Thomas Jensen, the co-founder of Wacken Open Air, is generally a very optimistic person. In the old Viking tradition, he’s only scared that the sky might fall on his head one day.
In over 30 years of staging the world's most famous metal gathering that's never happened, even if black skies and thunderstorms threatened the entire event at times.
Wacken never faltered, until Germany followed the world in placing a ban on public gatherings. After 30 years, in which the festival grew from an open-air party with 800 guests to a gathering of 75,000 metal lovers, the 31st edition of Wacken Open Air had to be cancelled.
A large portion of the metal world has always embraced the digital world, and vice versa, especially when it comes to gaming. Jensen, co-founder Holger Hübner and their team have been expanding the virtual Wacken universe for a couple of years, and they had been envisioning a digital streaming offering for a while.
The Covid crisis made it a priority. The result is called Wacken World Wide, a mixture of live concerts on a mixed reality stage, footage of legendary W:O:A concerts, as well as artist interviews, which were streamed on multiple channels across the original festival dates, July 29-Aug. 1.
"It was never meant to be a substitute for the real deal. I'm a strong believer that live music is live music, and nothing in the universe can substitute it in any way. But we're always experimenting with new ways of getting in touch with our audience,” Jensen explained.
When the event ban came, "we immediately got together and thought about what we could do for our community, our fans, and our bands," he continued. And while he really enjoyed watching artists serenade their audience from home during lockdown, he was aware that a metal show had to be presented with "a bit more production and shebang.”
Once sponsor and broadcasting partner Deutsche Telekom was on board, things moved fast. "Although the team had to do night shifts, everybody was happy, because after two-and-a-half months of doing nothing, it was at least some form of business as usual. Even our pyro technician was on site," said Jensen.
It was quite a bold move from the participating bands, including Sabaton, Heaven Shall Burn, Kreator, Blind Guardian, In Extremo, Hämatom and Beyond The Black, to agree to take part in a mixed reality live stream, which was unchartered territory for most involved. "We all were quite nervous, and I was doing promotion and had to tell everybody that we invented the best thing since sliced bread,” which was only possible because Jensen had confidence in his team. "There was plenty of opportunity for a really big fuck up, but it was exciting. It captured a lot of what live production is about,” he said.
The overall view count for Wacken World Wide reached 11 million live content video views, which includes all views of the live stream and festival content on the various platforms. "We're a bit overwhelmed about the success, let's see where we can take it. I think the weekend showed that there are still ways to connect," Jensen continued.
The big question will be how to finance these events. "On the sponsoring side, we will probably face times where companies are not willing or able to spend a lot. On the political side, nothing's really changed: it seems like culture, rock and roll, we're always the last ones in the queue when it comes to delivering the cheque. We have to find new income streams to make culture survive," said Jensen, who's encouraged by the 11 million viewers that tuned into Wacken World Wide. If just a fraction of them paid for a ticket, it would solve a lot of questions.
Jensen appreciates all the efforts promoters are making at the moment, from drive-in concerts to venues where guests are fenced off from each other. However, "it's not really [economic], the numbers don't add up. No band will survive on that, and no promoter either. But at least we're experimenting. Separating guests can be interesting, it depends on the music. If you go to a nice soul gig, it will be great to be in a separated area, maybe with a double bed or something like it, I would pay a lot of money for that. But if you have a punk rock or heavy metal show, it's really difficult."
Two positive aspects of the forced downtime for Jensen include the opportunity to spend more time with his family ("I went through a lot of my old records and showed them to my kids”), as well as the loyalty shown by Wacken's community. 91% of 2020 ticket buyers held on to their tickets and chose to transfer them to next year's edition.
All remaining tickets were given away via waiting lists and a lottery procedure, so that next year's event is once again sold out. Fans have also been spending a lot on merchandise, which supports jobs, according to Jensen, who said, "the scene is sticking together."
However, he's worried about what the lockdown is doing to the industry he loves: "So many colleagues, the little clubs, the stage hands, guitar techs, light operators - a lot of people are struggling. For those with cash in bank, it's melting away like ice in the sun. We're facing difficult times. It's a little bit scary, but you can't foresee the future.
Jensen concluded: "Just keep the music going. I want live music back. The kids are missing out. I went to my first punk rock shows at 15, 16. If they miss that, just staying at home, I think that's not good."