August 4th, 2002

The year 2002 marked the 16th edition of Jack Koshick’s Milwaukee Metalfest, the longest-running metal festival in the United States. While it only draws a tiny fraction of the entire U.S. population of metal fans, it can be argued that the sheer scope of the event, the history behind it, and historical lack of alternatives make the Metalfest one of the most important weekends of the year for the US metal community. Or at the least, it’s one of the events worth writing a large report on. The Metalfest has understandably gone through a lot of changes throughout the years, but reports of many of the ups and downs can be inaccurate, with some amounting to little more than rumor. This can be attributed to the limited number of people who actually attend the fest each year, the poor Internet/media presence of the Metalfest organization, and the general tendency of people to focus on the negative. I decided this year that I wanted to write up a detailed and hopefully unbiased report of the Milwaukee Metalfest, both for my own historical records, and for any metal fans who want to stay apprised of the state of this venerable event. I don’t have any connections with any band, the festival, or the industry; I go simply as a fan, but I have now attended every Milwaukee Metalfest since 1998, so this was my fifth festival. That experience, combined with the fact that I took lots of notes over the weekend (and didn’t have a drop of alcohol!) should hopefully make my viewpoint worth reading. On with it…

Advance tickets for this year’s festival were being sold for $58, plus the usual Ticketmaster fees ($36 for a single-day ticket). Lucky for the concertgoer, and unfortunate for bands, this festival has a long-standing tradition of making the unsigned bands sell tickets (making it some sort of pseudo-pay-to-play). With so many bands playing, and nation-wide connections through the Internet, it’s now easy to find bands trying to cut their losses by selling tickets below face value. I bought mine from Michigan band Summer Dying for $45. They’re a very cool band, and had nice professional setup on their website where I ordered their “package” of a Metalfest ticket and their CD. With 133 bands scheduled, that $45 ticket price worked out to 34 cents per band.

The show started at 2PM on Friday, July 27th. I took Friday off from work and left suburban Chicago before 7AM so that I could cover the 80 miles to Milwaukee on my bicycle and hopefully make it to the show sometime near the beginning. I checked into my motel, which was out by the airport, really expensive for a Super 8, and one of the few places in the city with vacancies, at 1:30. Saw several groups of “metal” people around the motel. After showering, I caught the bus downtown to the venue.

The show was being held at the U.S. Cellular Arena, and for some reason I had gotten it into my head that this was simply the new name for the Milwaukee Auditorium, where the show had been held the three previous years. When I arrived at the Auditorium, looked through the front doors, and could see clear to the sky where the entire backside of the building had been demolished, I realized this was not the case. Still, there was the usual crowd of black shirts milling around, so I quickly discovered that the festival was being held one building over, in a place I had walked past many times at previous fests but never paid much attention to. I have no idea why there are two nearly identical entertainment facilities sitting side-by-side in Milwaukee, but I guess it’s nice to have a backup when they’re renovating one of them.

Upon approaching the security guards to enter the venue, I discovered that they weren’t allowing any bags inside. This was a bit of a surprise, since they had always been allowed at the Milwaukee Auditorium, and the website had explicitly said that cameras would be allowed, so I just assumed bags to carry the cameras would be allowed as well. Unfortunately, I had brought a small bag with me. However, I had left my camera back at the motel, since I didn’t fully trust the message on the website. So I didn’t have all that much stuff in my bag; I stuffed most of it in my pockets, left a book and some food in the bag, and put it down in a corner. I wouldn’t have been happy losing the bag, but I wasn’t going to ride a bus for an hour or more to save it. Well, it was still there at the end of the night (security had been near it the whole time), so it really ended up being a non-issue. Of course, once I got inside, I saw plenty of people with bags, including large backpacks, and heard reports that some security guards were letting bags in and some weren’t. Oh well.

As I stepped into the main arena, my heart sank. At the far end, I saw two stages set up side-by-side (or more accurately, one stage divided into two) and instantly feared a repeat of the first March Metal Meltdown, where bands reportedly played side-by-side separated only by a curtain. There wasn’t even a curtain in this case! As it turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Instead of having two bands going at the same time, one band would play while the next band would be setting up on the other stage. Then when the first band finished, the second would be able to get going within seconds. Apparently the organizers had gained at least SOME common sense since the New Jersey debacle.

Since there was very little information posted around the venue, and since it wouldn’t have been “metal” to ask questions, it actually took me quite a bit of time to locate the other two stages. They were off in a side area, basically in a room under the second-level seats of the arena. And again, it was two stages side-by-side, a good bit smaller than the other stages, but adequate for the area they were in.

Overall, the U.S. Cellular Arena is a mid-sized sports/entertainment venue, which apparently hosts some college basketball games and has 8,910 permanent seats. Access was open to all the seats surrounding the floor, so there was plenty of room to sit down in relative isolation. As a professional entertainment facility, it was fully staffed with security and concessions. Prices weren’t totally outrageous, and I had three Italian beef sandwiches for $3.75 apiece. Restrooms were clean and accessible, water was available for free, and air conditioning kept everything comfortable (although the small-stage area was getting a tad bit rank by the end of the fest).

There were obviously no seats on the floor of the arena for this event; instead, the stage(s) was set up at one end of the floor, and vendor tables were set up from about the half-court line to the other end. A few more vendors were also located at the back of the area hosting the smaller stages. It seemed like most of the usual labels were present (Century Media, Metal Blade, Relapse, Earache, Napalm, Dark Symphonies, The End). There were also a few smaller labels, the retail stores (Nightfall, and a couple I don’t remember seeing before, including one place from Puerto Rico). I didn’t do too much shopping since I was on my bike and had limited carrying capacity, but I did pick up the new Agalloch. Curiously, The End was selling most titles for $12, which is more than they sell for online, especially if you include their shipping cost. I guess they didn’t feel any need to undercut the competition, which wasn’t selling anything cheaper. Also, the last several years a few of the labels would drop all their prices a couple dollars in the last few hours of the festival so they wouldn’t have to drag so many CDs home with them. As far as I can tell, that didn’t happen this year for some reason.

Professional wrestling unfortunately reappeared after being absent from last year’s fest. Thankfully, the ring was very small, positioned at the extreme rear of the venue, and very quiet. So you almost had to be looking for it to be bothered by it, unlike the time a few years ago when the music of the Gathering was accompanied by the sounds wrestlers making speeches and throwing each other onto the mat. “Porn stars” is the other great crossover idea of Jack Koshick. The porn star in attendance this year was quite frightening to see up close, and she really needs to hit the gym if she wants to get back down to cum-gurgling weight.

Back to the music, the side-by-side stage system actually worked out remarkably well. All bands except for the very biggest names got 20 minutes to play. To someone who goes to normal concerts, that might sound like an incredibly short amount of time, but at a festival like this, it’s almost perfect. There’s just so much music that after hearing 20 minutes of one thing, it’s fine to move on to the next. At previous festivals, there was only 30 or 35 minutes scheduled between bands, and since bands would spend 10 or 15 minutes setting up, the playing time worked out to be about the same. This way, there was no time wasted waiting for a band to set up, and there were only two bands ever playing at the same time so conflicts in deciding who to see were minimized. And since most bands understood their time was short, they kept the on-stage banter to a minimum and just blasted through the best that they had. The only downside to this setup was that even the big-name bands still had very little playing time, most only 30 minutes, with only a few up to 40. To sum up, if you paid for a ticket just to see one or two of the “headliners”, you might have felt ripped off; but if you were like most people who were there to see a wide spectrum of bands, then things worked out quite well.

For the most part, the schedule was kept to very tightly. The stage managers would constantly be informing bands how much time they had left, and generally, bands didn’t really complain or try to stretch it out too much. Although a few times on the smaller stages the crew did actually cut off the PA when bands went too long; that was sort of entertaining because it would usually take a little while for the bands to realize they’d been cut off, and they’d be up there thrashing away while sounding like they were playing through a transistor radio. But I’d say that for the majority of the festival, neither stage was off schedule by more than five minutes. At the worst, the main stage was about 25 minutes behind schedule late Friday night. Normally that would still be quite acceptable and not even worth mentioning, except that it caused me to miss Arch Enemy since I had to catch the last bus back to my motel.

So as long as you accepted the 20-minute set lengths, the only remaining complaint left about the scheduling was that the schedules were not announced in advance. There was no schedule information at all until about a week before the festival, when the Metalfest website finally posted a general list saying which day each would be playing, but specific times would not be available until arrival at the festival. This made it difficult to time your arrival to see specific bands, but again, I think most people were already resolved to spend most of the weekend there anyway. To their credit, several large schedules were posted on walls around the venue, so it was pretty easy to see what was going on when. Each day I spent about 20 minutes copying the playing times down onto printouts I had made in advance which contained short notes about each band. That might sound pretty dorky, but I wasn’t the only one there doing it. I read in another report that some security guards weren’t allowing pens inside; perhaps I snuck mine through, which is good because I would have been really pissed if I had been without a pen.

Finally, the topic of attendance. I was expecting an extremely low turnout for this year’s festival. For one, there was a dearth of genuine “headliner”-type bands, so there wasn’t a big nationwide draw. Some of the bigger bands (Arch Enemy) were already in the midst of U.S. tours, and with more metal tours popping up every year, people just don’t have the incentive to travel to Milwaukee that they used to. Communication was also worse than it has been in recent years, with the late schedule announcements and lack of news releases. The last couple years Mazur PR had been handling promotions, but they didn’t seem to be involved this year. Finally, it seemed like attendance had taken a pretty steep drop the previous year, so I figured that trend would continue.

It’s difficult to make estimates (especially with the new venue) but the attendance actually seemed comparable to last year, maybe a little less. My best guess says there were around 1000 people there at the peak times. If I was told that there were any more than 1500 people, I would be quite surprised and skeptical. I didn’t see the performances of a lot of the biggest bands, but I don’t think any single band drew much more than 200-250 people to the front of the stage. At any given time there would also be 150-200 people up in the seats surrounding the arena, another 100-150 browsing the merchandise, and then maybe 300 people in area with the side stages.

Surprisingly, the peak attendance levels didn’t seem too much different than the off-peak attendance. I’ve never arrived particularly early at the festival before (I believe last year I got there after 7PM both nights), so this year was my first chance to see what it was like at 2PM on Friday and 11AM on Saturday. I was expecting to see tumbleweeds blowing through on Saturday morning, but it was pretty well filled up, I’d say at least 60% by noon. Apparently the people still making the effort to go to this thing really want to get their money’s worth.

The crowd was the same diverse lot of people its always been, and never presented any difficulties, especially with so much room for everyone to spread out. The mosh pits were large in size but low in density, and I only saw one crowd surfer the whole time. Every year there are a whole bunch of homeless crusties who camp outside the venue, and unfortunately they seemed to have no trouble getting inside this time. They can be pretty annoying, since they’re usually falling-down drunk, dirty, smelly, and they tend to get into explosive arguments with one another; this year they would chase each other throughout the venue at a dead run before passing out. A bit unfortunate that the most troublesome people at the event weren’t even really the “metal” people, but I guess they weren’t even that big of a deal.

So all in all, it was a long weekend with a lot of music and a lot of work (I was actually so worn out that I had no trouble falling asleep for an hour or so on Friday evening amidst the blast of brutal death metal). I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, because it requires the attendee to put in quite a bit of effort of his own in order to get much value returned to him. But for me, it was definitely worth it, and if the festival continues for a 17th year, I’m sure I’ll be there.

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