IS IT EVEN WORTH IT FOR METAL BANDS TO BE ON MAJOR LABELS?
The day Shadows Fall’s last album, The War Within, was released, I was lucky enough to share a few rounds of beers with bassist Paul Romanko before his show at Irving Plaza with Damageplan. At the time, Romanko told me that the major labels were already courting the band- “We’ve been getting a lot of free dinners lately,” he chuckled. But Romanko was skeptical that signing with one of the majors would even prove beneficial for the band; he noted that Lamb of God’s major label debut, Ashes of the Wake, which had just been released a little while prior, had only shipped as many copies it first week as the Shad’s disc, which was released through indie label Century Media (admittedly one of the stronger indie labels in the genre). Romanko obviously wasn’t discussing sales, because he had no idea what his band’s first week sales were yet; he was just saying that an equal number of copies of each disc had been shipped to stores during the first week of release. Obviously the lure of everything a major label can offer (or potentially offer) proved too strong for the band, but one wonders now if Romanko’s intial estimation of the supposed big leagues wasn’t correct.
Really, one has to wonder: what is the problem here? It’s difficult to argue that Atlantic under-promoted Threads of Life: on the one hand, the disc wasn’t sitting front and center on a lot of new release racks here in NYC last Tuesday (as recent releases from Lamb of God and, of course, Slipknot have), but on the other hand, that’s a pretty minor complaint when stacked against everything the label seems to have done correctly: full page ads for the disc appeared in practically every metal publication I’m aware of; the first single, “Redemption,” was made as available as any metal single is these days (including free internet streaming and being made avail for purchase through iTunes); the video was shown on Headbanger’s Bal, which is really the only place metal videos are ever shown these days; the band appeared on the covers of Revolver and Metal Edge this month, and Outburn and Decibel ran stories, too; and every magazine and metal web page (including this one) reviewed the disc prior to its release, and each and every one gave it a positive review. The label really did everything they could considering that this wasn’t, say, a Christina Aguilera album, or even a Nine Inch Nails album.
Put more simply: even if Shadows Fall didn’t surpass their previous sales, they should have, at the very least, matched them. Between the Shads, Lamb of God, and Mastodon, they are easily the most commercial band (not only do they have slicker production with less screaming with more singing, but the album features a full-on power ballad, “Another Hero Lost”), and the one that would seem poised to most benefit from being on a major label. And, admittedly, it’s too soon to say anything for sure; maybe touring and word of mouth will bolster sales over the coming months (I’d argue that Shadows Fall really need to get on one of the big summer tours, and they need to get on one, like, yesterday).
But clearly, something is amiss here. As the book Choosing Death– an excellent history of death metal and grindcore- points out, there was a rash of bands, including Carcass, Morbid Angel, Entombed and Napalm Death, signed to the majors in the early 90s, all of whom got dropped after only an album or two. But these new bands seem far more accessible than those acts ever did; the model, it seems to me at least, should be thrash masters like the big four- Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax, and, of course, Metallica- and Pantera, all of whom were on major labels for years (and at least two of whom continue to be on major labels). But none of these young upstarts even come close to matching the sales of those bands in their heydey. Are kids just listening to metal less than in the 80s (the hair metal phenomenon would certainly seem to suggest so, but those were special circumstances that aren’t really applicable here)? Is it just a general side effect of how poor record sales are in general these days- in other words, if the Justin Timberlakes of the world are selling less records than they used to, is seeking nothing more than a gold record for a metal band unrealistic? Slipknot’s multiple platinum discs would suggest otherwise.
Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to this issue; I can’t really pinpoint why, exactly, Roadrunner (who, with their corporate backing from Universal, are really a major-mini, like Miramax in the film world) does such a better job of selling these albums than practically everyone else, including major labels that should easily squash them. It might come down to a matter as simple as quality- I’ve spoken to at least a couple of disgruntled fans who don’t think the latest offerings from the Shads and Mastodon are as good as their previous efforts- but I don’t really buy that. But, hey, look at the upside: no one can ever really accuse these bands of being sell-outs when they’re not really selling. And most of them should be finding comfy homes on Roadrunner real soon.