Endless Sacrifice – Suffering, Metal, and Identity Politics, Part 4

When I set out to explore the ideal of suffering within metal and its ties to identity politics, I knew that it was a substantial subject. However, I didn’t

7 years ago

When I set out to explore the ideal of suffering within metal and its ties to identity politics, I knew that it was a substantial subject. However, I didn’t quite figure on exactly how substantial; almost instantly, other members of the staff picked up on the idea and the ideal’s resonance within the scene became apparent. So, from a third piece essay by one writer, we now have four posts by three different ones and soon, we’ll add a fifth and a fourth writer to the project. It should be readily apparent to all just how important the ideal of suffering is to metal and how many different meanings and ramifications are generated in the interaction between it and metal’s community.

Fittingly enough, the original impetus for this research began with contemporary events which took the metal community by storm. The crowdfunding campaigns by Allegaeon and Ne Obliviscaris seemed to leave no opinionated stone un-turned. Sadly, many of those reactions were negative; they seemed to imply that there was something inherently wrong with appealing to your fans for funding. Criticism revolved not around the untenable nature of the model, the often lack of clarity or issues of “bang for buck” but rather around the authenticity of the bands in pursuing their careers. The bands, so the argument went, aren’t really interested in music. If they were, they would go the “traditional” path and not look for shortcuts towards fame. These paths are nothing more than rites of passage; going through them is an inherent part in being in a big, successful metal band. Your predecessors (supposedly) went through it and if you want “true” success (remember that term) you’ll need to go through it as well.

What is it exactly that makes the initial years of a band into a rite of passage? Those “traditional” paths include, you guessed, a fair deal of suffering. The first few years for a band, and sometimes an entire career for those who can’t “make it big”, are all about making do on very little. Ask an aspiring musician and they’ll tell you all about it: sleeping in vans or on floors, eating terrible food at gas stations, paying venues for the “right” to play your music, not showering, not sleeping, plenty of harsh, physical work, sound issues, drug abuse, health hazards and more. Often these experiences are also accompanied by a fair deal of mental health issues, as your status, social security and overall mental well-being is scattered to the wind. How will your family react to your absence? Will you have a job waiting for you when you get back? Do people even care that you’re there playing? Does anyone actually like your music, or are you there to drink a beer to the backdrop of your music, an act simply there to fill a void before the headliner?

The Promise of Authenticity through Suffering

Of course, like humans tend to do, these ordeals are contextualized into a narrative. It’s hard to suffer through these kind of ordeals with no purpose or end goal in site. In the past, this end goal was commercial success. The years of touring were crafted into a necessary prelude to success by dozens of highly propagated stories, spread through film, journalism (mostly by its bastard offspring, gonzo journalism), photography (Annie Leibovitz‘s work was often denuded of its critical aspects and had its subjects presented as role models rather than cautionary tales) and more. Metal had its share of such stories. Metallica‘s fabled success, for example, is often painted in two stages. The first details constant touring, disseminating tapes of early material and ferocious dedication to fans amidst poor conditions and constant failure before “the big break”. The second suddenly leaps years ahead to the breakdown of the band and the mental states of its members, poisoned by too much success and made into “sell outs”. In the middle, supposedly nothing; no personal progress or degeneration, no intricate life stories, no business decisions.

The story first establishes the ideal of an early life of suffering through touring and  then paints authenticity in proximity or distance from that ideal. As Metallica moves farther and farther away from “what made them true” to their art, as they live more and more comfortable lives, the less they are perceived as authentic, the more they become something reprehensible, the less their financial success is justified. Whether financial success, comfort and luxury actually had anything to do with the quality of their music is quite besides the point; the narrative is constructed, utilized and elaborated upon regardless, to give sense to the question of “why do we tour?”, “why do we suffer?”. The aspiring musician can look to Metallica’s story, and countless others like it, and say “I suffer to imitate their success one day but to avoid their mistakes”.

Suffering then is both the road leading to financial success and the key to maintaining authenticity. Financial success is contextualized as a double edged sword or a Faustian pact: aspire to it but beware its temptation for it will make you weak. Suffering is the antidote to that weakness, that temptation. It keeps you grounded and true to yourself, acts as a way to both reap the fruits of success and maintain the all important identity in metal. The best way to create that suffering and to transform into a gauntlet, into a rite of passage, is by hitting the road. As success comes, the basic requirements of life no longer become a ready source of suffering; food, board and the like are all taken care of. Therefore, the successful artist must aspire to create their own suffering. This can be achieved by leading an ascetic life (lauded as “focus”), giving to charity, challenging musical norms (thus leading to the “suffering” of backlash and the hazards of alienating your fans in service to the grander ideal of authentic music) or “staying true to your source” by eschewing the fruits of financial success altogether. But initially, touring provides a welcome and steady supply of suffering which helps the metal community mark the real from the false and tell the promise from the lie.

As financial success stemming from a career of dedicated touring disappears, the issues of authenticity become more and more important. As the economy changes, the music scenes become saturated, the cost of living rises and the financial models which make up the music industry shift away from older models, an extensive and fierce touring career no longer promises recognition (if it ever really did). Thus, the questions we had presented above (“why do we tour?” and “why do we suffer?”) hone in on only one answer: authenticity. The narrative schema of “lucrative and authentic” loses the first part and the artist currently suffering is left with authenticity only to excuse and make sense of his current, deplorable state. Where before extensive touring and the suffering it entailed promised an antidote, an “add-on” to a successful music artist, authenticity becomes the promise of touring rather than its result. That is, the answer to the questions above becomes: “to be authentic. We tour and suffer to be authentic”.

Instead of placing profits and comfort on a pedestal which exists somewhere in the future, crowdfunding brings them to the present. It also does away with many of the realities of a musician’s business life that might seem overbearing or not authentic in their own right: label contracts, sponsorships, publicity stuns and the like. It achieves that by appealing to what is construed as one of the most authentic things out there: communication with one’s fans and establishment of a reward system for their loyalty. On its surface then, we would expect crowdfunding to actually go over pretty well with the “authenticity camp”. It brings bands and fans closer together, cuts out middlemen often depicted as conniving leeches and appeals directly to the sacred loyalty between fan and artist. Under metal’s identity politics however, which intrinsically rely on the tension between suffering, authenticity, and success (similar to the tension we had surveyed in the first part of this series between suffering, overcoming it and maintaining it), crowdfunding has no place to be.

What it does is simply challenge the inevitably of suffering to the early-mid career phase of a metal artist. It does that in two ways: first, it generates a steady, reliable stream of finance for the band. This revenue allows young(er) bands to accomplish both a disconnect between their success and the unreliable world of touring but also the ability to create more marketing, better design and healthier release cycles around future releases. Thus, this revenue can help grow itself, which is the Holy Grail for anyone seeking to self promote. Much like how we at Heavy Blog sink our ad revenue back into making the site better, crowdfunding revenue (whether generated by one time campaigns like Pozible or IndieGoGo or long term, subscription based models like Patreon) can help build more resources for future growth.  This in turn enables the band to secure proper lodgings, healthier nourishment, better sound great and a following, all things which improve and enhance touring life.

Suffering for the Desirable Right of Passage

The second way in which crowdfunding erases suffering is even more subtle and interesting. It not only provides a secure financial model for bands but it also enables them much more freedom in the ways in which they work for the money. Each band can tinker with its crowdfunding effort and offer reward tiers which work well with their peripheral skills, style of performance, level of expertise and much more. It enables bands to work on their own terms, whether while working on new music or otherwise. Does your vocalist have a knack for teaching? Offer vocal lessons. Do you have other skills other than music, like graphic design for example or maybe soundtrack composition? You can offer all of those, and more. Even things which aren’t usually commodifiable are up for grabs: sessions with the band, future tickets to shows (sometimes for life), having access to the writing process and more.

By eliminating suffering from the equation, crowdfunding takes away a crucial litmus test of the community; how can we be sure that these artists are actually on our side? What if they are simply greedy people after a quick buck? They don’t care about metal or its ideals. What if all they want is to abusive what is nowadays portrayed as the number one quality of the metal fan, their loyalty and willingness to pay? Why metal feels the need to be so defensive has been covered in plenty of other articles on Heavy Blog. The fact remains: the litmus test of suffering is still essential to a community obsessed with authenticity and its ties to finance. Crowdfunding enables bands to skip that stage. They don’t fail the litmus test, they don’t buckle in the face of suffering. They circumnavigate it completely, providing a “does not compute” the community isn’t quite sure how to process.

At the outset of this article, it might be a good idea to unpack the term “community” which we have used here repeatedly. In actuality, a very certain type of person can be identified as certainly the most vocal source of resistance to crowdfunding if not the most numerous. Much of the backlash towards the recent crowdfunding campaigns came from a very specific subset of “super-fans”. Their distinctive quality is the fact that they make music themselves and inhibit a similar or proximate point in their own career today. That is, they themselves are now asking the very same questions we had posited above. They’re entangled in the selfsame mess of touring, shitty motels/vans, terrible food and ungrateful venues. The only thing keeping them going are the very answers we gave above.

They believe suffering at this stage of their career to be two things: one, an inevitable fact of life and two, a desirable rite of passages granting any who survive it the much sought-after ticket into the metal community. The latter is the most vivid and obvious aspect of identity politics out there, an identity attribute which is an absolute requirement as part of access to cultural capital. Crowdfunding, in one fell swoop, takes away both of those motivations. First, it proves that the suffering is not inevitable and can in fact be relieved with help from the people you care about the most: your fans. Secondly, it provides artists access to cultural, financial and social power that doesn’t get curated by supposed authenticity and circumvents safeguards which are still perceived as crucial for metal’s well-being. It’s a shortcut; “why must I suffer when they reap all the benefits without it?”.

Instead of considering crowdfunding themselves, this type of community member lashes out. Make no mistake, that backlash is incredibly effective. Blogs jump on board, clicks are generated and a front is created. More bands which might have considered the crowdfunding route hesitate. The ones already on the path need to spend precious resources (time and energy) on defending themselves. And division is created, division which feeds back into demands for authenticity and the increased cultural capital of suffering.

Even if crowdfunding seems to be marching forward everyday into the territory of music, this type of fan possess a regressive and dangerous resistance to this concept. Is crowdfunding an ultimate good? Hardly. It’s quite possible to create a bad and even malicious crowdfunding campaign. But is crowdfunding also one of the most promising models for future band-artist interaction, one which presents a hope of dealing with an increasingly fragile music industry and an increasingly haphazard economical situation? Most assuredly. Therefore, we must continue uncovering the hidden forces which make resistance to crowdfunding tick and discuss them, to expose the reactionary and by now irrelevant elements which lend them such social power and tenacity in the hope that, one day, they can be marginalized and metal can perhaps usher in a new, more open, diverse and supportive reality for up and coming musicians looking to interact with their fans.

Eden Kupermintz

Published 7 years ago