent itself. Copout answer? Maybe, but it’s not wrong.
Bram Teitelman: Mayhem is at a pretty critical juncture this year. With no disrespect to any of the bands playing this year, it’s the weakest lineup there’s been since it started. In past years, it’s always done a pretty good job of blending up and comers and more heavy, underground bands with maintream, mass appeal bands. Granted, an Immortal fan isn’t going to be too psyched to see Five Finger Death Punch, but the people that have made nearly every album they’ve put out sell 500,000 records will, and if there’s an Amon Amarth or a Cannibal Corpse playing alongside Mastodon, then just about everyone’s happy.

Slayer as a headliner isn’t a great idea, not when they were around playing the same cities last year with Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies and playing the fest for the third time in it’s eight-year existence. The addition of King Diamond is fantastic for old school metalheads, but it’s not drawing in younger fans, even though he’s undoubtedly making some new ones every night. The other main stage headliners are perfectly capable of selling out small theaters, while the second stage bands, regardless of quality, just aren’t enough to sustain the bill,. Whether it’s a lack of available bands, Slipknot and Lamb of God doing their own thing, or any other reason, it can just be chalked up to an off year, booking-wise.
What isn’t helping in any way, however, is the acts talking about the body before it’s even gotten cold. Kerry King isn’t ever going to shut his mouth, and hey, maybe good for him? Who knows, but he might want to not bite the hand that feeds him. And at the end of the day, if 20,000 people cared about Slayer, he might not have to defensively run off at the mouth like he has been. And the same goes for CJ from Thy Art is Murder. Suck it up and be happy that you’re playing in front of 3-5000 people a night. Sure, Kevin Lyman might have spoken a little out of turn, but at least everyone else can wait until the tour’s over to weigh in on it.
As far as whether it’s over or not, it really depends. It can’t continue the way it has now, and they need to up the ante for next year. Sadly, perception is reality, and anyone that’s gone to a mostly empty arena is probably thinking that the tour or the lineup isn’t that cool this year. Will they come back next year, if there is a next year? Perhaps. What Mayhem really needs to do is step it up: either bring in a once in a lifetime kind of reunion (Guns N’ Roses, Pantera), a marquee band that hasn’t toured or toured the states in a while, (Rammstein, Iron Maiden), or go back to what they did so well the first few years and mix the lineup up with extreme bands, mainstream headliners, and the up and comers. I, for one, don’t hope it’s done.
Nick DeSimone: It’s just a perfect storm of issues, really. As we’ve discussed in these before, repeat performers are going to have diminishing returns each time, even if it seems like a sure thing because it did well before. The Devil Wears Prada, Slayer, and Whitechapel as the returning acts from previous years, have all played 3 (!!!) times total. The tour’s only been around for 8! Slayer was just here, and I saw both them and King Diamond last fall. That would be okay if the number of bands playing hadn’t been completely kneecapped, since then there would at least be more new guys in the mix to have a little more of a bell curve.

 I like Sworn In, but they were a better fit on the hardcore-leaning final day of New England Metalfest, or Warped Tour, or basically any other gig that’s more open to their vibe. Two stages made up of mostly hardcore and a headliner that’s guaranteed to tour at least twice a year does not a destination metal fest make, unfortunately. I think veering too hardcore made it a case of improper branding that was only exacerbated by the confused main stage lineup. King Diamond sticks out pretty hard amongst the crowd; I remember what it was like seeing a theatrical band like Lordi playing Ozzfest back in the day and Lamb of God fans nearly booed them offstage. It’s hard to imagine the same crowd that goes out for Hellyeah, or to a lesser degree, Slayer, really “getting” the King, wrong as they might be about it.
As far as the fate of Mayhem, I can’t say for sure. Kerry King running his mouth endlessly will ultimately hurt business as far as future acts, but operations on this scale were probably never very profitable to begin with. It’s pretty safe to say that it’s been done as a passion project since the beginning. As someone who looks forward to summer festivals all year, I’d hate to see it go the way as other long-lost fests of yesteryear, so this could be the deathblow, or there could be another, even more lackluster and worse-attended run next year to bring the whole thing to a sputtering halt. Who knows, maybe next year will be some outrageous, must-see headliners and properly thought out support acts to really revitalize the whole Mayhem experience and make it cool again. The more music the better, so I’m definitely hoping for the best here.
Chip McCabe: I’m probably the last person who should be responding to this question because in the entire existence of the Mayhem Fest I’ve never once purchased a ticket and only attended the four or five times I did for some sort of press purposes. For someone like myself, who likes their metal as extreme as possible on most days, this is a festival that has offered little to be excited about. Every single year there would be that one band – Motorhead, Amon Amarth, King Diamond, Cannibal Corpse, etc. – that I would spend money to see, but not the money required for entry into a festival where I’d have to wade through ten hours of stuff I find boring first.

O.k., now that I’ve gotten the cranky, elitist, old man answer out of my system let’s discuss this from a business perspective. Why is Mayhem crashing and burning this year? Couple reasons. First, you can’t keep repeating main stage bands (even Slayer) and expect people to get excited. It’s just common sense. It’s like that local band that plays seven shows in a 15 mile radius within ten days and then wonders why no one comes to their shows. Over-saturation is a problem most bands and promoters just don’t comprehend. Second, you can’t cut back on stages and expect people to get excited. If you’ve offered 3-4 stages in years past and then announce you are only doing two it better damn well be because you’ve scored the best line-up ever. This year Mayhem did the opposite. They dumped two stages, rolled out their weakest line-up to date and expected the lowered ticket price to make-up the difference. Not how it works on any level, and frankly they should have seen this train wreck coming. If a fest like Maryland Death Fest decided to cut down to only one stage next year do you think their ticket sales would remain as insanely good as they are now? Nope.

Third, mix up the fucking line-up! This year every single second stage act was a carbon copy of each other. My 15-year old daughter turned to me during Thy Art Is Murder and said, “Didn’t we see this band already?” True story. Unprompted. Oh, and dear dude from TAIM…you play for a ‘shit-ton’ of people every night? You played for about 500 kids in Hartford last weekend. if that was a club show that would be HUGE. But you aren’t playing club shows anymore Toto. Which leads me to #4: You better make sure all these bands will sell X number of tickets on their own. Mayhem bookers clearly didn’t do that this year. Slayer and King Diamond had about 3,000 people watching them in Hartford (based on the naked eye solely). The problem with that is that those two acts could go on tour together without any other bands and sell out 3k capacity venues every night.

Will Mayhem Fest be back next year? Probably not. Let’s be honest, if this festival had to cut down to two stages this year then they were probably already in financial dark waters. The guess here is that they are getting raked over the coals pretty much every night out. I can’t imagine the promoters would want to take on that financial responsibility. The other problem they are going to run into, and another reason why this festival is probably toast, is the bad press it’s received. Artists talk. The talk back stage at Hartford was not pleasant…from anyone. Good luck trying to get bigger bands who could sell out shows on their own to commit to a festival and some type of profit share when the last time out even the second stage bands were running their mouths to the press. No bueno for anyone involved.

Alix Valecillo: I’m probably gonna repeat what most have said but will likely add something new as I have never attended Mayhem or even plan on attending. While I understand the US metal scene is absurdly narrow compared to the European, it has gotten to the point that every year has become a joke of itself with the repetitions and “copy-paste” formula they’ve been doing these past years. It certainly didn’t help to cut back stages as I can’t  see a newly Thy Art fan raving insanely over seeing King Diamond  (considering I’ve heard such a blasphemous comment before) and by limiting the options, they cut back their reach to appeal old farts and filthy kids.

The bands: for christ outloud, they are just like 70000 tons of metal. Relying on the same bands they’ve booked before or the ones who already toured the US within the past 6 months, expecting for kids to be excited. While I keep seeing the same dudes raving over having bands that almost tour every single year (Slayer being one of those) i don’t see many people interested enough to drop their weekend plans and catch to almighty Kerry King and Friends playing the same set they did last year. King Diamond was this year’s savior, cause none, NONE of my friends ever said “I’m going for *not-KD* to Mayhem this year”.

Corporate absurdity: do you guys remember Summer Slaughter back in the days? It had bands from every background although we all know is a gigantic Sumerian Records jerk-off. From having Necrophagist to having Whitechapel every year basically explains what branding can do to a tour that expects to have a bigger appeal than European fests (I’d take the crappiest European fest over the best US “fest” lineup) and Mayhem has become exactly that. While they try to keep it “fresh” by bringing big names to get the largest crowds, you can still see them plugging bands that are business related to Rockstar Energy drink which happen to be the same as last year’s or previous year edition.

What could save the fest? Going back to the roots will definitely help; let me have many stages to choose the music of my liking instead of sticking to metalcore and deathcore i don’t care about; get bands that I’d be impressed and interested to see. Have Emperor headlining that fest and I would go in a heartbeat even if I have to deal with 10 hrs of horrible bands; reach out to upcoming BIG bands. That’s  a thing that festivals ignore and shouldn’t. Remember when Rings of Saturn was starting? Band was green but hell those fuckers could draw a crowd. As someone before said, this fest has been the gateway for many upcoming bands, is just a matter of having an eye for them.

And get black metal! Ok that’s just me but I’d go if they did.

Zach Shaw: Mr. Neilstein really hit the nail on the head regarding all the reasons why Mayhem Fest struggled this year. While the lineup is certainly the top issue (and don’t be fooled, the Slipknot tour absolutely was a big blow), there’s something to also be said about the growth in popularity destination hard rock festivals have gained in the States. These festivals are really upping their game with both its lineups and the overall experience they’re giving fans (even if many of them have overlapping lineups, they’ve done a great job marketing each festival’s own identities to a degree). And bands are realizing that rather than commit to a single festival tour, they can build their own headlining run to coincide with multiple festivals.

Yet this very surge in popularity is the exact reason why Mayhem Fest CANNOT turn into a destination fest. This could’ve been a solid plan a few years ago (in fact, I fully believe Ozzfest was heading in the right direction when they did just that in 2008, only to screw up by returning to old form in 2010), but now the market is cluttered with festivals. Mayhem Fest may be a recognizable brand, but it’ll have an uphill battle competing with the other, already established names in the field.

So how can Mayhem Fest save itself? Well, we all agree that Mayhem Fest needs a stronger lineup (which as this year proved turns out to be easier said than done). But the bigger battle Mayhem Fest has ahead of itself is re-capturing a sense of uniqueness; that special reason why anyone into loud music HAS to go to the tour or else they’ll regret it forever (whether it’s because of a specific lineup of bands, or just the unique environment the tour brings once a year to your local amphitheater). One small but effect start to fixing this is to bring back the multiple stages. Cutting it down to only two stages (a main and side stage) may seem like a solution to a smaller lineup and costs, but having those three stages (and fourth last year) really helped enhance the festival vibe. It’s a needed expense, and it’s not like they’d need more than five bands per stage.

But let me propose this: what if Mayhem Fest took a cue from their punk siblings Warped Tour, and book a handful of bigger names for select legs of the tour rather than the entire run? Sure, you risk alienating some fans who are disappointed that one of their favorite bands jumped off the tour right before it hits their town, and it might get expensive to book additional bands just for specific dates. However, that tactic might help attract bigger names who otherwise wouldn’t want to commit to an entire summer tour (for whatever reason), while still letting the tour flaunt that said band’s involvement. It could also help boost individual shows’ distinctiveness, without having to worry about an entire tour lineup turning stale midway through the summer. But then again, it still comes down to booking a better lineup (even if just for select dates), which given the pool tour bookers have to choose from lately, it may be a bigger problem beyond any tour’s control…

Zach Fehl: First thing’s first, I always have and still do love the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, and I  have attended six of the eight years that it has been around and come through Pittsburgh. As a fan, I have seen it from the very beginning, to (what I believe was) its peak years of 2011-13, to it’s 2014-15 slump. I can definitely say that I always have fun whether or not I’m thrilled by the line-up, but these past two years have really sat with me and I’ve spent a lot of time pretending to be the expert that I like think I am on the subject. Mayhem has always been a great middle of the road metal festival, bringing in the acclaimed acts like Slayer, Slipknot, Five Finger Death Punch, and Lamb of God while sprinkling the rest of the festival with the kind of treat bands that give the festival the niche credibility that metalheads demand (Let’s face it, we’re a picky and pretentious lot at times and I am certainly no exception to that).

I would argue that the headliners for these kinds of festivals really are the least important aspect of the show in terms of who brings in the crowd. Slayer has been through Pittsburgh at least four times that I know of in the last seven years with three of those shows being Mayhem Festival headline shows. They are very important in the regards that they should tie the whole festival together by being a generally agreeable show in the scene (Example: I don’t like Slayer but still think they’re a great band to see and hear.), but they are not the kind of acts that are going to make somebody want to jump in their car and drive 100 miles to see them when they’ll probably return next year. I stand firm when I say that I think that the main stage openers and side stage headliners (Yeah, you’re going to need more than just one) are the most important aspects of bringing in the fans of various metal sub-communities. Look to 2013 for example, those slots were filled by Mastodon, Amon Amarth, Machine Head, and Children of Bodom. Each of those bands  is big enough to headline their own US tour, together they made a force to be reckoned with and then you still had two more bands after them to close out the night, Rob Zombie and Five Finger Death Punch.

Pick bands with simpler shows. When Godsmack played a few years ago, they said to the crowd that they weren’t going to play a big fancy show, they were just going to go out and rock. They then proceeded to absolutely kill it live, like they always have anytime I’ve seen them. While seeing Slayer with giant inverted flaming crosses as well as a custom video show behind them on stage is cool and all, at the end of the day I quite frankly do not care if they are there or not. Don’t get me wrong, I went to see King Diamond but from far away in the lawn where the majority of your patrons are going to be standing for these big festivals, nobody outside the pavilion cares about the elaborate stage show they can’t even see. It’s the band and their music that gets fans in the door, not the fancy pyro and light shows. Save those things for the destination festivals, they have no place being there if you’re trying to be economical. Hypothetically speaking, if I can’t even tell which shifting blur on stage is King Diamond himself from the lawn, what makes you think that his grandma dying on stage has any affect on whether or not I enjoy the show? Every band besides THE headliner will be playing during the daylight and the amphitheaters with screens for the lawn won’t even have them on or they’ll be too dim to be seen with any clarity. Trim the fat, make it about the music.

I still have high hopes for the festival, and believe that based on the lessons learned from this year that the organizers will take this year in stride as a valuable learning opportunity to better help themselves for future years. If it comes down to it, and you can’t put on the best show that you can, it might be best to just take a year off let the hype build up awhile. I’m looking forward to seeing what the organizers do to shut up all the dissenters and doubters.

Also if Alix is allowed to request black metal, consider this my request for more power metal. *wink wink* Sabaton would be a great choice.

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