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It was sometime around last February that Sharon Osbourne, wife of grandfatherly rocker Ozzy Osbourne, made the shocking announcement. Ozzfest, the 11-year-old mainstay of the world of heavy-metal concerts, would be free this year. All summer long. Questions of how could they pull this off and what it meant for the future of rock 'n' roll swarmed around through the Internet for months, with detractors claiming that a free Ozzfest could never work. Or, from the ever-present cynics among us, that the intentions behind a free Ozzfest weren't as "pluralistic" as first advertised.
Dubbed as a way to "free the music," Sharon Osbourne, chief organizer of Ozzfest, said concert revelers should be able to enjoy heavy metal without having to pay. So for the duration of the tour, select sponsors are covering expenses. It's a concept that's already been contested by organizers of this summer's other behemoth festival, the Vans Warped Tour, whose main organizer, Kevin Lyman, recently said that a free Ozzfest was merely a ploy to disguise declining ticket sales over the past few years.
There's truth in both of those statements.
Regardless of the Osbourne clan's truest intentions, this week Ozzfest rolls into West Palm Beach for its final destination of the tour, and local metal fans can get their first glimpse of what a free touring rock festival is supposed to look like. I personally think Ozzfest is in a unique position to set what could, and should, become a trend in an industry that's on the skids.
Of course, Ozzfest won't be showing up here without its share of black eyes and bruises.
The summer tour has been nagged by bad publicity and snafus. Distribution of free tickets was initially a mess, as servers were jammed on websites like Live Nation and Ozzfest.com for days and fans kicked up a storm of complaints. Once scalpers got involved, the free ticket issues got worse. Although the concert is free, a quick search on eBay.com shows that local scalpers are selling tickets for anywhere from $5.59 for lawn seats to $300 for "prime seating" — whatever that means. Anyone who's ever been to a metal concert knows the closer you get to the stage, the more likely you are to get elbowed in the face. For $300, that seems rather foolish. Still, these tickets do exist, and that's the least of Ozzfest's bad publicity woes.
Last week, two fans died at an Ozzfest stop in New Jersey of cardiac arrest due, according to authorities, to drug-related behavior. There have also been hundreds of arrests at Ozzfest venues across the country. A hilarious dustup between Sharon Osbourne and Josh Homme, lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, seemed to cap it all. Homme scoffed at the real intentions behind "Freefest," as some people are calling it, claiming it was designed to line the pockets of Ozzy and no one else. Because there are no ticket sales this summer, none of the bands performing on Ozzfest are being paid, drawing the ire of a number of rock bands. Sharon's retort to Homme was classic: "I hope he gets syphilis and dies," she told Blender.com. "I hope his dick fuckin' falls off so his mother can eat it."
That's Ozzfest and the rock world at its ludicrous best.
What all of the big-name rockers and festival organizers seem to overlook is the desires of the fans. This isn't about helping Ozzy's band sell CDs — they sell enough — or about helping key sponsors like Jägermeister and Monster Energy drink get more exposure — they have plenty. Ozzfest, in a free format or not, is supposed to be about the music and the fans.
According to Finnish goth rocker Mr. Lordi of the band Lordi, the answer is basic. "We are not getting paid," he said via phone recently. "But there's no income. How can you pay the bands if there aren't any ticket sales? It's pretty simple. This is really a promotion for us. You have to take it like starting from scratch. But we're really lucky bastards. It's not like starting from scratch; we play in front of thousands of people every other day, so it's like starting from third or fourth."
I asked him if he thought more tours should be free. "I think that question should be targeted to the audience, to the people who are showing up all summer, not me," he said. "Nobody wants to pay for it, if you give them a choice. And maybe there are people who don't have money for it and now they get a chance to see a great show. But on our side, there's nobody getting paid. It's like charity work in a way. We're getting something back from it by way of promotion. And the fans are getting the bands that they like for free. Nobody loses."
Could it be that this is what we need on a larger scale? Should genres like hip-hop and the blues do the same thing?
It seems inconceivable for a slew of welterweight and heavyweight rap champs to hit the road all summer without making a steady paycheck. It goes against the ethos of everything that is hip-hop, as well as pop music today in general. That's why the bands performing in Ozzfest should be applauded. It's undeniable that these bands are leaving loads of flesh and sweat on each stage that they play, all in pursuit of the same dream most of them have had since they were teenagers: to become proper rock stars and play in front of millions of screaming fans.
Ultimately, Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne aren't the issue here. If "Freefest" gets die-hard rockers in front of die-hard fans, then we're all richer from it at the end of the day. Metaphorically speaking, of course.