Following an instrumental set from metal giants Meshuggah, Soul Cycle guitarist Chris Catharsis opines on instrumental music and the options (or lack thereof) that we’re afforded as listeners. Read his thoughts on the subject below.
Suddenly there I was, living the dream in Mexicotown, USA. Put down those trumpets, stereotypical mariachi band in my head. I didn’t exactly ride into Santo Poco like Steve Martin on the hunt for El Guapo. Let’s just say that if everyone there had to take a foreign language class in high school, it was probably English. The Quality Inn I would call home for the evening was strategically placed between two separate restaurants featuring “Pollo” in their name, followed by either an incredibly obvious or an equally obscure identifier. The garbage I ate at McDonald’s earlier in the day would have to last, because I sure as shit wasn’t taking any chances with my bowels at Pollo Caliente or Pollo Mario.
None of it really mattered, because I was in Orlando to see Meshuggah for the first time ever. It would cost me $80 in gas, $40 in hotel accommodations, $30 in cab fares, $30 in PBR tallboys, and two paid vacation days, but the experience was sure to be priceless. Viva la vida, as those self-righteous gringos in Coldplay would say. After a few hours of waiting around, tapping kick pedal and snare patterns on the dresser, I took a terrible cab ride into downtown Orlando with a geographically oblivious Jamaican driver. We were forced to rely on my phone GPS to find The Beachem because he did most of his driving around the Disney resorts. How very nouveaux riche of him. Were those resort tips not enough to finance his weed habit AND a Garmin? A plebe like me could only wonder.
I took my place in line outside The Beachem behind three beardos wearing all manner of sludge band t-shirts and New Balance shoes. Intronaut fans. A young Asian girl stepped in line behind me and struck up a conversation. According to her, Meshuggah vocalist Jens Kidman himself had invited her to the show while she sat one seat over from him on the plane to Orlando. The classically trained cellist asked, “what kind of music do they play?” My face had the urge to display some kind of exaggerated anime grimace in her general direction. Instead, I told her that she should probably just avoid the middle of the floor and buy some earplugs — which would matter very little just minutes later, when she was denied entry for not being on the guest list. Adios, Yo Yo Ma.
Intronaut played a solid but short set, and Animals as Leaders wowed as expected. When Meshuggah took the stage, it was immediately evident that something was different. Jens sounded like Ned Gerblansky from South Park. His trademark mechanical growl had morphed into the monotone hum of a mechanical larynx. Certainly not as brutal, but alien enough to sound strangely appropriate. Imagine Meatloaf being shredded by machine gun fire and then reborn as a cyborg police officer who also did Meshuggah karaoke on the weekends. That’s kind of what it was like.
As the encore was about to begin, Jens told everyone that his voice was absolutely shot and he couldn’t continue. The band would play on regardless, treating the crowd to an instrumental rendition of ‘Dancers to a Discordant System.‘ It was a special moment that seemed to resonate really well with everyone, and certainly with me. They would fly up to Atlanta to play a fully instrumental set the next day, save for a cardboard cutout of Jens – and I would kick myself for missing it.
The whole experience really made me think about instrumental metal in general. I already own every single Meshuggah album in CD form, but if they ever decided to rerelease the entire discography without vocals, I would buy it all up again. In a heartbeat. After my second paycheck of the month, of course. Why? Because I’m a fan, and I like being given the freedom to choose how I experience the music. Would every Meshuggah fan do that? Probably not. I would probably even buy an instrumental Intronaut album. Would I buy an Animals as Leaders album with a vocalist? No. A hundred times no. Would you? I don’t know. I haven’t really listened to much Pelican since they started singing. My favorite version of Between the Buried and Me‘s album “Alaska” is the instrumental one. I wish there was a Mikee Goodman-less version of SikTh‘s Death of a Dead Day out there. Why am I like that?
When Periphery‘s first album came out, they paired it with a fully instrumental version. That version is the only one I bought. Nothing against Spencer, but after listening to Misha’s test clips on Soundclick for years, I had become used to those songs without vocals. As a guitar hobbyist, I was always impressed with the thought and effort that Misha put into creating those riffs and rhythms, so I always liked to hear the little things in the background that vocals might obscure. I know there are plenty of other people, musician or not, who felt the same way. There are even some who approved of one or more former vocalists over Spencer. More importantly for Periphery, the availability of an instrumental version allowed for wider marketability of their music. They provided two separate access points for fans and potential fans using nearly identical products, and doing so eliminated a potential barrier to listenership. It was a brilliant idea — one that they discontinued with the release of their second album.
As much as I understood WHY they chose not to do it, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that they flat out DIDN’T do it. As a result, I still haven’t listened to more than about 3 minutes of the entire album (I never made it past ‘Have a Blast!’) because I keep wishing I could hear the instruments by themselves. Now that’s not to say I think Spencer ruins the songs; on the contrary, I think he’s an integral part of their sound and very, very talented. But the availability of an instrumental version of that album would have made me far more likely to spend money on it. Instead, it’s one of those albums that I’ll catch up with down the road via YouTube. Am I the only one plagued by this aching desire to hear my favorite and not-so-favorite bands sans vocals? I have to believe it’s not just me.
Maybe this all speaks to something much more obvious – the fact that a vocalist’s style and lyrical content can both define and limit the reach of any band into broader audiences. If Limp Bizkit wasn’t fronted by Fred Durst and all they did was write groovy riffs every djent band in the world would eventually copy, would you be more inclined to listen? If Jonathan Davis wasn’t always singing about that one time he was molested, and Korn was just slapping their way through nu metal dance tracks, would you be more inclined to listen? If Frankie Palmieri wasn’t screaming repeatedly about his blowjob voyeurism fetish, would you just bang your head to Emmure‘s big stupid chug sessions and feel less embarrassed about it? Probably more of us would say yes than we’d like to admit. Of course, there are some instances of music and lyrics so inherently uninteresting that waves of uncomfortable, unavoidable, unbearably sad laughter come over you the minute somebody grabs the mic (see David Vincent’s preteen anarchist prose on Morbid Angel‘s ‘Radikult,’ James Hetfield’s table personification on Lou Reed and Metallica‘s ‘The View’), and I’m not sure these would be so easily saved by merely rendering them vocal-less. But would releasing instrumental editions of Illud Divinum Insanus and Lulu have been a smart way to attract new and duplicate buyers? I would argue yes, even if the music still sucked. Let me explain why.
Lamb of God did something similar to what I’m about to suggest (a very fresh idea at the time) by releasing a “Producer Edition” of Sacrament. I wasn’t big on that album, but I went so far as to purchase the deluxe bundle with the instrumental disc just so I could play around with it. There are a few things I didn’t like about that.
(1) The whole idea involved a little more work on the part of both the engineer and the listener, because every track was isolated for every song and you had to mix them together to get an instrumental. For the average Lamb of God fan without a working knowledge of Garageband, that was a pain in the ass.
(2) It was marketed toward music hobbyists who wanted to learn how to play the songs or remix them, not general listeners who just wanted to hear the music without Randy.
(3) Physical copies of the “Producer Edition” were made, driving the cost up. Can any band do almost the same thing Lamb of God did, but make it easier for more listeners to get what they want at a low cost to both ends of the transaction? I think so.
I realize the purist, elitist sect of metal fans (accounting for roughly 99% of us) will argue that removing vocals cheapens the product, devalues the vocalist, and allows the fakest of the fake metalheads to feign interest in bands that would otherwise scare them away — and I would probably agree with all of that. However, from a business standpoint, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a band releasing instrumentals. In fact, I would argue it’s incredibly smart. It DOES cheapen the product and it DOES devalue the vocalist — so limit distribution to digital only so you don’t incur physical copy costs, make it cost a little bit less than the fully produced version and/or release just rough mixes and not the fully mastered versions. Yes, you might gain new fans who aren’t as diehard as they come, but isn’t increasing listenership and fandom one of the pillars of success in the music industry? It doesn’t outright guarantee more profit, but it absolutely creates the opportunity for more profit.
Don’t give me the argument that you’ll just be giving more music away for free to illegal downloaders, because any new listeners who pirate the instrumental version wouldn’t have bought your full album anyway (they might even buy this version now that it’s available) and the listeners you already have who never buy your music might actually throw a few dollars your way (and your most loyal fans might even buy BOTH versions). All gain, no pain. Who gains the most from it? If you’re signed to a label, THEY do — and as a result they can bring in more money to invest in you, invest in the label, and keep the music business running. If you’re unsigned, YOU gain from it — not just in potential profit but in additional love from your fans for giving them the option to choose, which we all love.
All I’m talking about is ordering a cheeseburger at the best restaurant in town. It’s expensive and it comes with all sorts of shit on it like useless vegetables, truffles, and caviar. You KNOW it’s the best cheeseburger in town but you aren’t in the mood for the toppings, so your order the same burger with just cheese. Now chances are, save from a few aftertastes and textural delights, the burger and the cheese and the bun by themselves are the foundation of the entree and the majority of what makes this cheeseburger the best in town comes from those three ingredients being just right. Even without the fancy toppings, you still bought the cheeseburger. You win, the restaurant wins, done deal. Now go to McDonald’s and think about ordering the Big Mac. Thinking about it makes you want to barf, so instead you order two single cheeseburgers because at least you can stomach them better. Your order costs less, you are satisfied with your purchase and McDonald’s gets your money. Two different cheeseburgers of varying quality make their way into your stomach, and your money pays for both of them. Both restaurants feature additional options on the menu to earn your business.
Now imagine bands are the restaurants (1 star to 5 star), their cheeseburgers are their albums (the product), and you are the consumer. Under the current business model, you are presented one kind of album and one kind only. It costs one price, you can’t change it at all, and if you want an album that is only SLIGHTLY different (perhaps only by the exclusion of one element of the music) you have to drop that notion and get over it or find another band. The band is turning away your business even though you are willing to buy the product in an incomplete form. What would you do if McDonald’s was a fast food gulag, and when you ordered a cheeseburger you paid for one with something you didn’t want on it? You can’t take anything off and you have to pay for it the way it is, because if you try to leave with it for free they’ll fine you $22,500 for every bite you take. Is that a great idea in 2013? Does it invite new listeners in or push them away? Why would either side of the equation want that, especially in an industry that doesn’t have to rely on physical products anymore? Releasing an all digital, slightly cheaper and/or rough mixed instrumental version of an album is an easy way to double your product with extremely low cost and minimal risk that ANY band can use to boost their revenue potential RIGHT NOW. Even if people still download it illegally instead of buying anything, what will you lose by doing this that you would have gained from NOT doing it? Again, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll make more money, but it’s one more way to entice a buyer. There are plenty of other ways to encourage purchasing.
So here are the ultimate questions: if you’re in a band looking to play music professionally, and you have to make money to do so, why wouldn’t you try this out? What do you really lose in releasing a digital only, slightly discounted, and/or unmastered version of your album? If you’re a fan of a band, or maybe you would be a fan if they didn’t have a vocalist, would you be more inclined to buy that band’s music if they offered an instrumental version of their album? These are all just thing I’m pondering, and there may be a great answer out there I haven’t considered. What do you think?