Just imagine if there was an airplay requirement for commercial radio stations to play at least one track a week from every Top 20 album.
During 2009, radio would have had to play songs by Alice in Chains, Dream Theater, Lamb of God, Megadeth, Karnivool, Alexisonfire, Mastodon, Marilyn Manson, Killswitch Engage and Slayer. Even if you don’t like any of those bands, you’d have to admit that hearing “Headcrusher” or “Psychopathy Red” blasting out next to the latest inane Nickelback or Black Eyed Peas pap would put 2DAY FM on a level of awesome it had never before experienced.
That simply isn’t likely to happen, because commercial radio is format-based and the only real guideline is a flimsy and often-flouted “local content” requirement, but what about other media formats? At least 50 foreign metal bands toured Australia during 2009, compared to less than a dozen ten years ago, when only three metal albums made the Top 20. The seemingly ever-lasting Pink tour was in the news at least once a week, but visits by Slayer and Megadeth, and even the likes of Cannibal Corpse passed by with barely a whisper from mainstream reporting. Has metal become so normalised in our society that even a group with a media-baiting name like Dying Fetus can tour Australia virtually unnoticed? Or is this ignorance deliberate?
Clearly there has been enormous growth in the local market for this music in the last decade, and certainly since the 1980s, when a charting heavy metal album was a rare thing indeed. It’s a trend that doesn’t look like abating: the week I began researching this article, Mechanize by Fear Factory was at #24 on the album chart, debuting higher than the album by Owl City. Option Paralysisby The Dillinger Escape Plan only missed out on a Top 40 berth by two spots. Yet media coverage of the metal phenomonon appears to have actually decreased since the beat-ups about riots and violence at shows back in the 90s.
Between January and the end of March this year, Australia played host to more than 25 metal bands from around the world. Several of them were attached to Soundwave, a festival that now in its eighth year is close to rivalling the Big Day Out as the nation’s premier summer touring event.
If you followed the mainstream media instead of the street press or websites like this one, you could be forgiven for not hearing about any of it. There was barely any major news service coverage of Soundwave, despite the presence of bands like Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction. The Age’s review of the day was 257 words in length, most of which were about what the crowd looked like. The Daily Telegraph offered 353 words on the police making a few drug arrests there, which was only 105 words less than a story about the actual festival they ran three days earlier. Ironically, Classic Rock FM – whose regular playlist includes none of the bands that appeared – posted a near-1000 word review on their website.
“Good Vibrations here was the day before Soundwave, and that was covered on the six o’clock news,” says WA metal promoter Glenn Dyson. “Soundwave had just as many people, and that got nothing!”
Soundwave artists Meshuggah, Anthrax, Baroness and Whitechapel have their music distributed in Australia by the Wollongong-based Riot! Entertainment. Riot! services releases by labels like Nuclear Blast, Relapse, Season of Mist, Metal Blade, Earache and more. It is also a label in its own right, with about a dozen local bands signed along with several international acts like Ace Frehley, Fozzy and Black Label Society.
Chris Maric is the national publicity manager for Riot, and well aware of the difficulty in getting the media interested in heavy metal music.
“The dailies and radio really only want to talk to Alice Cooper. Or Ace Frehley. He did Jono and Dano and they mentioned he had a new album out — because I made sure they did — but they were playing ‘Rock N Roll All Nite’ in the background and the whole interview was about the KISS days,” he says, before acknowledging, “but that’s how the media is no matter who it is. Even if it was Chisel, it would be about The Last Stand, which was quarter of a century ago.”
When Slash was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph’s Kathy McCabe this week, the focus was on his solo album. Over on Channel 7’s Morning Show however, Molly Meldrum instead concentrated on Guns N Roses, a band Slash left in 1996. His new album was only mentioned in passing by Larry Emdur in the intro to the story. Slash debuted at #6 on the national chart.
Triple M is the largest Australian commercial radio network that specialises in the so-called “active rock” format, which covers almost everything in the rock vein from classics to current tunes. In recent years, the network’s Sydney station has struggled in the ratings, changing on-air teams and programming frequently and even falling behind the dismal placings of Vega FM at one point. While currently doing well in the key 25-39 demographic, it is consistently beaten in other age-groups by JJJ, WSFM and Classic Rock, the latter two of which play the same music as Triple M.
“On the music page of [the Triple M] website,” Maric goes on, “they had 15 bands listed, and all of them were safe: Green Day, Foo Fighters, Bon Jovi, Nickleback, Nirvana, U2 — boring arena rock.”
According to Maric, one of the station’s marketing guys once took a poll in the mall under World Square in Sydney, where the studios are located.
“He asked blokes what they liked about Triple M, and they said they didn’t listen, because they wanted to hear Pantera and Slayer and Machine Head and Killswitch Engage, and Triple M didn’t play any. When he played [management] the tape, they thought he must have done it in the main street of St Marys.”
Triple M’s night-time announcer Ugly Phil O’Neil has been known to squeeze a few metal tracks into his shows whenever he can and is considerably well-versed in the genre. O’Neil even turned up at the Australian Metal Awards night in November last year. When he interviewed Zakk Wylde recently, he also played the Ozzy song “Miracle Man”.
“He used to do Kerrang! Radio in the UK for a few years, so he’s not completely clueless when it comes to the bands,” Maric says of O’Neil. ”And all of his producers are metalheads! They even suggested to the program directors, ‘What about TOOL?’. And they went, ‘TOOL! They’re tools!’”
Both of TOOL’s last two albums debuted in Australia at #1 and their tours sell out immediately, but even this level of popularity isn’t enough for the nation’s biggest “active rock” station to give them air-time.
A decade ago, Triple M, Sony Music and the now-defunct local version of Kerrang! Magazine put together a show emulating Britain’s Kerrang! Radio, which these days is a national digital rock station in the UK playing everything from emo to death metal. The music was supplied by Sony and Kerrang!, whose editor Rod Yates was a presenter.
“It ran for a couple of weeks,” Maric says. He was working for Sony at the time and spent a few months developing the concept. “Then one night one of the general managers was driving home and was tuned in. In Flames came on, and as soon as Anders went ‘Brrrrrrrrreeeeeeeee’, he pretty much just – like Packer did with Doug Mulray when he did that show of naughty clips on TV – just rang up and said, ‘Get that shit off my station!’. And that was it.”
Rugby league writer and heavy metal fan Steve Mascord tells a similar story of Triple M’s indifference.
“I shot their program director an email last year because I was told by a lot of people that they would go for it,” he says. “I said to them, ‘You’re putting a lot more footy shows on air and you’ve got a bloke like Eric Grothe who’s a mad metal fan, why not have a show late at night that combines both?’ If they had a name like Grothe doing it, they’d get a sponsor for sure. Jamie Angel called me back, but he didn’t go out of his way. It was more of a courtesy call. And I said in the email that these bands sell so many concert tickets. It seems like a no-brainer to me.”
Radio is a cut-throat industry, and program managers believe they know what’s best for their stations. But Maric and Mascord are right in that the sales figures for both recorded music and concert tickets show that heavy metal is getting more popular than ever.
In 2008, Iron Maiden sold out Sydney’s 17,000 seat Acer Arena in less than 10 minutes. The same year, Slipknot scored a #1 album in Australia – both their previous albums hit #2 — Trivium peaked at #4 with Shogun and even Opeth scored a #7 slot. All with barely a mention outside the independent music press. The main talking point for the Iron Maiden tour was that their private jet was piloted by singer Bruce Dickinson. There was barely a mention of their 70 million album sales. News of Metallica’s forthcoming tour was on every news outlet in the country when it was officially announced. Channel [V] even played “Enter Sandman” a couple of times – during the day. Since then, it has hardly been mentioned.
In many countries, heavy metal is considered a serious musical genre to the point where some nations have a metal category in their annual music awards. Even the Grammys have categories for hard rock and heavy metal. The closest the ARIA Awards had was Best Alternative Release, a category that hasn’t existed since 2001.
It isn’t as if there are no domestic metal bands doing well. Psycroptic toured Europe, the US and South East Asia in 2009 and will likely do so again after the completion of their fifth album later this year. Parkway Drive have toured the world almost constantly since 2005 and are currently in the middle of yet another a massive tour across Europe and the US. Their album Horizons peaked at #6 on the chart in 2007, higher than all but two of the nominees for the ARIA Best Independent Album award. Parkway Drive wasn’t even nominated.
At least the Hobart press hasn’t forgotten Psycroptic, Tasmania’s most successful musical export since The Paradise Motel. The Sunday Tasmanian ran a feature on them in March as they geared up for their national tour with Decapitated.
Steve Mascord is a journalist with Rugby League Week and the Sydney Morning Herald, but twenty years ago he wrote about metal for magazines like On the Street and Hot Metal.
“Back when I was a kid working as a sports writer for AAP there was literally no one in the media who was a metal fan,” he says. “No one was interested in it, until one day there was a bit of a riot at a Metallica concert back in 1989, and they got me to come in and cover it. I turned up in a suit, which I think disappointed them a bit, but I was working as a sports writer! But now, a lot of those guys like me who were just starting out back then, who’d grown up listening to metal in the 80s, are now in the upper levels of the media. I’ve been following the AC/DC tour, and this is probably the first tour they’ve ever done here where there’s been no disparaging comments from anyone about how the fans are just total bogans and whatever else. The media has just been really supportive.”
Glenn Dyson noticed the same thing.
“Back in ’91 on the Razors Edge Tour — I was 18 at the time — there was a lot of negative publicity. At the Entertainment Centre, everyone who went in actually got searched! 45,000 at Subiaco Oval the other night, and not a single person was searched. Not that they could have with that many people there. But it was almost like a family outing, compared with 20 years ago when they were searching everyone for knives! It’s a massive turn-around.”
That kind of acceptance doesn’t seem to extend to the more extreme end of the market. Dyson’s Perth-based company Soundworks Touring has put on over two dozen tours in the last five years. Now perhaps the most prolific of the country’s metal touring operations, he never rates a mention outside of the street press.
“There’s nothing in the papers, nothing on the radio here,” he says. “You never get any postive stuff coming out of it apart from the punters who go along and enjoy it and thank you for bringing the bands out. And the venues, when you sell out the venues, they’re quite happy. The street press often review the shows the following week, but from the mainstream media, there’s never a single thing, ever. It’s like we don’t exist.”
Steve Mascord admits that there is most likely a reluctance to support extreme metal among the media. In his opinion, the biggest hurdle for metal is that the people who make the decisions just don’t know enough about the subject to consider it newsworthy.
“The key thing is that it’s not really reporters, it’s decision makers in news rooms who decide,” he explains. “A guy who’s a news director at a TV station might have had a casual interest in AC/DC as a kid but he might have preferred Midnight Oil. But if a reporter loves AC/DC and tells him they’re coming to town, the news director will agree it’s a good story and the reporter will get his way. But if the reporter is into Slayer, and the news director has never heard them and just thinks they’re noise, he won’t run a story on them. That’s where it becomes a bit self-perpetuating, because Slayer never got any press when he was a kid, and AC/DC did. And so it’s very slow to break down those prejudices.”
He also asks why it is that there doesn’t seem to be that many extreme metal fans at the right levels in the media.
“I think one question to answer is why do people who listen to the more accesible metal and hard rock get involved in the mainstream media, and the people who follow the more extreme end of it don’t tend to become so influential? The record sales are comparable, so I don’t know what the answer to that would be.”
“Well I don’t watch Sunrise or anything, but Alice Cooper’s been on there, and Kiss,” says Dyson. “And they’re still heavy of course, but you’ll never see a Cannibal Corpse or a Suffocation or an Arch Enemy because the powers aren’t into it. And also because they probably think it’s not suitable for a mainstream audience. Which is a shame. Metal’s been around for a long time and it has a massive, loyal following.”
So even with metal bands charting higher and selling more tickets in Australia than ever before, don’t expect to see As I Lay Dying splashed across the front page of your newpaper’s entertainment lift out anytime soon.