Heavy metal as an industry

by Brett Stevens
June 21, 2014 –

ac-dc-tour

Anyone who lived as a metal fan in the 1970s and 1980s remembers The Line: some bands were rock enough to make it into the newspaper, others were “too metal.” Major newspapers never covered Slayer, rarely covered Metallica, and generally drew The Line at anything heavier than Guns ‘n Roses. Thus even major bands like AC/DC got cut out of the mix.

No more. As the image above illustrates, the front page of goody-two-shoes news network CNN shows us the latest about the AC/DC 40th Anniversary Tour. Even the biggest megaphone for mainstream news which spends most of its time nagging us about our bad habits or flashing sensationalistic messages of world decay finally acknowledges heavy metal. In the 1980s, this would have been unthinkable. And yet, now we’re here.

What’s behind metal’s legitimization? It’s not so underground anymore, being one of the bigger non-rock/pop genres. It’s also not so extreme, since rap opened up the lyrical gates to violence, lust and obscenity and nu-metal got radio accustomed to heavy crunch (and lyrics about parental neglect). But most importantly, metal is now an industry. With enough consistent fans and labels behind it, and those labels having found a way to “metalize” or “metal-flavor” just about anything (indie, rock, jazz, blues, industrial), metal now provides one of the pillars of the entertainment industry.

Even more, heavy metal is now a recognized part of our culture. Rap music represents a certain kind of rebellion or a certain kind of irony. Heavy metal raises the flag for a certain kind of rebellion that is both cluelessly adolescent and “old soul” world-weary and informed. It’s a feeling we all have, and its appeal seems to be increasing.

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7 comments

  • Jae-yun Kim

    Some questions and comments:

    Have you created any (full-length) metal compositions of your own?

    What does the history of heavy metal tell us about the feasibility of balancing the artistic and business sides of music as a career? Even with my limited knowledge, I am well aware of the numerous cases in which a band burst into the scene obscure but hungry, but upon attaining fame descended into commercial complacency. I think your article “Self-Righteous” yields great insight into this phenomenon:

    Reading Thomas Gabriel Fischer’s “Are You Morbid? Inside the Pandemonium of Celtic Frost” (Sanctuary Publishing, 2000, London, 339 pages), I was struck by how much the story of humanity is acted out in microcosm through metal music. In creating a metal band, the same boundaries of logic exist that face an organism: it must find sustenance, defend predators and procreate (the wicked). Much as a civilization faces an uncertain landscape and the possibility of being overwhelmed, a metal band is also like a small society: four or five guys who work together not on completing a predefined task, but on pouring inspiration and feeling into a musical work so that it meets their own standards.

    There are just too many instances of this phenomenon, and it has happened to the best bands.

    I read, with admiration, about an incident in which Ixithra of Demoncy destroyed recordings and fired his bandmates when he learned of plans to go in a more commercial direction. I also appreciate Demilich’s decision to make NESPITHE available for free on their website (even though it’s well worth paying for). Ditto for Varg Vikernes and THE WAYS OF YORE.

    1. EDS

      It’s been said before, metal does not pay the bills. Or at the very least, good, true and real metal of the 100% underground variety does not pay the bills. No doubt Ixithra has a real job outside Demoncy. I know Paul Ledney and his wife have some sort of small business that they own making custom t-shirts for business/family functions.

      Maybe the best metal out there currently is the kind given away for free? The members of the band foot the recording bill, but they give the recording away for free because their heart is in it for the right reasons. The love of metal and the love of music.

      1. Jae-yun Kim

        It’s been said before, metal does not pay the bills. Or at the very least, good, true and real metal of the 100% underground variety does not pay the bills.

        Indeed. About a year and a half ago Mr. Stevens had this to say about the news that Immolation was recording a new album:

        As long-time fans, we’re hoping they’ll return to death metal because they do it so well, but we’re not so delusional as to forget that death metal very rarely pays the bills.

        No doubt Ixithra has a real job outside Demoncy. I know Paul Ledney and his wife have some sort of small business that they own making custom t-shirts for business/family functions.

        No real surprises here. (One could also mention Sadistic Intent and Dark Realm Records.) I don’t think I was under any illusion that they relied on their art to put food on the table. I guess my question about the feasibility of balancing the artistic and business sides of music was more straightforward than I’d thought.

        Maybe the best metal out there currently is the kind given away for free? The members of the band foot the recording bill, but they give the recording away for free because their heart is in it for the right reasons. The love of metal and the love of music.

        You may well be right about that–money for the sake of art rather than art for the sake of money. I view metal as more of a (non-organized) religion than a business. Somehow, Beherit usually comes to mind when I say that ;) (We worship. \m/)

        You might say that I have the same attitude toward art in general. For me, the best art seems to be the kind that is created with a pure motive, unsullied by money. I understand that many if not most artists need to put a price on their work for their daily bread, but I admire the relative few who go out of their way to make their work freely available to anyone who can find it. To me that is a strong sign of genuine dedication to their art qua art, not business–and a genuine desire to share it with the world.

        As Vijay Prozak once enjoined: “If you make music, thrust it into the world, such that the world changes from its touch. That alone is action.”

        1. veien

          “If you make music, thrust it into the world, such that the world changes from its touch. That alone is action.”

          Quote of the century!

  • EDS

    Just yesterday as I was walking through town, I was approached two different times by strangers complementing my t-shirt. I was wearing an Effigy of the Forgotten album cover shirt. It’s old and it’s faded, and I do realize its probably one of the more famous t-shirts that metalheads in the 2000′s were wearing (the height of slam death and tech death metal). The first guy was unassuming and polite, as he made claims of being from Tampa and hanging out with Glen Benton from time to time. He mentioned that no scene in all of metal was as good as the Tampa scene of old. Apparently, according to him, the Tampa scene is thriving once again as he named off a bunch of bands I had never heard of. He said he plays guitar and writes songs for bands. He used his smart phone to pull up a song he wrote for another band. It was emo/scream hardcore. There were some thrash/speed metal derived riffs but they were of the tough guy variety. I had a few options at this point on how to proceed, but I guess I am a nice guy. I told him it was a pretty rad song, but I needed to hurry up and get to an appointment. I left him standing there all while I knew he wanted to exchange contact information.

    Not 10 minutes later and another guy approaches me. His look is that of the dudes from Deafheaven. Black collared shirt buttoned all the way to the top. Greased raven black hair. He was even sporting some sort of mid length combat boot. He said he’d thought he would never see someone wearing a Suffocation t-shirt in this place. He was from NY/PA and he hung around with the guys in Incantation and Immolation. He also played guitar (he’s another guitarist) with Doug Cerrito right before Doug left Suffocation. He started talking about how the scene is dead for metal, but there plenty of punk and hardcore bands still going in the area. That’s when he asked me if I like black metal too. I responded that I like some black metal from the 90′s. He said “awww man, you gotta hear the latest black metal band out of San Francisco, called Deafheaven! Bro they are super tight!”. Again I guess I am to nice. I told him I never heard of them, but ever since Filosofem I haven’t paid attention to black metal. I said I need to go and get to an appointment. He was left with a puzzled look on his face.

    True story.

    Basically as I and others have stated on this site before. Modern metal is a safe form of entertainment and it is the new nu-metal of the current generation. Want proof? Go to a school anywhere in America. See all the modern metal t-shirts and behaviors these kids are displaying. Add to the fact that most of the bands are not signing about violence as much as they’re signing about depression and fatalist philosophy, and you have the perfect recipe for a cool new edgy style of music that can be shoved down the alienated kids throats. Then Tipper Gore won’t have much to say on the subject!

    It’s the first day of summer but I think some spring cleaning is in order. All metal t-shirts will be boxed up and put in storage today…..

    1. veien

      Yeah I hear what you’re saying EDS. I honestly never fly the flag while I’m out and about mostly due to the fact that the 1% who might have any familiarity probably wouldn’t get it anyway (and black metal fans especially – I’ve actually found them to be the worst offenders). I specifically remember sitting down next to a guy wearing a Burzum shirt on a train once and so tried to engage him in conversation but he was so awkward and emotionally cold that I very soon realised we had no common ground (and I’m pretty open and relaxed with autists and the general population alike but this was just embarrassing, a bit like that scene on “Until the Light Takes Us” where Frost boards a plane dressed as transvestite, and scares some 8 yro kid).

      What blows my mind all the more is that with these modern times of the internet and what you might assume to be increased potential for people to link up and exchange ideas, discover new bands etc there is just so little of it actually going on. More potential – less connection (just doesn’t make sense to me). Whereas I’ve heard that in the late 80s, early 90s basically anyone with long hair and a metal shirt, jacket, patches whatever you can consider him like a brother.