Problems and Solutions with Late Game Metallica
So as many readers have read by now, Metallica, who were announced as the co-headliner of Lollapalooza 2015 today, are probably hemorrhaging money according to this interview with authors Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood regarding their new book on the band, Into the Black. This revelation upsets, somewhat, but does not surprise. I have not seen the band’s Through the Never film, but judging by the trailer, it looked expensive. I attended the second Orion Fest and while I enjoyed myself, the crowd seemed a bit sparse, I’m thinking maybe 25% capacity. However, what’s killing Metallica’s bank account is probably not just big-idea projects like films, festivals and playing in Antarctica.
Metallica’s live show is a technological and pyrotechnic spectacle the likes of which I’ve rarely seen dwarfed. Their staging and lights are more complex than The Eagles. The only shows I can recall nearing their spectacle are Tool and Nine Inch Nails, both of which play smaller stages than Orion, and neither of which employ pyrotechnics.
I remind myself that the groups Metallica idolized played complex and expensive live shows at even earlier stages in their careers. Judas Priest sold fewer albums, but had Rob Halford singing while suspended in the fist of a giant robot. Furthermore, not much about Metallica’s music lends itself toward complex staging. Tool and Nine Inch Nails, who still make cinematic and and complex rock-pop packaged in attenuated artistic packaging--they offer parallel universes for their fans to explore. Metallica write big angry rock songs. They may be, sometimes, the best big angry rock songs ever written, with more lyrical nuance and symphonic underpinnings and song lengths that push ten minutes, but they’re not about alternate reality. Metallica’s whole schtick has always been to be the metal band that was grounded in the same reality as everybody else. In this sense, their decisions regarding their live presentation seem ill-conceived the way that U2’s stage shows are ill-conceived. I think Metallica continue to play huge, expensive shows because they feel that at this stage in their careers they just should, and have not thought into it further.
Their issue is not unique. Slayer are headlining the Mayhem festival this year with direct support from King Diamond. Last year the headliners were Avenged Sevenfold and, um, Korn. That odd gear shift follows Slayer losing founding members Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo (again). Even without these two founding, critical members, Slayer are slated to record another album, probably for one of two reasons, either they owe their label more albums, or simply because they feel that they should.
Most bands, period, never make it past the first stage of their careers. Few ever headline tours, which is not even the end of a band’s career. Slayer and Metallica are in the end stages of their careers--they are trying to make money and keep their families supported until they retire. They are among the first metal bands to reach this stage. They are learning, the hard way, how to age with grace.
Grace is not having two authors announce your piss-poor monetary situation.
But might be being Tom G. Warrior. The man continues to release excellent work, on his own time, and rarely tours. His is the respectful artist’s way of aging. It will not work for Metallica or Slayer, because they no longer behave like artists (though Lars Ulrich states to the contrary), they behave like businesses.
I see no fault in behaving like a business. Both of these artists did their time as road dogs, and pushed the genre forward. For all their later foibles, Metallica still hold the gold standard for songwriting in metal (though they are not the only band holding it anymore), and the entirety of extreme metal might not exist were it not for Slayer. It’s safe to say that they succeeded as artists, and their endeavors withstand the test of time. If they’re out of ideas, but still want to make a living as a musical entity there’s no fault there.
However, why make new music at all, when music is selling less and less?
I will now engage in business speculation when I know very little about business. Take what follows with heaps of salt. I invite anyone who knows more about the industry to critique my suggestion.
The graceful late-game play for these bands is to double down on the live market, and remove themselves from the new-music market for the most part. Orion was great, but it was also a prohibitively expensive experience for some, as well as a whole day full of fluff for people who just want to see Metallica. The same goes for Slayer on Mayhem. Besides physical music sales are in the toilet and Spotify doesn’t pay. Situations like these favor early adopters of new methodologies.
In a Facebook thread regarding this same issue, Austin Lunn of Panopticon commented that Metallica ought to book a small club tour with reasonably priced tickets. He’s on to something. Metallica and Slayer’s peers in Testament, Overkill and Exodus have, to a greater or lesser extend, been doing this same thing and making a living, but none of those bands have the draw of Slayer or Metallica.
An alternate analogue can be seen with Prince. The R&B/funk/soul/pop icon’s pop culture status remains intact in 2015, and his recent albums still garner good reviews, but it’s been an awful long time since anything he released has felt worthy of Purple Rain. Prince’s personal politics and eccentricities render him at least as unlikeable as Lars Ulrich, as well.
However, his current Hit and Run tour is selling out venues left and right in part by announcing the tour dates with as little as one week’s advance notice. Metallica could learn something from the former symbol.
I bet that a Metallica US tour playing to mid-sized venues with no intense stage show and no pyrotechnics, announced with very little advance notice, would sell out at nearly every gig. This is the same strategy that the collectibles market uses--only make 300 of a product that there’s demand for 500 of, and it will sell out. Charge enough to simply make a profit and fund the next collectible. Rinse, repeat. In business terms the idea is to reduce overhead, which will at the same time reduce profit, but will secure that profit in the long run. Besides, clearly the old model is not working, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article. That’s still thinking like a business, not an artist, but it is removing the nagging idea of should from the equation.
The grace and the art comes from who these bands add to their bills. These bands still carry a tremendous power to advocate for and expose new artists. At this point, Metallica is resigned to being a metal band--they tour with Gojira and Lamb of God, headlining artists in their own right. Even if they booked FOALS and Death Grips on their festival, the days of touring with Veruca Salt are over. Slayer may trade headlining gigs with Marilyn Manson, but their openers are always metal bands of some sort. In a cheaper, stripped-down setting, there is no reason for these bands to take other headlining names with them.
Earlier this year, I saw Tribulation open for Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth. They’re a young, hungry band, and their new album has a lot of the same melodic appeal that Metallica’s records did. They don’t need more people who like black metal to listen to them, they need people who have no interest in black metal but do have an interest in compelling rock music to listen to them. Opening for Behemoth is great for them, but they open at early doors to a quarter-full room. If they’re going to get the worst slot, let them have the worst slot in a room that will be packed anyway. On this hypothetical smaller tour, nobody would opt out of seeing Metallica in an intimate setting because of an opening band that is a complete unknown--the venue will probably sell out anyway. Stick enough people who like Metallica in a room with a band like Tribulation and some of those people will walk away and support Tribulation. The people who don’t care still get to see a previously distant band in a more desirable setting.
In this hypothetical situation, everyone wins, even the band that downgraded from playing big shows they apparently cannot afford to smaller shows that they can. It may not be the thing a rock star band from the 1900’s would do, but it’s a graceful late game play.