The Burning Red: A Complete History of Roadrunner Records, Pt. 1 – 1981-2012


Jim Saxton, known to many as the man behind the Temple of Bleh podcast, is right now spearheading a documentary titled The History of Roadrunner Records, which catalogs the rise, fall, and rebirth of one of metal’s most important labels. In honor of a major turning point in Roadrunner’s history, Jim decided to give us an inside look at the label’s long and interesting history. Here’s what he showed us behind the red curtain…

The Whole Thing, I Think, Is Sick

Tomorrow marks ten years since the ‘Red Wedding’, where legendary metal label Roadrunner Records had the majority of international offices closed down to the tune of 36 staff members losing their jobs. This date is generally regarded as the end of the ‘glory’ era for the label. 

But why should we care that a multi-million dollar company was drained of its key personnel and artists, to be left out in the cold? 

To paint the picture of what metal lost on that day, I’ll be sprinting through some of the key points in the history of the label. Since it’s a sprint, I’m going to leave out some of your favorite bands and memorable events. And just as I had to when spellcheck forced me to remove the letter ‘u’ from so many words…you’re just gonna have to get over it.

For this task, I’ll be pulling in various materials from my research supporting my upcoming documentary, which includes the Temple of Bleh Podcast, and other wider sources. To keep up to date with the documentary’s progress, check the links at the bottom of this article, or jus visit the film’s website.

The reason I took on the task of exploring the history of Roadrunner Records is pretty simple: the knowledge gaps among the community are substantial (and borderline embarrassing), the story itself is fascinating…and most importantly, metal as a community has a lot to learn from the greatest that ever did it.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.


Roadrunner Records was formed in 1981, in the Netherlands. As opposed to the Brian Slagels (Metal Blade Records) and Mike Varneys (Shrapnel Records) of the world, Roadrunner founder Cees Wessels was not a 20-something denim-clad Saxon fan when he formed the label — he was a 40-something music industry veteran, having clocked almost two decades in the major label system. He was also super into opera, and didn’t listen to metal.

Wessels initially started Roadrunner as a licensing vehicle, to distribute records from outside of Europe, into the Benelux region (that’s Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). An eclectic range of artists made their way to market through Roadrunner, from Patricia Ruddock to Liaisons Dangereuses — but what made a lasting impact to the balance sheets was a select number of metal products from the United States.

According to Ed van Zijl, founder of Mascot Record Group and early Roadrunner employee:

“The very first Twisted Sister album (Under The Blade) sold quite some numbers, and I think that’s the moment when Cees pulled definitely towards rock and metal music”

Cees’ prior industry experience brought a certain mentality to early Roadrunner — lean and mean. And we mean fucking mean — according to guitarist Russ Tippins of early heavy metallers Satan, back in 1983:

“They sent us a contract through the post, which we took to a lawyer for advice. He was quite unequivocal in his scathing assessment of the terms and said whatever you do, do NOT sign this deal. It was set out for a five album deal but the label would retain the rights to the master recordings in perpetuity, i.e. we would never get them back unless we bought them. Same with the publishing rights too. They proposed a £2000 advance to make the debut LP plus a couple hundred quid for an artist to draw the cover. The proposed royalty cut was 8% of 90% of the base price (not retail). Of course we signed the deal and made the record within budget. Since then, the only royalty payment we’ve received from that album came from Neat after they had re-issued it 15 years ago.”

Is Cees perched behind a desk, cigar in mouth, tossing breadcrumbs to our have-a-go metal heroes? Here’s Wessels himself in 1987:

The Burning Red: A Complete History of Roadrunner Records, Pt. 1 – 1981-2012
Billboard Magazine, May 2, 1987

Whilst the plight of the starving artist was very real for Roadrunner artists, this approach prioritized growth for the label and allowed Cees to take more chances on new artists and licensing opportunities — which Roadrunner did with Metallica, through Megaforce and Music for Nations. If just one artist broke through, their success could pay for the next round of new signings. 

This point in particular, would become rather important in the early 2000s.Then again, it doesn’t hurt to have Metallica propping up your balance sheet.

The Burning Red: A Complete History of Roadrunner Records, Pt. 1 – 1981-2012
Metallica by Ed van Zijl, taken in 1984 when the band supported Venom in Europe (both licensed artists by Roadrunner, from Music For Nations and NEAT Records)

Legion of Doom

Roadrunner was a house built by businessmen — but metalheads were the ones living in it, and the staff were the actual driving force behind the business. The culture was so strong that one would think the label’s staff had fought in a war together.

Among these hardened veterans were Monte Conner, who signed a wave of death and thrash metal acts, transforming Roadrunner into the home of extreme music in the US in the process; and Mark ‘Psycho’ Abramson, who worked in Radio Promotions. 

According to Type O Negative drummer Johnny Kelly:

“Mark was always on the team, like he probably would have taken a bullet for us.”

A contractual holdover from Peter Steele’s previous band, Carnivore, brought Type O Negative, AKA ‘The Drab Four’ to Roadrunner in the early 90s. However, Type O would become a flagship artist for the label at a time when Roadrunner was diversifying its active roster, away from thrash and death metal. The band’s third full-length album, 1993’s Bloody Kisses would eventually reach Gold status —the band and Roadrunner’s first RIAA certification.

As you can see below,, everyone involved were absolutely fucking thrilled at this historic milestone.

The Burning Red: A Complete History of Roadrunner Records, Pt. 1 – 1981-2012
Billboard Magazine, March 23, 1996

Roadrunner had, after 15 years, finally achieved mainstream success with an outlier artist. Similarly, Bloody Kisses marks Type O Negative’s first big steps towards the ethereal, dream-goth aesthetic that they would become famous for. And this was all achieved despite Type O’s previous album cover being, quite literally, literally an anus.

When asked if any other label could have pushed Type O at the time, guitarist Kenny Hickey responds:

“We needed an underdog that was hungry, like them [Roadrunner]… there were a lot of good people that really believed in the band”.

The Roadrunner staff were diehards and, as Kenny notes, they were hungry. Roadrunner wasn’t disruptive by design; it was disruptive by nature. According to Felix Sebacious, of sister merchandising company Blue Grape:

“The Dutch are a very different culture, certainly to the UK or USA. They like to do everything by committee — everybody’s opinion counts, whether you’re the floor sweeper, or you’re the CEO.”

In harmony, Chris Misutka, who joined Roadrunner in 1996, remembers:

“I saw Jerry Cantrell performing his solo set one night, and the following day I saw Nelson Mitchell, who ran the mailroom at the New York office. He’d also been at the show. He said, ‘I got this CD sampler from the show, it’s great, and look – Cantrell doesn’t have a label, can you believe that! Someone needs to pick this up.’ Nelson’s CD sampler made its way to Monte, and the rest is history. So, yeah, I’d say Jerry’s journey with Roadrunner did indeed begin with Nelson in the mailroom.”

Over time, Roadrunner’s impact and victories continued to reverberate. On the Temple of Bleh podcast, Stephen Hill of the Riot Act Podcast remembers:

“If you look at the last Monsters of Rock at Donington in ‘96, you’ve got Sepultura, Fear Factory, Dog Eat Dog, Biohazard, and Type O Negative. So pretty much half the bill is Roadrunner bands… and they didn’t sound anything like each other, and they didn’t look or act like each other, but they all kind of felt weirdly connected.”

It was as if the label was forming a kind of scar tissue on the face of the 90s metal scene.

The More Things Change…

Roadrunner expanded a ton in the 90s. Like, a fuckton. And financial strife quickly followed. As a result, Island Def Jam Music Group purchased a controlling stake in the company in July 2001, because, according to Roadrunner’s then-U.S/ Head of Business Affairs Ray Garcia:

“I think they wanted Slipknot, that’s all they knew they had. Even though Nickelback was starting to break at the time… Slipknot was the biggest band on the label, and that’s all that mattered.” 

The sheer chaos and unhinged spectacle of Slipknot was difficult to articulate as it was emerging at the turn of the millennium, never mind almost 25 years later. Despite the rise of Slipknot being pre-Twitter, somehow – they were still viral before the new millennium. 

Stephen Hill remembers just how bizarre it was:

“My mate went to America in the summer of 1999, and he came back wearing a Slipknot t-shirt. We went out to a rock club in Reading, he wore that Slipknot shirt — and this is before the album came out — and a guy offered him £150 if he took it off and swapped shirts with him… he was like ‘Nah, I’m not doing that!’ That’s when I was like ‘F*cking hell, people are really going for this.’”

Slipknot indeed ushered in a new era for not just the label, but for music itself. But they were only one of the label’s most groundbreaking acts, and would be in many ways eclipsed by a less chaotic one:

The Roadrunner-Island Def Jam deal was announced some five weeks before Nickelback’s breakthrough 2001 record, Silver Side Up, was released. Although contentious in the modern era, Nickelback offered to Roadrunner something they hadn’t had regular access to in the past: plays on rock radio. Hits like “How You Remind Me” and “Hero” from the 2002 Spider-Man OST brought success from a completely fresh audience at the start of the 21st Century. The latter was named the most spun song of the decade, clocking 1.2m plays on radio between its release in 2001 to the end of 2009.

Despite not signing Nickelback himself (that honor belongs to Ron Burman), Monte Conner recalls:

“Nickelback was the best thing to ever happen to me, because once Nickelback happened, the label had more money than it ever had before, and I was able to sign bigger bands — it was a great thing for metal. I don’t get all the hate that Nickelback gets.”

After 20 years, Cees finally got his big breakthrough artists, and with them came the extra resources to continue to innovate. More importantly, Universal would leave Roadrunner alone to do just that, serving as a platform for the likes of Killswitch Engage, Trivium, Dresden Dolls, Airbourne, Coal Chamber, Dragonforce, Spineshank, Caliban, Five Pointe O, Khoma, CKY, Opeth, Cradle of Filth, Black Stone Cherry, Ill Niño…and too many more to mention, frankly.

During its continued growth, Roadrunner was a fiercely disruptive force in music, earning regular Grammy nominations and Gold/Platinum RIAA certifications awarded to artists who were part of (what was considered) an outlier genre of music. Powered by the efficacy of the business, the fanaticism and unbreakable culture of its staff, as well as its culminated victories and legacy, Roadrunner Records gave heavy metal a seat at the table with the rest of the major music industry.

Unfortunately, that might also have led to what happened next…

The Burning Red: A Complete History of Roadrunner Records, Pt. 1 – 1981-2012
From Roadrunner UK’s Twitter, the day of the ‘Red Weddiing.’

Numbered Days

On December 18th 2006, Warner Music Group (WMG) purchased 73.5% in Roadrunner’s parent company, Roadrunner Music Group, for a whopping $73.5m. Things continued as usual for a while…but in 2010, WMG acquired 100% ownership, and things started to look different. Paychecks lost the little red Roadrunner logo in favor of ‘WMG,’ departments were merged, and, with duplicate roles referred to as ‘redundancies’, many of the staff were let go.

This culminated in the aforementioned “Red Wedding”. According to Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor on Steve O’s Wild Ride Podcast in 2021:

“It shocked all of us. They were massive worldwide, they had offices in every country, they had the biggest bands in metal, and with one fell swoop, they sold all the rights, they became owned by a certain label…

“And within three years, that label fired everyone who had been working there for 20 years. They fired almost everyone down to the point where they had to close all of the offices in all of these countries. It was crazy! These were people I had worked with my entire career.”

Corey was right to be shocked. Whilst the ‘Knot camp was celebrating late drummer Joey Jordison’s birthday on April 26th 2012, the rest of the metal world awoke to news of a mighty cull of one of the most legendary names in metal.

In the months that followed, most of Roadrunner’s active roster were either dropped or had moved on to different homes. The staff themselves had moved on to different pastures…and more often than not, had taken their Roadrunner artists or clientele with them.


Roadrunner is sometimes regarded as getting ‘in bed’ with the majors post-2000. But the reality is that Roadrunner’s Universal experience and Warner experience differed drastically. Under Universal, the AAA acts like Slipknot and Nickelback kept feeding the Roadrunner infrastructure, which in turn allowed the lunatics who ran the madhouse to innovate and push metal further. Maybe I’m optimistic, but it feels like we all indirectly benefited from Universal’s acquisition of Roadrunner.

It’s unclear exactly what motivated WMG to deploy such cutbacks between 2010 and 2012. I’d like to think that they had intended to successfully integrate the best parts of Roadrunner into WMG, but the Roadrunner culture was simply too strong to coerce to WMGs will.

To summarize, Roadrunner didn’t lose just some corporate entity at the Red Wedding of 2012 — Roadrunner lost the potential of marrying good business acumen with absolute metal fanaticism. It lost the tried and tested infrastructure of pushing and investing in the metal genre.

The full story arc for indie Roadrunner starts in a Dutch opera fan’s front room in the early 1980s…and ends with a death metal band topping the Billboard charts in the late 2000s. And while the Red Wedding marked the end of an era – it certainly wouldn’t be the end of Roadrunner Records…

Did you know?

Here’s some more fun Roadrunner trivia for you:

  • One of Roadrunner’s first musical releases was an ABBA covers album sung by children?
  • Exhorder’s Kyle Thomas was arrested during the recording of 1990’s Slaughter in the Vatican?
  • How Roadrunner and Warner Bros resolved their trademark dispute?

Follow the History of Roadrunner Records socials to keep up to date on the upcoming documentary;

The History of Roadrunner Records’ documentary Instagram

Temple of Bleh’s Instagram

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