"We need to keep bringing new bands through": we talk to a Download Festival booker about the future of metal and running the UK's biggest rock fest

Bring Me The Horizon Download Festival 2023
(Image credit: Katja Ogrin)

For 20 years, Download Festival has been the molten heart of the UK metal and rock community, but 2023 might just have been the most memorable year yet. Yes, the traffic was horrendous, while no shade and sun hotter than Satan’s BBQ had turned the whole shebang into some kind of endurance test by the end. But when it came to really important stuff – y’know, the music – Download’s 20th anniversary held nothing back. 

Expanding to four full days, this year saw Metallica play - twice - another incendiary victory lap from Slipknot, and Download’s first new headliner in six years in Bring Me The Horizon, all supported by an undercard creaking under the weight of fresh voices and headliners of the future. 

It was the moment metal’s current guard were joined by a new generation stepping up to take the festival forward. A criticism often levelled at Download, and not without good reason either, has been their tendency to lean on an increasingly thinning headliner pool skewed heavily towards rock and metal’s past glories. 

“Our pool for Download headliners is shrinking rapidly,” agrees festival booker Kamran Haq, explaining that the decision to elevate a new headliner in the shape of BMTH was a “conscious” one when the team set out to produce the 2023 line-up. 

“There’s always going to be a place for the Metallicas, Iron Maidens and Slipknots at Download, but these bands are not going to be around forever. We want to bring the new breed through, so we don’t stagnate as a festival.” 

Download’s attempts over the years to introduce new blood into their headliner pool have been met with mixed results. Avenged Sevenfold’s first headline slot in 2014 was well received (the band will headline for the third time in 2024), but main stage top of the bill appearances from Muse in 2015 and Biffy Clyro in 2017 were less so. 

Bring Me The Horizon’s promotion was initially greeted with that same suspicion, but any doubts were silenced by the band’s stunning Friday night headline debut. Staying true to their status as one of modern metal’s most innovative and boundary-pushing bands, they hit the sold-out crowd with bold move after bold move, backed with some of the most insane production Download has ever seen. 

“Bring Me approached us and looked at headlining before, but we felt 2023 was the year they were ready,” continues Kamran. He says the towers of pyro the band were shooting out of the top of the stage were so big, they caused complaints from planes trying to land at the nearby East Midlands Airport. “That show spoke for itself.” 

“We’re humbled by the fact that it seems to be incredibly difficult for a rock band that came out after 2000 to headline these things,” singer Oli Sykes told NME backstage the day of their set. “But somehow, we’ve climbed that mountain and got to the top.”

If BMTH represented Download broadening its horizons, there was plenty to satiate the purists. Having confirmed the departure of keyboardist Craig Jones only days before and announced that percussionist Clown would miss the band’s European shows due to his wife’s health, there were rumours that Slipknot might not turn up at all. 

Show up they did though, to everyone’s surprise with Clown in tow, for a bile-filled performance aimed at anyone suggesting the band’s future could be in jeopardy. “Clown showed up that morning,” says Kamran. “I don’t think anybody knew he was coming. I think he didn’t want to miss Download because it’s such a big part of their history.” 

Meanwhile, Metallica’s fourth and fifth headlining slots on Thursday and Saturday had a large hand in ensuring 2023 was the festival’s fastest-selling year ever, not to mention the first complete sell-out in its history.

Not only were both sets a fan’s dream, covering everything from the must-hears to deep cuts (King Nothing, anyone?) the band brought along their full stadium set-up – a series of huge, floor-standing screens/speakers – and let Download use it for the weekend, upping the wow factor for every band on the main stage. 

“Seeing that semicircle in front of the stage looked insane,” says Kamran, confirming it’s inspired the team to “do something similar” at future Downloads. “It looked like alien spaceships had just left.” 

Elsewhere though, it felt like Download 2023 was firmly fixated on the future. Not only was there more diversity on show than ever, with female, LGBTQIA+ and people of colour taking their place on the line-up, the likes of Architects, Parkway Drive, Bring Me well and truly silenced the haters, Evanescence, Ghost and even Electric Callboy – if you could actually get anywhere near the tent to see them – were making bids for a potential headline slot. 

That health of the scene, coupled with the success of 2023, has given the team more freedom and licence to try out new headliners. As we go to print, Download have announced their 2024 line-up. There’s only one classic metal main stage headliner (Avenged Sevenfold), next to new promotions Queens Of The Stone Age and Fall Out Boy, plus a host of vital supporting heavy bands. It feels like the festival is continuing to forge forwards. 

“I’m excited to see where Gojira go next,” says Kamran, who sees the likes of them, Sleep Token and Bad Omens as the future of the festival. “We need to keep bringing these bands through and supporting them and elevating and building them as new headliners.”

Download Festival 2024 takes place June 14 - 16 at Castle Donington, England. For the full line-up and tickets, visit the official website

Dannii Leivers

Danniii Leivers writes for Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, The Guardian, NME, Alternative Press, Rock Sound, The Line Of Best Fit and more. She loves the 90s, and is happy where the sea is bluest.