Beer Pipelines, Metal & Family: Wacken Open Air Turns 30

Wacken Open Air Turns 30:
– Wacken Open Air Turns 30:
Meet Thomas Jensen & Holger Hübner
There are many metal festivals but only one Wacken Open Air. The promoters of the world’s largest heavy metal gathering just completed a successful 29th edition Aug. 2-4, and went on sale for next year’s anniversary shortly after.
All 75,000 tickets sold out within days, grossing some $19 million, which highlights the status Wacken enjoys among fans. And not just among fans. The festival’s media and guest list is enormous, bringing the number of participants up from 90,000 to 95,000. Pollstar caught up with festival co-founder Thomas Jensen to find out what makes this event so special.
Jensen and co-CEO Holger Hübner played soccer together as kids. They didn’t go to the same school, but in a small village like Wacken, their paths were bound to cross on a regular basis.
As young men, they shared a love for metal. Jensen played in a cover band called Skyline, and Hübner was a DJ. “We organized bus tours from Wacken to metal concerts throughout the whole republic; Mötley Crew in Gelsenkirchen, or AC/DC and Metallica in Hannover, but also smaller concerts in Bremen’s Stadthalle or Hamburg. We also rented venues to host Skyline concerts, and learned how to take care of food and beverage ourselves,” Jensen remembers.
Like so many conversations in Wacken, the one that led to the foundation of Wacken Open Air took place at the local pub, Landgasthof zur Post. Jensen, Hübner and a friend, who was part of the local biker club, philosophized about organizing an open-air rock party on the town’s multi-purpose field.
Das Ist GuT:
– Das Ist GuT:
Metalheads flocked to Wacken Open Air again this year, marking the 29th successful edition of the metal mega-fest.
The first edition with bands including Skyline, Axe ‘n Sex, 5th Avenue, and Wizzard took place in 1990, welcoming 800 guests on day one, and 600 on day two. It took two years to get the first international act, Saxon, in 1992. The 1996 edition headlined by Böhse Onkelz broke the 10,000 attendance mark for the first time and, the year after, Motörhead attracted between 18,000 and 20,000 people.
After that, Jensen and Hübner had less and less trouble convincing the international metal elite to make the journey to this remote village in the north of Germany. Jensen remains grateful to the promoters and agents that took a chance on him and his partner in those early days, and shared their valuable insights, including legendary German promoter Rainer Hänsel, one of Fritz Rau’s protégés, who passed away in October. 
Over the years, Wacken Open Air has worked with virtually all of the country’s major promoters, who helped shape a lineup that established the festival as the world’s Metal Mecca, including Wizard Promotions, MLK, and Joe Rambock. Jensen plans to continue to work with everybody in the game. “I’m a big fan of the free market. Competition is good for business. If someone’s doing a good job and becomes the market leader, there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Jensen, who could have sold Wacken many times in the past. Suitors, including the odd bank, have been lining up for years.
“We used to be regarded as the grubby urchins, but today every insurance company is using a Fender Stratocaster on its ads,” Jensen said. “We know how it feels when no one wants you, and we know how it feels when everybody wants you. You’ve got to be careful. For us, the bands and the fans are the most important, but we’re also not afraid of working with corporations.”
ICS Festival Service, Jensen and Hübner’s company, also promotes Full Metal Mountain, a metal and skiing extravaganza; Full Metal Holiday, an all-inclusive vacation and concert series in Mallorca, Spain; and Full Metal Cruise, which puts 2,000 metalheads onto a cruise ship, with the package price including the beer.
Beer, Germany’s beverage of choice, plays a major part in the Wacken cosmos. For a couple of years, the village of Wacken has had its own local festival-themed brewery, which Jensen and Hübner have no stake in, although they know the guys who run it very well. According to Jensen, the beloved beverage helps connect people. Since 2017, all beer at Wacken Open Air is supplied via a pipeline. It enables the promoters to keep the festival’s infield free of big vehicles, which protects the ground and improves sight lines.
“I’m increasingly being asked about alcohol-free beer, we need to get better at serving that on site. I also think we should be picking up this whole craft beer trend. You don’t find that kind of beer at our festival,” Jensen explained. 

– Keeping It Real:
When questioned what word comes to mind first when thinking about Wacken Open Air, Jensen, pictured here with Hübner, said: “Family gathering.”
When questioned about his event philosophy, Jensen said, half-joking, “expect the unexpected.” He added that ideas are worked out by the team, in close and constant dialogue with fans and bands. According to Jensen, there is still room for ideas, since ICS’s events weren’t cannibalizing each other. 
Besides making things more interesting for the promoters themselves, a multitude of events are important for up-and-coming bands, who need as many gig opportunities as they could get. ICS’s latest event, Werner – das Rennen, blends motor sports with a music festival and is based on the famous German cartoon “Werner.” Said Jensen: “We wanted to revive some of that wackiness of the past, some freedom in an over-regulated world. For us, rock music always is about freedom and, to a certain extent, wackiness.”
Jensen and Hübner may be pulling the strings at the main event, but the villagers of Wacken have created many of their own stories over the years. There’s one farm that’s been hosting the same group of visitors from Korea each year. Some of these relationships have been fostered over 30 years and will be cultivated irrespective of what happens to Wacken Open Air.
It’s one of the things Jensen loves most about the festival: the little side-stories that are generated during the event. Jensen thinks that it is this community aspect that characterizes the metal scene. “Everybody’s worried about losing headliners,” he said. “I don’t think that’s true for the metal scene. Metallica is the biggest metal band, but Metallica isn’t the metal scene.”
He added that as long as live companies continued to take chances on up-and-coming talent, there is no reason to worry about the future of the metal genre in particular, and the live business in general. “Promoters need to let bands play, even if there’s no money in it. I hear it all the time, even from our tour managers, who think having to bother with a support act is a nuisance. I’m trying to make the case that one should be able to deal with a little bit of nuisance.
You can’t just be looking at efficiency, you need to give the young bands a chance again and again,” said Jensen, whose own festival has helped shape the careers of many artists, including Volbeat or Hammerfall, who’ve played their first gigs at Wacken and have been returning ever since.
Jensen also thinks politicians should recognize rock music as culture. “I don’t even want the same treatment as classical music, but we could do with a little bit of love as well. And if monetary support is not possible, it could help to lift the regulatory hurdles preventing small events from launching.” 
Last but not least, he called for reason in times when noise complaints have become one of the main threats to live music venues worldwide. Residents “should be happy that there are spaces where people can meet to listen to music,” Jensen said. “Of course it’s going to get loud every now and again, but that’s just how it is.”