Download is unarguably the definitive rock festival of the British summer, and is one of few festivals that can be mentioned in the same breath as Wacken and Hellfest in terms of scale and importance. Over it’s now fifteen-year reign it has had a huge impact on the world of rock music. This article will be exploring that impact. Please bear in mind that this writer is too young to remember the earliest editions of Download and therefore assessments of the impact in the early days will be based on retrospect and hearsay.
While the first Download took place in 2003, it’s worth examining what the festival environment was like for a rock fan before Download hit. Having browsed through a Guardian article about summer festivals in 2002, the pickings were relatively slim for an avid fan of riffs. Reading and Leeds had a stronger rock presence than we are used to in the modern era, though this could be the first example of Downloads impact. Why would a rock band want to play a festival filled with indie, pop and rap fans when they now have a festival stuffed full of rock fans who are more likely to like them and buy their music? Also on the map for metal fans was Bloodstock, still an indoor festival at this point focussing on power metal and extreme metal. Bloodstock’s eventual growth into an outdoor festival could be due to the success of Download, at least in part, demonstrating that there was a market for outdoor rock festivals in the UK. Other than these two major players there was Destruction Festival, a specialist pop-punk/skate punk festival which inevitably would have attracted a niche audience.
When inspecting Download’s inaugural line up for 2003 it is clearly very much of its era. Mostly late period Nu metal and brit rock bands. Having Iron Maiden headline would have added credibility to the festival for more traditional rock and metal fans, and it’s also easy to see headlining the UK’s only mainstream rock festival would cement Maiden’s return with Bruce in the minds of rock fans. Sikth and Arch Enemy on the second stage would have given these two, now highly influential bands a shot at wider recognition, and both bands are not firmly lodged in the wider consciousness within their own scenes. Download had also absorbed the previously mentioned Destruction Festival for its second stage on the Sunday, bringing in a different audience than the other bands across the weekend and establishing Download as the place to be for rock fans across the spectrum.
When 2004 rolled around there is already a noticeable difference in the bands playing the festival. Where Nu metal made up an obvious majority of the debut festival’s line up, the second edition had a much more varied line up. While Nu metal was already on its last legs the reduced representation of this subgenre would have hastened its decline. Having The Dillinger Escape Plan open the main stage would clearly have given one of the most exciting and bewildering bands of all time a chance to build and reinforce their position as cult darlings. Opeth’s early slot on the main stage along with Cradle of Filth later in the day is the first real representation of extreme metal on the main stage, opening it up to a wider audience and giving these bands a chance to transcend their normal scenes. Machine Head having a slot on the main stage would have helped reinforce their return to form off the back of Through The Ashes… and Slipknot playing above Slayer was just a taste of things to come for such a dynamic band. Hatebreed and Biffy Clyro both started their history with Download this year, both on the second stage. This history would lead one of these bands to headline the festival in the future.
Download 2005 is an event well known to nearly every British rock fan, for one band’s set alone. But before we get to that let’s talk about everything else. Biffy Clyro returning continued to build the bands rock pedigree and My Chemical Romance making their debut gave one of the biggest rock bands in recent memory a sense of authenticity to doubters. The Saturday featured the reunited Black Sabbath but also sets from Lamb Of God and Bullet For My Valentine on the second stage gave these two now colossal metal acts some early exposure to a wide audience. The same goes for Mastodon’s set on the Sunday as well. The presence of Trivium, Killswitch Engage and Bullet would have offered legitimacy to the burgeoning metalcore movement. Especially considering the reputation of Trivium’s Mainstage opening set. This set is burnt into wider consciousness in the UK and it catapulted Trivium to greater heights, and while their career has had its ups and downs since but this set exists as a landmark event in metal culture for both Download and Trivium.
Looking at the line up for Download 2006, my point about metalcore seems to have come true very swiftly, as Trivium and Bullet both received slots high on the bill putting them both firmly in the conversation for future headliners. Alice In Chains reunited and showed rock fans that they were still a credible band, even without the brilliant voice of the sadly departed Layne Staley. Guns ‘n’ Roses appearance would have only served to heighten the anticipation for Chinese Democracy, if it were ever to be released, but the less said about that album the better in many people’s mind. Most interestingly on this line up are two British bands playing the third stage, of whom you may have heard. Enter Shikari and Bring Me The Horizon, it seems absurd now that either of these bands would ever have appeared so low on the bill. Getting the opportunity to play to such a wide audience is undeniably important for both bands’ future development into massive venues. Either band returning to Download soon would be very welcome.
2007 saw MCR headline the event. Given the amount of hate thrown at the band it was a chance for them to win over their detractors and cement themselves as a legitimate part of the world of rock music. Gallows getting a slot on the second stage brought the most exciting hardcore band of the twenty first century to Download, this was yet another opportunity for the band to cement their meteoric rise. Architects and Cancer Bats both also got sets this year, allowing them to show how fantastic they are to the Download audience which would pay dividends in further exposure. In This Moment also got a slot, which would mark the start of this band’s rise to prominence.
Despite the continuing trend of having the top end of the line-up appeal to more traditionally minded rock fans, there was still much to be excited about in 2008’s collection of bands. Rolo Tomassi and Between The Buried And Me having slots on the third stage gave two exciting, challenging bands a shot at wider recognition. Everyone’s favourite AC/DC worshippers Airbourne got their first slot this year as well, cementing them as super fun festival mainstay. Job For A Cowboy and Annotations Of An Autopsy bring the first real representation for deathcore to Download, giving the sub genre’s rising popularity authenticity in the mind of the UK rock fan.
Slipknot’s legendary headline set at Download 2009 demonstrated just how successful a band with an uncompromisingly heavy back catalogue can truly be. Beyond that, Five Finger Death Punch’s debut on the main stage signalled the arrival of a band still in the conversation for future headliner, and undoubtedly brought more attention to a band whose profile would rise fast over the next ten years. Parkway Drive are another band whose profile has continued to rise and has bought them into the discussion of future headliners, and their debut here was a perfect opportunity to grab UK fans by the throat in a stranglehold they haven’t loosened to this day.
It’s at this point that I realise the ultimate way of assessing impact is hindsight, but since 2010 the lack of their being a serious interesting movement in the world of rock and metal means that Downloads impact on the world of rock begins to just be cementing bigger bands legacies. While this is certainly important, what is most interesting is certainly new bands and movements getting exposure at a large festival. While last year having Milk Teeth, Creeper and Code Orange, to name a few, is certainly exciting it’s hard to assess the impact of those sets at this point in time. Inspecting the past of Download like this really highlights the point at which rock music entered its recent times of trouble. Things are looking better of course. There is one other area of impact I’d like to discuss before we finish.
Download has fundamentally affected the way we talk about bands in the modern era. Music journalists and fans alike are constantly asking who’s going to be the next Download headliner, or calling a fast-rising band “a potential Download headliner”. I’m not so young that I don’t remember a time when it was phrased around who was going to be “The next Metallica”, now that phrase is used less than the invocation of Download. For anything or anyone to supersede Metallica in anyway in the vocabulary of rock and metal is genuinely impressive, and that speaks volumes about how much Download has affected the way we think and talk about bands now.
Download clearly matters to the rock and metal fans of the UK, and that alone is impact enough for any entity. But to have fostered the rise of so many exciting bands and movements, as well as affecting the way we talk about these bands is more than anyone could have imagined. My view is obviously biased by the bands I enjoy and find interesting, so it’s more than likely that I’ve missed some bands and events along the way. But hopefully this is a good starting point to get you thinking about the UK’s biggest rock festival, chat with your friends about the impact and let us here at Midlands Metalheads know what you think as well.
You can purchase Download tickets here.