Death Metal Underground

As the music industry contracts niche genres will rise

July 17, 2014 –

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Being a squeaky clean pop country starlet has its advantages. Taylor Swift launched her own critique of the music industry by suggesting recently that customers will buy albums that “hit them like an arrow through the heart.” This implies by converse that they will buy only albums that hit this raised standard.

Her statement echoes what underground musicians have said for years: mass pop becomes popular more for being a phenomenon than for any music quality or profundity as art. People buzz around it because, like most hive mind activities, popular music gives them a space to socialize. Its popularity is its attraction, for those who feel happiest when they are doing what a million other people are doing at the same time.

Underground music on the other hand derives its authenticity from its artistic representation of reality as people prefer not to see it. Whether that is Slayer showing us the dark and seemingly demonic motivations behind history and social decay, or Burzum attempting to inspire in us a vision of a “Dungeons and Dragons” style medieval revival, underground metal peels back the layers of gloss and warm fuzzy feelings and shows us the bare reality underneath the patina of appearance. Its power is not only the revelation of reality but an emotional drive to make us want to accept this situation and make something greater out of it.

The music industry has been in a cycle of contraction or getting smaller as the mass audience drops out. When pop music provides a passing phenomenon that fascinates people for only a few weeks, the point of paying for it is lost on most. Its status more resembles that of television shows or movies than pieces of sonic art to be taken out of the rack and enjoyed for years on end. The phenomenon defines the music: its novelty and popularity make it, like other fads and trends, a temporary distraction from the pressures of life but not a sustaining or interest-stirring event.

For a half-century the music industry made fortunes by finding roughly interchangeable bands, shaping them around some unique appearance, and selling basically the same music time and again to an audience who outgrew the music rapidly and eventually stopped buying. Its business plan emerged from producing lots of new hits and hyping them to attract an audience, rather than building some kind of lasting relationship between artists and fans. When people said that the music industry was bad for artists in the long run, this is what they had in mind. Temporary and dramatic mediocrity was rewarded and talent marginalized.

The Recording Industry Association of America tracks music industry statistics. Where industry revenue totaled $15 billion in 2003, by 2013 it had fallen to only $7 billion. Even digital sales are in decline as people turn to other options. With the falling prices in movies through Red Box, Netflix and other on-demand services, music also falls. As a result the artists who inspire their fans to a longer term relationship are the ones who prevail.

As a music industry source cited in the above article says:

“What we’ve seen is fans will pay for stuff whether it’s Jack White’s record club or Nine Inch Nails doing limited releases,” remarked Light. “Albums at this point need to be souvenirs. They need to be experiental. We see it now with the phenomenon around ‘Frozen.’ This is selling albums through the roof because kids want to retain that relationship, sing the songs over and over, have that souvenir.”

When the music industry shrinks, the pop trends that crowd out quality music decline and artists benefit as a result. The demand for quality now outpaces that for quantity, and the future of the industry becomes not only niche genres like underground metal, but the artists within them who attract lifelong audiences. Although we had to hear this from the mouth of a cowboy diva, this alert to the profound change in the industry heralds a brighter future for metal, or at least metal which hits its fans “like an arrow through the heart.”

Rob Flynn expounds on how commerce crushes creativity

March 19, 2014 –

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Alternative metal band Machine Head frontman Rob Flynn recently launched a blog-based tirade in which he excoriates the current music industry for being too industrial in its approach to music. In his view, as soon as something succeeds and lots of people show up to make money off of it, creativity is crushed.

His specific beef is the twofold: the focus on quick sales as a means of determining the value of a band, and on the high charges passed on to bands through union rules for playing past eleven at night. However, Flynn also hits on some ideas that parallel those expressed by underground metal musicians.

The music business has sucked the life out of creativity. No one is encouraged to take risks, no one is encouraged to push the envelope, because it’s all about first-week sales! It’s about pointless radio play and how good your last tour went. How venues and promoters are squeezing the last drop of spontaneity out of your soul by not ‘allowing’ you to playing past curfew and not drawing outside the line.

When we play that game, we essentially applaud mediocrity.

There’s nothing dangerous about music these days, there’s nothing surprising about it either. There can’t be.

His complex rant (mainstream media would say “rambling”) ranges from topics such as how social media disconnects us and a loathing of requisite patriotism in music to the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, but his point is clear: the more we formalize, make profitable and regulate the process of music, the more we convert it from being a passion into another blockhead industry.

Flynn concludes with a voice of some desperation. “Someone has to stir the pot. Something needs to come along and wake us up out of the slumber.” As underground metal observers, we note that any time a new genre becomes popular, it soon gets mobbed by imitators and marketers who drag it down and turn it into the same old “safe” but “edgy” stuff that in fact has no value to anyone. These people are apparently blind to the fact that they have crushed the value of a genre they pursued specifically because it had that value. Then, having polluted something else, they look for the next big thing to latch on to and parasitize, dragging it down as well.

Heavy metal shows piracy is not killing music, offers new business model

November 30, 2013 –

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The music industry — and the television and movie industries — appears to be in free-fall. After years of having an exclusive means of delivery, its market hold has been fragmented by the internet and increasing distrust of big media. Looking over the past decade, the picture adds up to a slow and steady decline with downloaded forms of media failing to replace the profits of their physical counterparts.

Although the industries responded with initiatives to stop piracy, many observers disagree that piracy is the root of industry’s woes and think instead that there is a need for a new business plan in the media industries because the old profit model has failed. However, no one is sure what that plan will be, since media is no longer a high margin industry with tons of excess profit between cost and sales price, but a low margin industry where people aren’t willing to pay much for media. Think of the difference between a 1990s-era $150/month cable bill and today’s $15/month Netflix bill.

The new holy grail is to find a business model that allows bands to have more promotion than being independent can provide, but does not lead to the excess and inefficiency of the big record labels of the past. Right now, the industry is all ears to anyone who can demonstrate a working business model that shows a profit. As of recently, one of the possibilities is offered by a heavy metal band you’ll all recognize: Iron Maiden.

“Iron Maiden’s BitTorrent data suggests Brazil is a huge driver of fans – and given Brazil is one of the biggest file sharing nations on the planet, this is a strong indicator of popularity,” said Greg Mead, CEO and co-founder of Musicmetric.

“With their constant touring, [the] report suggests Maiden have been rather successful in turning free file-sharing into fee-paying fans. This is clear proof that taking a global approach to live touring can pay off, and that having the data to track where your fan bases lie will become ever more vital.”

Despite being extensively pirated worldwide, Iron Maiden have managed to put themselves in the £10-20m for 2012. This means that despite the growing popularity of the band on social media, and the extensive and pervasive torrent downloading of the band’s music, books and movies, the band is turning a profit. This is in defiance of the past business model, and the idea that piracy is killing music. In fact, piracy seems to be saving music in Iron Maiden’s case.

One reason for this may be metal itself. It has a fiercely loyal fanbase and a clear brand and identity, even down to the uniform-style black tshirts that fans wear that differ only in band logo and art. The audience identifies with the genre, which stands in contrast to genericized genres like pop, rock and rap. It doggedly maintains its own identity and shuns outsiders. As a result, fans tend to identify more with their music, and place a higher value on purchasing it.

The music industry should listen up. Piracy may or may not be evil, but it’s a way of life for many people. High margins, such as found by selling a $0.25 CD for $18, are now gone. But heavy metal shows us a different business model in which although much of the product is pirated or given away, bands are still able to thrive and in fact do better than they did under the old model. Perhaps the future isn’t so dark after all for the music industry, at least in heavy metal.

Five things every aspiring musician needs

November 20, 2013 –

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Those of us who have had the fortune to hang around the music industry for a few decades tend to pick up a few ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

If you are trying to get your music out there, you’ll get a lot of advice from people with agendas. They want you to do x so that they get y. What follows is generic advice for putting your best foot forward.

Five things every aspiring musician should have:

  1. Mailing list. Before you start freaking out, realize this isn’t a big deal that involves new software and complexity that might make your sensitive artistic brain burn out. You can do this in Gmail or any other mail program. The point is to keep a list of every person who has helped you, liked you, interviewed you, or written to you showing interest. Don’t lose contact through disorganization, which is what 99.99% of musicians do. Ask “Mind if I keep you updated about [Band Name Here]?” and most people will say yes. Then send them periodic updates, about every third month. For people in the industry, this helps them track you and do nice things for you like write articles. For fans, this is a sense of being attached to something important. As your list expands, you can migrate to a free mailing list service.
  2. Audio streaming. As soon as you have recorded material, you should have one current song you stream live. You do not necessarily need more than one, which preserves the exclusivity of your work. However, especially at the demo and first album stages, it doesn’t hurt to worry less about monetizing your work and more about getting it out there. Unfortunately, most streaming services are pretty bad and also rely on the notoriously buggy and unsafe Adobe Flash Player (if your computer got hacked in the last 5 years, it’s most likely it happened through this piece of junkware). The best are SoundCloud and YouTube, and both are free.
  3. Contactability. Most of you have a web/phone presence, but the important part is this: it should never change. Thus you probably want it to be separate from your social media presence, which is where you post updates. What’s wrong with using Facebook as your official page? Social media trends change, and you’ll be (in about six months) in the same place the people are who stuck to MySpace. Get yourself a free website and keep it minimal. Post links to your audio streaming, your mission statement (see below), and have some kind of contact, whether an email address or a contact form.
  4. Demo. What’s this, 1992? A demo? No one uses tapes anymore, you say. That may be so. However, the demo is the most important stage of your band’s career. It’s where you hone your craft and show us the direction into which you’re expanding. It’s also a stage at which experiencing reviewers tend to be generous to you, since they know it’s a work in progress. Most demos get cut from the review pile not for being bad but for being contentless, in other words imitations of form without substance. If you’ve got something you are trying to express, even if your style isn’t distinct, experienced reviewers tend to be accepting. A demo also allows you and your fellow band members — if any — to focus on what you’re doing, and figure out if you like your direction. It’s a form of prototyping that’s vital to making music. Nowadays, it might be an MP3 demo. But nothing’s worse than a band who rush out a first album of material that still needs incubation.
  5. Mission statement. This is both a formal mission statement, and a one-liner for your own head. You’re at a party, and you head back over to the punch bowl made from an imitation triceratops skull, and you meet someone new. They ask, “So what’s your band like?” You want to have a one-liner you can zap out in a zombie-like state. This should briefly describe your musical style, but more importantly describe your direction. “We’re a death metal band trying to revive the creativity of the early heavy metal era” or “We’re a doom metal band who want to capture a naturalistic vibe.” Keep this one short and sweet. For your website, and to email to anyone who shows any interest in you, you need a one-paragraph more formal statement. If you aren’t confident in your word-smithing skills, find a local (underappreciated) zine editor or DJ and they will most likely help. Your mission statement should be a clear and easily-grasped statement of both style and substance, and it should be the first thing in any communication you have with industry. It’s not realistic to expect people to remember you immediately, and they’re busy people; give them a helping hint. This also gives people who visit your website “talking points,” such as “I found this new band, they’re organic doom metal” when they tell their friends about you.

This article is limited, and not intended to be anything other that five useful things for you to do. For more general advice, try the BBC page and How to Promote Your Music on About. It’s also worth checking out industry-related rants from Trent Reznor and Steve Albini.

One final word from an industry source:

“Listen to your customers, not your critics. Only invest your efforts into something you enjoy…”

Lee Parsons, CEO, Ditto Music

This is best expressed as a more universal principle: make music that you would be able to listen to for two weeks straight as a teenager and then throw on at least once a month for the rest of your life without getting bored. Make music you would be excited to find in the store or on a dub or torrent. If you satisfy your own cravings, and not the neurotic critique that most of us having running in the back of our heads, you will make something you can believe in.