The Rock Festival Dilemma: Creating a Culture Alternative

Remember when attending a music festival didn’t require tolerating an ocean of realtime vicariousness behind glowing screens, ludicrous front-and-center VIP barricades and invasive corporate “brand ambassadors” shoving beer coozies and tacky keychains into your hands at every turn? It’s been quite a few years, so take your time digging into the memory banks past the selfie sticks and Native American headdresses.

If you can remember, you’re not alone. I’m standing on a field in Sacramento, exhilarated and enthralled by the first truly collective rock-fest experience I’ve seen in nearly two decades: the Monster Energy Aftershock Festival, a finely-tuned weekend festival event that’s evolved from a dusty single-day hard rock blast in 2012 into a campaway haven for rockers, metalheads and the general music-maniac hoi polloi. Only here, a completely different value system operates, a social currency somehow divorced from the gadget-obsessed and endlessly recalibrating fickle confines of pop culture’s primary colors. 

We’ve reached Peak Festival in America, where every producer, promoter and corporate entity is fighting for placement in a grossly oversaturated market. Live concerts comprise 32% of what we spend on music, according to the 2015 Nielsen Music Report, and the market is being met with more large-scale productions every year. But few of these festivals are in for the long haul, missing the funding and vision required to draw sustainable talent, crowds and brands. New York City is ground zero for this kind of throw-everything-and-see-what-sticks festival approach, with upstarts fighting for breathing room as event giant AEG goes deeper than ever on their efforts with Governors Ball and beyond.

The rock festival circuit is in an identity crisis. The Mayhem festival died a graceless, blame-carousel death last year, choking on mismanagement and poor presentation. Anyone over 16 who’s been to Warped Tour wouldn’t go back if you paid them; when bands on a festival bill are shaking donation cups in the crowd just to eat between tour stops, the paradigm has failed to the point of disgrace.

So GNR is headlining Coachella, the highest-grossing festival in the world (last year saw $85 million in tickets sales alone). But what good does it do rockers of all variety to trek out to the middle of the desert for just one other substantial rock act on the day GNR plays? That’s predatory novelty, not about the experience. This is not for the fans.

This is the grand dilemma of music events in 2016: to most promoters, the festival experience has become secondary to maximum profit growth. The question isn’t whether we need seven hundred fests with nearly identical lineups each Summer, because we clearly don’t. The question is how to make the event memorable for the right reasons, with the right energy. How does any one festival hope to make any kind of sustained impact on the culture which feeds it? 

By cutting a new path. 

Chester Bennington with Stone Temple Pilots at Aftershock Fest, 10.25.15

Here’s something you don’t see at Coachella: a Dad taking in the experience with his son and their buddies, a cultural rite of passage for the making. Maybe they share the kid’s first beer. Maybe the kid gets to see his Dad let loose and rock out in a passing of the passion torch befitting of the great veteran acts. Meaning and value finally enters the conversation in a way that does not involve a singular vision of profits, but rather the powerfully unforgettable experience we’re all hoping to have when we trek out to the middle of God knows where for a music weekend.

It is in this void that Aftershock has found its footing, and discovered an untapped mine of Americana thriving in the vast triangulated expanse between neon fuckboys in girl pants, the dumb-pandering cancer of bro country and the active-rock Midwest rage caricatures who never got over their first breakup – or those tribal tattoos.

Here is where you see the difference between talking about life and actually living. The selfies are scarce at Aftershock, the distraction gadgets holstered across every field and hill on Sacramento’s gorgeous Gibson Ranch. Nobody is trying to outshine what’s happening onstage – giving a fuck is actually, for once, finally, the cool thing to do. The sense of excitement, exhilaration is palpable, reminding me I’ve spent far too many nights standing among the dead-eyed Tinder swipers at shows in L.A. over the last decade.

Clutch at Aftershock Fest, 10.24.15

But Aftershock has found a new thread, and the way they’re approaching the festival ecosystem may just defibrillate the soul of rock fests in America. They’re mixing vibrant alt rock colors into what was typically a monolithic skull-and-crossbones metal template of black on black, side-stepping the big-box corporate model and building peripheral excitement through on-site activities, enhanced Gourmet Man Food attractions and more. Even Slipknot’s Corey Taylor got involved in the wrestling matches among WWE NXT stars, laying hands on Baron Corbin after a lengthy social media taunt-off. 

What used to be a metalhead mecca for sleaze-rock and active-rock bands like Buckcherry, Megadeth and Theory of a Deadman has blossomed into a juggernaut rock experience that opens doors of inclusion to otherwise stiffly segregated genres. The 2015 Aftershock lineup decimated all other rock fest bills of the year, with an artist spectrum spanning from Slipknot to a reunited Faith No More, Marilyn Manson to Eagles of Death Metal, hometown heroes Deftones to Clutch, Stone Temple Pilots to Bring Me The Horizon, and many other worthy names. 

Watch a clip from Deftones’ biggest-ever hometown audience

Most fascinatingly, the alt-rock heroes came out in force. Coachella’s reunion obsessions didn’t have shit on Failure’s victory lap at Aftershock, or the theatrically-flowered spectacle of Faith No More. Blast-rock duo Death From Above 1979 was on hand, as well as L.A. bohemian royalty Jane’s Addiction, Red Fang, Helmet, All That Remains and more. 

The crowds responded to the tune of 45,000 strong, selling out both days of music, camping and other points of interest. The festival’s economic impact for the Sacramento region is estimated at $15-20 million, guaranteeing an open door for years to come – to the undoubtable delight of sponsors Jack Daniels, Coors Light, Jucy Rentals and beyond.

The engine behind Aftershock is Danny Wimmer Presents, a Los Angeles promotion/production company determined to change the festival landscape. And they’re succeeding. DWP is a producer of some of the biggest rock festivals in America, including Rock On The Range, Monster Energy Welcome To Rockville, Monster Energy Fort Rock, Monster Energy Carolina Rebellion, Louder Than Life and beyond. Their partnership with concert giant AEG has curated the World’s Loudest Month festival series, spanning 8 festivals and half a million rock fans across five consecutive weekends in April/May. But while the majority of DWP’s festival events operate in the eastern half of the U.S., Aftershock’s positioning in Sacramento makes it a nucleus standalone attraction. 

Is Aftershock a one-style-fits-all event? No – at least, not yet. But with a 25% festival sales uptick from 2014 and a number of new additions to DWP’s executive team and support personnel, aggressive growth is planned for 2016. 

“We are taking steps with the festival to create an experience with no boundaries,” Danny Wimmer told me in November, just following Aftershock’s most successful iteration yet. “Bands like Weezer, Awolnation, Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, and Death From Above 1979 are all bridge acts that allow us to take the festival to the alternative side of rock. We’re emulating what people are listening to on their headphones. People use the term ‘iPod generation.’ We live in a shuffle world. I want our playlist to hit all groups and genres of rock. Alternative, metal, and straight down the middle rock ‘n’ roll.”

68 at Aftershock Fest, 10.25.15

One core component will make this possible beyond DWP’s signature attention to vital details: passion for the artists as well as the fans. Danny cares, and his perspicacious vision is shared with intensity by those in DWP’s upper ranks.

One such example: thanks to the wild-eyed insistence of DWP supervisor Matt Akana I found my new favorite band ’68, who are exactly the cats you want to discover at a festival. Playing early in the day on the distant Coors Light stage, the duo of Josh Scogin (formerly of The Chariot) and drummer Michael McClellan delivered a devastatingly awesome, spitfire-furious set of blast-rock grooves so foundationally delicious, furiously fun, they brought motherfuckers running from all directions, sight unseen. I watched this happen, laughing with joy, for what felt like five minutes. 

Whether shifting mid-song into a spontaneous and explosive cover of ATDI’s “One Armed Scissor” or tearing Nirvana’s “Tourette’s” a new asshole with beastly gusto, their set was Aftershock’s come-to-Jesus moment, the diamond discovery we don’t dare hope for anymore in the Derivative Sea of modern sound. With one album and a reckless, staggering fury roaring through shredded throats and pulverized skins, the future is very bright for these boys.

We need those moments now more than ever, as every band with corporate endorsements and 360 deals are forced into the industry lexicon, as if they’re most deserving of their status. Or deserving at all. 

“I hope all your wildest fantasies come true tonight,” Josh deadpanned the swarming midday crowd, rivulets of sweat streaming down his neck. “If you know all the words to this song… I do too. I’m not impressed.” Half the crowd busted out laughing. That’s the spirit of Aftershock in a phrase – the ability to rock the fuck out with magnificent power, but without taking oneself too seriously. 


The trade-off for vapid Instagram fashionistas and molly-addled simpletons losing their shit to the sounds of Optimus Prime jacking off with a fax machine? Aside from men in tights doing scripted violence acrobatics, you’re bound to see some odd fashion choices, not limited to merch booths pushing horror masks and spiked leather collars, with attendees buying in force. But hell, haven’t we seen enough grown-ass adults with full-body tights and fuzzy fox ears at Bonnaroo, Ultra and the like, sucking neon pacifiers with pupils big enough to fall into? The trade-off isn’t exactly a downstep – nor is the off-menu drug of choice, which seems to lean far more in the direction of weed than any pills or mystery powders. The resulting behavior – and relatable humanity – is directly indicative of the cultural difference in play. 

Regardless, mainstream will never accept the monochromatic heavy-handedness of active rock. There’s no modern use for an aesthetic spawned from the catacomb hideaways where the last of the thinning 80s hair bands reside, the lone survivors of the Cock Rock Holocaust after Cobain’s eliminative arrival turpentined the entire canvas of popular music. 

This accessibility tightrope presents an enormous challenge for DWP, but with an eye on legitimacy and crossover acts they’re on track to make Aftershock an all-inclusive alternative to the existing festival monsters, with a different value system and a crystalline awareness of what fans want most in a music fest. They’re not betting the farm on expired legacy acts, they’re incorporating the new school with the classic in a current arena of sound. 

“We value the consumer experience more than anything,” Wimmer stressed. “We realize that the dollar matters, and it’s our responsibility to provide attendees their best weekend of the year – from the food and beverage options, to secondary entertainment, to the bands they came to see. This is their vacation, so I want to give them a full 360 experience.”

It’s this philosophy that keeps Aftershock’s VIP sections from being the disruptively luxurious nightmares we see at most other fests. At Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo and beyond, these “jacuzzi sections” as Eddie Vedder calls them are central to the action, separating the majority from the stage with an additional 25 feet of “fuck you, I paid more” barricades which sit empty for 90% of the day. This directly impedes the experience of the general populace, an unacceptable trend.

At Aftershock, the VIP perks are extensive, but not at the expense of the General Admission majority. VIP sections are peripheral. 

Eagles of Death Metal at Aftershock Fest, 10.25.15 

“The value of entertainment is a tricky thing,” Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes observed backstage just after a riotous set of sex-rock delight, two weeks before the Paris horror. “Aftershock is presenting a strong rock n’ roll variety show with class, but it’s real enough that you can shake your ass onstage and the girls know just what to do.” 

Hughes applauds Aftershock’s efforts to push the envelope with finesse, comparing it to the original spirit of rock n’ roll rebellion. “In my opinion, Little Richard was the original death metal. They burned his records, he wore paint and sang Tutti fuckin’ Fruity. But he was also able to deliver to the most conservative and innocent audience imaginable. If it don’t fit don’t force it, make it easy, get it greasy. That makes him a genius.”

“It’s not one-dimensional, that’s for sure,” Clutch bassist Dan Maines later observed on-site, where the band played their tremendous new LP Psychic Warfare in full, flat-out rejecting the idea that a band needs to play their hits to obliterate an audience. “There’s camping here, rolling hills… having multiple styles of music is an experience that benefits everybody. It’s a very diverse stage, and a real music fan will appreciate that. If your CD collection is only black metal, you’re not really a music fan, you’re obsessed with one specific thing. The average person has all types of music in their catalogue, and I really like being a part of something that tunes into the right variety. It’s a good thing for music in general, I think it’s important to have events like this to celebrate a much wider spectrum in rock.”

Celebrating an inclusive spirit in the widening rock spectrum is inevitable, a necessity for the genre’s overdue evolution. Much like the bitter fragmentation of EDM at the turn of the century, rock has been in a divisive rut of genre rigidity for years, ridicule volleys sapping goodwill in all directions. But perhaps a tipping point has come in the collective music world shutting down former pillar Phil Anselmo’s racist bullshit recently, a unified effort emerging to pull hard rock from the knuckle-dragging aimless-rage idiocy which defined it in the ‘90s. 

With DWP’s help, 2016 will see greater strides in these efforts than we’ve seen since the turn of the century. See you on the field.

All photos: Johnny Firecloud