No band is an island. At the end of the day, music as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the unique marriage between the people making the music and their fans. The relationship is often a complicated one: pre-supposing a simple, two-way street in which the artist gives the fans music and they, in turn, give them adoration, money and fame is naive. It’s also highly irrelevant to metal. Beyond the few, rare names (a lot of which belong to an older and, sadly, dying generation), metal hasn’t been about the megastar for decades now. The field is too saturated, too filled with great acts. Continuing to play the game and hoping to “get big” is a fool’s cause; you most likely won’t fill stadiums, won’t sell platinum records and won’t win that perfect record deal (which, by the way, doesn’t exist).
So, is all hope lost? Hardly. What metal has is the propensity and furious dedication of small fan-bases, of hardcore followings which buoy their chosen artists with constant attention, fervor and support. A metal artist that manages to tap into their fan base in an intelligent and conscious way is a successful artist, one which has insured almost constant stability and strength. However, for some reason, people still keep preaching the “old models”, those of record sales, PR tricks and stale, obsolete release models. Artists still rely blindly on labels, still live and die by the release date, the single premiere, the cheesy lyrical video. Even worse, all of these models and tools have the same, unfortunate by-product: distance from the fans, from other bands and the faint, cloying stink of elitism.
You see, in the old way of doing things, you had to separate yourself. You had to stand apart; people expected you to be uplifted, above the crowd. After all, not every band can make it and the game becomes zero sum: if we sell, then they don’t. If they occupy the same niche as ours, we must be better and they, they must be poseurs, fakes or just plain bad. This sort of cut-throat elitism seeped back into the fans, creating almost rabid and fanatic fan groups. And so, we have the scene today, a scene often divided not only by taste but by race, gender and social standing. Bands, in the ever changing race we described above, see their only way up in pushing people down, in lashing out against the different, the downtrodden or the newcomer.
We’re here to tell you that the days of that model are coming to an end. More and more, the community is reforming, gathering around the opposite propelling momentum of looking inwards, of cultivating and empowering their own fan base. Artists are beginning to realize that, especially in the metal community, a solid, well-formed, respected fan base is much more preferable than a large, detached, baited network of shaky fans. The ebb and flow of controversy/reaction/controversy is slowly dying out, and we should usher in its death as fast as possible. We have the chance, the opportunity, to forge this community anew around new ideals, those of equality, of collaboration and of self-security. But it’s up to us, fans, media and artists all.
So, what does the new type of fan community look like and how can you achieve it? More importantly, the hefty and considerable weight of social justice issues aside, how exactly do these new forms of artist/fan interaction help you? Drawing on the varied insight of the Heavy Blog Is Heavy editorial body, we’re here to offer you some advice, a proposed model of how to be a band and interact with your fans in the late 2010s. It’s the future, so why should your band stay in the past?
The rhetoric that the traditional sales model doesn’t work anymore is so tired at this point that even talking about first-order alternatives of it is tired. What does that really mean? It’s pretty well-documented that album sales alone don’t provide enough of a revenue stream for artists, and that the advent of streaming services (the so-called first-order alternatives) have necessitated that bands adapt to this new paradigm. However, it’s also known that those services don’t necessarily offer the best payout to artists that aren’t at the top of the food chain. This has led artists to look for alternative sources of revenue to fund their musical ventures. This excellent article states that artists that want to achieve long-term stability shouldn’t target the largest audience, which is fickle and will move on, but the most dedicated fans that will stick with them until the end. 1,000 true fans instead of 100,000 casual fans. How does this work in practice?
Crowdfunding is the most common way of monetizing dedicated fans, and it could ostensibly be called a second-order model. Using Kickstarter/Indiegogo/Gofundme/Pledgemusic, many bands have funded the creation of their albums. Protest the Hero and Sikth are one of the bigger examples, but smaller bands like Bloodshot Dawn, Aliases, Good Tiger and Conquering Dystopia have run successful crowdfunding campaigns as well. There is a lot of knowledge out there on what it takes to run a successful Kickstarter, but the key idea that ties it back to the 1,000 fans concept is giving the dedicated fans the option to earn cool rewards a dedicated fan would want, be it signed picks, concert access, Skype lessons or guest solos in return for pledges.
Another similar model is Patreon, which generally works on a small-donation-per-released-content model. While this isn’t very prominent in the metal scene, Youtube musician Rob Scallon has a channel where he makes a song every week, and Patreon backers get exclusive access to downloads, making-of content, tabs, stems and more. This model is understandably not applicable for every band, but artists who have a more improvisational style and really want to connect with their community can definitely leverage this, and it’s more popular in the indie rock scene because of this.
This is where more ambitious models come into play. These models aren’t well-established yet, so there isn’t a name, but they generally revolve around the notion of an exclusive fan club. Protest the Hero’s recent subscription package is an example of this, where fans can subscribe to earn an exclusive song every month, and they can pay more for extra perks like a documentary. This model obviously requires a lot more planning, and there’s the caveat of internet file sharing – whatever “exclusive” material exists will eventually get leaked. However, this doesn’t seem to stop dedicated fans, as their intention is to support the artist regardless, whereas the pirating usually comes from the more casual fans.
Another example of a fan club is Cyclamen’s exclusive fan package, where a very small amount of fans (two dozen or so) were able to pay a large fee (around $120) for a year-long exclusive package, with an EP exclusive to the package, free access to another non-exclusive EP, a unique shirt for backers only that each backer also got to pick the colors of, unique artwork drawn by Cyclamen frontman Hayato Imanishi and other minor perks. A very small package like this makes it less likely that content would leak, but it obviously requires more effort on part of the band as well.
In the end, the sky is the limit with models like these – bands can offer anything to fans, and if they have fostered a dedicated enough fanbase, the fans will sustain them. The degree of commitment required can vary based on the reward, and tier systems allow bands to target different levels of fans. Another advantage (or disadvantage) of these models is that it cuts out the publisher, giving the bands more control but also more responsibility. In fact, the common subtext of all these models is that bands are responsible for engaging their fans and leveraging that engagement to turn it into money. All of these models have their own drawbacks, and one size definitely does not fit all. But for bands where traditional sales models aren’t an option and streaming services/digital sales do not offer enough compensation, these models can be very powerful.
Shaking Genre Definitions
When attempting to draw closer to your fans, you must consider the main mode of communication between you and them. Regardless of what any PR firm will tell you or what the established code of conduct on social media might be, that’s still the music. The only way to foster a tight, supportive and included community is by making music that speaks to as many people as possible but still retains its impact and meaning.
This goal has two very dangerous extremes: on the one hand lies elitism and navel-gazing, a condition in which a band is so obssesed with its established image and themes that it becomes little more than an engine designed to carry those images and themes forward. On the other end of the scale lie cookie cutters and plastic, bland, corporate-produced musicians whose whole purpose is to compromise and bring together under the lowest common denominator. In an effort to appeal to the everyman, they make of themselves everymen, washing away anything that might have been unique about them.
What we would advocate is a hard to attain middle ground. It requires that you first understand deeply what makes you a band. Too many bands leave that question out of the equation, believing that this just means things like touring or being in a room together while recording. Without a strong core of who you are, a core that should revolve around the music you make and the message it sends, everything else will be for naught. Don’t shy away from using non-conventional sources to define that common ground: books, art, philosophy, other musicians, geographical places and more are all acceptable and even encouraged. Don’t be afraid to create lavish or in-depth representations of your message; many will say that you’re overdoing it, but the power that’s created by shared artwork, manifestos and band ideologies is hard to deny when push comes to shove.
Now, here comes the tricky part. Once you have that curl of the burl, you need to start chipping away at it. While standing strong on the top floor, you must carefully chisel away at the edifice below you. Challenging your message, criticizing the basics of what makes you as an artist or a group is crucial to reaching out to dedicated, passionate people who will be willing to run with you for a long time instead of a short sprint around an album or a tour. By constantly being on the move with your music, your ideas and your image, you’ll be able to keep your fans on the move as well. Never knowing exactly what to look forward to from you, they’ll be all the more engaged. Sure, people like stability, but you don’t want people to like you; you want them to love you, and love has an element of the thrill, the rush, of being caught off-guard. If you stay in one place, many fans will grow used to you, but if you keep them guessing, many fans will grow used to following you.
A slight pause might be necessary here to make sure something is clear: all of the above is first and foremost about your music. Themes and grand gestures, art and wild imagery, serve only one purpose: enriching and expanding your musical palette. Therefore, any musician worth their name will tell you two things (among many others): write constantly and never throw away an idea. There’s no such thing as “too out there,” “too wild” or “too different.” Sure, not every single idea will make it to an album; we’re not perfect after all. But all ideas, once generated, will take you to new and interesting places. Are you a black metal guitarist and you just happened to write a melodious riff? Don’t chuck it away, sneering from your throne of bones at the naivete contained in it. Are you a progressive metal drummer and what rolled off your kit today was a simple, groovy, straight-forward fill? It might not do for the Berklee College of Music finals, but it might just fit on the bridge of a future song.
All of this comes together to one truth: if you’re looking to truly generate a community around you, one that can propel your band from obscurity into greatness, you need to be unchained by conventions. The time for slow moving titans has passed, if it ever even existed. The rule of the hour is simple: adapt by challenging yourself or be left on the wayside, just another band that “did its thing” or “was alright for what it was”.
Inclusive Music to Inclusive Audiences
If you’ve read any number of think-pieces swirling around the internet about the state of metal, you will surely come away with the conclusion that metal has a lot of issues when it comes to how it projects itself to audiences that aren’t straight white males. Sexism, homophobia and racism are still unfortunately deeply-entrenched parts of certain scenes and strains within the greater metal community and framework. But that isn’t at all the same as saying that metal has a real diversity problem when it comes to its audience. Quite to the contrary, metal is not only diverse in the kind of people it attracts in the US, but it is one of the few truly “global” musics out there that continues to thrive and actively grow. This recent piece from the Wall Street Journal – of all places – goes into great detail on just how widespread and diverse the world of metal is, from South America to the Middle East and throughout eastern and southeastern Asia.
If you’re familiar with the oft-quoted joke comments of “Please come to Brazil!” or “Come to Indonesia!” it turns out there’s a pretty damn good reason they exist: there are A LOT of metal fans in those parts of the world! It’s pretty easy to understand why extreme music would have such a broad appeal across so many cultures. In many regions of the world that are labeled “developing” nations – where individuals are perhaps more constrained by harsher economic or political conditions and don’t have nearly the same level of freedoms and luxuries that most people of North America and western Europe take for granted – metal and heavy music are one of the few outlets people have to express their anger and frustrations or level critiques against the systems of power in their countries. Even in places where such kinds of personal expression are either judged harshly or strictly forbidden, people continue to rebel underground, creating bands and scenes that tie entire communities together (this recent example of an Iranian metal band finding themselves jailed for nothing more than playing the music they love and looking to make foreign contacts through it is just one of many who literally risk their lives for their music).
All of this is to say that the stereotype of the metal fan as the weird, anti-social straight white male that persists through much of our culture is flat-out wrong. Metal knows no bounds, be they racial, cultural, sexual, or whatever. And yet, so many bands continue to make the mistake of projecting an image that isn’t nearly as welcoming or accepting. Images and vivid descriptions of rape, sexual violence, or just blatant sexualization – always directed towards a female – are still rampant in many bands’ lyrics, videos, album art, etc. Countless stories of LGBT men and women feeling physically threatened (or far worse) at shows persist. And though there have been significant breakthroughs in the number of prominent metal musicians who are black, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian and more in recent years, there is still a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done for more racial and ethnic minorities to feel truly welcome and accepted in the community (we’re not even going to touch the mess that is Phil Anselmo, but you get the idea).
So, what is it that you can do exactly to promote an inclusive environment that will be most likely to attract as many potential fans as possible? Well, aside from the obvious stuff of not being an outwardly racist, homophobic or sexist scumbag, it mostly comes down to just not blatantly doing anything that would make anyone interested in your music feel unwelcome. This is not the same thing as being “politically correct” (a loaded and misconstrued term if there ever was one), but simply treating all people who listen or could potentially listen to your music with the respect they deserve. It means not making dumb frat boy jokes or using slurs on your social media pages or in interviews that are demeaning to women, gays or other parts of your audience. It means maybe thinking twice about what kind of imagery you use in your lyrics or your album art and whether it could potentially turn off both women and men who find such things completely distasteful. It doesn’t matter how innocuous you think it is, how serious you were being at the time or how literally you think someone is taking something you said. Something that doesn’t offend you personally doesn’t render the things you say necessarily inoffensive.
It means not only taking responsibility for how you project your own image to your fans, but also taking responsibility for creating a safe environment for those fans in all situations, especially during concerts. If you witness or hear about any behavior that is verbally or physically threatening or abusive to fans of your music, it is your responsibility to call that out and make it 100% known that such actions will not be tolerated by the band and should not be tolerated by your fanbase. Anyone who comes out to see you play deserves to feel safe. This also extends to things like pits and crowdsurfing. There is nothing wrong in abstract with either, but when it forces people who do not wish to participate to become involved and potentially injured, then you have a responsibility to shut that down and make sure that the crowd contains it to people who want to participate.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it means taking responsibility for your mistakes when you make them. No one is perfect, and, as noted above, something that might seem completely innocuous to you could in fact be incredibly offensive to others (Rob Thomas inadvertently invoking a horrible stereotype about Australian Aboriginal peoples recently is a prime example of this). The difference between making a blunder that eventually blows over to something that creates a huge and significant issue with you and potentially your fans is in how you acknowledge and take responsibility for it. Be honest, be sincere, be empathetic. And for the love of Lemmy, don’t EVER say something to the effect of “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by what I said/did.” That’s not an apology; that’s a cop-out. Just own up to it, admit you fucked up, and sincerely state that you will do better. Your fans will want to forgive you, so don’t give them a reason not to by doubling down and driving more people away.
Once again, none of this should be viewed as punitive or restrictive. Nobody wants you to change what you do as a band or what you do with your music to make it “safe.” That’s not why people come to listen to metal and extreme music. But people do want to feel like they can belong in the communities of bands they like, and that all starts with you. At the end of the day, it is to your benefit to attract as many and as wide a population of people as possible. So why would you do anything to make that more difficult? In short: treat people with respect. Always punch upward rather than down in channeling and expressing the feelings of anger, rage and darkness that flows through so much of metal. These are the things that will attract fans of all stripes who will go to extreme lengths to support you. If you want to break the stereotypes about metal musicians and fans, don’t do things that will only add to them. If you want to be huge, let yourself be huge.
-EK, NT, & NC