Heavy metal and technology in retrospect and prospect
Since its inception in the late 1960s, certain elements of heavy metal music remain unchanged. Metal bands still consist of 4 to 5 members covering guitars, vocals, bass, drums, and sometimes other instruments such as keyboards. The live experience is largely consistent and the best shows are still in a gritty basement. Nonetheless, heavy metal is a dynamic form of music that evolved alongside a telecommunications revolution. Technology has made significant impacts on the way we listen to and produce metal music, how we learn about new bands, and the entrepreneurial potential of an underground culture.
Copying and copyright
Heavy metal relies on word-of-mouth marketing and most people learn about metal through friends, rather than radio airplay. My first experience with extreme metal involved a shared MP3 file sent over AOL Instant Messenger’s direct connect feature in the early 2000s. This was light years ahead of cassette tape trading which characterized metal networks in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, sharing audio files is ancient by today’s standards. Yet, these important developments illustrate how copyright infringement became ingrained in the culture of metal, even as the genre’s heavy weights, Metallica, waged against it. While digital piracy disrupted album sales, there is empirical evidence that the internet helped diffuse metal music to new audiences internationally, connecting listeners in a decentralized culture and contributing to an increase in the number of metal bands. Peer-to-peer file sharing was a problem that technology created and a problem that technology resolved thanks to faster internet speeds that make streaming possible. It is now cheaper and easier to pay for music directly through subscription services, or indirectly though ad-based profiles on YouTube or Spotify.
There is a sustained interest in the tangible aspects of music, including vinyl, album art, and lyrics booklets within the metal community. However, the focus has shifted towards algorithms that provide tools for discovery on various platforms and search features that make it convenient to share songs and collaborate on playlists. Current technology makes it possible to dive deep into subgenres in a way that transcends our social circles while still allowing global links to form in an authentic way.
The rise of DIY
One of the most profound impacts of technology on metal music involves the evolution of digital tools that make it possible to record high quality music at a low cost. While poor production quality or “lo-fi” is sometimes viewed as a legitimizing factor in early black metal albums, professional audio recording is essential to new releases. With a powerful enough computer and the right software, bands no long require the services of traditional recording studios. Artists can even control their own distribution via Bandcamp, hire their own management and promoters, and raise capital through websites like Kickstarter or Patreon. Bands no longer have to be “discovered” and can self-release in an equal playing field, even if it means taking on a greater share of the risk.
Home recording led to a proliferation of bands in every metal subgenre. Increased competition means that it is more difficult to gain recognition and thus record labels still serve a key purpose. Labels with strong reputations such as Century Media, Nuclear Blast, and Metal Blade act as quality signals that help bands stand out in a vast landscape of music. Unsigned gems still exist in metal, but they are often the exception, rather than the rule.
New prospects for commercial success
In a previous post, I wrote about labor market challenges in heavy metal and the difficulty of pursuing a career as a metal musician in many countries. In some ways, technology intensifies this problem. While streaming services expand access for consumers, artists earn $0.004 on average per stream on Spotify. In addition, the “pro-rata” approach to compensation, where pooled revenues are distributed proportionally based on total streams, favors albums full of short songs (a song needs to be listened to for at least 30 seconds to generate royalty payment). This means that metal artists, who tend to compose longer songs, are shortchanged even further. As a result, live performances and merchandising are still fundamental sources of earnings for the majority of metal bands.
How will innovation influence heavy metal in the future? Metal is about the connections between fans and musicians and the perseverance of creativity in the face of economic constraints. Technology may challenge or facilitate these core values but it is certain that these ideals will persist.