Right now metal is missing its balls
Although the COVID19 pandemic has wreaked chaos on every area of the economy, few industries have been affected as much as music and entertainment. Indeed, a live show requires lots of people, packed tightly together, something that, as of this writing, seems unthinkable. And although we all understand that live shows aren’t compatible with this new (hopefully temporary) reality, most of us don’t really care about how artists are dealing with it.
The fact that most of us aren’t thinking about the entertainment industry isn’t surprising. Amidst the chaos of the lockdowns, the loss of life, and even the financial destruction that the pandemic has left in its wake, it is hard to spare a thought for musicians, actors, and the rest of the industry. After all, when thinking about musicians, many think of them as being rich, living in huge mansions, and not really deserving any kind of compassion or pity at a time of worldwide struggle. But even though it’s true that some musicians have truly obscene amounts of money, they are are not representative cases, nor are they the only people affected by this; after all, roadies, bartenders, security personnel, vendors, caterers, etc., are also out of a job.
A recent survey of around 4500 US-based musicians showed that, per year, they make around USD 35,000, or about €30,000 (an older, smaller survey, found similar results). While this is above the minimum wage (at least in the US), it’s a far cry from the kind of money that would let someone just take a year off (or two) and live from their savings. And yet, that’s what musicians have been asked to do. Since most people (understandably) prefer to stream music, and services like Spotify pay out really meager sums to artists, they are heavily dependent on live shows in order to survive. The problem, of course, is that, for the foreseeable future, those shows are not taking place.
Maurizio Iacono, the singer and founder of Kataklysm, is all too familiar with these new challenges.
“It’s been a tough year for everybody. There isn’t anybody who hasn’t been affected in some way. Personally, it has also been tough because we had all our plans, our tours, and lots of stuff already organized, and all of a sudden it was all gone. On top of that, you don’t get to see your family! My family lives in Canada, I live in the US, and I also have family in Italy. I haven’t seen my mother, or any other family members, since December of last year. It’s been really tough on the morale.
Of course, I’m also affected on the business side, since I also manage a bunch of bands with my company Hard Impact, and they all had to reschedule their 2020 tours to 2021. I’m also heavily hit because I own an agency in Los Angeles, Continental Touring, where we book tours across the US and South America, and where we’re completely reliant on live shows. Same thing as a manager, where I rely on live music almost 99%. With Kataklysm is the same, a large portion of the money comes from live shows; the rest comes from royalties and stuff like that, but it’s not enough to sustain us all, so it’s been a really, really, really, really rough time. We’re trying to navigate through this, but the live shows are definitely the bread and butter for all the bands, and for the music industry as a whole.
The crazy thing about the pandemic is that you don’t know what’s going to happen and where things are going, so every month you’re like a zombie, trying to keep moving forward and hoping for the best so that we can go back to some sort of normalcy. I mean, this is absolutely unprecedented; it’s like a long break where somebody comes to you saying “a forced year off, for everybody”, without having made any preparations for that.”
Still, not every band is the same, and some are better prepared than others to tackle the crisis. Although not impervious to what’s going on, Maurizio‘s band has managed to weather the storm. At least so far.
“Kataklysm was always well-organized, and financially stable, so I think we’ll be able to get through this pandemic… assuming it doesn’t last forever [laughs]. This year we’re okay; next year will be rough if things also get cancelled, and we will start having problems. I think that’s the general situation for established, well-organized bands, like Kataklysm. I really can’t imagine what it’s like for bands that don’t have the history or the structure that we have, and which are just going from month to month.
It’s going to be extremely difficult just to get back to how things were before; my fear is that the clubs are gonna go under. Some bands are going to go under too, but it will mostly be the clubs, and there won’t be enough supply for the huge demand that will be there once this is over. There will be a period when the demand is really going to be high, as people just feel that they’re free again, and they’ll want to go to concerts and all that. I don’t know if the venues are still going to be around.
If this keeps going, the industry is really going to be in trouble. There isn’t a clear ending, and we already lost this entire year, so it’s all about how fast until there is a vaccine. But then, when there is a vaccine, we’re going to have to fight the pushback from the people that don’t believe in vaccines, so we’re gonna have delays. I’m worried that we might also lose 2021, which would mean a really serious problem for the music industry.”
As for the best way to support the band during these times, ensuring that the fans’ money goes to them, Maurizio had some suggestions.
“Every band is different. We’ve got a very solid store where we’re doing our own pre-orders for the new Kataklysm record, with our own version of the vinyl that you can’t find anywhere else, and a few other other perks. The best way to support the band is to just go to the Kataklysm website, since we actually get most of the money from those sales. Also, even though the way Spotify and other streaming services share the revenue is unfair, streaming the albums also helps. You can even demand that they play us on radio! [laughs] “
Kataklysm first started in Montreal, Canada, as the passion project of a few high school kids. In Iron Will, Kataklysm‘s 20th Anniversary live album, Maurizio can actually be heard talking about this during the show, as he tells the the crowd how “20 years ago, four retard rebels in a high school in Canada decided, for some fucked up reason, to start a metal band.” Back then, what lead Maurizio to metal echoed not only my own journey, but also that of many other metal fans who find an outlet in metal when they feel that they don’t really seem to belong anywhere.
“When I was becoming a teenager, I always felt like an outcast, and I didn’t fit in anywhere. I think that I always had this leadership thing in me, and so I always wanted to be myself and do my own thing. A lot of people fall into the mold of just trying to be accepted by everybody, so they just follow whatever the trend is. When I was a kid I thought that metalheads were guys like me, who had their own identity and their own idea of things. I didn’t follow things just because of trends or fashion; If I didn’t like it, then I didn’t want to be part of it. I think I’ve always been a rebel at heart and, all these years later, that hasn’t changed.
Later I found a couple other dudes that were kind of like me, just hanging around, looking like they hated everybody [laughs]. I saw the patches on their jackets, the t-shirts that they were wearing, and so I kind of figured out that we had similar tastes in music. That’s how we started hanging out. We formed our little clique there and, as they say, the rest is history. We got pretty successful at it, though I’m happy that the band never really exploded in popularity, because, if it had, we might have just imploded. You get too much, everything is great, and you just get used to those thing. I like that we have to struggle all the time to be heard, and that we have to fight for our place. That has always kept us sharp.”
When Kataklysm started, heavy metal was very different from what it is now. Though the music itself has changed and evolved, perhaps the biggest difference is in how socially acceptable it has become. After all, in most of the developed world, being a metalhead is no longer shocking, or perceived as a gateway to a life of satanism, crime and substance abuse, and so a big part of the “rebellion” of being a metalhead is gone. This has lead to dangerous situation where fans often end up LARPing or cosplaying as rebels by merely getting crazy hair colors, tattoos, or offensive t-shirts, without actually engaging in any real acts of rebellion. When people convince themselves that being a “rebel” is merely getting drunk while wearing a Metallica t-shirt, or getting some pseudo-Satanic tattoo, then we’ve lost the most important element of being a metal fan: True rebellion, and true opposition. A type of defiance against the system that goes beyond mere consumption.
Maurizio seemed to agree.
“The metal that I was brought up with had nothing to do with what’s going on now. It was a genre that served as a voice against injustices and conformism, and which came from punk rock. It was all part of a movement that is very different from what is going on today. Nowadays it’s all joke; they’ve taken the seriousness and the rebellion out of it. Back when I started, I would have never believed that the industry would end up like this. I would have never thought that you would have people getting away with turning everything into a joke.
Think of black metal: when it came out it was really shocking to see these guys living in little cabins, burning churches, and being all crazy, but then it just became a joke. Now everybody is just a joke, there’s no seriousness to it. Those that still want to be rebellious have to be super underground. When I talk with Glenn Benton of Deicide, for example, or with other friends in the industry from the old days, we don’t feel connected to whatever movement is going on now. It’s not the metal we had.
Look at Abbath, from Immortal. He’s on Season of Mist, a really cool, underground label that tries to stay true to the scene… and then they made a Christmas snowball with him in it. And he’s in there, doing his pose and… I don’t know, I mean, you were in Immortal! They were in the French label Osmose, which was part of this big black metal craziness, and then it all became this.
Black metal bands are benefiting from all of this now, which is good, so I’m not going to be talking shit about them, or criticize them for it. But I see and smell posers in some of these new fans. That’s my problem with it. Right now metal is missing its balls.”
Of course, this concern is not exclusive to heavy metal. The moment a fringe subculture becomes popular and acceptable, society embraces the easy parts of that subculture, burying its controversial aspects. If we look at rap and hip-hop, for example, their counter-cultural origins, serving as a voice for disenfranchised communities of color, were replaced by what some African American scholars have called a type of minstrel show that perpetuates the same negative stereotypes that have been used to oppress people of color in the past. In the case of metal, the anti-authoritarian ideology, the opposition to dogmas (religious or otherwise), and the rejection of conformism, have instead been replaced by mere acts of consumption, with being a “metalhead” being reduced to wearing the right kind of clothes, or listening to loud music. Sure, music is an essential part of heavy metal, but if you think that’s all that being a metalhead was supposed to be, then you’re completely misunderstanding it.
“They’re killing the identity of what this is. It’s the same thing as Satanism; anybody can be a satanist now. But satanism in metal is not just about devil, evil, fire and all that, but a form of rebellion against religion, against being controlled. That was the idea behind it. Of course, they put in all the imagery to look evil and tough and, growing up, it was cool to see all of that, but now they’ve made a mockery out of it.
Think about this: The bands out there being “satanists,” they don’t do their thing with all religions, they only do it with Christianity, because that’s an easy target. You’re not gonna take a chance with the other religions, where they’re probably gonna hit you back, the way Christianity used to. So that’s where you miss the rebellious factor.
Metal culture has changed; it represents more of what society is right now, and it’s not about what it was when we were fighting for our identity, and were so serious about it. Back then there was a seriousness to being a metalhead. It was about being against everything, about fighting back, and fighting for what you believe in. It wasn’t about kittens, rainbows and unicorns [laughs] or about kicking a dead horse with satanism. That’s what I liked about it, and that’s what I miss.
Take hip hop. Someone like Takashi 69, or whatever his fucking name is, goes against the number one thing in hip-hop, which is that you don’t snitch on your people [Takashi 69, accused child abuser, testified against co-defendants in a criminal trial on racketeering charges in order to avoid a longer prison sentence]. And now he’s celebrated! Back in the day, once that guy came out of prison, he would have been done! I’m not saying that this is the way to do it, but there’s a code of honor that’s just gone. Then again, maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing, and we just got old [laughs]”
Of course, the claim that “maybe we just got old” is not completely meritless. After all, complaining about newer generations is a practice as old as mankind itself, with ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle decrying what young people were doing over 2 thousand years ago. What’s funny about this situation, however, is that, unlike what others have criticized about younger generations, the problem is not that they don’t respect their elders, or that they are too loud, but instead that they are often too submissive and too eager to go with the flow.
“It’s just a different society now, because of what has been pushed by schools, and what has become acceptable. It goes back to that idea that everybody is special, everybody’s sensitive, and everybody needs to be protected. I get the sentiment, but there’s a point when people need to be able to stand up for themselves, no matter what. Life isn’t about everything being handed to you; you have to fight for what you want. You have to learn how to fall and get up again. It’s all part of learning how to be a human being.
I now see how having a rough upbringing, and going through a lot of things, made me who I am today. It made want to fight, and be better. When I was a kid my grandfather was my hero, and I looked up to him. He would come see me play soccer, and if we lost the game, even if I had scored two goals or whatever, he’d say “you did OK, but you lost the game. Next time you have to make your team win”. At first it would piss me off, because it was like he didn’t notice all the good things I had done, but eventually I realized that it was about pushing me to be the best I could be. He’d congratulate me on my effort, but he wouldn’t reward me just for participating. That’s the opposite of what’s going on now, and I really don’t agree with this new mentality.”
Unconquered, Kataklysm‘s new album, will be released on September 25th by Nuclear Blast Records. The album, together with different merch bundles, can be pre-ordered on the band’s website.