Skip to main content

Home Music Music Features

How Download Festival became our festival of the year

Last week saw Download Festival pick up the Festival Award at the Rolling Stone UK Awards in collaboration with Remy Martin. We look back at how the festival owned 2023.

By Sophie Porter

The Download Festival team with their award, presented by Nova Twins (Picture: Kit Oates)

“One thing about the rock world, they [the fans] can smell bullshit a mile away,” says Download boss Andy Copping, months after the festival’s 20-year celebration. 

“I think we’re very lucky in the rock world. The acts and their fans stay relevant. The fans are incredibly loyal. Once they’re with you, they’re lifers.” It’s a mentality that Copping and his team have always sought to embrace: “We want the fans to come with us and grow with us,” he says.

Since Download launched in 2003, it has fostered a diehard community of heavy music lovers who view Donington Park as an essential pilgrimage site for like-minded fans across the globe. This year, Download basked in the glory of two headline sets from Metallica and a real festival moment when Bring Me the Horizon headlined for the first time.

It’s for these reasons that Download, the UK’s spiritual home of all things heavy music, is the winner of The Festival Award.

“Everybody knows what Rolling Stone is and what it stands for and the fact that, in the first year in the UK, that we won this award, I can’t find the words properly for how much it means. It is validation, quite frankly,” says Copping.

Asked about his favourite moments from the past 20 years, Copping lists booking AC/DC in 2010 when they weren’t doing festivals, Lars Ulrich of Metallica’s impassioned speech this year on the importance of Download, Monsters of Rock and Donington to his life and band, and seeing the somewhat controversial headline booking of Muse in 2015 go on to win them new fans. But in keeping with his character and the ethos of the festival, Copping’s attention turns again to the community: “The fans make the festival. We are nothing without those fans that come in year in, year out and support us. And I’ve seen them come in with the smiles on their faces. There’s nothing better than that.” If it’s validation that they’re after, this is all the Download team need to know that they’re on the right track for the coming decades.

As for that aforementioned community, it’s fair to say that heavy music has long gone hand in hand with those who find themselves on the fringes of society and, for a lot of us who grew up in the early years of the internet and music television when Download was launched, online forums, MySpace bulletins and the like were a reliable place in which to find solace and likeminded people. It therefore makes sense that since its inception, Download has always prioritised the voices and experiences of the community it serves, utilising fan forums and direct contact to give its audience a certain amount of ownership over the festival.

“When we first started out, we were without a doubt the first festival in the world that really embraced its audience in the sense of properly creating a community,” says Copping. “It was really important to us that the Download community really feel that we’ve got this kind of family ethos and that they did have a voice.”

It’s a blueprint that has allowed the festival to grow year on year while remaining firmly in tune with its roots, and it’s one that has been co-opted by the wider festival landscape. “Other festivals in the world were going, ‘You are absolutely mad to open the doors to your audience,” says Copping. “Interestingly, virtually every other festival in the world now is going direct to the fans.” In the age of social media, when everyone has a voice and an opinion, it is increasingly important that festival organisers “take that on board”, Copping believes. 

Download’s relationship with its fans has also allowed it to move with the times and broaden its offering by including acts from heavy-adjacent genres, such as emo titans My Chemical Romance and electro pop-rock two-piece Twenty One Pilots on the stage at Donington Park. Having risen from the riff-laden ashes of Monsters of Rock (1980–1996) and Ozzy Osbourne’s Ozzfest (2002) on the very same site, Download was always going to have the job of balancing its own rock lineage and access to heritage acts with its aim to platform newer talent from a broader sonic spectrum. How do the team do it? 

“We literally book by committee,” Copping tells me. It’s another area where Download bucks the trend of most flagship festivals. “The only way this festival is going to move is by having fresh eyes and ears, not only towards the community, but also having people that are working with me on a day-to-day basis on ‘This band is going to break through,’ ‘This band is hot.’” 

Having surpassed its early goal of hosting more editions of Download than there were Monsters of Rock, Copping sees no reason to not be thinking about the next 10 or 20 years. “There’s plenty [of bands] out there for us to continue the growth, and there’s bands that haven’t even formed yet but in ten years’ time could be headliners.” 

We talk a little about who those acts might be in the short term and which heritage bands they might be interspersed with. Names like Blink 182, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance — each of which has 15–20 years or more under their belts —  come up. Would Copping consider these heritage acts?

“On paper, yes, you would. But they still have a certain freshness about them. Would you class Limp Bizkit as a heritage act? I guess not really in the way that you would say that about AC/DC.” He also throws the likes of Paramore into the mix, as well as heavy metal heroes Iron Maiden and punk mainstays Green Day, but what feels more exciting about Download’s future is just how palpable Copping’s passion is for nurturing talent. “Something that we’ve always wanted to do is not only give bands a platform, but also give them an opportunity to grow with the festival and not just for Download.”

Slipknot and Bring Me the Horizon are prime examples of two acts who started at the bottom of the bill. After being given their first headline slot at Download, Slipknot now headlines international festivals. Among the new generation of bands that Copping hopes to see follow the same path are the likes of Sleep Token, Ghost and Architects. 

For Download, then, the future looks incredibly bright, with a new legion of heavy acts ready to put their stamp on Donington Park. To borrow a quote from KISS: “I wanna rock and roll all night” — and for many more years to come.