Metal Blade Founder/CEO Brian Slagel: The MetalSucks Interview
Where would metal be without Brian Slagel? It’s a scary thought. As the founder of Metal Blade Records, Slagel has discovered and helped nourish too many legendary bands to even begin to list here, and been responsible for an equal number of classic releases. His place in the history books would be assured even if Metal Blade hadn’t lasted so long.
But, luckily for all of us fans of extreme music, it has lasted so long — in fact, 2012 marks the label’s thirtieth anniversary. That Metal Blade continues to thrive and hold a place as one of the most revered labels in the genre is a true testament to the talents of Slagel and the team he has recruited over the years.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to pick Slagel’s brain about Metal Blade’s past, present, and future. Unfortunately, technical difficulties with a busted digital recorder made the interview impossible to transcribe for several months! Luckily, we got some MetalSucks Mansion Monkeys on the case, and they were able to save the interview. Phew! So you can now read my full chat with Slagel below… I promise you there are some cool stories in here that you’ve never heard before. Enjoy!
Let’s start at the beginning. How did Metal Blade come to be in the first place?
I was doing the first-ever heavy metal fan zine, called The New Heavy Metal Revue. I had worked at a local record store and was a huge fan of the latest invasion of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I didn’t really know that there was anything happening in LA until people started coming into the record store asking, “Hey have you see these local LA bands?” So I started to go out and check out the LA scene, and there actually was a reasonable amount of metal happening in LA at the time. As it started to get bigger. The frustration back then, computers or cell phones or the internet, was that there was no way for these bands to get any sort of exposure.
So, I was heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and the all compilation albums they had. So I went to the distributor that was bringing in records to the store, and asked, “If I put together a heavy metal album, would you guys sell it?” They said, “Sure.” So I talked to the bands: “Give me a track and I’ll put it on a compilation.” That’s how it started.
Once the comp did well, is that when you said, “Hey, let’s turn this into a label”?
Not really. I had no money. I had to borrow money from my aunt. I had barely enough money even to make twenty-five-hundred copies of the first pressing [of the comp], which sold out really fast. I didn’t know what to do after that because I had no money. I ended up licensing it to some other record companies… it was a disaster. And one of the distributors, Greenworld based in LA, they said, “We know you don’t have a lot of money, but it seems like you kind of know what you’re doing. We can give you a pressing distribution deal” — meaning they would front all the money for manufacturing and I would just bring them releases.
So, I thought “Alright, why not?” So I started telling these bands, “Hey if you somehow can actually record something, I can put it out.” So, we started putting out records and it went from there.
You had an interesting array of bands on the first comp. Metallica, Ratt, Black and Blue, Bitch… a lot of those bands, you wouldn’t associate with one another now.
In hindsight, does it seem weird that Black and Blue and Metallica were once on the same comp?
The funny thing about the scene back then is that those bands, especially Black and Blue and Ratt, were much heavier than they kind of ended up being. Some of those bands ultimately went heavier and some of those bands ultimately went lighter. Ratt, in the earlier days, were really heavily influenced by Judas Priest, so they all wore black leather and played heavy stuff. But kind of like Mötley Crüe — who were also supposed to be on the first Metal Massacre comp, believe it or not — they became a lot more commercial, and a lot of the bands followed. So, in retrospect, you can say it’s an odd collection of bands, but they were much closer together at the time.
What was the first non-comp you put you?
It was a record called… actually, I’m trying to remember [laughs]. The second one, I think, was an Original Fish EP, and the third record was a project from a few friends of mine, Demon Flight, who were actually playing in Frank Zappa’s band… they did a three-song thing for free. So that was the third release…
At what point did you realize “I could make a career out of this”?
It took a while. For the first three years, the label was in my mom’s garage behind a house that had no AC, and I was doing everything all by myself. So I don’t think it even occurred to me that it was going to be a career until almost four or five years in. The first three years was me by myself, and after that there was an actual office and couple of employees. Even when that happened, when it was coming a little bit more, no one knew where this whole thing was going to go. There was a slow, gradual process — it definitely wasn’t an epiphany where I was like, “Oh, hey this is working.” It just started happening.
Do you remember a moment from the early days where it really occurred to you that metal was taking off?
There were a few things. I forget it what year it was, but when Metallica did a few stadium shows in 1985, ’86, and while they were down low on the bill, seeing them play in front of thousands of people was insane. It was crazy to see that happen — it allowed for the whole scene to get bigger. And it just snowballed from there, with all the other bands getting big all at the same time.
So what do you make of still being here after thirty years? A lot of labels obviously have not lasted that long, and even the ones that have often don’t seem to be in very good shape these days.
It’s crazy. I think it’s a real test of how how well heavy metal has done and how big it’s gotten. The fact that it’s probably the healthiest it’s been thirty years down the road is really amazing. It was such a struggle in the early days, for the whole genre. Obviously the label had its struggles, but the genre has established itself as something that’s real. People always said, “Ah, metal is a fad, it’ll go away.” We were always saying that heavy metal would never die on the back of our shirts, back in the 80s. And the fact that it hasn’t died, that’s one of the most satisfying things, looking back over thirty years. It’s an established genre that’s not ever going to go anywhere. We don’t have to worry about if it’s going to fall apart tomorrow. It wasn’t really cool in the mainstream until the mid nineties, and it’s kind of come full circle now; kids grow up on heavy metal now. It’s really amazing to see that whole thing happen. It’s been an honor to be a part of it, that’s for sure.
Do you still feel jazzed about it? Are there mornings when you wake and feel like, “Holy shit, I should have gone to law school”?
[laughs] Not these days. Probably more in the past. I’ve made every single mistake humanly possible, especially in the early days. Being a young kid, I didn’t know what I was doing. Now, I’m more excited to see where it’s all going to go. The older bands are healthy and doing well, there’s a whole crop of new bands coming up. Its pretty exciting now –I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s a business and it’s difficult and some days you get really down on it, but then you talk to friends in other professions, and they have all the same problems you have. At the end of the day you get to do something really fun and awesome, so it’s not so bad.
Speaking of mistakes, is there anything you regret? Maybe a band you let slip away?
I don’t think there’s any regret. If I knew then what I know now, I would have worked with Mötley Crüe, and if I had had $10,000, I could have put out the first Metallica record. All those sort of things.
The one thing I really screwed up on was when GN’R was playing all the clubs in LA ,and their management called me and asked me to go see them, and I just never went. I was like, “Nah, I’m not really into the glam thing.” I thought they were some glam band, so I never went to see them. Then Appetite for Destruction came out, and I was blown away by how good it was. We actually ended up doing a little bit of the marketing for that record. But the first time I met Slash was at an Iron Maiden after-party in LA. I remember we had quite a few Jack Daniels over the course of the evening, and at the end of the night, he asked how come I never came to see them. [laughs] That was fun.
It’s interesting to hear someone running a record label in 2012 sound so optimistic about it. What do you make of the state of the industry right now?
I think part of it is because we’ve been around so long and have seen so many changes in the industry anyway. If you don’t embrace the change, you’re going to get hurt by it. I’ve seen a lot of labels go away because they did not embrace change. Honestly, the last four or five years have been the best four or five years we’ve ever had as a label. As the industry changes, the indie labels have more power than ever. That’s really awesome, because clearly, the indie labels are the ones that love the music. So the fact that we have more power is really good.
I love technology, I love social media, I love all of this stuff that’s been brought on in the relationship — you have such a great relationship with the bands now, it’s really fun. I’m excited to see where it goes.
All of this stuff happening is great — there are more people listening to music today than ever before. For the same reason, artists and bands have to make really good music. If you’re going to ask people to go out and buy your music, it has to be really good. I think that’s good, too. It keeps the genre healthy. There’s not as much incentive for people to half-ass it — you have to go out and make a really good record for people to want to buy it. We’re really lucky as a genre, that metal fans have been so supportive of the artists. So we listen to what [the fans] say and we try as best as we can to make the records they want to go out and support and buy.
So you think embracing the technology is going to play a huge role in the future of the industry?
Absolutely. It has to. Like I said, there’s more people listening to music now than ever before. You have to figure out ways to make that work for you. The internet and the way it’s changed everyone’s lives, not just metal… the music business is a tiny little speck, and metal is smaller than that. I think all of this social media is a new way for people to interact.
Look: thirty years ago, if you were a metal fan, the only way you could hear new music with your friends was to go and hang out at their house, which was great for your local community. But if you lived in tiny parts of the world, you’d have send someone a letter or make a phone call, wait for someone to get back to you weeks later… everything is instantaneous now. There are people all over the world you can turn on to your music really quickly. I love trading music, and that’s been the one constant year to year, all these vehicles now allow us to turn people on to new music. Its so much fun. For example, what happened with Ghost… turning all these people on to a band they’ve never heard of is fun.
Do you feel bummed with a situation like Ghost, though, where you guys had a huge part in building them up in the U.S., and then they flew the coop?
It’s a weird thing. I can’t say too much about it. Clearly they’re having a lot of success, and it’s crazy, all that’s going on in their world. Hey, I mean, all I can say is, I love that band, and I hope they have a long, hugely successful career.
What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
I love the new Whitechapel record; those guys really made a massive step forward and made a really cool record. It sounds a little different and I can’t stop listening to it. That’s always a good thing. Before the record comes out, you have to listen to it over and over again — but now that’s gone, so I can just be a fan. I can’t stop listening to that record, I’m really excited about it. I’ve started listening to the new Six Feet Under record, that record’s been doing well.
There’s a band called Gypsyhawk we have coming out that I really like. Its kind of a little 70s style — awesome harmonies and stuff. There are a lot of other new bands, older bands, too. The new BTBAM record, the new AILD sounds really good. It’s exciting; a lot of bands are putting out a lot of good stuff. I’m saying that as a fan.
Cool. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks to you guys, all the fans and everyone that’s supported the bands for thirty years. If it wasn’t for all of you guys out there, we wouldn’t exist.
Metal Blade Records will celebrate their thirtieth anniversary on Friday, November 30, with a special show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles; Armored Saint, Sacred Reich, Gypsyhawk, Amon’s Amarth’s Johan Hegg, Ray Alder of Fates Warning/Redemption, as Doug Pinnick from King’s X are all scheduled to appear. You can purchase tickets at this link. Additionally, the label is having a sale on a ton of its classic and current releases; take advantage here.