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Free Format Takes OZZFest In New Direction

Of the Oakland Press

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Ozzy Osbourne thought his wife and manager, Sharon, was “insane” when she suggested making OZZFest tickets free this year.

But given the traveling festival’s success since 1996, he knew better than to dismiss the idea out of hand.

“She goes, ‘Don’t worry, it’s all under control,’ ” the 58-year-old hardrock icon recalls. “I always think of the bad thing that can happen, but she’s so clever at what she does ... so I just go, ‘OK, babe, I love you, and you haven’t let me down so far ... I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ ”

In a period of declining concert ticket sales, the free OZZFest has been one of the biggest stories of the summer of ’07. There were skeptics and critics when the Osbournes first announced the plan in February, and Sharon Osbourne says some sponsors, including Camel cigarettes and Trojan condoms, even dropped out, accusing her of “belittling the music.”

But all evidence so far is that OZZFest ’07 is working. Fans snapped up 428,000 tickets for the 24 dates when they were first offered through a variety of sources, including sponsor Web sites and to buyers of Ozzy’s new album, “Black Rain,” with more tickets distributed subsequently and about 3,000 tickets per date saved for on-site upgrades. The shows — headlined by Ozzy Osbourne and also featuring Lamb of God, Static-X, Hatebreed and a corps of up-and-coming headbangers — have gone well, save for the Aug. 16 date in Holmdel, N.J., where two men died of drug and alcohol overdoses and another 83 were arrested on a variety of charges.

“How could people not like it? It’s free,” notes Rick Franks of concert promoter LiveNation’s Farmington Hills office. “It’s a big rock show with a second stage, over the top, it’s a blast and it’s free. It’s pretty much the same show you got when we charged $30 to $80.”

Last year’s OZZFest tickets ran $86.50 pavilion and $46.50 lawn.

Lamb of God frontman Randall Blythe confirms that the free ticket plan hasn’t made a significant impact on the way the OZZFest day pans out.

“There seems to be a lot of the same people,” says Blythe, whose band played on OZZFest’s second stage in 2004. “I’m sure some people are coming because it’s free, and hopefully they’ll be turned on to some new music. But overall it’s the same vibe.”

Sharon Osbourne says that in its 12th year, OZZFest had reached a point where it needed to make a dramatic change in order to survive.

Created as a summer touring mechanism for Ozzy, OZZFest quickly became a perennial top draw, hosting headliners such as Slayer, Tool, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Rob Zombie and Linkin Park, reuniting Osbourne’s first band, Black Sabbath, and introducing the mosh pits to early career appearances by Disturbed, System of a Down, Slipknot and others. But facing declining attendances and increasing band fees — System of a Down made $300,000 a show in 2006, according to Sharon Osbourne — OZZFest “made no profit” in its last three years and, according to some reports, lost more than $1 million last year.

“The traditional way of doing it was outpricing itself,” Sharon Osbourne explains. “The cost of putting something like this on the road is mega, and that cost was going up. But we couldn’t put the ticket prices up higher.

“But we didn’t want to lose what Ozzy’s worked 12 years for. We had to put a cost (limit) to it but still save the festival.”

OZZFest ’07 is financed by LiveNation, which is hosting most of the shows at venues it owns, and by remaining sponsors such as Jagermeister and Monster energy drink. The bands, meanwhile, are playing for free, a controversial move that’s earned Osbourne a considerable amount of criticism. Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, who once called OZZFest “my worst summer job,” told a San Francisco radio station that “I don’t know why her name is Sharon; she ain’t sharin’ anything. To ask artists to play for free ... I might as well skip through the English countryside with a flute.”

The lack of pay certainly affected this year’s lineup, which has demonstrably less commercial clout than its predecessors. “Every agent just put their phone on busy when I called,” Osbourne says. Ozzy, who played only about half the shows, agreed to put in a full summer in order to “legitimize” the dates — as well as to promote “Black Rain.”

But Sharon Osbourne adds that many bands were “too happy to do it and be part of something groundbreaking,” and she contends the current OZZFest arrangement is, in fact, good particularly for bands trying to build either an audience or a larger audience than they currently have.

“Say you can play in front of 2,000 people on your own,” she explains. “That band would rather play in front of 20,000 and sell their merchandise and their music at the venue so they can come back and maybe play to 5,000 people the next time through.”

To compensate, Osbourne has removed some previous restrictions for OZZFest bands. Once permitted to play off-day shows a certain distance from the festival stop, the groups can now play “any time, anywhere they want” according to Osbourne — even the same day in the same cities. The bands are also allowed to sell a wider variety of merchandise and keep more of their profits.

Lamb of God’s Blythe says it’s an equitable situation. “As anyone who’s been in the business and in a touring band will tell you, money doesn’t come from the (fees), it comes from merchandise. That’s where you make your money. And our merch is going through the roof, so it balances out.”

Whether OZZFest will remain a free festival in the future remains to be seen. Sharon Osbourne calls this year “an experiment” and says it’s being evaluated on a daily basis while the tour is on the road.

“I don’t honestly have a crystal ball,” she says. “I would love to keep it this way ... for the fans. If we can ensure it goes off without any hitches, then I know next year sponsors will want to come and more bands will be interested.

“But who knows? We’ll have to wait to see how it goes this year.”

OZZFest 2007 takes place at 12:30 p.m. Sunday (August 26th) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Ozzy Osbourne, Lamb of God, Static-X, Lordi and Black Tide perform on the main stage; Hatebreed, Behemoth, Devildriver, Chtonic, Ankla, Nile, the Showdown, 3 Inches of Blood, Daath and In This Moment play on the second stage. All of the tickets, which are free, have been distributed; WRIF-FM (101.1) will broadcast information about any ticket availabilities on the day of the show. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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