As some of our more metal-savvy readers may know, Century Media was recently bought by Sony records for a cool $17 million. It was a deal that had been rumored at for months but with fairly minimal details reaching the public asides from a few small interview pieces with Century Media owner Robert Kampf. Given the tragic and untimely passing of his longtime business partner Oliver Withöft it seemed like it would only be a matter of time – Century Media is too big an operation for any one man to run on his own, and given the fact that the label had their best year yet in 2014 it seemed only appropriate that they would end up working with a major – but a buyout like this? I don’t know if anybody was anticipating this a year ago – but the gradual process to get there seems to have made sense.
One of the things that most struck me about this deal early on was that a lot of the artists haven’t really been given any official update unless they went directly to the offices and talked to their A&R guy there. Parker Jameson of Starkill told me “You need to keep in mind that literally nobody from the record label has informed me of any changes. I know about as much as the next guy” which is… concerning to say the least. Meanwhile, Jarvis Leatherby of Night Demon seemed to have a much more firm grasp of the situation, probably because he lives much closer to the Century Media offices than Jameson does. He assured me “If there’s one thing that you should take from this… it’s that Century Media’s basic operations have not changed”. He also mentioned that while there where some staff changes he felt fairly confident that they were done independently of Sony. It seems that, for the moment at least, Century Media is operating as a subsidiary of Sony.
And what about that age old question – Will artistic integrity be violated by this deal? After all, this is metal we’re talking about, where artistic integrity is everything! Fortunately, the artists I spoke to seemed to feel safe. While some of this sentiment may come from the fact that they have had no official word from their label, it would still seem that Century Media has no interest in really directing their artists in what they do and instead trusts them to release a strong overall product. It seems unlikely to me that Sony would want to change that given the record industry’s general attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But who knows – one meddling exec could leave a whole bunch of bands and fans very disappointed.
That being said I feel that it’s important to compare this to some other similar situations that happened fairly recently. The key difference being between this and major label absorptions of labels like Roadrunner and Ferret is that Century Media happens to have a significantly more ‘kvlt’ set of bands. Even some their larger groups – for example acts like Napalm Death – probably don’t belong on a major label. Asides from it going against the vision of some bands it also seems to me to be a little too reminiscent of 1993’s ill fated deal between Earache and Columbia where six Earache bands (Including Napalm Death, Cathedral and Carcass) had a chance to put out their music on a major label.
None of them made it big.
Perhaps it speaks to the hardship of being a band trying to make the mainstream (Especially for bands as extreme as Napalm Death or Carcass) but it also just proves that certain types of music were meat to stay underground and by taking it out of the underground it can alienate hardcore fans. In Choosing Death, Albert Mudrian’s history of extreme metal Cathedral’s Lee Dorian said it was “too glossy for the underground kids… but… still too heavy for the commercial kids” Which I think speaks to how this particular incident is going to go down. If you look at what ended up happening to Roadrunner and Ferret, both seemed to initially be subsidiaries of a larger label but within a year both were essentially dismantled and almost wholly absorbed into the major label structure.
If there is good news to be taken from this it’s that the metal side of the industry is clearly doing better than ever. As Jarvis Leatherby said “They wouldn’t have spent 17 million dollars as a favor to Century Media”. So clearly Sony see that there is still something profitable happening in metal – even if they may not full understand the underground spirit that makes it so great in the first place. Nate Carson of Nanotear Booking and Witch Mountain said to me on the matter “It’s nice to see the mainstream taking note of underground metal again. As pop sales flag, heavy metal has experienced remarkable support and growth. Keen business people can’t be expected to ignore that forever” He also went on to say that given the changing state of the industry this will be different from 1993’s debacle because in his words: “No artist will get the same investments, but no label will be losing as much money on the bands, either.” Does this mean that this time it will work out? Only time will tell.
If there’s any one takeaway to be had from this it’s that the music will stay the same in the grand scheme of things. For the foreseeable future we’ll still have kids hammering out fast riffs in their basements and rock stars playing out vivid fantasies on massive festival stages. Even if the worst case scenario plays out and Century Media ends up getting taken apart by Sony and the label tries to give massive distribution to the next Watain record remember, we’re just talking about a handful of bands. The metal scene has survived worse, and they will always have a new Neil K to come and save the day (Bonus points if you get that reference, bonus points if you know who Neil K is) The point is – This is simply another exciting change in a very exciting scene and it will be interesting to see how this plays out – expect updates soon!