There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about the use of a gimmick to make your metal band stand out. Some, like Job For a Cowboy say that this is just being a sell out, who needs a gimmick when the music does the talking? Others claim that a gimmick of some form is actually necessary since it allows your band to differentiate itself from legions of similar groups working just as hard. I believe that the true answer lies somewhere in between, and think that if your gimmick is good enough, and smart enough, then it just might work out for you. But if it isn’t, well then, things could go very wrong for you and your little motley crew.
So, on to the good, the bad, and the ugly gimmicks!
I’ll admit, I had some difficulty with this one. It’s always seemed to me like the best bands for me are simply the ones that stand out the most musically. Then I thought about it again and stumbled upon a couple of examples that prove a good gimmick can help your band.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a gimmick is the almighty GWAR who may or may not be reuniting after the death of their legendary frontman Dave Brockie. For the uninitiated GWAR is a group who may be more gimmick than band, their unique image and backstory, being aliens who had frozen in Antartica for thousands of years, is certainly better known than their music. Be it in the late Oderus Urungus’s infamous ‘cuttlefish’ codpiece or the bands ridiculously inappropriate stage show, GWAR are the kind of band who make Sunday School teachers tremble in fear.
Part of what has always made GWAR so appealing to me as that the band members, when dressed up, never broke character. There are stories of Brockie backstage dressed as Oderus yelling at roadies in character. The vast majority of interviews the band does are in character too. It gives the band a massive appeal. These are guys who seek to be the ultimate rock and roll band after a fashion, spurting fake blood and waving giant plastic swords until you too are decapitated. The lesson to be learned from GWAR is that if you’re going to have a gimmick, take it all the way, and make sure you never acknowledge it.
If you think that this is the sort of thing that could only have grown up as a product of longevity and luck, I encourage you to look at Steel Panther, a relatively new band who are blowing up the rock and metal scene. Though their music is essentially derivative, they, like GWAR have a very clear image and character. Steel Panther actually take it to a different level. Whereas GWAR would occasionally make jokes about their human counterparts, the guys in Steel Panther insist the details behind songs like “17 Girls in a Row” and “Gangbang at the Old Folks Home” are totally true. The band claim to have no lives outside of being rock stars, and the more they pretend, the more this fantasy becomes a reality. In other words, if you paint an extreme enough image, not only will people gravitate towards it, they will help to make even its most ridiculous aspects a reality.
Now we get to put on the boxing gloves and unveil what makes people hate gimmicks so much. There are more bad gimmicks than I can count, but a few recent ones come to mind. These are the sort of things that make fans not just angry but also frustrated. These groups attempt to gamble with the notion that “All press is good press” and often lose out. There’s a reason some bands are almost universally hated and it is very often simply as a result of a gimmick that only succeeded in pissing folks off. There are two bands who really embody that on the metal scene right now and I think it’s important to look at and analyze their mistakes.
The first is King 810 and their many futile attempts at ‘street cred’ which have only succeeded in impressing thirteen year old boys. Their first press release upon signing tlks about how the band had to learn to ‘fend for themselves’ as children. It paints their town of Flint, Michigan as some sort of anarchist hell well everyone is out to get everyone else. Within three days of the announcement the band posted a picture of a fan who had carved their logo into his leg. (Which won’t be share here as it is NSFW) A short while after they unveiled a new live show featuring ‘armed gangsters’ pretending to guard the stage. If that doesn’t seem tasteless and stupid, I don’t know what is.
The band only exacerbated the dislike for them with recent charges filed against them for “Intent to do Great Bodily Harm”. King 810 seemed to take pride in their arrest. Even going so far as to post their arrest report on Facebook. This gimmick not only made it feel like the label (The rapidly failing Roadrunner) had set up the whole ‘scandal’ but also made it seem like King 810 were trying to hard to be ‘tough guys’. In other words, it established King 810 as yet another silly and bland group who seem to want to be a part of what Axl Rosenberg of Metalsucks as the “Nu metal revival apocalypse”. In other words their gimmick failed because not only did it feel illegitimate it also felt as if the band wants to insult the fans intelligence. There is nothing funny or intellectually stimulating here, only ‘tough guy’ poserdom by people who wish they could have the same street cred as bands like the Cro Mags and Bad Brains.
Another example of a ‘bad gimmick’ is the latest stunt from the deathcore band Upon A Burning Body. The band claimed their frontman Danny Leal had gone missing after posting a few mysterious tweets. Right away holes were found in the story, no missing person report had been filed and it took the band a surprisingly long time to figure out that Leal had disappeared. Within hours of the story breaking a rumor was spread that this was all a publicity stunt. Turns out the rumor was right and it was. This is another case of how if a gimmick crosses a line or is especially stupid it will only generate bad press for your band. GWAR proved that it’s okay if the music and imagery is offensive, but it’s definitely not appropriate to joke about one of your band members possibly being dead. Personally, I lost even more respect for the band when their label, Prosthetic Records came out and said they had been given no prior warning. So not only did the band scare their fans, they made their label believe that one of their biggest bands had lost a key member seemingly out of the blue.
In other words, it would seem that while i’ts okay to offend people with extreme imagery, there is also a certain level of maturity required. For people who have been following their local scene for a while the antics of King 810 should seem totally mundane and the way that they made a big deal of getting arrested is clearly in bad taste. Upon A Burning Body also seemed to totally miss the point of a gimmick, causing genuine concern and then almost mocking the fans by showing that in the end it was all a publicity stunt. So, if a gimmick leaves your fans offended, frustrated, or simply bored, well then, maybe it isn’t a gimmick you should be using.
Now here we are going to start walking a fine line. I wanted to take a minute to talk about bands that use their (almost always female) singer’s sexuality in order to sell more records. There are entire subgenres of metal that seem to be okay with this institutionalized sexism. Symphonic metal in particular seems to be a haven for large breasted white women wailing into a microphone while the camera pans over their chests.
I’d like to take a moment for a drinking game invented by Axl Rosenberg of Metalsucks to illustrate my point. I want you to take a shot every time the director pans down onto the singers boobs, up onto the singers boobs, or simply reframes the shot, so you can see the singers boobs.
Now that you might die of alcohol poisioning let me make my point. While it’s okay to celebrate sexuality in music, doesn’t it feel a little wrong when you decide to hide your music behind your singers double D’s? There is definitely a place in music for femininity, but in most cases it seems silly to make that the counterpoint. Some of my favorite bands today, like SubRosa, whose latest record More Constant Than The Gods was billed as the second best record of 2013 across all genres by Sputnik Music, celebrate their femininity without trying to sell their bodies. If the band is trying to sell itself on the fact that dudes are going to want to sleep with the singer, you’re going to lose a lot of respect. If the band is selling itself on good music and hard work and happens to have a singer dudes want to sleep with, well then, no one can blame you for that.
Long story short, I, and many of my peers in the music industry are more than a little frustrated with the needless sexism within the industry, lifting up women as sex objects. If you take part in that and try to use it to promote your band of course you are not going to get the respect you want and probably deserve. Instead people will be drawn to the band by pure sexuality and while that may sell albums, does it really lead to artistic satisfaction? Lots of guys will support these kind of bands, but personally I just don’t see the point. Why listen to Huntress when you have far better, less sexualized options like Sister Sin. As Paul from Conan put it “I’m all for women getting their boobs out, but when they use it to further their position in an industry that should be unrelated it’s utter bullshit”.
So what does this mean for you, a musician in an independent band? Wel, it means if you’re going to have a gimmick choose it with care. Remember, every day bands are signed that get by on just the music. Check out the promo shots for a group like Unscarred, through a clear image that is not at all gimmicky they are still able to get attention from lots of blogs and have some great options for their debut CD. As Nate Carson of Witch Mountain and Nanotear Booking once told me “Two things pay off in the music industry, longevity and luck”. Maybe there is no need for gimmicks, maybe, if we just keep it pure and honest we will always triumph.