The heavy metal underground is something that most people rarely, if ever think about. But – as touched on in my recent article here on the Century Media buyout there is actually an incredible financial force behind the music. The fact of the matter is that despite being an incredibly niche genre, heavy metal bands the world over have managed to maintain a surprising profit margin – especially considering how poorly the rest of the industry is doing. Perhaps by better understanding this we’ll be able to really dig in to a way that can help your band make more money at home and on the road.
What makes heavy metal still a fairly viable commercial form (relatively speaking of course) is the sense of fanaticism behind them music. Not a lot of other genres can say it’s a common thing to have fans tattoo their logos onto their flesh. Not a lot of other genres have artists who routinely make much more off t-shirt sales than net guarantees – and those t-shirts are worn just about everywhere, not just to gigs. What heavy metal bands have been able to do is to craft a cult of personality around the artists to the point that – while yes, there is hero worship, there is also a sense of community and looking out for ones peers.
What you need to do with your fans is to create the sense of ‘superfandom’ and dedication that heavy metal is known for having. How else could a band like Windhand, who only have 45,000 Facebook likes, routinely headline three to five hundred person venues? Picking apart what creates this sense of dedication to an artist is crucial for those who seek to make a living off their music or at least have their careers end up being sustainable.
One of the key things I think that metal essentially stumbled into is the culture of exclusivity. The fact that a lot of these bands manage to maintain an iconoclastic culture of rarity is really interesting to a lot of people. I feel that we can learn a lot from a band like Lamb of God who have managed to maintain their credibility as an underground band despite playing to tens of thousands of people at festivals and recently being featured on Kimmel. It’s reassuring to see that there are ways to maintain a unique vision and fanbase whilst in the spotlight of mainstream success.
The way that a band like Lamb of God or even Slipknot are able to maintain their underground credibility and stay ‘dangerous’ in the eyes of the mainstream stems from their ability to speak truth about society. Lamb of God who are among the best selling death metal bands of all time at this point managed to put songs about centuries of oppression in Eastern Europe on their latest record – hardly the type of material that might appeal to a mainstream audience. But that’s exactly the point – there is no such thing anymore as a mainstream audience and we’ve got to get used to that.
This means that now more than at any other time in music you can create music that has a message and still make a living at it. That doesn’t mean it’s easier, it simply means that you need to be able to figure out what makes your niche so cool and how to best take advantage of that for your own career as well as for your fans enjoyment. What Lamb of God has done is find a distinct balance between lowest common denominator mainstream metal (As heard in their Pantera-esque grooves) and much deeper more intellectual lyrics and a high degree of musicianship. This gives us a band that can appeal to your every day metalhead as well as someone who stayed up all night reading Faulkner.
On an even higher level is Slipknot who have a far more mainstream sound that Lamb of God yet revel in a distinctly demented image. What Slipknot have proved (And for the record, I am not a Slipknot fan) is that there are a lot of kids out there who will dig into the fucked up realities that Slipknot paint – showing that truly iconoclastic bands can survive in this day and age. It’s not just a matter of pushing the limits as far as you can a la GG Allin. The reason that a band like Slipknot have mainstream success whilst GG Allin did not is by and large because they have been able to help pull together a much more intelligent image and refine the more terrifying elements of their iconography. Despite appearance to the contrary Slipknot understand the significance of subtlety in crafting your own unique image. It’s not just a matter of being as extreme as possible.
Now I understand that for your day to day rock and indie bands this may not be the most easily applicable advice. But part of why metal works as a good example is because it’s so extreme. It’s easy to see how more conventional bands apply this thinking once you’ve considered it in it’s darkest context. For example – bands like Modern Baseball have been able to grow in a far different way from metal acts – they don’t sell any sort of fantasy but instead emphasize the bleak realities of suburban life. But they still breed fanaticism in a similar way to metal bands? Why? Because they continue to play small venues, emphasizing exclusivity and have managed to create a distinct and silly image that a lot of people can buy into.
The fact of the matter is – you need to find what makes you special, emphasize that, and ride that wave until it dies and then go from there. You need to find music that doesn’t just appeal to the lowest common denominator but also shows the unfailing intellect and artistry behind your work. Instead of letting yourself be dragged down by the ‘stupidity of the masses’ or any of that elitist bullshit you need to instead reach out to eery day with a smile and realize the eternal power of music – especially when it’s unique, poignant and powerful.