Analysis

Breaking metal bands in 2017: Spotify, social media, vinyl and more


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“Kids know their shit. You could talk to a 17 year-old who has looked at their music through Spotify, and they will know more about Carcass than I fucking do! Because they just absorb all this music, all the time.”

Merlin Alderslade isn’t about to hand his job as editor of Metal Hammer magazine over to a passing teenager. But his comments on Friday during a conference-panel session at the by:Larm festival in Oslo reflected a generally positive discussion about the opportunities streaming offers the metal and hard-rock scene.

Alderslade was joined on the panel by Duff Battye of promotion company Duff Press and Andy Farrow of management company Northern Music Co, while the moderator was Chris Klime of Iron Will Management.

Asked about how well streaming services support the scene – and what more they could do – Alderslade praised Spotify, which teamed up with Metal Hammer on an ‘In Residence’ radio-style show for its platform.

“Spotify in particular really know and appreciate how strong the metal scene is. I think Spotify do quite a lot,” he said.

“I’m a journalist and go on Spotify and find new bands all the time. Their Discover Weekly and Daily Mix playlists are really good and on point. Spotify does do a lot to support the scene. And they’re open to doing more. They come to us quite often for ideas. They want to nurture the scene.”

Farrow took a more nuanced view, agreeing that Spotify show support for metal and hard rock, but suggesting that not all labels have the same kind of access to Spotify’s in-house curators.

“For me they support the scene, but I think the metal labels maybe don’t have the relationships at Spotify. I’ve got different bands at different labels, and you can really see the difference in streams,” he said.

“Some labels don’t have the relationship… The fanbase is there, but maybe [they could start] being more open and inviting smaller labels in. It’s all about having contacts, and that’s the important thing.”

Spotify was just one of the topics of the panel, which focused on the changing environment for breaking rock and metal bands. Social media was also up for discussion.

Older bands, they want the air of mystery, but the new younger bands really know how to use social media. They’re very adept with it,” said Farrow.

“It’s really important to use it, but the younger bands are much better. Bands like Bring Me The Horizon from the early days really connected with a fanbase.”

Klime wondered if losing that air of mystery is something to lament. “Do we really need to see every fucking salad or slice of pizza they eat?” he wondered.

However, Alderslade cited Swedish band Ghost and its frontman ‘Papa Emeritus’ – whose identity has long been the subject of speculation from fans.

“Most people in this day and age know who Papa is, they know his identity really, but they still like the fact that he has a character and a persona. They buy into that,” he said.

“Ghost have been really good at balancing that area of mystery and excitement, while doing cool merch and doing social media… It shows you can do it and still have that air of mystery.”

Battye said that the key for metal artists is to make use of social media without losing their credibility.

The whole point of this scene is it’s alternate to the mainstream. When I was young, I wanted word of mouth, I didn’t want stuff shoved down my throat… and I think and hope that’s still the same case with this scene,” he said.

“Maybe the challenge for us as people who are trying to market rock bands is to try to utilise the new stuff that’s coming up – Facebook, Twitter, whatever – but maintain the value of our scene.”

That’s as true of a publication like Metal Hammer, which has diversified from a magazine into digital content and the obligatory social platforms. It now has 1.7 million Facebook fans, 163,000 Instagram followers and 468,000 Twitter followers.

“We’re definitely not just a magazine any more: we’re a brand,” he said, while warning that Metal Hammer’s fans still expect the same level of authenticity and credibility about what it publishes.

The conversation turned to physical music, which for many metal and hard-rock bands is still a significant part of their income. Vinyl, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of this trend.

“My bands always have it in the contract: they have to release vinyl. The most popular Christmas present for kids this year was a portable vinyl player,” said Farrow, although he admitted that for new bands, getting vinyl pressed can be expensive – while pressing plants’ resources are at a premium.

“It’s definitely an upward swing, and for metal and prog, vinyl has been a saviour,” he said.

Alderslade agreed. “We know that old-school fans love vinyl. We know that old-school bands will release vinyl. But a lot of the younger bands are utilising vinyl very well also, because their fanbases are fanatical,” he said.

“They have these crazy kids who want to pick up everything. Bring Me The Horizon have a very young fanbase, and their vinyl campaigns have done extremely well over the years.”

“In England, you’re now seeing a lot of metal bands charting who wouldn’t have charted high a few years ago: from Within Temptation to Nightwish to Machinehead. Sabaton got a top 20 album with their last release, which is crazy for our country! But it’s because there is dedication in the fanbase to buy music.”

Metal panel at by:Larm

Battye suggested that the popularity of vinyl for young fans represents their desire to know more about artists: browsing the artwork and liner notes that still form a key part of these releases.

“I remember being a kid and reading, in ‘Live After Death’, the Maiden record, the list of how much milk the crew drank on the tour, and so on. I remember sitting with my mates and looking at the list,” he said.

“I don’t think that kids in the digital age who are metal fans are that different. They want that… It’s about how we work out how to do that.”

The panel was keen to buck the trend for criticising younger people for a lack of attention span or engagement, which is when Alderslade came out with his assessment of the Spotify generation of metal fans.

“People give the younger generation a hard time: ‘millennials are spoiled’ and all this! But kids know their shit. You could talk to a 17 year-old who has looked at their music through Spotify, and they will know more about Carcass than I fucking do! Because they just absorb all this music, all the time,” he said.

“There is a lot of crap out there… but I do believe that nine times out of ten the good bands will rise. Metal fans know real: you can’t bullshit us.”

“The second bands start overthinking things – where they go ‘what kind of songs do we have to write now?’ – you’ve already fucked it by that point.”

Alderslade cited symphonic metallers Nightwish as an example, suggesting that the closest they’ve got in their career to a ‘pop’ single was ‘Nemo’ in 2004.

“They’ve got more and more weird, and more and more progressive. Their songs have got longer. And as they have done it, they’ve got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he said.

The panel also touched on fan-funding, with Farrow – a consultant for PledgeMusic – suggesting that particular platform can work really well for metal bands, as long as they understand the commitment involved.

“If you don’t get it right, and don’t give your fans what they want, you upset your fans and you’ve had it,” he said.

“I’ve done deals with crowdfunding and a label, so you can free up some money so the label’s got some money for marketing,” he continued, while also praising the potential of label-services partnerships for bands with existing fanbases.

“Bands like Marillion really turned the [fan-funding] model back on. Thunder’s another band. But it’s not easy selling records… I’m all for label services, but the band have got to realise they’re a business and step up, and not blow out interviews and so on. It doesn’t suit some people.”

Farrow stressed that similarly-hard work is required to make the most of touring.

“In the rock and metal scene, touring is the most important factor. And as an income stream, touring and merchandise is probably the number one now,” he said.

For a management firm like Northern Music Co, that means being hands-on with the promotion of these tours, including working with venues and promoters to plug gigs on social media – for example running competitions to win signed guitars if ticket sales are a bit slow – and pull in as many fans as possible.

“The agent might go ‘the promoter says it’s not selling’ and we will say ‘well have you done this, have you done that?’ And because you control the social media, you can use that,” he said.

The tour health-check is important: never rely on the fact that somebody is promoting your act properly. They might have used the wrong logo or the lineup [photo] with that person you fell out with who’s not in the band any more! Check all these things… tour marketing takes more than just playing.”

Alderslade provided the panel’s last tip for an independent label hoping to get coverage in publications like Metal Hammer, warning them off over-long and hyped-up press releases.

“One described a band as ‘fast becoming Ireland’s best-kept secret’. I don’t even know what that means!” he said.

Stuart Dredge

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