MetalMonth – Who Will Wear the Crown?

Wot? That’s a pretty pretentious introduction to the Metal Month, isn’t it? Well, no. It’s a fancy way of condensing a discussion I’ve had several times recently with a friend and fellow rock fan. Namely, once the likes of Metallica, Iron Maiden, ACDC and so on are too old to get out of their bath chairs who will be the next superbands to take over the headline slots?

It’s a decent question to ask and a suitable start to this series of blog posts. Rock has come long way since the early blues bands started to get a bit heavy and very hairy. In the intervening years there have been bands and musicians who became so big they transcended the genre to become houshold names: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Maiden to name a few, and when Metallica headlined Glastonbury they also crossed that line into ‘known to non-rock people’ territory.

Namechecking the headliners of Download in the UK for the last five years demonstrates how the major bands are approaching their sell by date*:

2014 – Avenged Sevenfold, Linkin Park, Aerosmith;
2013 – Slipknot, Iron Maiden, Rammstein;
2012 – Prodigy, Metallica, Black Sabbath;
2011 – Def Leppard, System of a Down, Linkin Park;
2010 – ACDC, Rage Against the Machine, Aerosmith

(*Considering the Rolling Stones have a combined age of over three thousand years, the above bands might actually have several decades of life in them yet.)

The babies on the list would appear to be Avenged Sevenfold and Slipknot. Avenged were formed in 1999 and have sales of 8 million. Slipknot came together four years earlier and to date can claim record sales around the 20 million mark. Both look like contenders for the ‘next big thing,’ ie ‘bigger than they are now,’ but even so, 1995 is nineteen years ago. (Iron Maiden finally headlined Rock in Rio 26 years after forming in 1975.)

Trying to predict the next headliners – not just at Download, but anywhere in the world – trying to predict the bands that will make the suits of the major labels sit up straight is not simply a case of listing your favourite artists. If you want to be a twat and insist Obscurus Bandus OnlyIKnowAbout will be the next Rammstein go ahead, but to approach this subject seriously you have to look at where the music industry is heading.

And it doesn’t look good for metal!

Once upon a time, bagging yourself a good manager or management team was a major step in the right direction and they came no bigger than Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein at Q Prime. With ACDC, Def Leppard and Metallica Mensch and Burnstein guided three of the biggest rock bands in the world. In the 80s they controlled the likes of Dokken, Queensryche, Suicidal Tendencies and the Scorpions. Iron Maiden had the guiding Yorkshire hand of Rod Smallwood.

And if anyone recognises the importance of management look no farther than Irving Azoff. Who, you ask? Azoff is head of Live Nation and he says artist management is more important than record label. Which goes some way to explain why a big band like Slipknot can make it with an independent label like Roadrunner and not be harnessed to one of the Big Three (Time Warner, Universal Music and Sony).

Irving Azoff epitomises one of the new forces in modern music. Live performance. Live Nation have become the top of the food chain by controlling venues, promotion, ticketing, broadcaststing, licensing and all the ancilliary business nonsense that goes with live performances and tours.

In the old days, bands gigged, sent their demos to an A&R person at Big Record Label Inc and hoped they’d come down, see them play and sign them up for a million quid. In the modern day bands gig, attract the following which in terms attracts the sniffer dogs of the likes of Live Nation, Anschutz (owners of AEG venues) or corporations like Annheuser-Busch looking for tie-ins with popular artists who can cross-sell their products. Pepsi are well known for their big money sponsorship deals and are major players in the music biz.

When Iron Maiden’s management decided to see who was doing all the illegal downloading the trail led them to South America. Rather than attempt crippling legal action to stop it they shifted the focus of touring to South America, where the downloading suggested an enormous demand, and cleaned up with subsequent ticket sales and merchandising.

There would have been a time when nine out of ten denim jackets had an Iron Maiden patch badly sewn onto it, but merchandise has come a long way since 1978. Coran Capshaw of Red Light Management places great trust in the lucrative issue of ‘peripherals’ and he doesn’t just mean badges and Eddie duvet covers. Licensing and tv/film rights are a potential cash cow that can make someone rich and very very big.

Ask yourself, if you want to make it big in the world of rock, do you do it by singing exclusively in German? If not, how did Rammstein reach the pinnacle of rock music? Could it have something to do with the exposure afforded by the opening sequence of the film XXX? Peripherals, film rights, cross-media exposure. These days, if you haven’t featured in the ‘misery montage’* sequence of an American television series, you’re missing a trick.

(*The ten minute bit towards the end of the episode with no dialogue, but lots of images of sad people, overlaid with a Linkin Park-like song.)

Selling music is a mug’s game. Reaching number one in the charts actually meant something when music was a tangible product like a record, tape or CD. But look at the data now: In 2013 iTunes achieved $9.3 billion in music download sales. Good for them, but apparently bands still can’t earn a living from selling music and illegal downloading is supposedly killing the business. In spite of the eye watering figures the likes of Azoff at Live Nation and Capshaw at Red Light Management see the band’s earnings coming from touring and merchandise.

The case for streaming is a particularly painful dilemma for bands. Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify describes the issue of royalty payments to bands as ‘challenging.’ His company paid out $500 million in royalties in 2013; his company also failed to make a profit and bands didn’t make enough to buy breakfast, in spite of the millions of song tracks streamed.

All of this sounds like curtains for the record labels who traditionally have been the investors in, and producers and distributors of, recorded music. The number of major record labels can be counted on one three-fingered hand. They no longer make or break artists, but have yielded to the array of forces which range from the tangible likes of Live Nation to the intangible phenomena that is the internet. And they’ve been playing catch up since the internet was switched on.

The labels are still big sharks in a fish tank filling up with other big sharks, but their profits these days come increasingly from the acquisitions of other labels and the publishing and distribution income that follows. Sony’s acquiring of EMI’s publishing list would give them a music catalogue worth $1.3 billion. Forget the fact when someone buys music the money disappears into the retailer’s pockets and less and less into the label’s and the artist’s. Those publishing rights come good when music is covered, re-recorded, performed, broadcast in film, television and radio (on air and internet), used in adverts, sampled, and so on and so on.

Labels don’t need to find new bands, simply buy the rights to the existing ones by gobbling up labels and publishing companies.

So, with all that in mind ignore the gnashing of teeth you hear from the CEOs of the music industry. The place is awash with cash. They just don’t know from which angle it’s coming at them. Marc Geiger of William Morris Endeavor agents predicts the age of downloading is coming to an end. John Janick of Interscope Geffen A&M says streaming, downloaded and physical music has yet to settle down into a predictable income stream.

But what is truly depressing in all this talk of monetising and future oportunities is that the music industry doesn’t seem to include rock and metal in any of its discussions. The Billboard Top 100 movers and shakers in the music industry don’t mention any rock bands other than Metallica. Pop, dance (EDM) and R&B dominates everyone’s attention. And yet the rules apply to everyone, no one is getting excited about rock tours, rock distribution. Rock bands.

The current big bands made it at a time when there was a diverse record label environment and independence in distribution and live venues. Now, everything is constricting to leave a few big companies to control who gets the big breaks (sponsorship, partnerships, 360 degree deals, favourable royalty rates). And they’re looking for pop and R&B, which makes quick money from an instantly generated following. In contrast, rock has always been a slow burning genre with a fanbase that doesn’t seem to tolerate instant success or contrived fame. A metal band put together after winning X Factor will probably be given a very cold reception at festivals in the form of a barrage of piss-filled plastic bottles.

But without a sympathetic musical infrastructure that allows long term development it might become harder and harder for rock bands to be the major international stars of the future.

But do they need to be? Is the question necessary?

Obviously the bands want success, but do fans care how big their favourite bands are? Would fans of Blessthefall like them more if they were platinum selling and O2 Arena filling? Do we need bands as big as Metallica and Iron Maiden in a world of instant access?

Being a big band meant you had the resources to tour anywhere, be heard on the radio and seen on television. Nobody saw or heard the little bands. But not anymore. Big or small, your favourite band is a couple of mouse clicks away. The music industry, for all its collective intelligence and money, is only now realising that live performances and merchandise is the future. All those pop acts who made an easy living in the studio now have to go out and sweat; have to earn a living and sing live!

Live performances and merchandise. To fans of rock and metal, that isn’t the future, that’s how it’s always been!

Who do you think will be the big bands of the future, and how will they get there?


2 thoughts on “MetalMonth – Who Will Wear the Crown?

  1. Wow! This was a great mini-history of rock. Love how you put in a good word for the mangers as well! Who can forget Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant? I remember him from the movie The Song Remains the Same chewing out the security people for letting kids into the concert for free. He was a massive man with big idea for the band.

    And regarding AC/DC, I’m a bit sad about Malcolm Young and his diagnosis with dimensia. So young, too. Typically, I’ve only known the elderly getting hit with the condition, so this was quite a shock to me. I really hope he will be okay.


    1. It was Peter Grant’s idea to name them Led and not Lead Zeppelin, in case anyone thought it was pronounced Leed Zeppelin.

      Malcolm Young at 61. I suppose it is rare to be hit at that age with dementia, but I’m sure he’ll be surrounded by a lot of supporting friends and family.


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