The Dark Ages
by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible
Sargon: It's pretty much inarguable that the 1980s were the Golden Age of heavy metal—an explosion of enthusiasm, talent, and creativity that established the genre. Right now it could be argued we are living in the Silver Age, but in between lies that dark period known as the '90s. At the end of the '80s metal was riding high, with unprecedented visibility and popularity, and then in a few years it all went to shit and didn't recover until after the millennium.
What the hell happened? I can remember in the early '90s, when you could hear Dream Theater or Savatage on rock radio, see positive reviews of bands like Entombed or Morbid Angel in places like fucking Rolling Stone, and even mainstream record stores carried bands by Roadrunner or Earache, among a lot of other obscure labels. Metal bands were getting record deals with big labels like Polygram, Sire, or Atlantic, and then were just as quickly dropped.
The major shift that started it is, I believe, the same thing that caused the dark age: Soundscan. On March 1st, 1991, the recording industry started using actual computerized tracking of sales data, which they had not done before. Previously, Billboard magazine had supposedly kept track of sales by just asking the record stores to report what they sold. It was a system that favored outright lies and bribe-induced fraud, which was exactly what happened. But suddenly, actual numbers on what was being bought were available, and it revolutionized sales overnight.
Suddenly, heavy metal and country music—long disregarded by the major labels—were sales giants, and it led to metal becoming more visible than ever before. Already peeking through into the mainstream press, Soundscan made metal a major force in the marketplace. Suddenly, the RIAA could not simply paper over bad sales with lies and paid publicity. They had to deal with reality.
Characteristically, they dealt with it by cheating. Unable to damp down the popularity of metal, they either co-opted it with similar-sounding but more digestible sounds like grunge and nu-metal, and they also simply denied metal bands a sales outlet. By cutting exclusionary deals with retailers, they kept indie label bands from major sales channels. Metal bands could not dominate charts if they could not get their albums sold anywhere. The grunge wave of the '90s all but buried the US scene in flannel, and European imports were harder and harder to get. By 1995, the US metal scene was well and truly buried.
MetalMike: I wholeheartedly agree that the '80s were the golden age, today is a kind of renaissance and in the middle was a time when, at least in America, chasing trends and fashion in pursuit of the almighty dollar pushed metal to the brink of extinction. I haven't heard the theory of Soundscan and a concerted effort by the recording industry as a whole to exclude metal. It is interesting, but I can't imagine such a money-grubbing industry sacrificing what had become a cash cow.
My theory is they killed the goose that laid the golden egg by trying to squeeze every last drop of blood from the carcass. By the late '80s, record labels were in such a frenzy to sign new hard rock and metal bands that literally all you had to do was put on spandex and spray your hair with Aquanet and you stood a better than even chance of having some A&R man put a contract in front of you. Sure, a lot that were signed were dropped almost immediately, because they sucked, but labels were casting a wide net hoping something would come up from the depths that didn't stink like rotten fish.
By the late '80s, the labels, big and small, were foisting a glut of glam and thrash bands on the listening public, cloning ever-diminishing successes repeatedly despite the inevitable mutations that made each subsequent iteration inferior to the original. What started in the early '80s as a movement away from what was considered popular became so saturated and omnipresent, even long-time fans had trouble separating the wheat from the mountains of chaff. When I started listening in the early '80s, a blind purchase had a good shot at being halfway decent or better. By the late '80s, throwing my money in the trash had nearly the same success rate as buying a new band's CD and finding something worth hearing.
As a result, fans either drifted away or turned back to the underground where the sounds of death and black metal were lurking but most of us weren't ready to make that leap. The more palatable sounds of early grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, which grew directly from metal, caught peoples' ears and like only a few years earlier with metal, the labels were off to the races, signing every plaid-and-jeans wearing band from the Pacific Northwest to a deal. The public, tired of spandex, hairspray and power ballads, gravitated to the new sound in droves. A few true-blue metal bands soldiered on, ones that should have been able to weather these changes based on their huge followings and storied careers, but even giants like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest lost their way with both Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford leaving their respective bands and releasing nu-metal influenced solo albums in the mid '90s. Well and truly buried indeed.
Sargon: Yeah, we can't overlook the effect of oversaturation. By the late '80s there were so many bands, and by the '90s the boundaries of a lot of genres started to blur as bands experimented harder and harder, trying to stand out. Plus the bigger genres like Thrash and Death were getting stale, with Thrash especially devolving into a terrible, dull songwriting formula. Big labels were signing everything in sight and thought the well would never run dry.
But then grunge came along and made such a huge impact it drowned the metal underground. Grunge played heavy, and so it grabbed the same people who had been casual metal fans. The labels grabbed hold of grunge, and for a while it was so ubiquitous that even metal bands started adding grungy sounds to try and get a hit record. Making metal lucrative had just made it worse, as suddenly there was money to be made, and quality didn't matter.
What little "real" metal remained was sidelined, pushed out of record stores, and there was just not enough of a sales infrastructure to support what was left once the big labels started dumping metal bands. The bands that weren't big enough sellers had to migrate back to an indie-label market that had blown up bigger but was now having to downsize. A lot of labels changed their target audience or folded up, and outside of Europe there was not much to be had for about a decade. There was just too little sales space for too much similar-sounding, mediocre product, and the whole market kind of imploded. It wasn't until the Internet began to mature in the early 2000s that online ordering and MP3 let metal make a real comeback.
MetalMike: It was a tough time, to be sure. Not only was the sales infrastructure dismantled but the ways in which we found out about new bands and new releases went the way of the dodo. Terrestrial radio stations changed their metal shows to nu and core music, or canceled them altogether and print magazines like Hit Parader did what they'd been doing for decades and simply shifted to cover what was popular. Fred Durst on the cover is worth a million more units sold than James Hetfield? How many Durst covers in a row can we print? Casual and dedicated fans alike had precious few ways to learn about the few worthwhile releases still coming out and there was absolutely nothing coming from Europe at that time in terms of news or product. Brick and mortar stores, which were still a thing, weren't going to fill bins with albums and CDs of bands that weren't proven sellers. It was an almost total media blackout for metal fans.
It's interesting that you brought up the Internet. I imagine most folks are aware of the Napster/Metallica war which marked the last time Metallica was relevant. Lars saw the potential for music to be moved around without the artist seeing any royalties as soon as anyone. Before the Internet, we got warnings on our albums that illegally copying them was going to kill music but Anthrax was still shipping new albums at platinum status on the day of their release, so taping wasn't much more than a mosquito to a giant. The Internet, as we now know, is David to the music industry's Goliath.
Yet reviled as it is today, I bet a lot of us would never have gotten back into metal had it not been there. I know in the early 2000s, I searched online for CDs of albums I'd listened to back in the '80s but were never mass marketed at the time of the metal crest between '89 and '91. That led me to all kinds of bands, mostly from Europe, I'd never heard of that had popped up at the end of the '90s playing the metal I'd loved in the '80s. It was the Internet that dragged metal out of the Dark Ages.
Sargon: It was. I did the same thing. My ability to collect music took a nosedive in the late '90s, as I was broke, and all the zines I had used as places to look for new bands had vanished from the shelves. There was nowhere to just browse for new metal, as it was all grunge or alternative music, and so many of the old bands had vanished or changed their style. Plus, without the Internet, there was no way to just think, "whatever happened to...?" and get an answer, you just had to wonder. One of the first things I did when I got online was start hunting around for what had become of so many of the bands I had lost track of. Of course, many of them were gone, but in the process I discovered there was an underground again, with new bands that looked cool as hell. File-sharing programs like Napster or Kazaa let you download a song or two and sample what things sounded like. Nowadays you'd go on YouTube, but in the early 2000s that was not a possibility.
But combine file-sharing with sites like MP3.com and mailorder distros, then you had a sustainable system. The democratization of music distribution has done so much good for metal, allowing bands that would never get label attention to get their music out there. There probably is not nearly as much money in the music as there once was—music sales as a whole have been down for fifteen years, and only started trending up again this year—but metal and money have never made for a good combination. I'm not saying that metal bands don't deserve to make money. Of course they do, and I want them to. But bands that got rich off their music went to shit, and I don't think that will change. Metal is a genre that feeds off anger, privation, and hunger.
Are there too many bands now? Are we approaching another point of oversaturation that will lead to collapse? I don't think so, because there's no bubble this time. We don't have big labels pushing mediocre bands and flooding a finite market with product. This time we have a groundswell of artists and smaller, dedicated labels putting out as much music as they can because they want to. Quality is the only way to really distinguish yourself from the mass, and so I think good music will always sell itself. In the new underground, word of mouth is king, and it spreads faster than it ever has. The '80s may never be equaled in terms of the sheer energy and invention of a new genre, but now is a pretty good time to be a metalhead.
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