At one time or another, almost every rock fans envisions splurging on a Jeff Spicoli moment (reference Fast Times At Ridgemont High epilogue), throwing a bash with your favorite band playing an intimate show for just you and a few fans. For more than a decade, without hitting the lottery, fan-turned-promoter Glenn Harveston has done just that, at his annual installment of ProgPower USA. In a market that was underrepresented domestically (ie. power metal and progressive rock/metal), the Georgia native not only grew Stateside interest in bands like SYMPHONY X and EVERGREY, but timed America's usual two-to-three year lag behind Europe, to introduce acts like NIGHTWISH, GAMMA RAY and BLIND GUARDIAN to a rabid throng, even though all were well into their respective catalogs.
"It was perfect timing. No one had toured here before ProgPower and we were able to get them in, for exclusive festival appearance. Prog fans are a finicky bunch. There's a core that comes year after year, because they enjoy a lot of the European prog metal. The bigger prog scene in the States is the DREAM THEATER (fans) and they don't usually step outside their comfort zone unless it's introduced by (DT drummer Mike) Portnoy. He deserves lots of credit. No one cared about PAIN OF SALVATION. I brought them over for a couple of shows (ProgPower I, III, V), they were small, didn't do anything. Portnoy becomes their champion and interest in the band raises."
In some ways, Harveston might be a victim of those early, blockbuster successes, as there are fewer big names who have yet to set foot here.
The festival has grown from the inaugural gathering of the faithful at suburban Chicago club JJ Kelly's. Interviewed in the kitchen, the second day, neither Harveston, nor I envisioned his passion evolving into North America's best run multi-day event. Glenn's always been a straight shooter, keeping his clientele informed on most of the nuts and bolts decisions behind the festival, via his online forum (here). There might have been longer running series, regional successes or bigger one-off shows, but in terms of the fan experience (as well as the bands', judging from the response of many who have played the Atlanta based concert (moved after that first Chi-town weekend) offers a relaxed atmosphere (padded seating is available in the amphitheater setting), a host of free signing sessions run throughout the weekend, with many an artist comfortable enough to wander the halls, interacting with fans (drinks, autographs, candid photos) just for the love/communal camaraderie and first rate lighting/sound system that allows fans to get great photographs, even without being pressed against the barricade. Just don't shoot video to upload!
"Unless you see a headlining band, like KAMELOT or HAMMERFALL, most opening acts on tour get 30 to 45 minutes, maximum, under crap conditions. Come to Atlanta, you're going to see at least an hour, under the highest quality a festival can provide. You don't have to stand around all day. There's seating. People have in and out privileges. We've got our own metal market. All the bands do signing sessions. Here, the bands always interact with the fans more than anywhere else. Everybody can hang around and drink beer on the (hotel or venue) porch with the bands. SABATON partied with the fans the entire three days last year! You don't get that anywhere else. That's a big selling point for a lot of people, not just the show."
That said, it's organizer sees 2010 as a bit of a crossroads for the festival's ongoing existence. "It really is. I'll be honest and say the fanbase is slipping away. It's not necessarily anybody's fault, but they're getting older and other things are taking over (importance) in their lives. The new generation, the prog and the power just ain't their focal point. A lot of the established acts are having success, but correct me if I'm wrong, I don't see too many new (prog/power) acts in Europe having any success. Like you said, (American metal tastes) are a little behind the curve. The (overseas) focus is on death and black metal. I have to play it safe, to a certain extent. If you try to experiment, you risk alienating the core, who made the fest a successful in the first place. It's a crap shoot. I'd love to experiment even further, bring in something like Haggard, a big huge (multi-piece orchestral) thing, but it's not economically feasible. It's not just the plane cost. The US government, after you pay for visas for all those individuals, it kills you! I AM going to try to diversify even more, but all good things must come to an end. I'm not going to go down in flames. I'd rather walk away on top."
So, to those that have resisted the temptation for more than decade, why should they invest their time and money to visit ProgPower USA?
"This is my eleventh show. You're not going to find a better quality show, where you can relax and enjoy bands that you've never seen before (and probably will never see again, even if they're not your favorite style). Other than the headliners, most of these bands are still exclusive to ProgPower. The bands know this isn't the biggest show, but I've intentionally kept it small, to keep that vibe. Once you get bigger, you lose that intimacy. You lose the ability to drink a beer in the (venue) hobby with any of the bands that have performed and go back (to hotel) and party with them afterwards. The biggest misconception is that my ticket price is higher than anywhere else. If you want the best, it costs the most. You're not paying for five hours of standing around in some sweaty box (venue is air conditioned). You're talking about eight bands spread out over nine hours per day, with an experience you're not going to get anywhere else. Unfortunately, that costs me a bit more, because I'm not Clear Channel and I don't have corporate backing."
"I started this as a pure love and I still love it. Don't get me wrong, but it has become a business. I work all year long on this (in addition to his full-time jog in the medical field), basically one person. There has to be a safety margin in this, with money. I'm too old and lost too much money starting this thing, I'm not going back down that road. When it gets to a margin I'm not comfortable with, it's time to pull the plug. Lord knows I'm doing everything I can to prevent that: re-adjusting budgets, other marketing opportunities, anything to prolong it. I'll be honest, I wouldn't sell it. I've had offers, four or five years ago, from Clear Channel/Live Nation to turn ProgPower into a tour, take it on the road, to four or five corner of the country. I was tempted, but they were going to take controlling interest. They would change it, go with trends, that's not what ProgPower is about."
Those new marketing strategies Harveston speaks of, targeting the younger, less prog/power savvy fans, includes single day tickets, a first. While appealing to the local/regional market, a less expensive introduction to the unique ProgPower experience might just be enough to woo future multi-day return attendance. "I've never marketed the fest in Atlanta. I've never taken out a single (local) ad. It's always been word of mouth. This year, the younger kids who get into TURISAS, TÝR OR KAMELOT have a chance to afford one night, if they like. Hopefully they'll enjoy themselves and come back for the other night."
Lastly, I quiz the main man about some frequently mentioned, yet conspicuously absent (from Atlanta) names, to get his read on their potential inclusion in the future.
AXEL RUDI PELL: "He has a fantastic track record in Germany, but I haven't seen too much noteriety in the States. When you have a band that's really successful overseas, to a certain extent they expect the same thing over here. Younger bands are willing to take a risk and see it as a promotional opportunity. Veterans, ProgPower isn't necessarily for them, unless they're trying to break into the market, or push their profile, unless they're looking at it as a vacation. I've not spoken to him."
PRETTY MAIDS: "I've tried to bring them over in the past. They fall into that category. Couldn't make the numbers work. They were willing to do it. I was willing to have them, but at the end of the day, it didn't work. I'd like to re-visit it in the future."
ASTRAL DOORS: "Had them booked at one time, but due to a touring situation, it fell apart. I won't say the band is on the decline, but I haven't seen quite the demand in the last few years. We might have missed the window on them."
FALCONER: "That's an interesting situation. I still have quite a bit of demand on the forum. They've been here before (BW&BK 6-Pack 2003, albeit without returning/original vocalist Mathias Blad). They're on the consideration list is the best I can tell you."
The latest installment of ProgPower USA kicks off with the resurrected ACCEPT (separate ticket necessary) on Thursday, Sept. 9th, at Center Stage, in Atlanta, GA. Over the course of the next two nights, metalheads will be treated to headlining performances by KAMELOT and HAMMERFALL, as well as the rare chance to see a cavalcade of international stars: NOCTURNAL RITES (Sweden), TAROT (Finland), DELAIN (Netherlands), TYR (Faroe Islands), TURISAS (Finland), STORMWARRIOR (Germany), PARADOX (Germany), DGM (Italy), ILLUSION SUITE (Norway), OCEANS OF SADNESS (Belgium), LEAVES EYES (Germany/Norway) and SEVENTH WONDER (Sweden).
More information on these bands and the festival itself, can be found at Progpowerusa.com.