Maybe if I was born in Kazakhstan it might have been different! I’m sure that, as it would still be me, I’d have still been a metal guy, but obviously in some countries the possibilities are more limited than in others.Alexi Laiho, Guitar World, 2019
Heavy metal music and culture is a global phenomenon yet a larger proportion of metal bands are located in wealthy countries. While cultural, religious, political, and even climatic factors may play a role, the uneven geographic distribution of metal musicianship might have more to do with economics than any other reason.
It is difficult to make a living as a metal musician. Unique features of the genre only exacerbate this problem. For example, despite significant advancements in recording technology, metal music production remains a labor-intensive process that involves considerable technical skill. The years of practice needed to become the next guitar hero may not easily translate to mainstream work, leading to limited external career options and inadequate future bargaining power. Similar to other musical genres, the metal music industry exists in a superstar market, where only a few performers appropriate the majority of profits. Digital technology now allows the most talented bands to reach a larger audience, but because the genre waxes and wanes in commercial popularity throughout the decades, even the most successful and widely known modern metal artists lack the lucrative careers enjoyed by bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica. In other words, the choice to become a metal musician is a risky and costly road.
In some countries, these risks and costs can be more easily absorbed and therefore it is not surprising that economic prosperity is highly correlated with the number of metal bands per capita. However, this stylized fact tells a more nuanced story than one that only suggests that high-income countries provide easier access to entertainment markets and affluent consumers. A closer look at the differences among advanced economies sheds light on how the insecurity of artistic careers may transpire with heterogeneous constraints.
For example, consider two high-income nations: The United States and Finland. Using 2021 data from Encyclopedia Metallum, Caitlin Dempsey notes that the United States had 17,557 active metal bands, the most of any other country (nearly 22% of 81,207 total metal bands). The United States has a high GDP per capita value ($60,200 in 2020) and is arguably the leading music industry market. Despite these statistics, heavy metal is no longer mainstream in America, and once adjusted for population, the US drops out of the top 15 metal band ranking with only 5.241 bands per 100,000 population. On the other hand, Finland has been acknowledged as a “metal nation,” despite having lower wealth than the United States in terms of GDP per capita ($47,300 in 2020) and fewer metal bands in absolute terms (2,381). It ranks number 1 using the per capita ranking measure with 42.6 bands per 100,000 population in 2021.
It is not unusual to see metal bands who have reached legendary status in the genre, crowdfunding for a member’s cancer diagnosis. The common thread is that these artists tend to be located in the United States, a high-income country with increasing income inequality and no universal healthcare. In stark contrast, Finland has one of the world’s most advanced welfare systems and a unique compulsory music education program. The choice to become a metal musician in Finland is supported through multiple policy channels. Thus, the role of wealth is less about fans with disposable income and more about encouraging educational investment into a specialized field with earnings risk. This earnings risk cannot be mitigated without efforts to reduce poverty, provide universal basic income, and increase access to healthcare and education. Although more empirical work is needed to verify this hypothesis, it provides an intellectual framework to consider why the number of metal bands differs across industrialized nations that are often grouped together as economically similar.
An important conclusion is that cultural goods such as metal music have been, and will continue to be underprovided on a global scale. How many people never had the opportunity to develop their artistic talents throughout the world because they needed to work that 9 to 5 to survive? There is no doubt we are missing talented metal musicians from the Global South, the United States, and elsewhere.
Take a deeper dive into the 2021 data, complete with interactive maps, at Geography Realm.
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