Take the Music Back – An Interview with Campbell Umbers

Gene Simmons recently declared that ‘rock is dead’, before being publicly rebuffed by the likes of Dave Grohl and Slash. It’s a sentiment that never ceases to rear its ugly head every few years, by some jaded rock start trying to maintain relevance in the new millennium. Record sales are plummeting across all genres, but that doesn’t stop young hopefuls from bringing the noise in tiny sweat boxes the world over, hoping one day to make it big like all their favourite rock bands. The Record Crate in Glebe is one of the noble venues hosting these humid hoedowns, and tonight two-piece That Red Head are set to blow the roof off with their own brand of dirty blues rock. The lights dim and the band emerge before a capacity audience, starting their set with a stripped down take on Johnny Cash favourite, ‘Ring of Fire’. Immediately, the entire crowd is singing along to the timeless tune, and I’m fighting the urge not to stand up from my seat. People still pay for and enjoy quality music, it just doesn’t receive the support it needs to thrive in the 21st century.

I’m sitting with one half of That Red Head, guitar-slinger Campbell Umbers, in his newly built home studio. Light barely penetrates this musical bunker, whose walls are lined with guitars, a drum kit, and a variety of other instrument oddities. He lights up a cigarette and nods in agreement. ‘I passionately believe that people will enjoy and pay for good art if they’re exposed to it’, he asserts before taking a long drag, ‘so for me the fundamental is creating a good product to begin with, which needs money’. Artists the world over are desperately trying to circumvent the strong arm of the record label machine, and are now procuring funding directly from their fans through services like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Progressive death metal band Ne Obliviscaris successfully funded a world tour through crowdfunding, raising over 80 thousand dollars in just a few weeks. However, as Cam was quick to point out, ‘the crowdfunding thing isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a pre-existing fan base’.

He continues, ‘The Kickstarter model’s interesting, and it would be good if it could work in that how it works for like tech start-ups where you provide a working prototype and in this case maybe some demos, and then people get on board and fund it’. One can’t help but agree. Music, the infinitely diverse creation of patterned sound, does not have the same assured return for consumers as technology with a specific function in mind. Eskimo Joe may be able to rely on their status as a seasoned rock act to crowd fund an album, but local musicians like Cam simply don’t have the clout to draw in substantial contributions. In fact, Cam believes that crowd funding sites such as Kickstarter may actually be hindering the value of music. ‘I think crowdfunding actually perpetuates this is that the – if music’s not being devalued, the value has been sort of nebulised’, he posits amidst the smoke wafting between us. For Cam, the record industry needs to find a solution that doesn’t decrease the value of music, and allows both established and up and coming artists to flourish.

‘The Kickstarter thing again is a bit like the Band Camp model, which works in a lot of ways, but pay what you like, it’s not a clear value’, Cam asserts. The value of music is something that has been thrown into question with the digitization of the economy and the advent of P2P Filesharing. Where once major record labels set the value for music with their pricing schemes, anyone can put a value on it based on what they’re willing to pay. ‘I really believe that you know – you go out and you buy a record, you pay 15 bucks for it – whatever. And, y’know, that’s your value of music,’ Cam suggests, echoing the sentiment. If we can’t maintain that value, musicians won’t have the resources they need to create and record new and interesting music. Cam is in the same overcrowded boat as every other musician trying their luck in one of the most fickle industries on the planet. Where most artists merely lament the state of the industry whilst continuing to be its slave, Cam is determined to make a difference.

His studio is the home base for what he hopes to be a profitable business in the future. Working long into the morning hours, like some kind of mad scientist on the cusp of the ultimate break through, he produces and records a number of local bands as well as his own material. I was invited over to watch him mix a few of his own recordings in the middle of the night, which he hopes to release on his self-made label, Smiling Fish. He’s excited because he’s just found a Chinese woodwind instrument on the side of the road, complete with its own casing. As I arrive, he gets it out of its fluorescent orange home and begins playing it, wriggling his eyebrows as he moves between notes. After putting it away, he eagerly shows me his plans for an upcoming album he intends to release through Band Camp. The music drones through the speaker system and disturbs the listener with the aural intensity of an existential crisis, in some ways reflecting the record industry’s inability to find its place in the modern music landscape.

Despite Cam’s grievances with Kickstarter, he is certainly more optimistic about Band Camp, which sees independent artists and labels coexisting on a relatively cheap distribution platform. ‘Band Camp published that 40% of consumers pay above the minimum price setting’, he notes, ‘but, I think that there’s [a] significant presence of major artists on there already that would kind of dilute those figures.’ Cam has opted to pay for his own Band Camp account for Smiling Fish Records, as the first stepping stone towards realizing his dream set up. Although the data may be diluted by the many larger independent labels operating through Band Camp, Cam posits that, ‘I like the Band Camp model as a model of online distribution. Their commission is very low. You maintain all of the intellectual property rights around the recording and the musical work.’ In providing a cheap platform for recording artists, Band Camp has empowered independent musicians in the fight for publicity in an industry which grows more diluted by the day.

Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of recording music in the first place, nor does it account for any kind of creative stewardship. This is where Cam’s studio, and his desired business model, comes to the fore. ‘For me it’s all about creating a really good product. Historically that’s been a collaborative process between artist, producer and label as well,’ he asserts, using Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as an example: ‘Alan Parsons produced it, had a major influence on it. But I think the biggest thing to look at is EMI provided for Pink Floyd the space at Abbey Road for months and months and months to do that record. And I think that’s something that can be replicated.’ Certainly, Pink Floyd is an ambitious example, but Cam believes it’s the duty of small-time label owners to have a hand in nurturing the artistic direction of their musicians, and give them the tools they need to make the best album possible. As an artist, Cam has to believe people are willing to pay for good art, and the passion with which he explains his grand business plan is definitely convincing.

‘My personal solution – what I intend to do – is to build a business that is label-distribution-management: as much as we can handle, but be able to provide that service of creative direction and production in-house.’ This is all part of Cam’s plan to maintain a higher level of quality in music output, and develop a reliable brand around the business of music recording and distribution. He insists that this can be done relatively cheaply on a small scale, and is an investment in a better product. Cam simply doesn’t have time for the major label’s focus on quantity over quality, producing what he calls ‘inane Christmas bullshit’. He continues, ‘I think a lot of the reason for the decline of the music industry is not only piracy but also in that people aren’t selling a good product that you can emotionally engage with and that you can get really excited about.’ As any avid music listener will tell you, they are more than willing to pay for the music they love, it just needs to be made available to them. Major labels may put all their eggs in the bubble-gum pop basket, but in doing so have neglected to treat the consumer with the respect they deserve. This is what separates Cam’s grand vision from that of the recording industry hierarchy.

Cam is, however, quick to give praise to Jack White and his Third Man Records venture. ‘If you look at Jack White’s venture with Third Man Records that is a very, very successful company built on the premise of creating a quality product that people can get excited about,’ he proclaims. He’s not wrong; one glance at the sale of vinyl in recent years shows that his latest record, Lazaretto, has sold more copies of any vinyl release since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. In the process, the record also broke previous records set by Radiohead’s King of Limbs and his own Blunderbuss in 2011. A format thought on the brink of extinction until very recently has had new life breathed into it, all thanks to Jack White’s dedication to producing a quality product, and Cam hopes to emulate this success through his own venture. It is not an alternative form of funding that is going to save the music industry, as Cam puts it: ‘the way I think of alternative ways of fucking making money out of music is just bringing it back to the fundamentals of creating a good product that people can engage with.’

As part of building a brand around his business, and a reputation for quality music releases, Cam intends to invest in a set up not all too dissimilar to The Record Crate. ‘My plan, as I mentioned earlier, is to have an in-house recording set up, but situated somewhere with prominent frontage, and a bar and venue onto the street, so you have a first point of contact with your consumers where they can engage with your brand in a very easy fashion.’ Cam is practically jumping out of his seat as he explains this plan to me in great detail, and it’s hard not to believe him. He leans back into his seat, takes one final drag of his cigarette, and stubs it out on a nearby ashtray. I realize at this point that it’s time to let the mad scientist get back to business, because he has a lot of work ahead of him.

Upstairs at The Record Crate, That Red Head bring their set to a close with a colossal mashup of Link Ray and the Ray Men’s ‘Rumble’ and The Doors’ ‘Roudhouse Blues’. The whole room is shaking with each punishing chord, and the tightly packed crowd are losing their minds, head-banging in place, pounding the tables, and stomping their feet. The sweatbox is reaching a fever pitch when the final chords are strummed and the band takes their leave. ‘Encore!’ is being shouted relentlessly over the top of a constant barrage of applause and table bashing, to no avail. As people push and shove their way towards the staircase down to the bar, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Cam will make his mark on music, and proves that people are salivating for a product they can engage with. They just need someone to lead the way, and Cam appears more than happy to take up the challenge.

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed

Review: Redeemer of Souls – Judas Priest (Epic)

First thing’s first: I did not have particularly high hopes for Judas Priest’s first album post-KK Downing. How could they carry on without such a vital element of their sound? Priest found an answer in relative newcomer Richie Faulkner. Having impressed many with his arrangement on Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne: the Omens of Death, I found myself with a glimmer of hope for the metal titan’s first album in 6 years. I was not disappointed. The relatively lacklustre title track aside (which a friend pointed out to me is essentially a rewrite of Painkiller favourite ‘Hell Patrol’), Redeemer of Souls is easily one of the best heavy metal records of the year. The almighty Priest has made a spectacular return, reminding everyone why they are undisputed legends of the genre.

The album starts strong with ‘Dragonaut’, a typical Priest epic with a distinct Painkiller feel. Since that was their last truly great album, this is far from a bad place to start. In fact, the rest of the album appears to be inspired by all the greatest moments in Priest history, even recalling elements of their much-lauded 70s material (see: ‘Crossfire’). I was worried I would be disappoint by Rob Halford’s vocal performance, having been unmoved by the monotone ‘March of the Damned’, but I was proven wrong in the best possible way. Halford’s phenomenal range is on full display throughout the album; with ‘Halls of Valhalla’ featuring a thunderous ascending vocal scream which defies belief. Richie Faulkner is no mere fill-in either, receiving co-writing credits on all 13 tracks. It shows too, as the band sounds more ferocious than they have in over a decade. ‘Sword of Damocles’ possesses the sort of grandiosity that would make Manowar blush, and deserves a place next to all the greatest Priest classics.

Redeemer of Souls isn’t quite all killer-no filler, with the aforementioned title track proving little more than a passable rewrite. Elsewhere, ‘March of the Damned’ has Halford sounding legitimately old on record, perhaps for the first time ever. The plodding riff is gargantuan, but The Metal God comes off sounding more like latter-day Ozzy Osbourne than the air-raid siren we know and love. ‘Metalizer’, perhaps ironically, is the least convincing song on the album. Attempting to recapture the sheer speed of Painkiller, Priest has come up with a riff which no amount of enthusiasm can save. These are minor nick-picks, though, on an otherwise show-stopping display of fist-pumping heavy metal. If listening to this doesn’t make you feel like a warrior about to go into battle, I’m afraid you have no soul. Closing with the speed metal tenacity of ‘Battle Cry’ and the Epic ballad ‘Beginning of the End’, The Metal God can be assured I stand at the ready.

Album art

Live: High on Fire set the Factory ablaze (20/7/14)

Matt Pike is the best all around metal guitarist since Tony Iommi. The man is a certified riff factory, a blistering soloist, and an absolute technician. Pike has set the standard for smoke-laden sermons for the past two decades, preaching the holy virtues of the green leaf. Now that Sleep has reunited, the man is conquering the world on two fronts, with no sign of slowing down. Tonight, Sydney’s Factory Theatre was bludgeoned into submission by Pike’s sludge machine, High on Fire. This is the second time High on Fire have graced Australian shores in support of 2012’s excellent De Vermis Mysteriis, and their distortion soaked attack hasn’t dulled in the slightest. With local metallic hardcore outfit Gvrrls and sludge heroes I Exist in tow, tonight could go down as one of the heaviest gigs of the year.

The evening began with an ambient instrumental passage courtesy of Gvrrls, before they ripped into a short set of doom-flavoured metallic hardcore. Competent though they were, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were out of place opening a night of riff-driven sludge. As is often the case, though, there was one dedicated hardcore kid up the front flailing about like he’s trying to bat away a wasp. I found myself watching the vocalist for long periods of time, simply because he didn’t do much of anything in between screaming into the microphone, his eyes pinned to the floor. A support band’s job is to get the crowd riled up for the headliner, yet Gvrrls seemed content to merely play their set and get out of there. I’m struggling to remember if the front-man addressed the crowd even once between songs, which either speaks to my poor memory, or this band’s astonishing inability to leave any kind of impression. Gvrrls have the potential to make a mark in the emerging ‘hardcore-goes-doom’ trend in the Sydney scene, but they’ll need to learn how to command a stage first.

Exist upped the anti with their three-way guitar attack, pummelling the audience with their Palm Desert indebted doom. Employing a more traditional variety of sludge metal, I Exist interpret the art of heavy in much the same way as High on Fire, albeit with a hardcore vocalist at the helm. Despite having injured my sternum the day before, I found myself up the front headbanging along with a number of similarly impressed punters, who would no doubt be visiting the merch desk afterwards to buy a CD and shirt. The band are fast and tight, and their use of three guitars creates a wall of distortion rivalling the headliner. Unlike Gvvrls, I Exist are clearly seasoned performers, commanding the stage and engaging the audience both during and in between songs. I went into this having heard nothing but positives about the band, and my expectations were not only met, but completely destroyed. If you’re a fan of sludge metal, I heartily recommend checking out I Exist, who should soon see themselves the flag-bearers for Australian doom on the world stage.

I have long considered Gojira the heaviest band on the planet, but after having seen High on Fire live I am left with no choice but to revisit this question. Nothing could’ve prepared me for how earth-shatteringly heavy High on Fire are live. Shirtless as ever, Matt Pike and co. walked onstage with little fanfare, the band launching straight into ‘Fury Whip’ and kick-starting an hour and a half of unrelenting riff savagery. I could not have picked a worse time to be without earplugs, High on Fire being rivalled only by Motorhead in terms of sheer volume. Impending deafness wasn’t about to stop me from screaming the title straight back at Pike as the song reached its devastatingly distorted crescendo, though. Wasting no time, the band moved straight into Surrounded by Thieves’ favourite, ‘Eyes and Teeth’, satiating long-time fans before the onslaught of new material began.

‘Smooooooke weed!’ growls Pike, as De Vermis Mysteriis favourite, ‘Fertile Green’, kicks into high gear. The relentless velocity of the track is a sharp reminder that High on Fire has not, and likely will not, slow down with age. The band cleverly replicate the album sequencing by following up with the plodding epic (and personal favourite), ‘Madness of an Architect’. This is undoubtedly a highlight of the evening, the crawling loudness seeping into every wall of the room. Through this song, Pike has perfected the art of the dirty blues lick, slowly bulldozing the mesmerized mass before him. The band then tore through Blessed Black Wings cut ‘Cometh Down Hessian’, before wheeling out a blistering rendition of Snakes for the Divine highlight, ‘Frost Hammer’. Having been taken out of the set-list in recent times, the latter was an awesome addition to what must surely be the best set-list of the tour. High on Fire pulled out all stops, playing The Art of Self Defense favourite, ‘Baghdad’, Blessed Black Wings’ ‘Devilution’, and De Vermis Mysteriis opener, ‘Serums of Liao’.

The evening was not without its hiccups, however, with sound issues persisting throughout the evening. Matt Pike politely addressed the sound technician on several occasions, searching in vain for an even mix. As is usually the case in small venues across Sydney, the closer one got to the stage, the harder it was to hear the vocals. One day someone will find a solution to this epidemic, but for the time being its best to set up near the soundboard. Any complaints fell away at the show’s close, however, as Pike and co. surprised everyone with a colossal rendition of The Art of Self Defense epic, ’10 000 Years’, before the standard finishing number, ‘Snakes for the Divine’. If there is a more punishing one-two punch in encore history, I’ve not heard it (if you have, email me at msturtridge@gmail.com). Seeing High on Fire is the closest you can get to musical orgasm without your eardrums spontaneously combusting – and I can’t wait until next time.

Go Live or Go Home: a Critical Analysis of the Music Industries

The music ‘industries’ (Williamson and Cloonan, 2007) have undergone a large number of changes throughout its history, having to cope with the ever changing landscape of music and technology. As technology continues to advance at an exponential rate, the industries have found it harder than ever to maintain profit and relevance. The focus of the music industries has changed exceptionally within the last twenty years, with the advent of web 2.0 (and subsequently, ‘music 2.0’) reshaping the production and distribution of music forever. With this in mind, it has been suggested that the focus of the music industries has shifted towards live music as the primary source of income for both artists and labels. Using the available academia and public records, we shall attempt to uncover the reality of the music industries landscape in the 21st century.

Martin Cloonan states that ‘the UK’s live music scene is of greater economic value than its record industry’ (2011). This can be backed up by The Economist’s Will Page and Chris Carey, who in 2009 estimated that the UK live music industry was valued at 1537 million pounds, next to the record industry’s 1356 million (2010). This trend continues through 2010 and 2011, with 2011 statistics estimating the value of the live music industry at 1624 million pounds next to the recording sector’s 1112 million (Brookes, 2011). From these statistics, it would suggest that the live music sector has not only weathered the technological storm better than the recording sector, but has benefitted significantly from this shift in the music industries. Live music in the UK is stronger than ever, economically speaking, with the recording industry struggling to halt a steep decline.

Not only has the live music industry superseded the recording industry in value, but ‘by 2011 the most important music company in the world was no longer a record label, but Live Nation’ (Morrow, 2013). Live Nation is an events company, and owns the world’s largest ticketing agency, Ticketmaster. The United States Congress discussed the merger in 2009, with Senator Herb Kohl stating, ‘This merger will not only expand Ticketmaster’s control of the ticketing market, but it is also creating an entity that will control an entire chain of the concert business’ (2009). This mirrors the state of the music industries in the UK, as outlined by Page and Carey, as well as Brookes (2009, 2011). The industry world-wide is moving towards the business of live music, with Live Nation exerting the sort of monopolistic power that we associate with the recording industry.

If we consider the statement put forward by Sen. Kohl, we can identify a serious issue within the booming live music sector – a lack of balance throughout the many different tiers of concert promotion. Although live music is now the most valuable asset within the music industries, Page and Carey note that ‘earnings in live music are heavily skewed towards the top’ (in Morrow, 2013). Australia can be seen as a perfect example of this skew, as Coupe posits that:

‘In financial terms, touring Australia does not make much sense; the costs incurred travelling between major metropolitan areas are too high and the fierce competition between the top promoters means that they constantly under-cut one another to secure contracts’ (in Morrow, 2013).

As such, only top tier acts can expect to make a profit touring Australia, and only large events companies like Live Nation can afford to put on these massively expensive tours. So, whilst the live music sector has weathered the technological storm far better than the recording sector, in markets such as Australia, the profit is largely skewed towards top end companies.

this point we might ask how live music continues to be a draw for people where recorded music is not. The technological advancement of the last 20 years, particularly the invention of web 2.0 (and subsequently, P2P file-sharing), has made access to free music easier than ever before, creating a hole which the record industry has been very slow to fill. Young and Collins use an example published in The Economist to illustrate the move away from physical copies of recorded music:

‘In 2006 EMI, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. ‘That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,’ says a person who was there’ (2010).

Recorded music, as we can observe, is no longer as desirable as it once was. At least, not in a physical format. The rise of the digital market in music is something that the recording industry has been slow to capitalise on, whilst P2P is almost impossible to police, leaving both artists and labels with lost potential profit.

‘The music industry ascribes heavy losses in sales to file sharing, that is, users illegally download music files through Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks,’ states Jeong Gicheol and Lee Jongsu, illustrating the recording industry’s inability to restructure itself within the modern music landscape (2010). However, their study of Korean consumers also shows that even with a lowered price point, ‘the estimated WTP [willingness to pay] for downloading one music file is remarkably lower than the actual price of a file’ (Gicheol and Jongsu, 2010). The threat of legal action in this case is not significant enough to offset the cheaper price point of downloading music illegally via P2P sharing networks. As such, the recording sector has struggled to weather the technological storm that has occurred with the emergence of Web 2.0. Live music does not have such an impediment to potential profit as it does not deal in a tangible product that can be shared illegally via the internet.

Whilst technological advancements have hindered the profitability of recorded music, it hasn’t done the same in the live music sector. The technological storm of the 21st century has, however, significantly reshaped the concert-going experience. Punters will still go and see their favourite bands live, but the way in which they consume this live experience has changed with technology. With the invention of smart-phones and the advancement of digital recording equipment, many fans choose to view their favourite bands through the lens of a piece of high-end technology. Lingel and Naaman echo this suggestion, stating:

‘If the enduring image of concert-going in the 1960s was enthusiastic attendees waving their lighters in approval of an acoustic guitar set, in the 2000s, the prevalent view of live music could very well be a sea of music lovers with their mobile phones raised to capture video for rapid uploading to a variety of social media sites.’ (2012)

Lingel and Naaman’s study of a group of concert attendees found that even though they are now recording the concert and uploading it to social media sites, this has not become a replacement for seeing live music. ‘For several interviewees, it was important to point out that watching videos of concerts was not a substitute for physical attendance’, the study finds, quoting one interviewee as saying, ‘there’d be no point of [editing a video] for a show I wasn’t at … it’d just make me sad I wasn’t there’ (Lingel and Naaman, 2012). This study indicates that where technology has provided consumers of recorded music with a much cheaper alternative, it hasn’t replaced the concert-going experience. This explains the continued growth of the live music sector as well as the continued decline of the recording sector. Technology has changed the mode through which we experience live music, but it doesn’t impede on the profitability of live music – ‘a unique experience’ (Morrow, 2013).

In response to technological advancement, record labels have had to significantly reshape the structure of their contracts with recording artists. No longer feeling they can turn a significant profit from record sales, labels have turned to what is commonly referred to as the ‘360 deal’. The 360 deal means ‘the record label participates in and receives income from a range of musical activities beyond the sales of recordings’ (Marshall, 2012). This entails taking a share of the profits in merchandising, sponsorship, live music, and broadcast, which is bargained for in exchange for larger royalty shares and advances. It has become the new standard for recording contracts, in a bid for record labels to maintain profitability on a long term basis through a myriad of revenue streams rather than solely through record sales.

The origins of the 360 deal can be found through EMI, who signed Robbie Williams in 2002; although not technically a 360 deal, ‘it was an innovative deal that garnered much media attention and offers a significant precursor to deals later in the decade’ (Marshall, 2012). Functioning as two separate deals, it was the second which illustrated a shift in record contracts towards a wider pool of revenue streams. Marshall states that, ‘Williams agreed to share some of the income generated by his activities outside of recordings,’ which set the groundwork for what would become the 360 deal (2012). Although EMI would be absorbed into the Warner Music Group in 2012, Wordsworth suggests that this deal was successful, as it ‘went into profit for EMI pretty quickly’ (in Marshall, 2012).

Here we have seen how the record label EMI has tried to combat the declining sales of physical music. This particular deal might be considered a success, but it is worthy of note that its success was not due to an increase in record sales, but a restructuring towards other sectors of the music industries, most notably being live music. This is a testament to the resilience of the live sector that labels must now rely on live revenue to make profit. However, although these deals might be considered legal, record labels must combat the continued insistence from artists that claim 360 deals are still unfair. Bouton states that:

‘…even if 360 deals are deemed to be legal, as long as the perception is that they are unfair and unconscionable, the record labels will have to think of new strategies to keep high profile clients and stay afloat as the music industry faces tough economic times’ (2009).

As we can observe from this statement, 360 deals may not prove to be the silver bullet the record industry is hoping for, as it struggles to cope with the technological advancement of the 21st century. The live music sector once again proves to be the main source of revenue within the music industries.

Where we have dealt with the effects of the technological storm of the 21st century on record labels and events companies, it worth also considering the impact this has had on the artist. Whilst events companies such as Live Nation continue to dominate the world stage in music production, the practices of the industries still remain entrenched in the culture of the 50s and the 60s; distorting artists for as much profit as possible. Indeed, Cloonan notes in his essay on policy implications that ‘at many gigs bands will not even be paid (often they will be told that any gig is good for their profile and publicity’ (2011). This outlines the reality that lower and mid-tier acts are constantly cut short by events companies, and struggle to break even. Whilst Live Nation is dealing in highly profitable international acts, such as Madonna and Jay-Z, who have the sway to ensure payment, smaller promoters will often distort expenses in order to make a profit.

We can use the case study of Boy & Bear conducted by Julian Morrow, former artist-manager for the band, to highlight the risks involved with entering live music at the low and mid-level tiers in Australia. As Australia is a ‘relatively small territory (in terms of population) with arguably more promoters per-capita than anywhere else’, artists will often be cut short in the race to procure a band for a tour (Morrow, 2013). Boy & Bear illustrate the ways in which technology can be used to combat unsavoury business practice, with the involvement of companies such as Music Glue, who provide ‘online marketing and e-commerce solutions for artists, managers, promoters and venues’ (Morrow, 2013). They do this by ‘providing the tools that enable direct artist-fan engagement’, which enables bands to exchange music for email addresses, allowing them to cheaply promote future tours. Music Glue claims that this service is ‘demanded by an increasingly tech aware and empowered customer base’ (Morrow, 2013).

As we are dealing in an increasingly tech-savvy market, it would be pertinent also address the ways in which artists have used technology to their advantage in the recording sector, albeit at the exclusion of record labels. Morrow illustrates an example of this, stating: ‘British rock band Radiohead released their seventh album In Rainbows as a digital download for which consumers chose their own price’ (2009). Although no official figures have been released, the exercise might be consider a success, as Morrow notes, ‘it directed a large amount of traffic to their website from which consumers could purchase concert tickets…merchandise…and had the potential to increase the sale of their back-catalogue’ (2009). However, it must be noted that a large portion of the success found by Radiohead is due to their experience within the old system, having previously been bound by a major label contract with EMI. This successful use of technology in the recording sector cannot hope to be emulated by every upstart band in saturated market.

We must therefore conclude that the live music sector has easily weathered the technological storm of the 21st century much better than that of the recording sector. With Live Nation becoming the largest music organisation in the world, and record labels continuing to lose the fight against P2P file-sharing, it is clear that record labels are no longer the driving force in the music industry they once were. The implementation of the 360 deal by record labels has proved to be moderately successful, albeit only through tapping into revenue streams outside of record sales. There is also a continued distrust of labels as being unfair towards the artist. The live music sector is therefore still the most profitable aspect of the music industries, despite the disparity between smaller and larger acts. Artists have been able to combat this disparity through the emergence of companies such as Music Glue, which enable them to market directly to their fan-base through the internet. The recording sector is still unable to find a in a tech-savvy society, where the experience of a live show will continue to remain irreplaceable.


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Young, S and Collins, S (2010) ‘A View from the Trenches of Music 2.0’, Popular Music and Society, v33 n3: 339-355.

Making Metal is ‘Risky’ Business

Last month, I read an opinion piece on Metalsucks about risking-taking in music. Immediately sceptical, given how broad the concept of ‘risk-taking’ is, I read on to have my suspicions confirmed. The author, ‘Vince Neilstein’, struggled to outline what exactly he meant by ‘risk-taking’, nor did he apply the term consistently with his own loose definition. According to Neilstein, we will ‘never see another Metallica’, and the days of sprawling creative statements such as The Beatles’ The White Album and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti achieving mainstream success are over. He goes further and suggests that these records are examples of ‘oddball’ left turns in the context of their respective careers. From this we can deduce that he means to suggest that mainstream artists no longer make these sort of creatively challenging statements, at least as it pertains to their own musical history.

Whilst I agree that these two albums are brilliant examples of forward thinking music, I disagree with the notion that either of them constitutes an ‘oddball left turn’. Both The White Album and Physical Graffiti are the result of a very clear musical progression through years of fine-tuning their respective craft. In fact, The White Album was directly preceded by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, often cited as the first concept album ever written. Likewise, the precursor to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti is Houses of the Holy, often cited as a turning point in the bands career towards more richly layered, expansive song-writing. I cannot understand, given these facts, how he can possibly assert that either The White Album or Physical Graffiti are in any way surprising. The Beatles in particular had been experimenting with different instruments and more complex song-writing as far back as Rubber Soul (‘Norwegian Wood’ features the use of an Indian sitar). So, the idea that either of these albums came out of nowhere is ridiculous, but we can still analyse his claims as they relate to modern music (specifically, Lamb of God and Mastodon).

In the opinion piece, Neilstein looks at a number of prominent modern metal acts and how their latest releases reflect a tendency to either play it safe or ‘take risks’. The first example he brings to the table is Lamb of God, whom he claims, ‘Have basically written the same album every time since As the Palaces Burn with varying production aesthetics’. Given that the following album, Ashes of the Wake, represents what is often considered their definitive musical statement, I find it hard to agree with this suggestion. It is true that Lamb of God has never thrown us a real curveball, but much like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, they have matured their sound with each successive release. Ashes of the Wake represents a more conscious move towards groove and thrash metal, whilst also introducing more frequent solos. Wrath introduces more expansive song-writing, highlighted by the slow-burn epic that is ‘Reclamation’, which uses acoustic guitars to contrast with the brutal crescendo. Even the relatively lack-lustre Resolution has ‘Insurrection’ and ‘King Me’, both of which make use of clean vocals. The latter of which, ‘King Me’, even features the use of strings.

Does this equate to ‘risk-taking’, though? Lamb of God has been incredibly influential in the emergence of the ‘New Wave of American Heavy Metal’, with Ashes of the Wake now regarded as a metal classic of the 21st century. Though it is hard to think of Lamb of God as ‘risky’ now, pioneering a movement never assures success; many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, having either stalled or disappeared completely throughout the last decade. Having stayed one step ahead of their many imitators, they have forged a legacy that will surely go down in the history of modern American metal. If The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Lamb of God are to be seen as ‘risky’, it is not in relation to their own back-catalogue, but their place in the current musical landscape.

Of course, that is not always the case. Another example Neilstein puts forward in an attempt to illustrate his claim is Mastodon, progressive sludge metal giants known for reshaping their sound with each release. In this sense, Mastodon seem to fit his interpretation of ‘risk-taking’, as their 2012 release, The Hunter, represents a completely about turn from 2009’s Crack the Skye. Not today; Neilstein sees The Hunter as little more than a compact version of their pre-existing sound, and therefore does not constitute ‘risk’. No, what Neilstein wants is an even proggier Crack the Skye. The Hunter may be Mastodon’s version of a pop album, but given that they are Mastodon, it is without a doubt far riskier than simply giving the fans (Neilstein included) what they want: more insane prog-sludge. We seem to have a completely different definition of ‘risk-taking’ for Lamb of God as we do Mastodon, which completely undermines the point of the article. However, since Mastodon decided to release Once More ‘Round the Sun, which is essentially The Hunter Part II: The Rehuntening, perhaps Neilstein could see the horror that was to come. Let’s hope they pick their game up the next time around.

There are many more examples I could pick apart in excruciating detail, including the declaration that Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail the King was risky (only in the sense that Metallica might sue), but I would be here all day. The reality of the matter is that there are many successful 21st century bands with the capacity to make interesting music which pushes the boundaries of the heavy metal genre; Mastodon, despite dropping the ball with Once More…, has shown they really have no limitations when it comes to writing a good tune; Lamb of God are the most important groove metal band since Pantera. These are just two examples of innovative metal bands finding mainstream success today. Whilst they may not be as successful as Metallica, the notion that it may never happen again is stupendous. Heavy metal is young, and more than enough forward-thinking bands are lining up to take their place.

Live: Blacksmith at Spectrum – Hard Rock Lives! (4/7/14)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that hard rock is dead. It is a genre that survives almost entirely on the continued success of its elder statesmen. Slash is putting out a new album this year, and last year saw the release of Black Star Rider’s (ex-Thin Lizzy) fantastic All Hell Breaks Loose, but looking for younger hard rock bands worth talking about is a tough job. Those that have found mainstream success in the new millennium are more indebted to garage rock and psychedelia than the guitar heroism of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. A small glimmer of hope for the future can be found in the sleaze-soaked glory of Black Stone Cherry, The Answer, Rattlesnake, and now Blacksmith. Based in Sydney, Blacksmith employ blistering fretwork and soaring vocal acrobatics not seen since the heyday of Guns N’ Roses. Tonight, the small crowd gathered at Spectrum were treated to a short, powerful burst of great hard rock. With a little more practice and on-stage flare, they might just make a name for themselves.

Blacksmith’s modus operandi became abundantly clear with set opener, ‘Elysium Planes’, paving the way for a monstrous cover of Rolling Stones’ favourite ‘Brown Sugar’. The Stones have often flirted with hard rock, and Blacksmith took this tendency to its logical conclusion, injecting new life into a piece of classic rock history. The band then ploughed through the remainder of their set with originals both old and new, proving they need not rely on covers to put on a show. Highlights of the high voltage performance include the Sam Barker-penned ‘Iron Halo’, a HIM flavoured hard rocker punctuated by epic leads channelling New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Iron Maiden, and ‘Robot Werewolves’, a catchy sci-fi themed romp sounding not all too dissimilar to Perth’s Psychonaut. The best was saved for last, however, as they returned to the stage after an 8-song set to perform an encore of Black Sabbath’s ‘Snowblind’. If you weren’t headbanging up until this point, you definitely were now.

With that, it must be said – Blacksmith are a well oiled unit of practised musicians, but they lack the stage presence to truly engage with the audience. Vocalist Jono Palmer stands meekly at centre stage, sipping wine in between wails, which blunts the edge of his impressive range. Likewise, lead guitarist Felix Short’s technical proficiency is undermined by his rigid stage movements and unwavering focus on the fret board. Self-described ‘assault and battery’, drummer Nick Spellicy proved serviceable if not terribly original, providing a solid grounding for the rapid fire guitar. Rhythm and sometimes lead guitarist Sam Barker and bassist Cameron Cooper were definitely the most entertaining, striking poses, making faces, and providing playful banter throughout the set. Having arrived with modest expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to know that amongst the sea of ill-advised cock rock revival bands populating the scene, there are some genuinely promising newcomers. I’m also partial to any band that gives away free stubby holders.

Heavy Metal Hegemony: It’s a Man’s World

Heavy metal is hardly the most feminine genre of music. Large, hairy men stalk the world’s stages, broadcasting the soundtrack to the apocalypse through an unending stack of amplifiers. These champions of the ugly and downtrodden seemingly have little to offer to the fairer of the sexes… but appearances aren’t everything.

More women are making themselves known in the metal world, with bands such as Arch Enemy and Nightwish (two successful female-fronted metal bands) being prime examples. However, whilst the genre is more accessible than ever to women, the culture remains firmly rooted in heterosexual male ideals. Women are still placed on pedestals as objects of beauty and perfection as they sway gracefully before the microphone, whilst an overweight bald man glides across the stage on his belly. Should they choose to reject this notion of femininity, they must adopt an entirely masculine stage persona – even if they adopt this attitude, the plight of sexualisation persists in the heavy metal community.

Sam Barker is a woman who seeks to overcome this plight, having been influenced by heavy metal since she was fourteen. Going to an all-girls high school, she found that very few people shared her passion for hard rock and heavy metal; nonetheless she taught herself how to play guitar and formed a band. After high school, she attended the Australian Institute of Music, where she met the all-female members of local glam-revival outfit Thrüsh. Working at local metal nightclub Venom, she was able to book the band their first gigs, turning heads in the process. Regardless, being a woman in metal has its complications.

“It’s got its ups and its downs. There are a lot of negative connotations with it, but there are a couple of positive things,” Sam enthuses, suggesting that although it has its downsides, it isn’t all bad. “So, for example, being a chick means that I get more recognised ‘cuz there’s not many women. I don’t know the statistics specifically, but there are just…there are no women.” Women are few and far between in the metal scene, which can be both a good and bad thing for prospective musicians. One must yield to a male-dominated culture in order to make the grade (there is no ‘be yourself’), yet there are very few female musicians to challenge you.

Of course, this is only so long as you satisfy the aesthetic criteria. You might be able to shred alongside Eddie Van Halen, but there’s little success to be found if you look like Angus Young. Assuming you do satisfy these arbitrary beauty standards, however, does ability matter as much? “If I was a guy doing the exact same things as what I do, it probably wouldn’t be acknowledged as much,” Sam asserts. Perhaps you might be able to build a name for yourself on looks alone, yet the very crowd which propped you up on these merits will question your integrity as a musician. If you’re like Sam, toiling somewhere in the middle of feminine and masculine, you get a little of both: “I do get judged a lot more, and it’s a lot to do with aesthetic value as well as…it’s not just musical value.”

I can’t argue with her. In 2010, Revolver Magazine published their ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ calendar, which featured Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy fame. She slammed the magazine saying, “I don’t like the ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ movement at all. I think it’s kind of counterproductive and retro” in an interview with KNAC (an online magazine). She goes on to say, “it’s an embarrassment for female musicians, who actually are musicians,” ramming home the fact that looks have nothing to do with how you play your instrument.

These lofty beauty standards leave men at the door the moment you cross into the heavy metal subculture. Gone is the need for a trim waist and perfect skin, as going to any number of metal shows will illustrate. Instead, you find the sort of people you would normally associate with dirty bars and dark alleyways. Or, as Sam simply puts it, “there are a lot of hairy dudes.” Beauty is totally subjective, though, as Sam herself exemplifies: “I find hairy metal heads exceptionally attractive.” However, it is far more socially acceptable to be attracted to a conventionally unattractive man than a woman of the same calibre – this is only magnified by the distinct lack of women participating in the scene.

She went on to tell me about her experience at a Children of Bodom show in Sydney. Supporting the death metal titans was a local band called Voyager; their lead guitarist, Simone Drow, took the stage as it was time to perform. “A lot of guys around thought she was a roadie,” Sam told me, describing her as ‘”stocky” and “not the most feminine”. Following the realisation that she was actually a part of the band, people started making “derogatory comments… because she wasn’t hot, conventionally.” Afterwards, Sam found the most common reaction was “she’s alright for a girl”. As a guitarist herself, Sam knows exactly how it feels to receive such underhanded praise. Women can never escape their gender in the realm of metal, which mars the expectation put upon them by their peers – even if they do find the recognition they deserve, as Sam and many others have, they are still often met with the tired remark. Sam and Simone are both guitarists, which highlights another issue confronting women in metal; their place in the band.

“It’s sad, but most women are keyboardists or bass players. Guitarists are less common, but the rarest thing is a female drummer. I’ve met four of them in my life.” The most common place women find in bands is that of the vocalist, as Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy and Floor Jansen of Nightwish illustrate. Perhaps this reflects a need for women to be on display to be appreciated. Women might not be able to find recognition if they hide behind an instrument, concealing their aesthetic. Perhaps this is also why female drummers are so rare, along with the stigma attached to drummers as being ‘cavemen of the future’.

With all this focus on beauty, one would be forgiven for thinking that metal isn’t a culture built for outsiders after all. It seems society’s standards for women have persisted despite the declaration of metal as music for the ugly and downtrodden. This can be put down to metal being established from the very beginning of its life as a ‘boys club’. Even the most feminine of the metal genres, glam metal, lacks a solid female talent base to draw on. “The whole glam thing is men wearing spandex and tights in order to appease a primarily male-oriented audience. The whole premise is objectifying women, partying, doing drugs. It’s like this peacocking affair for other guys to admire,” Sam explains. Glam is no refuge for women in metal, as it displays and perpetuates the same misogyny found in other forms of the genre.

Misogyny is everywhere, though. As horrible as it is for women in the metal scene, it is still very much outsider music. The abrasive sound and dark lyrics could never be fully accepted by a mainstream audience. The music rails against everything that defines popular music, even if the culture is still in many ways rooted in larger cultural trends. Sam agrees, “I think Metal is still very much outsider music. I mean that’s the whole theory of metal being for outsiders. But at the same time you’re gonna get the stigmatism with women everywhere. Metal is very misogynistic, but you get that everywhere: in music, in the arts, in media…just anything.”

The rampant objectification and dismissal of women hasn’t gone unnoticed by all, however, as the rise of bands like Steel Panther seek to expose and make fun of this phenomenon. A parody glam metal band, Steel Panther have gained a huge amount of success through their blunt portrayal of eighties hair metal. Although their success has been able to illuminate the sexism in metal for some, there are still many who take the band at face-value. Sam concurs, “Steel Panther have started to poke fun at misogyny in the metal scene… [but] people are still laughing without realising the connotations behind it.”

Sam takes a lot of cues from Steel Panther in her own endeavours with Thrüsh – the five members of the band dress in provocative clothing, including leather, spandex, and fishnets. The band plays a similar style of eighties hard rock, whilst spouting lyrics about using boys and getting trashed; somewhat of a female appropriate of Steel Panther’s own lyrics. “There are five females in the band, and we use that to take the piss out of being objectified,” Sam continues, “a lot of our songs were piss-takes out of the whole glam rock scene, the metal scene, women in metal.” Despite her best intentions, Sam still found that the males in her audience were using that to further legitimize objectifying her and the band: “Some people were saying that, you know, your music parodies that, so therefore it’s okay for us to objectify you because you’re saying so yourself, which wasn’t the case.”

Surely, I thought, being a woman in metal would not only be degrading but also incredibly difficult to crack. After all, if no one takes you seriously, how are you supposed to progress in a world defined by the tastes of your peers? Sam says it isn’t as hard as it might seem – “I’ve been noticed since day one. I started clubbing and it didn’t take me long to get a dent in the local scene.” I assumed this would only last so long, perhaps as a result of merely being a good-looking woman in the right place at the right time, but Sam continues to impress me with the swiftness of her ascent: “Within a year I ended up working at the biggest metal club in Sydney, I had a single come out, I had a lot of recognition from a lot of the local scene. I mean, it’s been two years now, and I’d say I’m definitely a big part of the scene.”

Despite heterosexual male ideology being at the forefront of metal for all of its forty-odd year existence, many women like Sam have made their mark, or began to make their mark. Unfortunately, much of this demands adopting one of two types of personas: one must either embrace their femininity to the fullest, or disregard it entirely. Almost all notably successful women in metal adhere to one of these archetypes in a bid to compete with the men who’ve owned this genre since its beginning. Sam is one of the few women who choose to be entirely themselves on stage, and her success can be attributed not only to her musical prowess, but her cunning ability to navigate the scene.

Making the most of your situation is admirable, but it’s definitely something that needs to change. One can only hope that metal culture will begin to shed its juvenile approach to women, but Sam thinks we still have a while to go; when I asked her if she thought it would change anytime soon, she had this to say: “Maybe. I don’t know – every now and then I see a little glimmer of hope when someone takes me seriously as a musician.” This is hardly fair, but until something changes Sam and others like her will have to put up with being marginalized and objectified. That said, she wishes there was something she could do. “Until I can do something about it, which I don’t know, I might never be able to do something about. As a feminist I want equality within the sexes and the metal scene’s very close to heart – but until then I’m just going to have to take the piss out of it some more.”

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed