Unlimited Freedom Among the Backhoes: Melt! Festival

Every summer, Ferropolis—the City of Iron—provides the Mad Max-like backdrop for the best festival in Germany at least: Melt!

Melt! Mainstage, Christian Hedel, 2019, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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To understand the unique Melt! sensation, you have to have stood on the hill of the Big Wheel Stage listening to sets by Carl Craig, DJ Koze, or Efdemin, as the sun slowly rises and bathes Lake Gremmin in golden light. 
To understand the unique Melt! sensation, you have to have been swept up in the crowd of spectators in front of the Main Stage when individual passions are multiplied in a chain reaction and suddenly everyone around you is jumping up and down like mad. There have been plenty of legendary performances, from Björk and Aphex Twin to Deichkind, when the fans stormed the stage. 

To understand the unique Melt! sensation, you have to have danced on the Sleepless Floor on a Monday morning, with the very last sounds of the weekend sending shivers down your spine as you wonder, wearily and wistfully, where in heaven's name the last 80 hours went to. The playing of Ellen Allien sweetens the moment of farewell. 

Sunrise at Melt!, Moritz Lauvenberg, 2007, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Stefan Lehmkuhl by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music

No business plan but plenty of enthusiasm

So that makes it all the more amusing that Stefan Lehmkuhl, who served as Artistic Producer and joint organizer of Melt! from 2004 to 2019, had never actually been to the festival himself before he persuaded Cologne-based businessman Matthias Hörstmann to feature it in his Intro magazine and then take over the festival altogether. At that time, the festival was dead in the water. Founded in 1997, in 1999 Melt! relocated to a former open-pit mine in a provincial city in Saxony, to Ferropolis—City of Iron—but in 2003 it never happened. There were problems with the weather and with sponsors. The festival already had a good reputation on Germany's nascent festival scene.

Nevertheless, any bank manager would undoubtedly have sent Lehmkuhl home with a well-meaning pat on the shoulder—but Intro saw the potential and took the plunge. For them, enthusiasm was always at least as important as a solid business plan. 

Melt!-impression (2019)Institute for Sound and Music

Lehmkuhl became aware of the Melt! Festival when he was working as Diary Editor for Intro magazine. He liked the combination of indie rock and electronic music because it was a perfect fit for the open-minded approach that characterized Intro, at the time Germany's best-selling music magazine. So none of the parties concerned thought twice when the opportunity to get on board presented itself—and getting on board soon turned into a complete takeover. Lehmkuhl and his team were thrown in at the deep end in 2004. 

Now he recalls: "That was the worst nightmare I've ever had in my life. It was a very rocky road all the way to the festival." They had to cope with the founders of the festival jumping ship. "So then Intro took on all the risk by itself. We worked with the existing Melt! team but it certainly wasn't plain sailing. I had to deal with all kinds of things that I knew nothing about—luckily I knew other festival organizers and competent people in the Melt! team that I could ask. It was a very nerve-wracking and stressful time." 

Big Wheel Stage, Nicola Rehbein / Jen Krause, 2019, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Even without ever having been to the festival, Lehmkuhl had a good understanding of what the vibe had been. The idea was to pick up on that mood but move it on: "The special thing about Melt! at the time was that in 2002 it was the first festival to combine indie and techno. But they had done it differently from how we did it: they had one day of techno and one day of bands—with typical Intro bands like Blumfeld, Märtini Brös, and Zoot Woman. In the same way as we saw Intro as an open-genre music magazine—a magazine featuring both DJ Koze and Tocotronic—we wanted to organize the first festival that would mix the genres all the way through." 

Especially for a festival like Melt!, which lives by its special atmosphere and stunning setting, a growth process like that is not without its problems. Many other festivals have failed to pull off the feat of suddenly having eight stages on the site instead of three. But it also meant there were fewer secluded corners for getting up to mischief of all kinds. Instead, it turned into a genuine medium-sized music festival, with food tents and sponsors' stands creating a different kind of experience, in place of the inviting meadows and little lakes where people used to linger.

Melt! Highlights of 2006

Melt! largely succeeded in achieving its aims. "Each year felt like the logical next step," recalls Lehmkuhl. "There weren't many years where it felt as if it could all become too much. We would slightly alter the site to meet the demand. We also tried to create new highlights on the site itself so there was always something new to discover, by opening up more, giving people more to see. We didn't want it to feel too crowded, but also not to seem empty if people spread out more. We were always thinking about how to divide people up. We didn't want everything to be concentrated on one stage. Even though the Main Stage was the kind of focal point for certain musical highlights, there was always plenty happening on the other stages." 

Melt! (2019) by Catherina RocioInstitute for Sound and Music

Curated versus we-bring-you-one-act-after-another

The special skills of a festival director and booker have to include a sense for which bands work well together. For a festival to tell a complete story, it's enormously important that you don't have two stages completely empty because everyone is crowding round another one. "That's the difference between a curated lineup and a we-bring-you-one-act-after-another lineup," notes Lehmkuhl. "I have always imagined the route taken by the visitors, how they move from one stage to the next, the order in which they experience the music. 

It's like with a playlist—choosing at what time and in what light and which setting you would want to see the acts. Especially as events get bigger, it's important that the festival curator thinks about how people will move around. It's a question of safety. If you're not careful and keep an eye on the capacities of the different stages, there's a risk that some become too crowded or too empty, and people gather in clusters. You force people to make decisions that are too difficult." 

Melt! as seen from the campsite, Moritz Lauvenberg, 2007, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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To maintain an overview of all this, year in, year out Lehmkuhl had to be there to see for himself the success (or failure) of his plans. Looking back, he talks about "running around the site like a madman", getting "no rest from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. I wanted to see it all—not just the bands but also the people, how they arrive, what they look like, when they get up, when they go to bed, how they react to the bands." 

What was different about Melt! was that in the early years that was all done without any data gathering or definition of target markets. Thanks to the emotional bonds between the team and the festivalgoers, all the planning was simply based on gut feeling. It only worked because both the audience and the team were made up of a mixture of shy indie hipsters and hedonistic techno fans.

Melt! Festival (2019) by Nicola Rehbein / Jen KrauseInstitute for Sound and Music

Fee inflation and loyalty

Like all other festivals, in the last few years Melt! has had to cope with excessive market increases in fees. The indie bands which have always made up an important part of the festival lineup alongside the electronic artists, bands such as Phoenix, LCD Soundsystem, and The Rapture, have hugely increased their demands over the last decade. "Without exception, everything has just kept getting more expensive in the last 15 years. But by far the most expensive is the cost of the performers. That's the biggest cost factor for festivals that publicize their lineup in advance and sell tickets based on the lineup. There came a point when the festival could no longer afford acts on the scale that we had in the early years. When I look back now at what we paid for bands in 2006, 2007, 2008, it's way less than half what we would have to pay now."

Then all festivals can do is hope to rely on the loyalty of the performers—and on word-of-mouth publicity. "The only advantage for us has always been that the festival has a fantastic reputation among musicians," remarks Lehmkuhl. "People want to perform there, they look forward to the collection of artists that we get there. Many bands play at endless festivals during the summer, but Melt! is one where there's still something of the old vibe."

But even that has changed, continues Lehmkuhl. "The successful bands and DJs look at festivals in a different way now, because they want to fit in as many shows as they can in a weekend, so as to generate as much profit as possible. So the experience of staying on for an extra day or partying for a night and meeting people backstage falls by the wayside. 

The festival industry has become so big, it's a huge business. So there are often limits to the performers' loyalty. But we're grateful if we are at least still taken into consideration in the world of agents and their musicians, if we can get by with our relatively poor offering compared with Europe and the rest of the world." 

Melt! knows no borders (2019) by Nicola Rehbein / Jen KrauseInstitute for Sound and Music

Melt! knows no borders.

After being primarily responsible for the Melt! Festival for 15 years, Lehmkuhl recently repositioned himself within Goodlive GmbH, which now organizes other festivals such as Lollapalooza and Splash! as well as Melt!. "It was always important to me to have people in the booking team who are in tune with the zeitgeist," explains Lehmkuhl. "Even when I was 35, I realized that I can't always keep completely up to date with all genres forever. In the past, I really booked a great many acts that I had previously seen myself at clubs and parties. 

I was on the road all the time. As I grew older I responded by calling in people who, for example, booked the techno lineup for me or advised me on hip-hop. I've never expected to be able to arrange the entire lineup alone or discover all the acts by myself. But I've been saying for a long time now that some time I would hand over responsibility for the program."

Melt!-Impressions, Nicola Rehbein / Jen Krause, 2019, From the collection of: Institute for Sound and Music
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Even though he feels that he's still "in tune with the zeitgeist" at 40, in April 2019 Lehmkuhl decided to hand over the baton—to a duo consisting of a Creative Director and Artistic Director, namely Nina Nagele and Florian Czok. Lehmkuhl describes his new role in this arrangement as "mentor, sponsor, and sparring partner." 

Both Nagele and Czok have been familiar with Melt! for a number of years, as festivalgoers and then as part of the Melt! team. Just in the three years that she has been involved, says Nagele, she has experienced "so many emotional, stressful, fantastic, and thrilling moments" with "probably the best team ever, that I really can't say which was my best Melt! moment." 

But "for the record: it was the Voguing Ball on the 30kv Stage last year, or else the Stormzy show just after the great storm." 

Czok, who also joined the team in 2016, adds: "I experienced my first Melt in 2008 as a 19-year-old festivalgoer and was impressed even then by the diversity of the program, the people, and the location. I would never have dreamt that one day I would be responsible for it myself and I'm incredibly grateful especially to Stefan for his trust in me. 

Since then there have already been so many, countless amazing Melt! moments for me, especially in the early morning, at sunrise on the Sleepless Floor, on the Big Wheel, in the Forest, or on Gremmin Beach. One of my personal highlights was definitely the set by The Black Madonna (now called The Blessed Madonna) in 2019 and a phenomenal dance crew who danced in sheer ecstasy behind the DJ's console. I've rarely experienced so much energy both in front of and behind the DJ at a festival performance."

For their official debut in their new dual role next year—also the first Melt! on its new date on the first weekend in June—Czok and Nagele promise to give the festival "a new look without losing its original character." Diversity will be even more important in compiling the 2021 program than it has been before. 

They want, say the pair, "to offer the most contemporary and at the same time the most accessible festival program in the country." Specifically, that will mean a combination of big names and cutting-edge bookings—the latter made possible by having even more stages. They want to emphasize the unique niche that Melt! occupies by seeing mainstream and avant-garde as being not in opposition but combinable. 

You can see this in the words they use to make their vision of Melt! clearer: "hedonism, lifestyle, and fashion," but also "social responsibility, a platform for voices that are still too rarely heard, a more balanced gender ratio, and an inclusive safe space." And they have a slogan to match: "Melt! knows no borders." 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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