Our decision a few years ago to no longer cover “news” as a matter of course on the website is one that we have few regrets over. There is a lot of stuff that happens over the course of a year that get press attention and some articles written, but by-and-large there just isn’t a whole lot that transpires on a day-to-day (or even week-to-week) basis that really means all that much beyond that moment. The nice thing about relegating most of that stuff to Noyan and Eden over at Heavy Pod is Heavy Cast is that it allows them to pretty quickly speak about many of these things off-the-cuff and casually, say what needs to be said about them (oftentimes to the effect of “Wow, this is dumb.”), and then just move on without bringing them up again. Because let’s face it. Most events that constitute as “news” in this industry are little more than either your average release and tour news that can be covered by sites that essentially exist to reprint PR emails and band social media accounts, or it’s covering largely dumb but probably mostly harmless things that bands/artists have done that people are angry about on social media.
The occasional downside to this is that sometimes we allow certain stories to pass us by without commenting on them that we later realize might be a bigger deal than we first thought or simply just didn’t have the time to comment on properly at the time. Perhaps there is a middle ground we can achieve at some point that allows us to stay plugged into the things we believe are important enough to write about while still separating the wheat from the chaff and not getting lost in the bullshit and muck of much of internet metal and music journalism and fandom.
For now though, we have this. I asked Eden, Scott, and Jon to write briefly about one story from the year that they felt either didn’t get enough coverage here or elsewhere and/or has a good deal of significance for the music industry as a whole. I then cheated and wrote about multiple events and themes, but it’s my column so I call the shots. This is in no way meant to be comprehensive, but these were just a few items that stuck with us at the end of 2018, including some themes we certainly expect to be talking about more in 2019.
Spotify and DistroKid Shake Up Music Distribution and Compensation Out of View
Let’s face it; we fucking love Silicon Valley and, by extension, the high-tech industry it has spawned/spawned from. Don’t get me wrong; I totally get it (full disclosure: I’m somewhat a part of this industry myself, since I work here). Silicon Valley is good at many things but it’s excellent at targeting old industries/solutions which give us pain and offering us quick, simple, and supposedly almost cost-free solutions. That’s what Google did to Yellow Pages and directories at large, that’s what Facebook did to blogs and email, that’s what Uber did to taxis and that’s what DistroKid and Spotify want to do to labels, each in their own way and for their own reasons.
That’s what lay behind the deal announced earlier this year, wherein Spotify bought “a minor stake” in DistroKid, “a distribution service that allows recording artists to upload music across online stores and streaming platforms including Spotify’s biggest rival, Apple Music.” This allows DistroKid users to easily and quickly get their music on Spotify, with all the red-tape that would usually go through labels (and involve laborious contracts) happening “behind the scenes”. This allows artists another avenue through which to dodge the label deal and get their music out there, to their fans, more directly. They pay DistroKid a set fee and keep their royalties from Spotify.
And, on the surface of it, this is a good thing. Labels aren’t exactly charities and their proclivity for exploiting artists is well known. And that’s why DistroKid has been so successful; they remove a pain point and replace it with an easy, quick, and simple solution. However, as with almost all Silicon Valley solutions, things aren’t that simple; you see, there’s nothing guaranteeing that Spotify and DistroKid have the artist’s best wishes in mind. In fact, Spotify has one of the lowest pay per stream rates out there. And who is DistroKid? What tells us how they’ll treat artists in the future? They’re a privately traded company and, as such, beholden to one thing and one thing only: profit. Not that publicly traded companies aren’t, but there’s a fair share more oversight.
On the flip-side of things, don’t get me wrong once again; my point is not that these companies are “evil” or that this deal is a bad thing. But in the overall media churn that was 2018, this story got a very brief spike of attention and then, everyone moved on. And that’s what always tends to happen with stories about the “dirty”, unappealing side of making and selling music, the business end of things. We romanticize music, a romanticism for which the reality of music being a product is anathema. But the growing interest of high tech in how we purchase and consume music should tell us all we need to know: we can’t afford to just instantly welcome our new algorithm overlords. There are questions to be had here and it’s best we ask them now and not later.
Greta Van Fleet and the Neverending Fount of Nostalgia
I know, I know – yet another piece about Greta Van Fleet. Then again, this is supposed to be a recap of the year’s most significant stories, and no one can argue that the quartet weren’t a constant point of division across the entire music community. To be clear, this won’t just be another addition to the “Led Zeppelin, Jr. or saviors of rock” debate. Anyone who follows rock music has almost certainly made up their mind by now, and frankly, I don’t think that’s the most important story at play here. Rather, my view from the beginning has been that the logical extension of their rise to fame, and not just their music itself, is what will truly define their imprint on modern music, and specifically the state of rock music.
Firstly, let’s just get this out of the way – I’m not a fan of GVF. While I don’t hate them as much as most other music critics, I do think their blatant Led Zeppelin plagiarism is difficult to defend. I genuinely don’t understand how anyone could listen to their music and not come to the logical conclusion that they’re trying to emulate Page, Plant & Co. as closely as possible. Sure, there are some (mild) shades and hues of Aerosmith, Rush and The Who at play in their music. But anyone who can’t at least admit that GVF aren’t heavily influenced by Zeppelin are being intentionally disingenuous. From the Kiska brothers’ vocals and guitar riffs to the recurring passages seemingly lifted straight from Zeppelin classics, the band proves detractors’ arguments with every new song. Your take on this might be more positive or indifferent than mine, and that’s totally your prerogative. But I’d personally rather listen to the source material when it comes to bands infatuated with their influences.
Now that we can put that issue behind us, there’s another crucial point to acknowledge – GVF are incredibly popular. Just two years removed from their debut EP, the band have sold out amphitheaters, landed three #1 singles on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts and received four Grammy nominations. I think it’s safe to say that by this time next year, if not sooner, their debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army will have gone Gold or Platinum in all the major music markets. And you know what, good for them. I don’t think they have any malice behind their approach to songcraft, and it’s admittedly nice to see a contemporary rock band getting this much attention in this day and age.
Of course, the fact that GVF is that band is where the issue lies. The everlasting mantra that “Rock is Dead,” while based in shallow musical exploration, is mostly accurate from a practical perspective. When was the last time a new rock band truly blew up and enjoyed some level of crossover appeal? There used to be at least one band or song every year that found a home on both rock and pop stations. Just think back to hits from bands like Hoobastank, The Killers, Kings of Leon, Nickelback and so on. That phenomenon has all but vanished due to streaming, what with radio becoming more and more obsolete and the need to play only what’s most popular becoming more imperative. At the same time, rock has also fallen out of grace with modern listeners for reason largely out of the genre’s control, namely the meteoric rise of hip-hop and pop that’s easier to produce and distribute than ever before.
So what does this have to do with GVF? I won’t pretend to know what level of crossover appeal the band enjoys, but it’s safe to say their popularity is far beyond any contemporary rock act in recent memory. In my view, the reasoning behind that has a great deal to do with our love of nostalgia. Other than maybe The Beatles, I don’t think there’s a more widely known and beloved rock band than Zeppelin; you can find their albums and merch in both independent record shops and big box stores. It’s this fact that helps make GVF such a pure embodiment of nostalgia. With every note, the band’s music heavily relies on the concept of “old but new.” More importantly, it relies on listeners’ infatuation with this concept and full embrace of their music as a result. As avid music nerds, we sometimes forget that the average listener doesn’t spend hours every week searching for new music. Whether a casual or diehard Zeppelin fan hears GVF for the first time, their immediate reaction is likely one of positive intrigue rather than a need to pen a 1,000+ word essay like this.
This isn’t at all meant to shed a negative light on nostalgia. We’ve spent countless posts reinforcing our love for reinvigorated takes on classic sounds, ranging from our love of retrowave to traditional metal revival to the new class of old school death metal. But what separates these bands from GVF is not only their wider array of influences, but also their ability to synthesize and enhance those inspirations into something simultaneously fresh and nostalgic. By contrast, GVF produce a kind of nostalgia devoid of anything beyond that pang of remembrance. The emotions they solicit flow in one direction and offer little opportunity to form new musical memories.
Yet, despite all of this, what GVF do works, and that’s all that matters to Universal and any other major label looking to cash in on this trend. It’s worth noting this very well could be a brief moment in rock history that we look back on and chuckle at years from now. But then again, this could also become the blueprint for where mainstream rock is heading down the line: find a young band emulating an iconic band, throw them in the studio, and boom, profit. It may sound crazy now, but would anyone have predicted a couple years ago that a Zeppelin clone would become the world’s hottest rock band? And don’t forget that the music industry literally created many of the groups that dominated the 90s boy band craze. Even our own scene is guilty of this; just think back to the sheer number of deathcore and djent bands that labels signed during both genres’ heydays.
Early last year, I wrote about how streaming is changing music consumption. As streaming and “equivalent album units” continue to have a broader influence on music “sales,” the financial benefits felt by larger artists will far outway independent acts. If GVF is able to sustain their success and other bands follow suit, then major labels will throw more money at this hyper-nostalgic trend and shift resources away from funding unique and innovative rock. While I think great independent rock (and metal) will always exist, I also believe that the growing cost of being a full-time musician will continue its inverse relationship with the declining profits gained from album sales and streaming revenue. We may not know how much of an impact GVF will have down the line, but at the very least, it’s yet another example that major labels and modern listeners aren’t particularly interested in new ideas.
In a year filled with musical highlights, 2018 wasn’t without its fair share of heartbreak. The losses of two individuals in particular, Cave In/Zozobra/Old Man Gloom bassist Caleb Scofield and Unique Leader and Deeds of Flesh founding member Erik Lindmark, were further reminders of life’s fragility, as well as opportunities to celebrate the work of two men who left an indelible imprint on heavy music.
Caleb’s life, ended in a fatal car accident and commemorated in concert form earlier this year, left a profound mark on the hardcore and sludge communities that his gifts permeated. An integral part of several key releases in these genres, Caleb’s contributions will be greatly missed and his absence deeply felt. The point has been hammered home many times since his passing, but his tragic and all-too-soon departure was as unexpected as it was devastating.
Erik Lindmark, who passed from sclerosis last month, left an equally potent legacy. As a musician, his vocal and instrumental abilities brought plenty of attention to his brutal death metal band Deeds of Flesh, cementing his status as an innovative and talented guitarist while propelling Deeds of Flesh to one of the most successful and prestigious careers in their genre. As CEO of Unique Leader Records, Erik, perhaps more than any other individual in the industry, pushed technical and brutal death metal to new popular and creative heights through the release of dozens of classic genre releases. While the label will continue in his absence, the absence of his leadership and influence will be greatly missed in the world of death metal and beyond.
Our sincerest condolences to the families and friends of Caleb and Erik. As appreciators of their work, we mourn with you. We also take this time to recognize and celebrate the unique contributions each of these men made to their respective art forms. Death comes for us all, but sorrow and feelings of profound loss are in many ways a true testament to lives well lived. We honor those lives and legacies now and will continue to do so as we move into the brighter future they helped create. Rest peacefully and powerfully, friends.
Man Plays To Empty Room, Commands Weeks Of Unnecessary Coverage
Okay, look, this isn’t going to be a piece about the Threatin story specifically. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. It’s not important or significant in any way that will mean anything to anyone past this year other than as a piece of useless trivia or moment of “Hey remember when that crazy thing happened???” If for some strange reason you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m not going to dive into a lot of details on it, nor am I going to link out to places that do. Because it’s a stupid story. The most barebones version I’m willing to write here about it though is as follows:
- Man with a history of being in a few bands of modest acclaim has new solo metal-ish project but is struggling to get much notice for said project
- Man decides to dump a lot of money and time into buying up fake social media following, constructing fake pr, and using said fake pr and reps to book a European tour built upon fake promises of ticket guarantees
- Man books real session musicians for tour and dumps even more money into buying tickets for fake fans from his fake following for his (sadly) not fake band
- Man inevitably plays to series of empty rooms in Europe; venue owners and PR folks are equal parts perplexed and upset; session musicians have no idea what’s going on
There was a brief moment in time when the reports first started coming out about this where the mystery and novelty factor warranted some level of coverage. What should have happened is that questions would have been asked, people interviewed, information found, information summarily reported matter-of-factly with perhaps some tongue-in-cheek humor attached to it given its actual importance, and after a couple of days we would all move on because there are a million way more important things actually going on in this world that deserve spending our time writing and reading about.
But that’s not what happened, of course. Instead we got days into weeks of breathless coverage from music journalism sites large and small tripping over themselves to uncover any possible new information surrounding said man. We got places digging into the personal history of said man and searching through years of personal social media postings and more to an embarrassing level of creepy stalker behavior (I will not be linking out to any articles I allude to; if you want to find them you probably know where to look). And, most importantly, what we got wasn’t a simple reporting of a story. Instead, as journalism and media are wont to do, we were served a narrative and “package.”
The problem is that as soon as the “Wtf actually happened here?” narrative was spent (at which point this guy’s 15 seconds of fame should have promptly ended), outlets were thirsty for more clicks to wring out of the story. So they moved onto the idea that maybe instead of this guy being a naive bumbling fool he’s actually a secret genius who “gamed” the system by….spending a ton of money for some press coverage about him and not actually about his music (an important aside; very few of these articles have mentioned the actual music of Threatin except in passing, which is probably because it’s not good). Never mind how illogically this works out though because now there were leagues of interviews and thinkpieces to write getting at this person’s “side” of the story and being a willing participant in this new winking narrative of him as a rebellious genius who used the tools of “controversy” to gin up far more coverage and acclaim that he could ever hope to achieve otherwise.
And in that sense he was right, but not because he did anything particularly clever or good. It worked because modern journalism, including the vast majority of music and especially metal outlets, believe that they require stories like Threatin to gain enough clicks to survive. So there’s a weird symbiotic relationship that’s formed where media packages stories and individuals for their own gain and produce story after story responding to the last thing that someone wrote just to see how far it will go. I have no doubt that most of these outlets don’t actually believe this guy is particularly special or did anything worthy of this level of coverage, and the guy himself likely also knows he’s being played to some level. But it’s an unwritten pact that subjects such as these enter with media outlets to help each other out and ride the wave for as long as possible, churning out story after story that feeds off the other.
I’m aware that by writing this here I’m essentially participating in that ouroboros, which is why we debated heavily whether to mention it here at all. But there is an important point to make about all of this beyond simply looking down upon what places choose to write about. Because in choosing to focus on the aspects of the story and narrative that they did, they ignored other aspects that this story actually brought to light that are actually meaningful to musicians and the media industry as a whole. They could have focused on how this exploited a hole in the pay-for-play structure of show and tour booking that still plagues far too many places and makes it increasingly impossible for musicians to tour. They could have focused on how modern social media’s own modern pay-to-play structure forces everyone to put an increasingly large amount of skin and finances into the game to break through the increasingly complex algorithms used to determine who actually gets to see certain content. They could have focused on themselves and asked why it was so easy to take the bait on a clearly silly story like this and how that ties into the much greater issues of bad news and information sources continuing to infiltrate, fester, and grow across all social media platforms. But they didn’t, and in my mind that’s the real story of Threatin.
“Free Speech” Roundup: Black Metal Continues To Grapple With Its Ties To Fascism/Anti-Semitism, Spotify Bans “Hateful Content” and Reverses It Immediately, and Anti-Fascist Metal Enters the Mainstream
We’ve covered most of these topics at length this year and last (from people who, frankly, are much more well-steeped in black metal culture and history than I am), so I’m going to be largely directing towards those pieces, but they all warrant mention here. As Scott wrote about eloquently in our Kvlt Kolvmn wrap-up, 2018 saw multiple bands being forced to respond to allegations of using nazi or fascist imagery and language in their music or visual materials. Most prominent in that group was Taake, whose US tour was canceled in response to resurfaced attention placed on their previous use of swastikas and other fascist or bigotry imagery in their live performances dating back to over a decade. This is a continuation from last year, in which Marduk had to deal with similar allegations and US shows being disrupted or canceled (though for reasons more specifically tied to the content of their music), and earlier this year when the band was embroiled in controversy again for being tied to purchases of Nazi memorabilia. Overall not great!
Then there’s the matter that just landed on our doorsteps this past week, in which a photo of Nergal of Behemoth posing with Rob Darken of Graveland – who have their own history and ties to NSBM which led to antifa protests and a show cancelation in 2016 – made its way around Instagram and kicked up its own controversy. After MetalSucks reached out to Nergal for his response to the controversy, Nergal publicly blasted MS and the entire situation through Behemoth’s social media and refused to acknowledge anything improper or distance himself from Draken, claiming ignorance of his views and Graveland’s history. Since then several leading figures and bands in the scene have gone on record defending/supporting Nergal and criticizing MetalSucks, including Todd Jones of Nails.
Predictably, all of these have led to the usual outrage cycles and arguments over matters of censorship, free speech, and reactionary “SJWs” (not to mention occasionally dipping into some incredibly vile forms of anti-semitism lobbed at MS’s founders/editors themselves). Scott dissects the whole censorship thing pretty handily in that Kvlt Kolvmn post (and Simon doubly so in their post on the Taake controversy earlier this year), so I won’t dwell on it here, but I want to quickly focus in on one aspect of all of this, which is context. It’s true that metal, and black metal in particular, has a long history of using controversial speech, imagery, and more for shock value and to push against societal norms. For years I suspect many of these things were able to slip by without gaining much notice or blowback between them being confined to more niche circles and the overall lack of social media-fueled callout culture, but also because, quite frankly, the stakes didn’t seem particularly high. Casual anti-semitism, racism, and hate speech of all forms was a staple of countercultures throughout the 90s into 2000s, especially on the burgeoning social circles and forums of the Internet. Those were boom times and (relatively) peaceful times, or at least we were told and believed that they were.
Things have most definitely changed since though, and it extends well before and well beyond Trump. Authoritarianism bordering on fascism and anti-democracy in general is on the rise across the world, from the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil to the continued push of right-wing nationalism across Europe (especially in Hungary, where Viktor Orban has systematically transformed the country into something that is very much not a democracy). Meanwhile in the states, hate crimes rose 17% in 2017 from the year before (even as overall violent crime has continued to decline in the country), with the biggest rise in anti-semitic acts of violence, which were capped off this year in the form of the violent massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, fueled by anti-semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros and the migrant caravan.
Thus, in this world, it is more difficult to give bands flirting awfully close to those hateful things the benefit of the doubt, trust that they’re operating in good faith and either don’t “really” believe these things or simply are unaware of why associating with them presents an issue. Intent matters less than the actions themselves and their effects. It is against that background that black metal’s continued troubles with fascism, anti-semitism, and bigotry of all kinds feels particularly threatening, damaging, and, let’s be honest, embarrassing. We can hope for a better discourse around these issues in 2019, but excuse us if we aren’t holding our breaths around here
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the other most notable story in the realm of metal and politicized speech this year came from the breakout hit Neckbeard Deathcamp. Utilizing the many tropes and aesthetics of the genre but through a distinctly leftist, counter-fascist lens, the band quickly became more than a simple parody or joke and garnered a huge amount of coverage. They were quickly signed to Prosthetic Records and put out a second release with Gaylord. At first blush there isn’t anything too remarkable about this. Bands spring up and become fast sensations not all that infrequently for a variety of reasons. In a way the story of Neckbeard Deathcamp isn’t all too different from the likes of other novelty bands like the dreaded Okilly Dokilly.
As Eden wrote about thoroughly in his extensive essay on the connection between consumerism and black metal earlier this year though, there is something uniquely discomforting about the fast ascent and capitalization of Neckbeard Deathcamp, especially for a band that claims to align itself so thoroughly with leftist ideology:
Within weeks, Neckbeard was signed to Prosthetic Records, with a full line of merch available for sale which was, how shall we say it, in incredibly poor taste, almost indistinguishable from actual Nazi paraphernalia (a very common mistake made when attempting to satirize something is to make your satire virtually inseparable from that thing). Naturally, their meteoric popularity led to some questions being asked: who were these people? Were they actually committed to the struggle or were they “lifestylists”, as anarchists like to say, interested only in the optics of resistance and a quick buck? Were their lyrics, containing almost no critique of value and simply making some (admittedly funny) jokes at the alt-right, really what the movement needed at this point? More importantly, why were we as a community signal boosting these very shallow leftists over some more mature, veteran, and committed acts?
Indeed, Neckbeard Deathcamp exists in a uniquely 2018 space at the intersection of putrid alt-right Reddit/4chan/Gab politics, obsession with meme culture and the use of propagandist iconography, and the ravenous hunger of the mainstream #resistance for a counterweight to rally around. ND intentionally speaks both the language of schlocky, no frills old school black metal and modern politicized internet culture very well, and for that they have been rewarded handily by being absorbed into the greater consumerist mainstream. As the greater pantheon of liberal to leftist circles continue to wage internal and external arguments about the role of capitalism/consumerism in addressing the biggest issues of our time, rest assured that bands will always fill whatever holes in the market exist, and the music industry will gladly continue to sell them to you.
Lastly, in the world of music streaming and more mainstream music as a whole, Spotify once again found itself in the middle of a conversation about banning and censoring music based on its content. As you perhaps may recall, last year the platform made a public effort to denounce and expunge neo-Nazi and white supremacist music from its library, which was overall a positive (if belated) step, though presented a couple of its own issues (essentially picking off low-hanging and obscure fruit while still leaving dozens and dozens of more popular bands with less clear-cut but still present ties to neo-Nazism/fascism). In May, however, Spotify went one step further and announced a controversial new policy that would ban all music containing what it termed “hate content.” Spotify’s definition of hate content in this context was “content that expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.” In theory, this sounded great and pretty much everything that hate speech and acts activists have been advocating for for a long time.
And then they actually started removing music. Along with the announcement, Spotify publicly removed music from alleged sex cult ringleader R. Kelly and notorious domestic abuser (and now notoriously dead) XXXTentacion from all algorithmic and publicly-created playlists. The music was still available for streaming through the service, however. This immediately raised many hackles about both the standards and process for removing certain artists and also whether removing from playlists was enough. Pretty much everyone was not a fan. It turns out that tech companies with a poor track record of transparency and clear and consistent practices are probably not the best at judging who deserves censorship on their platform! Thus, shortly after the company promptly did a u-turn and reversed the policy, thus basically throwing their hands up and saying “Fine, we shall continue to do the bare minimum! Please stop yelling at us!”
Unlike the complaints of censorship from the previous section (most of which did not actually constitute as censorship), major streaming platforms that serve as a primary vehicle of access and monetization for artists suddenly banning their music in a somewhat arbitrary and not at all consistent way does raise some serious questions about censorship of media and art in the modern era. As the Pitchfork article linked above makes the case for, huge companies like Spotify are struggling to have it all ways by being both an integral cog in the greater music corporatization machine profiting off of these artists and also an “independent” arbiter and purveyor of entertainment to its millions of users it claims to serve:
Sit with this fact as well: Spotify is the leading provider within the record industry’s top revenue source—not to mention a company that Sony, which owns the label that releases R. Kelly’s records, has invested in, reportedly controlling 5.7 percent of shares. The larger problem, beyond the unclear policy rollout, is that Spotify is too many things at once. It is the picture of vertical integration posing as a savior within a destabilized industry.
In short, it’s hard to believe that we will be saved or even best-served by the companies who are financially-invested in the exact things the public is protesting against. It’s possible with the right amount of public pressure and incentivization, and I do believe that the Spotify “hate content” ban was an attempt at a good faith measure to meet those protests somewhere in the middle. But the level of transparency and accountability required to make substantive and fair changes in this field belies the exact problems of transparency and accountability rooted at the very core of most of these huge and ubiquitous tech platforms that have invaded every aspect of our lives. Spotify will not save us. Apple will not save us. Google will not save us. Amazon will not save us. Facebook sure as hell will not save us.
So that is where we will leave you all for this year. The world continues to be largely a mess and only spinning further not out of control (imagine Eden here talking about the grand illusion of “control” on both micro and macro scales), but both deliberately and inadvertently towards greater conflict and destruction. We’ll always have music and our spaces to tell you all about it because it’s what keeps us going, but we would be lying if the world didn’t feel weightier in our minds with each passing day. We hope you’ll stick with us as we wade through all of this, the good and the bad, the significant and the more trivial. Most importantly, we hope you all who read this do what is available to you in your power and spheres of influence to make the places you touch as good as possible. Stay informed, be active in your communities, drive out bad actors and toxic influence where possible, defend those who need defending or cannot defend themselves, and fight for your values. See you for more fun in 2019.