70000 TONS OF METAL's ANDY PILLER Takes On Cruise Criticism: 'The Line Ends With Me'

March 24, 2023

By David E. Gehlke

After a two-year pandemic-related break, the 70000 Tons Of Metal cruise returned to action in January. The brainchild of Swiss promoter Andy Piller, the cruise has its selling points as a five-day jaunt in warm, beautiful weather, surrounded by fellow music fans, 60 bands and countless amenities. 70000 Tons has become a destination for thousands of global metal fans, which explains why it remains the longest-running cruise of its kind. (Lest we forget the MEGADETH and MOTÖRHEAD cruises, neither of which made it to a second installment.) The 2023 edition featured DESTRUCTION, DRAGONFORCE, KAMELOT, KREATOR and NIGHTWISH, among 55 other bands. And while it wasn't at total capacity, Piller seems delighted it even happened during inflation and geopolitical uncertainty.

But 70000 Tons has its share of detractors. Unlike land-based festivals, Piller does not announce the full lineup ahead of the event, leaving some would-be attendees waffling over whether to plop down thousands of dollars while a trickle of band announcements come in just weeks before the cruise. Piller also dealt with some immediate backlash for the 2023 installment for booking Arizona thrashers VEKTOR, whose frontman, David DiSanto, has long been subject to spousal abuse allegations. Piller pulled the band the next day. He also bore the brunt of criticism from Portland, Oregon, black metallers UADA, who issued a social media post indicating that their offer to play the cruise was rescinded over unfounded and inaccurate Nazi affiliations. (Piller denies this claim.)

However, none of this sullied Piller's mood when he trekked to downtown Pittsburgh to chat with BLABBERMOUTH.NET in person. Piller asked that no question be off limits. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion with a man who lives and breathes 70000 Tons and isn't afraid to address issues with his "sailors" in the name of improving metal's most popular cruise.

Blabbermouth: There was no cruise in '21 or '22. You just wrapped this year's cruise. Can you describe the effort it took to get it off the ground?

Andy: "First of all, I would probably say that it became pretty clear soon in 2020 that a '21 cruise would probably not be feasible. In the end, it wasn't. I was prepared for that. I also made preparations early enough to make us, as an organization, survive for two years. When the whole world went south in March 2020, I was one of the first to immediately start looking for financing to get us through a rough time. I thought, 'Okay. There will not be a cruise in '21. I need to cover that. What if there was no cruise in '22? If this is getting even worse, which obviously it did, then getting financing would be nearly impossible.' I secured that. Then, even though in 2022, a cruise would have been probably possible, I had a really bad gut feeling. This was before anybody knew about Omicron or all these other variants that came after. Sometimes, every entrepreneur or businessman can tell you this: You must listen to your gut feelings. This was the right decision not to do it.

"Another big factor was a lot of our audience is from Europe. The entry restrictions for people in European countries, U.K., Ireland, and Brazil, that was still in effect. There was no way they could get in. I had to spend several times on business trips: two weeks in Mexico or the Dominican Republic to get into the U.S. coming from Europe. Somebody that does this for tourist reasons or going to a festival? Come on. That's why it was only 2023. Then, I think the biggest problem and this is to a vast degree, why we could start so late with selling it was because of the dates I announced way, way, way earlier last year. Contracts with the cruise lines were made a long time ago. You can't charter a cruise a couple of months before. It's not possible. The main hurdles were banks and credit card processing. That led to an entirely new problem: We would get all our revenue only after delivering the cruise. This is where the highest percentage of our revenue comes from. We have travel partners around the world. They pay us by any other means like bank wires. The biggest share is still retail sales. How can I sell tickets if you can't accept money from people? Also, insurance requirements climbed dramatically. Getting Covid insurance. There is an immediate question: How do other promoters handle this? They have a different setup than us. Some cruise promoters are joint ventures or subsidiaries of cruise lines. They don't have this problem because they have a different banking setup. They do not sell their tickets. They sell it through the cruise line. We're a small, independent company, which complicates matters. It always did. It was always difficult to secure credit card acquirers because of our global clientele. We have customers from over 70 countries. This is easier when 80 or 90 percent of your customers come from one country or territory. Much easier."

Blabbermouth: How much did global inflation play a factor?

Andy: "[Laughs] This is a problem. It was certainly, for part of the business, already a problem for 2023. Many of the deals were made before inflation."

Blabbermouth: Did you make your deals for 2021 and carry them over into 2023?

Andy: "Some of them. Some artists, as well as by far the biggest share, is the charter of the cruise ship. These are deals, long-term deals that we made years before. Certain things rolled over. The same thing with artists. Some of the artists that performed in 2023 already had deals in place. They were booked for 2021. I have personal relationships with most artists with their agents or management. Some for many decades. Some of these bands I toured as a tour manager with. They upheld these deals, which was really cool. In some other cases, with some equipment vendors, it wasn't so easy. Yeah, I also have to realize that I'm extremely loyal in my private life and business — that does not always get paid back. The old saying, 'You want loyalty, get a dog.' I really felt that. I totally understand the cost of business in some areas increased dramatically. There were shortages in gear, supplies and labor. Energy prices went up. The entire inflation, of course. When people suddenly try to charge you double, that's just taking advantage. Well, you may screw me once, but the next time, with many of my business partners, I didn't shop around for many years because we had good relationships. We had many deals over the years. It goes up by two, three or four percent year-over-year. That's normal. Suddenly somebody wants to charge me one hundred percent more? Alright, maybe I have no other choice in the short term and you put the gun to my chest and don't want to work with me? But think about repeat business. This is what some people forget. That doesn't mean that I'm not going to come back to you. The next time you will probably have to bid for the business."

Blabbermouth: Does this mean you will be changing vendors for the 2024 cruise?

Andy: "For some things, maybe."

Blabbermouth: Can you specify?

Andy: "There are certain confidentiality clauses, like in every contract, so I can't talk about it."

Blabbermouth: The cruise was not at full capacity this year. What can you attribute it to?

Andy: "We don't have to beat around the bush: One of the biggest contributing reasons was that we could sell only that late. Many people have to ask for vacation time. They probably made other plans at that point, were out of vacation time, or three months before their boss said no. For many of our international guests, there was also weariness about Covid, getting on a cruise ship, travel. They probably didn't feel comfortable doing this."

Blabbermouth: When Covid hit, the cruise ships got it bad. What were you thinking when all these people were stuck on a cruise ship and were catching the virus?

Andy: "I'm a professional optimist. Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I never thought that this would be the end of the world. I always thought, 'Okay. This is a pandemic. We'll get through it. Science, pharmaceutical companies, etcetera, will develop solutions for us. Whether it's treatments or vaccines.' In the beginning, we didn't know. At the beginning of Covid, I thought, 'This fucking sucks!' After a drink or two, we made jokes, 'Oh yeah. This would be perfect, right? Then all these fans will be on the ship for a month.' This wouldn't be fun. You're locked up in the end. Those stories that we all read must have been horror. Rolling back to my first answer, why I didn't want to do a cruise in '22, because there would have been restrictions about social distancing. Some things could not have been done as we were used to. How do you social distance in a mosh pit? [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Sure. Metal is a very interactive thing, like your cruise. It's a face-to-face thing.

Andy: "It is a face-to-face thing. I've seen interesting things during my travels over the pandemic. Even with all the restrictions and all the problems, I never stopped traveling. I still, even in 2020, crossed the Atlantic many times. I'm talking after March, with having to make a lot of detours because there were no flights anymore or reduced flights. Every time I came from Europe and got into the U.S., I went somewhere else for two weeks. In some parts of the world, they started shows again with social distancing. Putting up barricades, each group of six or eight people could get into one box. Unbelievable stuff."

Blabbermouth: Then there were the drive-in shows.

Andy: "People were hurting. Human beings are creative and try to devise solutions to survive and still have fun. This served its purpose at the time, but on a cruise ship, it's not possible."

Blabbermouth: How did this impact the announcement of 2023 bands?

Andy: "It didn't have a direct impact. Some people probably have not fully understood or are not aware. Most people in America aren't even aware that {if}you're not a U.S. citizen — you still can't enter this country if you're not vaccinated. Especially for artists. You only need one member or one key musician in the band that is not vaccinated and depending where you go in the world, this is still between 20, 25 percent of the people that are not, you can't get into the country."

Blabbermouth: Did that happen?

Andy: "Oh yes. Once again, I will never throw anybody under the bus. I'm not somebody calling out for being or not being vaccinated, but there are many bands I wanted to book. Some bands had roll-over deals from before the pandemic that couldn't play. By the way, it [the vaccine requirement] now runs out in April. We will see if it gets renewed. We don't know. But this rule is still in place. All those bands are still on hold."

Blabbermouth: So clearly, that impacted the lineup.

Andy: "It impacted the lineup. Then the guests. There were some bands that I wanted to book and the band wanted to do it, but they couldn't."

Blabbermouth: How much of a scramble was it to book the 60 bands for 2023?

Andy: "The thing is, yeah, I don't have a problem finding 60 bands. I could probably, not probably, I could fill the whole ship only with bands if I wanted to. But, it is always about making an interesting lineup covering all the different metal subgenres, catering to our very diverse audience to the best we can. Naturally, you can't make everybody 70000 percent happy. The one year, it will be thrashier. The next will be a symphonic year. The next year will be a little of a melodic death metal year. Trying to balance the lineup while staying within a reasonable budget wasn't easy. I still believe, in the end, and this is what I got from my customers, my sailors or survivors, we did a pretty okay job."

Blabbermouth: The regular complaint is that you don't announce the entire lineup before the cruise. However, is your counter that you're selling an "experience"?

Andy: "It is! This is not just another heavy metal festival. It is much more. It is an experience. It is also an experience spending those five days in such close proximity to the artists, not having any separation. No V.I.P. areas. This sets us apart, and I'm not comparing it to land-based festivals but to other cruises. When I came up with this idea 15 years ago, I jokingly said, 'If this is going to work, in ten years, there will be seven metal cruises.' And there are! Whatever their names are, some came, some went and some never happened. That's one point, too. Sometimes, shit takes a long time with me until I officially announce it. But when I announce it, it also happens. Not just, 'Good luck. Trust the future. It will work out.' No. If I say it will work, I will do it. Otherwise, I'd rather keep my mouth shut. It is a different experience because some of the other cruises, I always say, 'Competition is good for business. I don't have a problem with it.' I think we're still the leading light. We keep innovating and bringing in new things that people wouldn't come up with. One of the most significant differences, there is no separation. There are no V.I.P. areas. This starts at the terminal. Everybody goes through the same security and walks over the same gangway. We are in the true sense of the meaning 'in the same boat.'"

Blabbermouth: What do you have in mind for 2024? Do you think you'll have all the bands announced beforehand, including the headliners?

Andy: "There are no headliners. [Laughs] 70000 Tons Of Metal is the headliner."

Blabbermouth: Would you not consider NIGHTWISH or DRAGONFORCE headliners?

Andy: "They're not headliners [on 70000 Tons Of Metal]. There are 60 bands. This is always a big question. Of course, the bigger bands with bigger sales naturally get the better slots. They stay in the nicer rooms onboard. They probably have longer stage slots. What is always a draw for the people remains questionable. For much of our audience, it's not just one band they would go through such an expense. It is the combination of a festival lineup with also smaller bands that they would probably otherwise never have a chance to see. This was always part of my focus in building an interesting lineup, bringing bands here to North America that usually never tour here for various reasons. And also from other parts of the world for our global audience, bringing stuff that they would otherwise hardly ever see. At least, they wouldn't see it in one spot other than a festival."

Blabbermouth: Can you go into announcing VEKTOR, then dropping them the next day? The same is for UADA, which has some unfounded Nazi allegations, but those rumors have long been dispelled.

Andy: "Honestly, I dropped the ball on this [VEKTOR]. I always do my vetting of artists for some political bullshit. That doesn't work in our environment. It goes against the global, multi-national, multi-ethnic audience that we have and celebrate. We're all the same on the same boat. We're the United Nations Of Heavy Metal at sea. This is something that somehow slipped by. Also, my team was vastly unaware of it. I was somewhat surprised about the backlash that immediately hit the fan. When I read into it, I first thought, 'Holy crap!' There is no verdict. This is just an accusation. How shall we deal with it? Then there came threats from several sides. It was also about the artist's safety and just the whole environment. A mutual decision with the agent was made to remove the band from the lineup.

Then, there was some secondary outfall for a particular artist [UADA] claiming that I would have rescinded an offer, which is untrue. The thing is, I talk with booking agents and managers and record companies about a lot of possibilities. Very often, artists end up on a list and being discussed. Sometimes, through the vetting process, something comes up and I sometimes, first of all, do my own due diligence with the help of my team. Some people will say, 'Okay, this is questionable. We don't want to have them onboard.' In some cases, if something is unclear, I probably talk with their representatives, like, 'What's this all about?' No decision was ever made, but I discuss every year hundreds of artists every day. In the end, I do not issue a formal offer for the other reason. After that, it usually comes down to, 'Hey, are you available? How many people are in your travel party?' Then no offer comes for whatever reason. Suppose somebody makes a story out of this and wants to profile themselves for something that is not true. Then, alright, way to burn a bridge. Without naming any names, no offer was ever issued."

Blabbermouth: Will you continue booking 60 bands? Or have you thought of dropping down to 40?

Andy: "The whole thing from the 60 bands comes from the original setup with the 40 bands. We were on a smaller ship. By its capacity, we could sell roughly two thousand tickets. The average band has five musicians. Forty bands times five is two hundred. That gives an artist-to-guest ratio of one to ten. That was the initial idea. When we moved to a larger vessel and could sell three thousand tickets, it was clear it must be 60 bands. Hell no. Okay, never say never. I do not think that downsizing 70000 Tons Of Metal would work. Otherwise, how could I sell it as the world's biggest heavy metal cruise? [Laughs] As long as we stay on that class of vessel with this passenger capacity, this is where it will be."

Blabbermouth: You mentioned before this interview that you don't hide from criticism. Part of that includes having an open forum with your sailors. What's the give-and-take like?

Andy: "I'm just throwing an assumption here because I'm the skipper. They are the sailors and survivors, so you would probably get a slightly different answer from my sailors. I believe it's a love/hate relationship from their end. There is a survivor and this was many years ago — it was somewhere on social media. I don't believe it was on our forum. Maybe on Facebook. I quoted that guy several times. He said, 'Andy Piller. I hate that guy 51 weeks of the year.' I always say, 'Look. Praise is always nice. It makes me proud and I enjoy it. Fine. But only criticism helps me improve.' As long as it is constructive and founded, I'm always open. I'm also a true believer in freedom of speech. Freedom of the press, and freedom of speech, is something our ancestors fought for and paid with blood many times over. Today's generation often takes this for granted. They should not. This is why I do not like censorship. Unless something is outright racist or sexist, on very few occasions, it has happened. This is what we've taken off our platforms. At least our proprietary platform, which is the 70000 Tons Of Metal forum. All the rest is still there. All the criticism to 2010 from when we started. My IT guys, when they have to back up the forum, they are literally puking because it's such a giant database. It is all there, exclusively, everything with all the problems we went through from the very beginning."

Blabbermouth: Do you find this to be a good problem to have? That people are so passionate about something they're willing to be so vocal?

Andy: "I don't think this is only in the metal scene. People generally like to complain. With the anonymity of the Internet, people say much more than straight to your face."

Blabbermouth: Has anyone criticized the cruise to your face?

Andy: "Some criticism, some pretty harsh, unfiltered criticism toward what I'm doing, because these people don't criticize me as a person, they criticize what I'm doing, has been voiced many times on board or when people meet me in other places, which is sometimes weird. [Laughs] I heard, 'Hey, skipper!' in the subway in Tokyo, on the streets in Mexico City, at the airport in Toronto. All kinds of fucking places, which is weird. I'm still some crazy guy that had a crazy idea. As you know, I've been a promoter and agent before that and returned to my roots with this. I was a tour manager for 15 years. I always enjoyed having the all-areas pass, having control over everything, but I could walk through the audience and nobody knew me. I always enjoyed that. This ship has sailed! People are using language that they wouldn't use face-to-face. That's just part of the game. I'm a good sport. It's totally fine. It's not that people haven't voiced some pretty harsh criticism over the years in person. And not only in direct messages, handwritten letters, emails and over various channels. I already got handwritten letters, like six pages, no shit."

Blabbermouth: About the cruise.

Andy: "About what I should do differently, what they like. This is an interesting thing: When people come and criticize, they only bash. They usually also point out what they like. Usually, in the world, it's uncool because people criticize but don't propose a solution. Some work and some don't. Many people say, 'Why doesn't it work like this?' Sometimes, they are really good ideas coming out and they are helpful. Sometimes I know, well, not that I haven't thought about this. It simply doesn't work. We try to improve things. A huge point of criticism was always the merchandise sales. For years. Certain things we can do. Some things we can't. A lot of stuff was proposed, 'Why can't we pre-order and deliver it to the estate rooms?' First of all, it's stuff we can't do. All the sales on board are controlled by the cruise line anyway. There are no cash sales. All the sales go through your onboard spending account."

Blabbermouth: And you need to clear a profit.

Andy: "From our festival merchandise, we provide an additional service. The cruise line doesn't have the staff for this type of merchandise and never this amount of volume that we do. I bring the sellers. I pay them through the festival merchandise. They simply do the whole service for the bands. The cruise line takes the cut because they have the venue. For many artists, we don't even know and they don't know a short time before what they're bringing. Then, delivering it to staterooms. A fair share of our staterooms is single tickets. You can buy a single ticket, female or male. Then you get mixed with other sailors of the same gender. But those people are strangers. You want it to be delivered to the staterooms and stuff disappears? It's too much potential bullshit coming out of it. But, we invested a lot of money in the ticketing system and having the numbers served streamed over the onboard TV. That alleviates some of the issues. There is a dedicated channel showing all the merch, so you don't have to stand there for an hour in line to see what is there. You can watch it on TV and make a decision. I hired more personnel to improve the flow somehow. We bought all the stanchions. There is so much we can do to improve things. Other things, we're still fighting. I want to improve. I always want to improve and innovate until the day I die. There is always what we want to do and what we can do. Two different things."

Blabbermouth: Do the rising costs throw a wrench into these plans for improvement?

Andy: "Certain things, yes. Most of the equipment and staging are standard pieces, but we own some custom-made things because I wanted to have a massive open-air stage. We never wanted to spend the money to bring the official judicators from the Guinness Book Of World Records because it costs a lot. We found a booker. I know I have the biggest open-air structure to sail the open seas. There are a lot of other cruises, music cruises, that happen on similar ships. Their stages do not come close to what we built. They build it diagonal; they don't deck over the pools. This is our crown jewel. This is my baby I'm building. Even this year, we executed it perfectly, really perfectly. This was the first time in the history of 70000 Tons Of Metal, at least on this ship class, before on the Majesty was a different thing, but on this ship class, it was the first time we were able to raise the roof before sunrise and to maximum trim height. It was perfect. The relatively short distance helped. We went to Bimini [in the Bahamas]. You could swim over there. [Laughs] The first night, we made 19-course corrections to always sail exactly with the wind during a critical construction phase to put up all the banners and the roof to bring it up to trim height. Yeah, there is always the wind and the relative wind. If you sail with the wind and it's not too strong, you can bring the relative wind to zero. It's perfect condition.

This wasn't so much visible, but the square footage of the stage, not the rig, but the stage. It was larger on stage. We had more room to work around. For some bands that bring a big production, we could do it perfectly with rolling risers, trying our best to keep schedules on time. In the pool deck stage, it worked pretty well. The indoor stages were a bigger problem. Some people were rusty. Some of our stage managers aren't in the industry anymore. They're gone. One of our stage managers, unfortunately, is not anymore. Rest in peace. You have new people that come for the first time. They like the experience. It's problematic. There was also, especially for the Pool Deck, I have other ideas to make it extra. It takes money and that money wasn't around, not in 2023."

Blabbermouth: What do you have in mind for 2024?

Andy: "Give people what they're asking for. Make it possible for them to buy tickets much earlier. And, possibly, you constantly adapt, which is a common request from most, not all, to know a much bigger part of the lineup earlier. I can deliver that. I can and will deliver that.
Interestingly enough, by far not the majority, I'm not claiming bullshit here, but some people come to me and say, 'I find this really cool that until a week or a few days before, we don't know the whole lineup. This gives us such hype, and then it's a nice surprise.' We will not change the entire picture, but not so late as last year. This was for different reasons, at least one year, I was incapacitated, so a lot of things came too late. There will be adjustments, like putting people in different positions where people are around to take authority on decisions if I'm not around or sick or hit by a truck. Now there are people who can execute the cruise."

Blabbermouth: So you've streamlined your operations? Is there more or less bureaucracy now?

Andy: "Bureaucracy, there isn't so much within our operation. [Laughs] It's not easy simply because of what we do and we have to deal with huge multi-national corporations. It is sometimes frustrating. Stuff needs to go through approved vendors. It needs to be signed off by legal. I don't know how many lawyers have to sign off on stuff. Most people inside the company have different authority to execute certain things and make much more decisions, especially for smaller things by themselves. It's something you have to learn. I started as a small promoter, then a small agent, then a tour manager — this lonely wolf. You're the guy who can decide everything by himself. Now it's a huge organization where you must learn not to micromanage and delegate. I believe I got a little bit better over the years. However, this needs to trickle down as well. Now, I have to tell some of the managers in my company, 'Guys. For years you asked me not to micromanage. Now you're doing the same thing. Now you have to delegate. Now they're telling me the same thing I thought before.' It takes three times the time to explain how it goes until they know what to do. Maybe you have to explain it three times, or it takes longer. Then, the people under you can do it themselves. Then a hundred times and you can look at the bigger picture. You have bigger fish to fry."

Blabbermouth: Anything else to add?

Andy: "I'm happy it happened [this year]. It truly became true: One of the senior managers on the cruise line told me sometime last summer, 'Andy, you're going to see as you come closer to the cruise and when you execute it, it will feel like the first.' I was like, 'Ah! I don't know! We've been doing this for more than a decade. Come on! It's a joke.' You know what? It felt like the first time. A lot of uncertainty sometimes keeps you up at night. You didn't anticipate many problems even though, 'We've been doing this for more than a decade. We really thought we had it dialed in and knew every angle.' And it keeps on changing, especially under these circumstances with the pandemic with all those problems that came along. Also, with a lot of geopolitical uncertainties that are going on in other parts of the world. The way it turned out to have our family back together, on one boat and celebrate what we like most: heavy metal, all together, in such a peaceful environment, with our global audience with all these artists. The weather was perfect. The stage was perfect. The shows were perfect. It was actually better and also, in this sense, it felt like the first time. It turned out better than in my wildest dreams. I wish there were a couple more people on board. We went into this earlier, certain things were beyond my control, but the line ends with me. It's my responsibility. I could also have looked at or anticipated some problems earlier that would have probably not alleviated the whole problem, maybe it would have, but I always try to learn from mistakes. When we learn from mistakes, then I think there are no mistakes. Only lessons are learned, and we can see them as investments."

Photo credit: Mihaela Petrescu

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