Where music gets real: Festivals in Germany

For over a year fans of music festivals around the world have lived through a drought. I remember the collective shock among some of my friends when Glastonbury was cancelled. I also remember the sigh of relief among residents living close to Manchester Heaton Park when they learned that Parklife wouldn’t happen.

Music festivals are not for everybody, but they sure create unforgettable memories: Mud, rain, alcohol, dirty toilets, lousy food and sleep deprivation mix with great company, amazing music and an afterglow lasting a lifetime. Festivals turn music into a full body experience, enjoyed with others. Dancing, singing and spending time together attracts more than 1.5 million people every year in Germany – in a normal year, that is.

2020 and 2021 were outstanding years that brought many challenges for event organizers as well as participants. That, however, is likely to even raise the appeal of open air mass gatherings after the pandemic finally vanished. The hunger for physical, intense experiences grows – and that also applies for the artists. There’s no interview with a musician right now that doesn’t stress how much they miss the personal contact to the audience, the feedback they get from playing live in front of real people.

German festival culture

Large scale outdoor music events have been fashionable in Germany long before pop and rock music arrived. There are plenty of classical gatherings every year throughout the country that have a long history – like the Wagner Festspiele in Bayreuth, a traditional festival that celebrates opera and classical music. The festival dates back to 1874, the Beethovenfest in Bonn started 1875, and these are only two events among many. The Dresden Music Festival and the Munich Biennale attract thousands of visitors every year – and even if these numbers can’t compete with events like the Love Parade that brought millions to Berlin to party together, they are very successful.

Like this iconic event (that we will come back to in a moment), most contemporary festivals offer techno and electronic music. On average, German festivals last 3 days and cost up to 285€ – and that is just the ticket. That applies only for the top events, of course – among the 500 German festivals every year, there are plenty of cheaper offers. Especially if you visit the most populous state of Northrhine-Westphalia, which hosts every fifth of them.

But before we jump right into the electronic music scene, let’s take a look back in the past, where Rock Music dominated the open air events. One of the first really successful rock festivals in Germany was actually British, by the way: From 1971, the “British Rock Meeting” brought legendary bands like Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep, Fleetwood Mac and Rod Stewart to Germany. The last one of these meetings happened on the famous Loreley stage in St. Goarshausen – on top of a legendary rock, surrounded by a crescent of the river Rhine. That was already in 1979, though, with stars like Whitesnake, The Police, Dire Straits and the Talking Heads playing to a huge audience. Afterwards, the US Army withdrew sponsoring, and that ended this tradition.

To make room for new ones: The Wacken Open Air Festival, for example. Started in 1990 by two Heavy Metal fans living in the small town in Schleswig Holstein for their mates, the event is now the biggest Heavy Metal event worldwide and brings more than 80,000 people to the tiny village. It is hard to even get tickets, and surely this will not get any better after the pandemic.

With “Rock am Ring” and “Rock im Park”, there are two contestants in similar size, although less geared towards Heavy Metal. In North Germany, “Deichbrand” attracts over 60,000 people a year – and this festival also caters to the aging parts of the Rock music community, by not only offering camping grounds, but also luxury accommodation on the site.

Less interested in guitars, more looking for urban sounds of the 20th century? Germany has you covered: Fans of ra and hip-hop gather at the Splash festival in Saxony-Anhalt in East Germany. Not just music, but a complete hip-hop lifestyle is celebrated at an industrial site called “Ferropolis”, including graffiti competitions and DJ battles.

The Love Parade phenomenon

Which brings us back to techno and electro. With Berlin being a world wide metropolis of this specific music style, featuring a wild and often reckless hype from the early beginnings, it was not a surprise that the city also hosted the biggest global techno event ever: The Love Parade. Not a festival per se, the parade was registered as a political demonstration, not a music event, and it took over the streets with floats, music and dancers – pure joy and anarchy at first, when it started in 1989 in West Berlin.

Love, freedom and happiness were the official causes of the “protest”, and up to 2003, the numbers rose up to 1.6 million people in the end. From 2007, the event moved from Berlin, where it met growing resistance by residents, to the Ruhr region – where the parade finally turned from parade to festival, highly commercialised and drawing heavy criticism exactly for this reason. With world wide spin-offs everywhere from Mexico City to Japan, the Love Parade phenomenon came to a terrifying end when carelessness and (allegedly) financial greed led to a disaster in the city of Duisburg in 2010. A crowd crush, caused by poor planning and bad communication between organiser, police and event security, led to hundreds of severe injuries and 21 deaths. The Love Parade was permanently cancelled after this.

Still going is a counter event in Berlin, resembling the first anarchic, happy parades in the capital. In protest against the Love Parade itself, the organisers call their street festival the “fuck parade”, much smaller than the original, but an authentic experience enjoyed by the hardcore techno fandom.

Modern techno: Commercialised, but lovely

Today’s techno events are less Love Parade and more traditional festival – highly organised, quite expensive, but generally friendly in nature and very open minded. That goes so far that the most successful one, the yearly Fusion in the North East of Germany, doesn’t even publish the line up of artists. People flock to the event purely for the mood, the atmosphere and the idea of peaceful partying – with no rules to be broken and care for each other the main purpose. To join, one needs to be lucky, as tickets are drawn in a lottery.

In Corona times, the Fusion makers have taken up the challenge and created two smaller Covid editions, with a unique system of advance testing, smaller crowds, outdoor floors and social distancing. The concept is revolutionary and innovative and has been copied by many other German festivals – like Mayday in Dortmund or Nature One on a former missile basis in Kastellaun – without being an actual guarantee that the events can actually happen.

Another tradition: Being political

German music festivals tend to be quite political. Among the biggest events in history are actual protests like the famous Anti-WAAAhnsinns Festival in the 80s. They were acting in defiance of a planned nuclear reprocessing plant in Wackersdorf, and not only did they attract more than 100,000 people throughout the 80s, but also famous bands like BAP, Die Toten Hosen, Udo Lindenberg, Rio Reiser or Herbert Grönemeyer.

Names that are also well known for their activity in “Rock gegen Rechts” (Rock against the Far Right) concerts. I remember the legendary “Arsch Huh, Zäng Ussenander” (Get your arse up, speak out) event that turned my home town Cologne into one big stage protesting far right violence. The last big event of this kind was 2018 in Chemnitz, where Germans countered the far right claim “We are the people” with the slogan “Wir sind mehr” (We are more).

Honorary mention: The biggest music festival on the planet.

It is not quite Germany, but at least a German-speaking country: The biggest music festival on the planet is being hosted by the capital of Austria, home to musical geniuses like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Held on an island in the middle of the Donau river (Danube in English), the Donauinselfest attracted 3.1 million visitors in 2016. 200 acts on 11 stages rocked the island. To put that in context: All of Austria has only 8.9 million people.

In conclusion: German festivals are one of the many reasons to look forward to the end of the pandemic. Until we meet again!

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