Steelfest Open Air 2022
by Niklas Göransson
Tales from the forbidden zone – Steelfest Open Air commander Jani Laine discusses the turbulence surrounding his festival’s 2022 edition.
Here follows the second part of this conversation; the first can be found here.
On August 29, 2021, Steelfest broke the metal internet; I don’t know how many people sent me that line-up poster. As for the immediate aftermath, I’d like to quote the festival’s official website: ‘Last years Steelfest has been sold out. Mission is not to grow festival any bigger or towards mainstream.’ I dare say things are looking pretty damn promising in that regard.
– Haha, yes! It’s been heart-warming to see so many individuals wanting to help keep our mission strong and alive. What can I say? When selecting artists, I always want to scratch the surface – which means that I sometimes unearth things that are neither beautiful nor easily digestible. Some of the content may feel controversial, intimidating, or even infuriating; especially to those who are unwilling to comprehend or consider any of its deeper meanings.
Hadn’t it occurred to you that this announcement would stir up such a response?
– Of course. I was fully prepared for a shitstorm – because that’s what happens every year, without fail. Now, admittedly, I wasn’t quite expecting things to reach these proportions. Clearly, I live in the wrong era! On the other hand, I wouldn’t entirely rule out that I was subconsciously trying to demonstrate that the old F.O.A.D. spirit is still alive and well in underground metal. This is clearly no longer the case with some people, but for me it is what guides my every action. Seriously though, do you really think I’m going to negotiate with a third party about which bands can perform at Steelfest? Or allow anyone to influence our decisions in any way, shape, or form? Never in our whole past have we done this, nor will we ever.
So, you have no regrets about the line-up?
– Definitely not. But did I learn a few valuable lessons here? Sure. Had I done things differently, knowing what I know now? Of course. Would I get rid of even one ‘no-name band’ if ten of the bigger acts – or their agencies – demanded it? Not a chance. This has been our firm policy ever since the very first event, Steelfest 2012, when some deranged SJW sect demanded that we cancel IMPALED NAZARENE on accounts of their political leanings, sexually suspicious lyrics, and whatever else. Obviously, we did no such thing.
Back in 2006, IMPALED NAZARENE set out on a ten-week tour in support of their new album, “Pro Patria Finlandia”. Following a coordinated pan-European campaign, the Finnish veterans suffered a string of gig cancellations. For instance, only two of the thirteen scheduled German dates went ahead. In Bardo Methodology #2, frontman Mika Luttinen said they had all quit their jobs leading up to the tour, sensing that the time was right for a full-time commitment. Instead, they returned to Finland 15,000 euros in debt.
– The notion of backing out of an agreement with a band we’ve booked never so much as occurred to us. Our unrepentant attitude, fuelled by principles and core values, is all we have in this world; it is the essence of everything we do. If we were to sell out or otherwise lose that spirit, there can be no more Steelfest. I mean… okay, say I’ve invited a band to perform at our festival. Should I then call them back to say that they have now been ‘cancelled’ at the behest of a third party? Honour, dignity, and self-respect on that one? None whatsoever. There is no room for such concerns when I decide the line-up; the best bands will be booked, not those who are ‘woke’ enough.
After their social media comments field had gone nuclear, SODOM pushed back at their detractors by issuing a rather staunchly worded statement on September 1. The German thrash metal legends do not ‘bow to some kind of political pressure’. Right on. ‘The politically correct bands, whatever that means, are in the majority at Steelfest. Will they all cancel their performance?’ Good question.
– There was a lot going on at the time; the only thing I can remember now is thinking, ‘Nice, SODOM is still SODOM!’ We’ve always had a good dialogue with them, and at no previous point were there any indications that they had issues with the 2022 bill. They played Steelfest 2013 with HORNA, SATANIC WARMASTER, and GOATMOON, and that went just fine. Complaints online are par for the course, so we simply ignored it.
While various forums and social media pages saw plenty of spirited discourse, what really set things in motion was a brief exchange Jani had with an industry insider. This individual told Jani that he would have to get rid of a number of undesirable elements from the billing, lest swift action be taken. The email ended with a rather ominously worded warning.
I think you should make some decisions upon how you want your buisness future to be. If I should allow myself to think loudly for a second: I think you must decide whether you want to be a reliable, trustworthy promoter in the «normal» extreme metal world, or operate in the «forbidden zone»
– This came from someone who seems to have a tight grip over many agencies around the world. I basically told him to fuck off – in a polite and business-like manner, needless to say – and explained that my principles are not for sale. They surely didn’t expect me to react the way I did, and that’s when everything kicked off. He vowed to get in touch with as many bands and agencies as possible; and that he most certainly did. Besides the customary social media nonsense, I hadn’t heard a word of complaint prior to this. The real defamation campaign didn’t start when we announced two-thirds of the line-up, or even once it was one hundred percent published. All this came later, after those emails. It was clearly being organised by someone.
Soon thereafter, one of Jani’s contacts from inside the industry gave him a heads-up about what was going on.
– ‘Just so you know,’ he said, ‘some people are trying to make a scandal from the Steelfest 2022 bill, claiming that you support nazis and so on.’ He added that many of the bands in the line-up were being pressured by their agents. The plan was to level false accusations against Steelfest, to make us fall in line, ‘behave’, and fit in with their ‘normal extreme metal world’. Note also how this guy implies that I can only be considered ‘trustworthy’ if I work exclusively with bands he approves of. I mean, what the fuck? So, it was obvious that most of the outrage was orchestrated. This became even more evident when I received four or five emails from different agencies – all within fifteen minutes of each other.
Jani shared a few of these emails with me. For a small sample of what they are like – see below.
Anyway, please be so kind and let me know if you consider to cancel the questionable bands again or not. It’s not only a band like Graveland, that belongs to the unholy trio of definite no-go bands, there are quite some more which are completely unacceptable from my perspective.
– Since he had roused my curiosity, I requested a full inventory of the ‘questionable bands’. He sent me a list of no less than twelve acts from our line-up, along with a caution that ‘there might be more’. It even included ARCHGOAT! What else might be too extreme? HORNA? Fucking hell; following this logic, my whole roster is a nazi. So, I’m now staring at this list of bands I must cancel. Furthermore, when replacing them, I need to factor in what anyone from these agencies might consider ‘no-go’. And then of course, there ‘might be more’. Oddly, this index of the unacceptable included several bands that all these agents were perfectly fine with when they played Steelfest in 2018 and 2019. Same as when GRAVELAND headlined in 2016.
On September 2, SAMAEL took to Facebook and announced that they wished to distance themselves from ‘extreme political views’ contrary to their own. The Swiss band also indicated that they had given Steelfest an ultimatum. The same day, Jani issued a lengthy statement explaining the situation and warning that cancellations were imminent. One gets the impression that his past twenty-four hours had been somewhat hectic.
– Every waking second, I was on the phone or sending messages back and forth. I had some really good conversations with several bands who were under pressure. I felt encouraged and reassured to learn that most acts in the Steelfest 2022 line-up were standing their ground and had no intentions of backing out. Keep in mind that many of them are not usually regarded ‘questionable’ but now had all this shit coming their way. Clearly, these sects have changed tactics: in pre-pandemic times, they did target the festival and our business partners but only bands considered ‘problematic’. This year, they are also harassing the ‘safe’ Steelfest bookings.
To what extent do you think the online complaints were organised?
– A lot. I must say, these sectarian lunatics have become highly efficient in modern times. I was sent screenshots where I could see how various activist groups created, tailored, and executed highly coordinated campaigns towards the bands. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the level of total control the ‘leaders’ of these forums wield; they provide their followers with prefabricated email templates to copy-paste. They also drafted schedules of who to go after next. The bands of course recognised that none of this came from their own fans but as a result of an organised attack.
Taking Steelfest’s Facebook page as an example, there seems to have been a substantial influx of new commenters around this time. Far be it from me to pass judgement based on someone’s physical appearance, but I’m not convinced that many of those voicing their concerns were intending to visit the festival in the first place.
– I don’t recall the exact numbers now, but over ninety percent of the commentators had never visited our Facebook page before. I used the reporting tools to get an overview of where the comments were coming from and, wouldn’t you know – young, white, US citizens are vastly overrepresented in the deliberations over what a small festival in Finland has to offer.
On the morning of September 3, SAMAEL announced their cancellation. SODOM followed suit later in the day, explaining their decision as one taken ‘solely on the basis of our own conviction’.
– We have a long history with SODOM, they have visited our events several times before. I think 2022 would’ve been their third or fourth appearance. But we didn’t have any dialogue about this matter, all was just strictly business between us. In their defence though, they were targeted mercilessly – entire networks, forums, and websites of these cults coordinated the campaign against SODOM. One message board even had a celebration afterwards: ‘We made SODOM cancel, congratulations everybody! Now, onto the next one!’ So, what must be acknowledged here is that SODOM didn’t cancel Steelfest due to our line-up; it was because of harassment.
September 4 was a day filled with surprises. Not only did MOONSORROW announce their withdrawal from the bill, but an American band who were never even considered for the line-up proclaimed their refusal to play Steelfest.
– Haha! Yeah, someone sent me a screenshot of that post, absolutely hilarious! But UADA got something right when proclaiming that they do not share stages with nazis: considering they agreed to play alongside GRAVELAND at Messe des Morts, I’m glad to see UADA now sticking up for their Polish comrades. I have no idea about what happened to MOONSORROW – they know me, our organisation, and Steelfest inside and out.
By September 6, one week into the ordeal, SODOM, SAMAEL, PRIMORDIAL, IMPALED NAZARENE, HAVUKRUUNU, MELECHESH, MOONSORROW, ARCHGOAT, DARK FUNERAL, DEICIDE, and DISMEMBER had pulled out. Among the bands who remained on the bill, AZAZEL produced the most amusing response: ‘We loathe such bands as MOONSORROW, ENSIFERUM, HAVUKRUUNU, who cancelled with wimpy statements.’ Additional acts who were not part of the billing weighed in: Germany’s NARGAROTH distanced themselves from all those disavowing Steelfest and offered their services. A few days later, to the great distress of many ticketholders, the entire line-up was taken down from the festival’s website. There have been no updates since.
– There were a couple of disappointing moments, seeing certain high-profile bands cancelling. I had a good phone-call with one of them, which ended by him saying: ‘I feel ashamed, because we are pissing all over our legacy and I know it. This antifa shit, I’m totally against it – always have been. But we need to do this tour and some of the dates might be in jeopardy if we appear at Steelfest. I feel sick, but after discussions with our label, management, and agency, we have decided to cancel.’ So, after several conversations like this, it started to get under my skin. But I do agree with him on one point: extremely embarrassing indeed. So, does this harm Steelfest? Absolutely, but nothing huge. Of course, I recognise the unfortunate situation where someone might have bought a ticket just to see a specific band. But I can say with certainty that no one who is into extreme underground metal will be disappointed by Steelfest 2022.
So, it’s not cancelled then?
– Cancelled? Not at all. The festival will take place at the announced dates. We have about forty confirmations and are negotiating with several more. Steelfest will be a four-day-celebration with approximately fifty bands. About thirty-five acts from the original Steelfest 2022 line-up either didn’t react to the situation or reached out to re-affirm their intentions of performing in Hyvinkää this coming May.
Would you say that most of your problems were created by industry insiders, rather than online blowback?
– Yes, but they are connected. For agencies, managements, and labels, any such negative publicity is a serious threat to their revenue stream. It has nothing to do with ethical opposition to supposed ‘NSBM’, but rather proactive damage control. It’s about who is ‘problematic’ as opposed to politically correct, safe, or whatever else. These people don’t give a shit whether any of it is actually true, or what would be the morally right thing to do. They are not involved in black metal with spirit.
In fairness, I doubt many business entities are incorporated with the intention of pursing the spirit of black metal. The sole job – and earning model – of an artist agency is to get their bands as many gigs and festivals as possible.
– I totally get that. Like everyone else, they are trying to survive and keep the money flowing while navigating this volatile political climate. And if the band is equally rooted in commercial values, they will bend over and back down. It’s all about gaining access to bigger venues and festival stages. If they see a potential obstacle, they will of course sway to avoid it. So, these agencies are simply protecting their assets when advising bands to avoid playing gigs where there might be ‘problematic’ artists lurking in the vicinity. If someone contracts this reputational infection, they must be quarantined to stop the spread. And should anything inappropriate surface about one of your band mates: act surprised, kick him out, condemn and disavow. Even appearing in the same photo as someone can be enough. We’ve seen this happen time and time again now.
For those who think Jani is exaggerating, let us glance back to the summer of 2020. The frontman of a prominent American band gave an interview to Revolver Mag, in which he mentioned a HATE FOREST album as influential to his music. The backlash appears to have been swift and without mercy. In a now-deleted Facebook post, the offending member was highly repentant, apologising profusely to not only his fans but also friends and family. I believe this warrants a quotation in its entirety.
Yesterday, I let our fans down and for this I am deeply sorry. I have been afforded a lot of privilege in my life and along with that, I have created a bubble where I have not had to worry or even think about how art and music are more than just art and music. After spending the day listening and hearing people outside of my immediate bubble, I am learning – and it will take a lot of learning – but I am committed to putting in the work. This is the mirror I needed to look deeper into my own setbacks. I apologize to all of my friends and family and especially to our fans.
– Anything which might someday harm the band’s chances of performing at bigger mainstream festivals and venues is a financial threat. This is a business – so set aside your pride, mock your own history, and deny everyone who might be considered verboten. Of course, this is not tackling the situation but rather surrendering and showing acceptance to it. For me, the hardest puzzle to solve is what the hell some artists are thinking? Say some promoter warns them about performing alongside this or that act at some other event… to then see respected musicians comply and cancel so they can stay in the good graces of the very people issuing such threats. Seriously, what the fuck is up with that? Sacrificing both your credibility and any remaining respect from the underground just for the sake of bigger tours and mainstream festivals?
I don’t imagine you’ll be filing any lawsuits, but are they contractually able to simply pull out at their own leisure?
– We respect artist sovereignty in all its forms. Those who pulled out, we want nothing from them. Nor are we going to sue their managements, agencies, or anyone else. Steelfest welcomes only those who actually want to play here. As everyone knows, we wouldn’t be in this situation without all the social media terror, blackmailing, threats, and whatever. Their reasoning has nothing to do with the freedom to play wherever they choose; quite the contrary.
In discussions surrounding these events, many are wondering how this will reflect over those who opted to jump ship. Some black metal promoters might think twice before booking bands who fail to honour signed agreements, should they receive complaints about the event’s other line-up choices.
– The music industry has swallowed a huge chunk of black metal and digested it to be presentable for a wider audience. And it’s not only the business machine: we all know that bands self-censor to make themselves more commercially desirable. Naturally, when purely financial interests dictate who can play the bigger mainstream festivals, the selection will consist exclusively of ‘non-sketchy’ alternatives. Now that everyone knows which acts have been sufficiently domesticated, they can safely be allowed up on stage to perform ‘black metal’ for the lords of commerce. But personally, I would bring back any… ahem, let’s say almost every band that now cancelled. Anytime, you are welcome to play at my festival. Of course, many fans might be disappointed, so there are no guarantees you’ll have much of a ‘fan base’ left among the Steelfest hordes.
I’ve spoken to musicians who were initially meant to perform at Steelfest 2022. They admitted to knowing that the festival always has a few spicy acts in the line-up, but I was told that Jani simply went too far this time. Almost all of the bands included in the various lists have performed at Steelfest before – apparently, the problem now is that there were too many of them at once.
– I don’t know who this says the most about: me or the artist claiming that I ‘simply went too far’. Consider for a moment what those words really mean. It’s not as if I sit down to calculate how many potentially ‘offensive’ bands to include. And offensive to who and from what perspective? For example, a domestic group that seems obsessed with Steelfest produced a list of what they claim to be nineteen confirmed ‘nazi’ or somehow nazi-adjacent acts. It spread far outside Finland and has now been shared widely across the world. Should I – or any other promoter – consult this list when pondering future bookings? Because it includes PRIMORDIAL, MOONSORROW, and IMPALED NAZARENE… all of whom cancelled Steelfest to distance themselves from bands accused of the same thing. I’m not trying to be naïve here, but you should ask yourself: where is the line? Who draws it? When is it enough?
While many of the accusations flying around are downright ludicrous, it is undeniable that certain bands from both the present and past line-ups do have radical content – and unashamedly so. The notorious GOATMOON photos from 2013 are a prime example.
– Sure, but the notion that I would align ideologically with every single one of the hundreds of artists who played at Steelfest over the past nine years is beyond ridiculous. We have hosted many acts with diametrically opposing positions on both religion and politics, so this assumption that we would favour one over the other makes no sense. Without exception, bands are selected on the merits of their artistic output – not whatever personal viewpoints the individual musicians might hold. I do not ask prospective bookings to fill out questionnaires declaring each member’s standpoints. I simply don’t care or even want to hear about anyone’s opinion. Left, right, centrist, or none at all… don’t care, not interested.
Do you have any responsibility as a black metal promoter to ensure that your visitors are not subjected to extremist propaganda?
– As the organiser, our main concern is that everything taking place both on and off stage falls within Finnish laws and regulations. Those who find the presence of certain bands upsetting can simply stay in the beer tent when said acts are on stage; or, better yet, avoid the festival altogether. Totally fine. The same applies if our events are too ‘multicultural’ or ‘degenerate’ for you. Certain organisations have made us aware that they don’t tolerate Steelfest as we’ve always had visitors and performers from many different backgrounds – be it ethnicity or sexual orientation. The reason we are targeted from all directions is because we refuse to pick a side.
There are potential long-term perils with all these arbitrarily compiled lists. Not only do they deter promoters from booking the bands in question, but – now that performing at the same festival as someone deemed dodgy is also a factor – agents will not want to let their property anywhere near them.
– It’s already like that! I don’t pay much attention to rumours, but now I’m talking about first-hand info. Recently, a fellow promoter made an offer to the manager of a band he wanted for his festival. The manager declined without even consulting the members. Why? Because he had decided that one of the other acts booked for the festival was ‘problematic’. So, on behalf of everyone involved, he decided that they wouldn’t so much as entertain the offer. As you can imagine, the band was not happy about this situation. But of course, since such things primarily play out behind the scenes, industry outsiders only witness the results.
Furthermore, agents tied to bands in high demand would be able to cause problems for their competitors or even drive personal vendettas. With the ever-increasing matrix of unacceptable offences, the possibilities are endless. Random example: ‘You have booked this group which has a mutual member with that band who once mentioned HATE FOREST as an influence. Remove them, or I will pull my artists.’
– There is plenty of professional sabotage going on. But when it comes to personal issues… I don’t know, but if an agency has an act that suddenly becomes a problem, then all the others will avoid co-operation. That’s happening right now. Fact. But such artists are generally not even considered by most promoters, so it’s not really much of an issue for them. As we discussed before, especially the bigger festivals just follow the numbers on YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, and so on – making decisions according to who is currently trending. Underground metal does not show up in those statistics, especially when so many good bands have been scrubbed from social media and streaming services.
How do you see this playing out over the next few years?
– I predict that this mess is going to keep growing and worsen. We can all see which way the wind is blowing – look where we were just a few years ago, in terms of what would get you cancelled, and compare it to where we are now. The trajectory is clear. But there’s not very much a lone extreme metal promoter can do to tackle such situations. It’s quite enough for me that our partners, artists, and visitors know exactly who and what we are. Steelfest’s main focus is on the underground, especially concerning black metal, and not the mainstream. And that’s where the two worlds collide. In the future, this will surely encourage us to delve into even deeper paths of extreme metal.
Is there anything good that might come out of this?
– For sure, I see this situation as a grand cleansing. Real black metal will shy away from mainstream events and retreat back into the depths of darkness. In my view, it has done that already – or was there even any point? What’s left behind are just empty images from the past, with some aging has-beens playacting ‘black metal’ for the masses to consume. True black metal has nothing to lose here, nor does its fans: we have zero interest in any of the issues peddled by these fools. Black metal as a form of expression does not need anyone’s support or approval, it will prevail regardless.