And you might have your opinions on which of the many metal sub-genres are good and which ones suck. And you might have your opinions on whether the metal’s obsession with genres is even a good thing. That’s another article for another time.
We recently wondered whether or not there was a way to objectively determine which sub-genres were the most popular. And have any of these sub-genres shifted in popularity over time?
To figure this out, we turned to Google Trends. What Google Trends does is show you how frequently a given term, such as “death metal”, is searched for over time. It doesn’t tell you exactly how frequently a term is searched for, but it does allow you to do comparisons using a 1-100 score.
For example, since 2004, Metallica has been searched for on Google over six times more frequently than Megadeth.
In theory, a more popular genre is Googled more frequently than a less popular one. If djent is more popular than power metal, more people will be searching for djent. If black metal is more popular than thrash metal, more people will be searching for black metal.
We picked out five of the most popular metal sub-genres (the maximum number you can compare in Google Trends) and set our filter to return U.S. results only. We then averaged the results by year and went back to 2009. Here’s what we found:
Click the image to enlarge, or see the results for yourselves in Google Trends
Thus far in 2014, the term death metal achieved a score of 87 in Google Trends compared to black metal, which scored a 67. In real life, this means that death metal gets Googled about 30 percent more frequently in the U.S. than black metal.
Death metal and black metal are both far more popular than any other sub-genres. Death metal is Googled almost three times more often than power metal and over five times more frequently than djent. Sadly, nobody is Googling for thrash metal anymore.
Note that the relative popularity of sub-genres hasn’t changed much over the years, with the exception of djent becoming more popular than thrash metal around 2011.
The relative popularity of genres does not necessarily translate to individual bands. We picked out what we considered to be reasonably representative bands for each genre (with the exception of thrash, where big four bands would obviously be the most popular) and compared them to each other. Results were as follows:
The popularity of death metal also varies pretty significantly by state. The below chart illustrates which states are Googling death metal most often. The darker the color, the more frequently the state is Googling death metal.
Would you have guessed that Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington led the nation in death metal interest? Us neither.
Despite the fact that the computing technology used to record the genre could put a man on the moon, metal music takes considerable pride in its analog nature. For some hipster purists, anything more sophisticated than overdriven vacuum tubes and active guitar pickups is legal grounds for the dreaded “false metal” label.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the word “synth” is enough to send most denim-clad headbangers into anaphylactic shock. Yes, the ham-handed, cheese rock applications popularized in the 70s and 80s did no favors to the credibility of synthesized sounds. Still, the graceful beauty of sine, square and sawtooth waves have found themselves largely forbidden from the kingdom of metal.
Which is really too bad. When you think about the defining attributes of metal – aggression, rhythm, depravity and loudness – each of these can be served exceptionally well by synthesis. A true sound sculptor will face little difficulty carving oscillators to complement the caterwauling of well-executed metal.
The extent of the synthesis permitted by most “true” metal music, however, is the gentle, swirling, atmospheric pads that lend symphonic qualities to black and power metal. If athletic enough, the genre also tolerates virtuoso solos à la Children Of Bodom. But want to drop in some white noise, looped samples or arpeggiated synth? GET THAT SHIT OUT OF MY FACE, POSEUR! DEATH TO FALSE METAL! BURZUM 4 LIFE!
What’s interesting is that the bands who have been able to leverage synthesizers and technology to create music that’s aggressive, rhythmic, depraved and loud are thought of first and foremost as industrial rather than metal, even if distorted guitars and chugga-chug rhythms play a prominent role in their sound. Fear Factory is one of the few electronic-reliant bands that is considered metal first and industrial second. Conversely, bands like Rammstein, KMFDM, Sister Machine Gun and Nine Inch Nails are generally considered to be industrial before metal.
In a perfect world, the use of synthesis would not reflexively classify bands as industrial instead of metal. The pinball-bumper-kinetic drum sounds and precision-based riffing of KFMDM is undoubtedly metal. The abrasive 65-minute soundscape that Trent Reznor created on The Downward Spiral is undoubtedly metal. And the scorching, pulsating rhythms of Ministry are undoubtedly metal. But by and large, most people consider industrial and metal to be wholly separate from each other, and they tend to divide their loyalties accordingly.
Until the explosion of djent-acts such as After The Burial and Reflections, Minnesota’s most recognized contributions to metal on a national level blossomed from industrial roots. The success of American Head Charge, capped off by a nationally acclaimed record and an Ozzfest tour, helped create the most vibrant and united metal scene the state has ever known, paving the way for an era where local metal shows had crowds in excess of 1,000 on a regular basis.
Today, Minnesota’s strong industrial tradition is carried on by Gabriel And The Apocalypse. Like Cwn Annwn, Gabriel And The Apocalypse has been around for a long time. The first time I saw the band was at the Urban Wildlife (where I swear I saw them as a four-piece with all different members except for lead singer Lindy Gabriel), and although I can’t remember the exact date, I’m reasonably sure it was prior to 2004 based on this flyer. Like us, they’re one of the few Minneapolis metal bands who have managed to crack the decade plus club.
It doesn’t take much listening to learn that Gabriel And The Apocalypse is a good fit for people who appreciate the angsty, hyper-distorted industrial mania perfected by Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. On Here Comes The Crash, the frenetic drums of Deter Steinkamf (sorry if I got this wrong – not entirely sure if this is who did drums) during the verse do an excellent job capturing the apocalyptic energy of famous mid-90s industrial à la Wish or Big Man With A Gun. Lindy Gabriel’s distorted vocals more than capably evoke Trent Reznor at his distorted best.
Whereas Here Comes The Crash showcases the band’s ferocity, Silent War exhibits a more fragile, brooding beauty. Keyboardist Figgles Mcgee’s piano intro is particularly well composed, introducing a pseudo-classical sound reminiscent of early-era Tori Amos. A strong, memorable chorus driven by droning guitars and well-crafted synth shows the influence of gothic mainstays Lacuna Coil and Within Temptation.
The longevity of Gabriel And The Apocalypse is particularly evident on Until We Dream – the band’s newest and easily most mature and well-constructed track. Until We Dream illustrates the band’s full mastery of industrial and metal conventions, marked by a strong interplay between McGee’s keys and the guitars of Jake LaCore and Cody Hoffman. Rather than competing for prominence, McGee, LaCore, and Hoffman have carefully sculpted their instruments to gracefully bring out the best in each other. A pulsing, electronic bass sound helps create a driving rhythm that makes the song suitable for inclusion in a vampire-movie rave – the truest indicator of quality industrial music as anyone knows.
“Simple” is a common charge levied by headbangers against more popular styles of music. Contemporary music’s slavery to verse-chorus-verse and indifference towards technical athleticism, they say, render it inferior to metal – a genre that’s nobly willing to sacrifice mass appeal at the altar of brutality and virtuosity.
And as Pitbull and Crazy Town have shown us, contemporary music is often crappier. But any focus on simplicity as the root cause of musical inferiority is misplaced. While complexity is a potent pepper that can add much-needed flavor and zest to a dish, it can just as easily transform even the best ingredients into something wholly inedible.
When constructing music, complexity is a highly volatile tack. Done well, complexity can add a distinctive layer to an otherwise conventional approach – think of how Master Of Puppets’ quickly shifting time signatures add to the song. Carefully practiced, complexity can also evoke moods that are difficult to replicate through traditional means – a feat achieved throughout Cynic’s entire catalogue, for example.
In metal, however, the application of complexity is often ham-fisted and done for its own sake. This frequently manifests as music that can be identified by the presence of the phrase “influenced by Meshuggah”, where sonics takes a clear back seat to mathematics.
Many times, excessive complexity takes work to appreciate. I personally think that The Dillinger Escape Plan and Between The Buried And Me are two of the best active metal acts today, but it’s hard to find condemnation in my heart for people who say they don’t get what those bands are doing.
When complexity is at it’s best, it’s almost imperceptible to your average listener. Anybody who has ever played in a band knows that Rush is flying at altitudes most of us will never touch, but your average classic rock listener perceives precious little difference in complexity between The Spirit Of Radio and, we’ll say Hot Blooded. Metallica was also a master of `invisible’ complexity – Beavis and Butthead themselves could recite the entirety of And Justice For All without any knowledge of the sophisticated composition that underpinned the headbanging.
The best way to incorporate complexity, in my experience, is to approach it like a stompbox. Just as the balance between clean and distortion creates dynamics that take listeners through a song’s natural peaks and troughs, the careful application of both complexity and convention can have an equally powerful impact, weaving emotional textures that serve as an expression of the individual artist.
Nopathy, a self-described poly-genre metal band from Minneapolis and one of our favorite acts, has mastered the art of balancing complexity, simplicity and convention in order to mold a highly original sound. Nopathy possesses the ability to synthesize a coherent, powerful milieu from ideas that could easily dissolve into a hot mess – a strength attributable to the band’s extensive experience. Seasoned veterans of various Minnesota bands, few acts boast as many combined years of on-stage experience as guitarists Tony Williams and Chris Colaianni, bassist Stunner Magnuson and drummer John Standish.
While a tool in the band’s arsenal (as evidenced in the full-on death-metal triplet bridge in Steps), hyper-precision metal riffing à la Soilwork or Lamb Of God is not the band’s primary currency. Rather, it’s Colaianni and Williams’ interplay of dissonant, mid-tempo riffs that create the moods of melancholy and somber that define the band’s output. The intro of Cloak exemplifies this approach via a sinking open-string line that’s set against a medicated, descending drone, creating the auditory equivalent of a Neil Gaiman dreamscape.
The album’s title track boasts a similar construct, using dissonant intervals and melodies within the main riff to summon a sense of despair that, in less-skilled hands, would come off more suburban than gothic. A non-traditional 6/8 groove (a rarity for most metal bands, but a staple for Nopathy who also use the time signature in Steps) allows the listener to gently float through the harsh tones, softening the path down Williams’ and Colaianni’s dark rapids.
In a sense though, these aren’t unexplored grounds for the experienced metalhead. Whether you were introduced to these waters by Opeth, Type O Negative or Paradise Lost, these currents are fairly familiar and traversed. What makes Nopathy’s sound unique, however, is their ability to craft strong, powerful vocal lines that mask the complexity of the backing music. Just as is the case with Cynic, Rush and Metallica, you don’t tend to notice how jarring Nopathy’s guitars and arrangements are because the pieces are effectively cemented together by Williams’ saccharine, yet solemn cries.
Nopathy’s poly-genre, melodic approach works best when the brand gracefully glides from ornate to traditional, as they do in Steps. A chromatically-driven verse that Mikael Åkerfeldt would beam with pride at gives way to a glossy, modern-rock chorus featuring Williams’ channeling Jerry Cantrell circa 1995/Grind. The song ultimately climaxes on a straight-forward triplet machine gun interspersed with sweep guitar bursts.
Lest there be any ambiguity about Nopathy’s strength as technicians, Obsolescent features a creative arpeggio construct that transitions into a hyper-aggressive pre-chorus buttressed by Colaianni’s tortured screams and a frenetic drumming assault from Standish. After what is easily the album’s hookiest chorus, a more traditional poly-rhythmic groove successfully conjures the ghosts of late-90s Slipknot and Mudvayne. The song is then capped off by a full-on thrash assault that’s periodically interrupted by a guitar tapping sequence reminiscent of an Atari Space Invader meeting its doom.
To say that Nopathy is a sophisticated band that draws influence from dark progressive bands such as Opeth, Cynic and Katatonia would be accurate, but still somewhat understated. Nopathy is a rare progressive act in that not only do they have the chops to walk in their heroes’ footsteps, they possess the ability to balance showmanship and restraint – complexity and simplicity – in order to create a powerful, original dark sound that is neither derivative nor replicable.
At 34, I’m not an old man. But one thing about metal that has definitely changed for the worse over the years is the genre’s excessive fragmentation. When I was growing up, metal predominantly came in three flavors: thrash, death and glam. To a certain extent black, hardcore, nü and power were legitimate sub-genres as well. But a band’s specific genus was never as important as the quality of their output. Any differences in sound between Fear Factory, Slayer and Iron Maiden were generally associated with the bands themselves, not an implicit commitment to a sub-genre. These were metal bands first – secondary classifications took a backseat.
In and of itself, obsessive-compulsive classification is neither good nor bad. The harm it inflicts, however, is the extent to which it promotes divisiveness within metal as a whole. Go to a djent show and it’s an entirely different audience from a death metal show, which in turn is an entirely different audience from a black or power metal show. Each of these sub-genres view the distances between them as far more vast than they actually are. For many, the chasm between Whitechapel and 1349 is as sizable as the gap between the latter and Katy Perry.
Consequently, while individual sub-genres have never been stronger, in many cases, their gains have come at the expense of metal as a whole. The following charts indicate how often people in the United States have Googled “heavy metal” and “djent” over time.
While the scope of my collection is pretty diverse and includes acts in virtually every major sub-genre, I’ve always found myself most drawn towards bands that defy categorization. In many cases, this includes bands whose sound is so breakthrough and original that any attempt to label them is done for academic purposes only, such as The Dillinger Escape Plan. More often, however, these tend to be bands whose sound escapes traditional pigeon-holing and is simply best identified as “metal”, like Iron Maiden or even Iced Earth.
Given my affinity for bands that are most accurately described as “metal”, my love for Twin Cities band Hate Beast is somewhat unsurprising. Traditional labels suit the band poorly. They’re not metalcore. They’re not death. They’re not prog. Thrash is perhaps closest, but the band still drifts far enough from the genre’s conventions for the label to fit particularly well.
Simply put, Hate Beast is metal. No-bullshit metal. Hate Beast’s 2013 EP, Civilization And Its Discontents, is a potent tincture of Slayer, Mastodon and Lamb of God processed through a Metal-Mix blender. There are no breakdowns. No epic choruses. No pandering to the gods of faux-brutality. Simply put, Hate Beast is a refreshing homage to bands of all eras whose artistic goals were singularly-focused – getting the audience to bang their heads.
On the EP’s title track, guitarists Aaron Havlicek and Carlos Lebron display a strong sense of balance and dynamics through a galloping guitar line featuring carefully applied harmonies that evoke the best of All That Remains. Lebron’s opening solo sets a melancholy mood that is reinforced by drummer Yousif Del Valle’s pulsing triplet kicks. And while many bands might have crafted a paint-by-numbers hooky chorus that lamented the loss of a suburban lover in order to curtail favor with the local modern rock station, Havlicek’s unrelenting guttural vocals remind you that if you’re here for any other reason but getting your ass kicked, you’re in the wrong place.
On Into the Darkness, Hate Beast demonstrates a mastery of modern metal technique with a blistering riff lifted straight from Trivium’s Ascendancy. Del Valle keeps a quickly shifting arrangement that could have easily turned to mush in the hands of a lesser drummer on point with sharp transitions, aggressive double-bass and metronomic precision. Havlicek’s quirky harmonies and tortured screams recreate the mood of total annihilation reflected in the album’s cover art, while bass player Kevin Dupre exhibits monstrous chops through meticulous lines that stitch the song together.
The Executioner, perhaps the band’s most well-known song, begins with an aggressive attack reminiscent of Megadeth’s Train of Consequences on steroids. Hate Beast’s tribute to Dave Mustaine continues with a pounding triplet assault that quickly morphs into a more traditional, Bay-area-thrash verse flanked by tight guitars and lyrics that celebrate history’s most vaunted ambassador of justice – the burly, hooded axeman. Lebron’s shredding ability and appreciation of Kirk Hammett are brought to the forefront through a meticulous Ride the Lightning-esque solo that transitions into one of the band’s most memorable choruses.
All in all, Hate Beast serves as a reminder that adherence to a restrictive sub-genre isn’t vital to being able to kick ass. As artists, Hate Beast’s goals are the same as those pursued and achieved by metal’s greats – be loud, be powerful, and leave the audience’s ears bleeding and necks sore.
Sadly, bassist Kevin Dupre recently made the decision to part ways with the band, leaving Hate Beast with a significant void in the low-end. Although talented bass players these days essentially have their choice of bands, anybody capable of navigating the bottom end with speed and precision and wants to be part of a kick-ass unit should get in contact with the band through their website or Facebook page.
Since the closing of many Twin Cities venues that were conducive to metal, most notably Station 4, I haven’t made it out to many shows. Not only are there far fewer opportunities to see bands of the noisy persuasion in action, but the few that occur tend to take place in the hellscape of suburban peripheries. There’s nothing like the prospect of a 50-minute drive to Savage to make a Burn Notice marathon seem like the more attractive option for spending an evening. So when I caught wind that Noble Beast would be having their CD release at the Cause Soundbar in Uptown alongside Pestifere, Dawn of Valor and Plagued Insanity, I made sure to carve out time on my calendar.
And for fans of righteous metal, it was an evening well spent. To my delight (and I’m sure the bands’ as well), the room was packed for the duration of the evening – a far too uncommon scenario for Twin Cities metal shows in recent years. Each band played to a crowd that was expansive, engaged, and engorged on palm-muted distortion.
So while the evening inhabitants moshed and drank cheap beer, I paid close attention to bands who, while having been on my radar for a while, I had never actually seen until that night.
Plagued Insanity brought me back to my youth when I was a much, much thrashier dude. While the band fastidiously adhered to the rules of 80s Bay Area leather and spike etiquette, it was Plagued Insanity’s punkish undertones that really caught my ear. Although not listed as an influence on their site, the interplay of held-out power chords (sometimes major key progressions!) over speed beats and guttural vocals evoked ghosts of Kreator’s State Oppression cover. Perhaps most impressively, Plagued Insanity’s two-minute assaults were able to move a music crowd in Uptown to mosh – a feat whose significance should not be understated! In fairness, however, if a band with a chain-mail clad drummer named “Hammersmith Fucklord” failed to incite violence, I would have felt cheated.
It had been a long time since I’ve seen Dawn of Valor, and I hadn’t quite realized how much of the band had been rotated. New vocalist Justin Howland did a really nice job underpinning the band’s power metal riffage with a commanding stage presence and strong lead lines. If you haven’t listened to them in a while, Dawn of Valor has really taken marked steps towards a thrashier sound à la Iced Earth and Jag Panzer with heavily galloping rhythm guitar and discordant, epic interludes. John Leibel’s proficiency as a lead guitarist is also highly underrated – the man can shred.
Pestifere isn’t normally the type of band I would listen to. On their website, they describe themselves as melodic blackened death metal, which raises a caution flag with me – if a band needs three adjectives to describe their genre, it’s probably designed for a metal fan more discriminating and sensitive to nuance than myself. But Pestifere was extremely polished, and perhaps more importantly, effective at weaving a haunting, foreboding sound. The guitar lines were melodic enough to be accessible, but carefully sculpted to make sure that doom and despondence was all one could take away. Pestifere’s fluctuating tempos and avant-garde arrangements successfully built a pummeling wall of sound, but one that didn’t devolve into a piercing drone after two songs – a common pitfall for this type act. Impressive overall.
Closing out the night was Noble Beast. Having never seen the band live before (my only previous exposure was an old demo recording), I was instantly struck by the band’s primary three influences: Blind Guardian, Blind Guardian and Blind Guardian.
Mind you, that’s not intended to be a disparaging observation. Blind Guardian has long been one of metal’s most underrated bands. Singer Hansi Kürsch actually sits within my list of the top ten metal vocalists of all time, while guitarists André Olbrich and Marcus Siepen helped pioneer the speedy power riffage later made mainstream by bands such as Dragonforce.
But if you’re going to wear Blind Guardian on your sleeve, your back and your forehead, you’d better have the chops to pull it off. Thankfully, Noble Beast does. These guys were extremely tight, which was no small feat given the speed and complexity of the guitar lines. Beyond the technicality, however, what impressed me about Noble Beast was the nuance and attention to details. Most bands that I see who try this type of music figure out decent guitar harmonies and stop there. Guitarists Rob Jalonen and Matt Hodsdon have clearly put in the time and effort to ensure their lines were equally melodic and rhythmically distinct. Attention to detail is what separates first-rate from flotsam in this style, and Noble Beast fits into the former.
I also was fortunate enough to pick up a copy of their self-titled full-length and was equally impressed. Unlike a lot of recordings I come across from unsigned bands in this genre, Noble Beast’s full-length boasted a professional-quality mix. Appropriate balance, reasonable volume and no apparent EQ butchering immediately placed Noble Beast in the upper echelon of independently-released recordings in my collection.
More importantly, however, the songs were strong. Noble Beast’s mastery of power metal conventions results in an experience that is, although familiar, unabashedly delightful. Creative guitar harmonies, such as the stuttering bridge in The Dragon Reborn or the Maiden-esque interlude of We Burn, demonstrate authentic and honest passion for the genre, while blistering solos (such as the Hammett hurricane in Disintegrating Force) showcase the band’s virtuosity.
It’s when Jalonen painstakingly recreates the multi-part vocal harmonies of Blind Guardian, however, that the album truly reaches its apex. The magnetic chorus of Behold the Face Of Your Enemy features a meticulous construction whose insidious hook belies its complexity, while the judicious application of multiple vocal layers helps bring the album’s title track to life.
When you’re a poor, unsigned band, you’re creating your own gig posters. And when there’s nobody in your band with any design talent, the job ends up falling onto the guy who was able to come across an outdated version of Photoshop.
Over the years, we’ve played many shows, and as a result, I (Neil) became the master of the Magic Wand and Drop Shadow tools in Photoshop. I also developed quite the knack for Googling How to -blank- in Photoshop and following tutorials. As such, I created many the amateur poster.
Going through my computer today doing some routine cleanup, I came across a number of old gig posters I had made (and a handful that others had made). Sadly, the really old ones never survived a computer migration. A handful of them were printed out and hang up in my basement and will have to be scanned in at a later date. I was pleased, however, to find such a variety of bands and venues that we were lucky to collaborate with over the years.
Enjoy, and if you have any old posters you’re sitting on, feel free to mail them to neil [at] cwnannwn.com!
Recently, Flowing Data published an awesome poster – Famous Movie Quotes As Charts. It was an extremely clever take on iconic cinema through a minimalist lens.
Inspired, we attempted to reduce some of the most famous metal and hard rock songs ever made into similar minimalist charts and created the following poster. We had an absolute blast doing this, and we hope you enjoy it!
The history of extreme metal in the Twin Cities is richer than those from out of the area might think. Minneapolis and St. Paul has spawned legacy acts such Anal Blast, respected veterans such as Demonicon, strong newcomers such as Ghost Hook, and djent-superstars such as, well, takeyourpick.
That said, Cwn Annwn has always had a complex relationship with death metal. Many of the genre’s fans (and musicians) have historically viewed us as, uh, well, pussies. Such is life.But the instances where we’ve developed friendships with bands of the extreme persuasion have typically been rooted in a mutual admiration for technical prowess. While you won’t hear much of it in our own sound, we’ve always held a deep respect for the highly-honed skills of death metal bands like Obscura, Carcass and Nile.
One band who exemplifies the best that Twin Cities death metal has to offer is We Are Legion. Active since 2009, We Are Legion is a five-piece strike squad of brutality that has shared the stage with numerous touring acts including Deicide, Chimaira, and Obscura. In September 2013, the group debuted their second full-length album, Exit Humanity, through Zero Budget Records.
Quality drumming is the price of admission for any death metal band looking to be taken seriously. And while most acts stop once they have double-bass and blast beats down to a science, drummer Aaron Lanik brings an added dimension and well-rounded approach to We Are Legion’s percussion arising from his extensive background in non-death projects, including Pink Gorilla Vs. Panda Bear and Echoterra. On The Plague Becomes, Lanik combines blasts done at a speed that has to be calculated in Mach units with flourishes that serve as the perfect punctuation to paragraphs of hostility.
Like few other genres, death metal demands athletic aptitude and versatility. Most guitarists possess one of those two. Paul Esch and Will Maravelas, however, bring both to We Are Legion. All throughout Exit Humanity, you’ll find the requisite shredding and arpeggio flares. But its Maravelas and Esch’s ability to add contrast to their demonic trem picking that help We Are Legion stand out in a highly cluttered genre. The tight Schuldiner-influenced triplet riff in A Celestial Awakening, the Spanish-flamenco intro to Shavasana, and jazz-influenced interlude of Ecophagy in particular are examples of strokes not often found in the genre’s repertoire, and their presence accentuates the chaos of the duo’s more traditional death metal assaults.
Vocalist Allan Towne and bassist Neal Pruett are equally critical to We Are Legion’s ability to crush heads. One of the oldest active scene veterans, Towne combines a picture-perfect death metal growl with a refined instinct for catalyzing and directing the band’s on-stage energy. Longtime metaller Pruett is no slouch either, supplying matching freneticism to We Are Legion’s low-end.
Perhaps more importantly, We Are Legion are even better people than they are musicians (and that’s no dig at the latter). Towne in particular has worked tirelessly since his days fronting Si6ks to advance the Twin Cities metal scene, promoting bands for no more reason than a deep love for independent music. Al is the founder and primary contributor to Undead Metal Scene TV a YouTube channel with over 100 videos featuring unsigned Minnesota metal acts.
Depending on when you want to start the clock, Cwn Annwn has been a band for 12-16 years. And like any band who has crossed the double-digit mark, we’ve enjoyed plenty of good times and we’ve suffered through lots of bad times.
Sadly, we’ve never achieved what are typically considered the standard industry benchmarks of a successful career in rock and roll: a lucrative record deal, wheelbarrows of coke and bevies of silicone-injected strippers.
That said, we’ve been blessed with numerous opportunities to share the stage with nationally-recognized acts we admire. If my hands were to get chopped off tomorrow, I’d be able to look at what we’ve accomplished with far more satisfaction, gratefulness and pride than regret.
Recently, it occurred to us that we’ve picked up a lot of wisdom about the music biz over the years that might be of use to a young band struggling to make a name for themselves. Although we’ve been fortunate to have received counsel throughout our career from accomplished scene veterans, more often than not, we had to figure things out for ourselves. And the resources out there to help a young band figure things out on their own leave a lot to be desired.
To that end, we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned with you, the legions of young musicians and bands who are bumbling about the Internets. Hopefully, you can pick up a few nuggets of helpful information and avoid having to learn things the hard way like we frequently had to.
What Four to Five Sweaty Dudes And The Occasional Female Vocalist Want
A byproduct of our longevity is that we’ve been able to witness many an independent band progress through their lifecycle. In some cases, we’ve seen musicians work their way through three, four, even five different projects.
And while every band is different in terms of genre, style, savvy, odor, et cetera, there’s a common thread that binds all of them – they all want more fans.
The process of acquiring fans is part art and part science. While the art part will be unique to every band, the science component tends to be more straightforward.
The first step any original band needs to take is to set appropriate goals. Setting goals, however, is surprisingly hard when you’re young, dumb and don’t know anything. What exactly is an appropriate goal?
Most local bands who see a fellow independent act playing to 800 people in the First Avenue Mainroom (or whatever the prestigious venue is in your city) are prone to one of two reactions. They either get discouraged because they have no fucking clue how they would ever get to that point, or they just assume that the big-drawing-act has some sort of advantage (like rich parents) that are responsible for their success and get pissed.
Neither reaction is productive. Yes, there are bands who are sporting jetpacks unattainable us mere plebeians, but most of the acts who’ve tasted success have done so primarily through sweat equity. And with rare exception, they all started the same way Cwn Annwn and everyone else’s band did – playing a Monday night at one of the city’s D-level bars.
When you’re starting out in your band, you need to know what “level” you’re at. Your immediate goal isn’t to figure out how to mooch your way onto a First Avenue or national show you don’t deserve. Your goal should be to figure out how to get to the next “level”. Once you get to that level, your goal then should be to proceed to the next level. Eventually, by progressing through levels, writing halfway decent music and picking up some breaks along the way, you’ll bethat band who can be on a first-name basis with the premiere booking agents in town.
“Wait,” you’re asking, “what are these `levels’ you speak of? I’ve never heard of these!”
It’s a fair question. These “levels” don’t exist in a book or a guide. But they’re very much real. Virtually every band I’ve known over the years fits into one of them, and the smarter, hungrier ones are doing what it takes to advance to the next one.
If you’re going to get to the next level, however, you need to know which one you’re at.
Level One: Anonymity
Unless you or someone in your band was in something recognizable, chances are, you’re starting out here. Nobody knows you. Nobody has heard of you. You are anonymous. In a sense, you’re a little ahead of some other bands in that you don’t yet have a bad reputation. Nevertheless, anonymity is a frustrating stage for any band. Any opportunities you do come across are likely to involve crappy nights at dreck venues and possibly unscrupulous promoters.
That’s okay though. Just about every successful band has been there. Here are the keys to graduating from anonymity to the next level:
Learn to be comfortable playing on stage. Try to understand the nuances of what constitutes a good live act (things like eye contact with the audience, stage movement) and moving around.
Go to as many shows in your genre as you can. Big bands. Small bands. Big venues. Small venues. Try and develop a sense of bands you might want to play with and how advanced they are in their career relative to you.
It should go without saying, but when you do play, try to draw as many people as you can. You don’t need to draw 100 at this point, but you need to have more than five.
Don’t play too many gigs – a good rule at all levels but particularly the early ones. Your friends will stop going if you play too many shows and your draw will suffer. Worse, you will start to get a reputation as a band that can’t bring anybody.
Focus on being professional. Honor your commitments, have a positive attitude and build good habits now. Your reputation is the primary vehicle that will carry you through each level, and your goal at this stage should be to avoid tarnishing it.
Level Two: Making Allies
At this point, you’ve played a few shows. While you may have exhibited some growth, you might be discouraged that you’re not selling out arenas. Don’t get too down, but what got you here isn’t going to get you there. Pretty soon, your friends are going to get tired of seeing you play, and you need to figure out a way to get people to know who you are.
To get to the next level, you need to become known within your genre.
Your goal at this stage is to start getting bands who are more established than yourselves to offer you chances to open up for them. Ensuring that they like you is critical to making this happen.
Start introducing yourself to bands and musicians within your genre. Make friends with them at their shows and support them.
Be somewhat liberal in how you define your genre. If your band plays symphonic power metal or blackened death metal, you should frankly just be looking to play with any metal band. If you’re good enough, you should still be able to attract followers by opening for acts in different sub-genres. Some of the most successful shows Cwn Annwn ever had in terms of gaining new fans and selling merch were when we played with straight rock bands. Don’t be a snob.
If all goes as planned, a few people in your scene will have heard of your band and you should start drawing people who aren’t personal friends to your shows.
If you haven’t done so already, you should consider making plans to a record a demo. With a demo, quality trumps quantity. Two killer songs recorded at premium quality beats seven good songs with mediocre production. You don’t need a top-flight demo to advance through these levels. I’ve seen plenty of bands do so without it, but having a three-song demo produced at a premium studio really helped us significantly early on.
Level Three: Gaining Influence
You’ve been starting to build a name for yourself opening for bigger acts, but eventually, you’re going to need to become the bigger act. But to become the bigger act, you need to be able to draw enough to make booking agents comfortable with giving your band control over quality dates. That’s level four. If you try to skip level three, you’ll end up putting on a Friday night show at a premiere venue to 30 people. Good luck getting that booking agent to trust you again.
At level three, your goal is to continue building your crowd so that when Mr. Big Shot Booking Agent gives you those good dates, you don’t let him or her down. How do you do that?
You need to start opening for bigger bands on a more consistent basis – it isn’t enough to just open for any band in your genre.
The best way to accomplish this is to start approaching bigger bands, but just begging isn’t going to get it done. More established bands are savvier, and in general, you need them more than they need you.
In level three, you’re going to start acknowledging the elephant in the room – money. To this point, it’s probably been about equal door splits and “brotherhood”. That dog doesn’t hunt when working with more established bands. The distribution of wealth on this level is likely to be unequal, and possibly negative for you. Consider it an investment.
When approaching bigger bands, you’re going to need to proactively offer them appropriate “tribute” – typically a pre-determined percentage of the door, a guarantee, or both. If you want a big band to headline a show with you on it, you’ll need to promise them 40-50% of the door or guarantee them whatever that equivalent is. They still might say no, but your “yes” percentage will go up significantly.
Not only will you gain fans more quickly opening for larger bands, but you’ll also begin to be viewed as a peer of more established acts, building your reputation.
Level Four: Self-Sufficiency
How do you know you’re at level four? If you play a show, your band can bring somewhere between 40 and 100 people regardless of the lineup. At this point, you should have enough sway to begin booking your own shows on good nights (Fridays and Saturdays) at good venues. Your goal, however, isn’t any different. You need to continue to build your fanbase. But the considerations you need to make have changed somewhat since level one.
Don’t play too many shows. One a month, tops, unless special circumstances dictate otherwise. You will dilute how many people you can draw if you play too many shows, which endangers your ability to keep getting good dates at good venues from booking agents.
Don’t limit yourself to one or two venues. Build relationships with as many venues and booking agents as you can. Besides playing too many shows, the biggest mistake I’ve seen bands at level four make is limiting themselves to playing at just one venue or working with one promoter. Venues close. Promoters get out of the business. If your venue closes or your promoter gets out of the business, your band will backslide to level three pretty quickly.
Play with a range of bands. You’ll probably have made some friends at this point, and it will be tempting to play all of your shows with the same 4-6 bands in your circle. Don’t do that. Play with bands out of your genre. Play with bands out of your circle. If you keep playing with the same bands over and over, you’ll be playing to the same crowd, and you’ll have a tough time growing your fanbase.
Level Five: Building A Network
To this point, I haven’t even talked about going out of town. You should be able to get to level four in just about any urban area in the world. But if you’ve got your heart set on cocaine and strippers, you’re going to need to get your band on the road.
Doing out-of-town right, however is an art. Just packing up and touring was a questionable investment before gas hit $4 a gallon and unemployment spiked. But that said, you don’t need to book self-financed tours destined for sadness in order to have some out-of-town success.
Spend time online and research who the big bands are in other cities that you’d like to play with.
Take extra time, if possible, to try and researching the reputation of any band you’d like to play with. You probably have a sense of who sucks to work with in your own town, but you’ll have no clue about what’s going on in someone else’s city. You don’t need to find a perfect reputation – you’re just making sure there aren’t any red flags.
Book your shows like you would in level four, but ask one of these out of town bands if they’d like to open. Make it contingent that this show is contingent on them having you open for them in your town. Very rarely will you be turned down.
Follow up like a dog to get your out-of-town show. Pretty often, the band you brought in will “forget” to return the favor. Be nice, but be persistent.
Build your out-of-town crowd using the principles you picked up in levels one through four.
How To Get To The Next Level
Wait, so you actually read this far? And you’re still interested in reading more? Yikes, this article is well past the point of TL:DR already.
Getting to the next level will be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, let us know what level your band is at? How did you get to the next level? Is our model of levels solid, or are we high?