“You’re a target market, freak boy, get over it” (a.k.a.: Metal as marketing)

Was it the Quiznos “metal” commercial or the Opeth beer steins that threw me over the top?

Perhaps it was the Slayer Christmas sweaters (although, to be fair, those might have been a joke).

Metal fans like to celebrate their identity as, well, metal fans. I’m not knocking that — I have been listening to metal since I was 12 (which was 30 years ago, if you must know, my two loyal readers) — so I agree there’s a certain “lifestyle” element in metal that is lacking is musical genres like pop, classical, jazz and the blues. When the fans in Sam Dunn’s excellent “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey” spoke about being part of a tribe, I didn’t laugh. I understood their point of view.

But all the romanticizing that metal fans engage in about the genre obscures an important point — namely, that metal is a commercial business, which has a goal of selling products to consumers.

Those consumers, dear reader, are you. You are a target market, the same way little old ladies are target markets for those electric wheelchair scooters you see advertised on daytime TV.

The goal of records companies, concert promoters and the bands themselves is to sell you something — a record, a ticket, a T-shirt or an mp3 download. If they don’t sell you something — if you download the album for free or buy a bootleg T-shirt in the concert venue parking lot, the label and band go belly up. They sell, or they die.

But in a niche, “lifestyle” genre like metal, is it possible for business to go too far? Is there a point where commercialization of metal becomes the antithesis of what the genre purports to stand for?

In other words, how much marketing is acceptable for fans of a genre that is partly built on the perception of being non-commercial? Does too much marketing of metal become, bluntly, not metal?

I don’t have a concrete answer — and I admit my opinions on the subject are contradictory. Why, for example, do I think it’s fine to own an Opeth T-shirt, while simultaneously thinking the idea of buying Opeth beer and whiskey glasses is ridiculously “not-metal”?

Too much marketing kills metal — as we know from past experience. The massive commercialization of “hair metal” in the 1980s (led mostly by MTV), led to a predictable backlash from fans who fled the hair scene and gravitated toward death metal or toward “grunge,” — a genre which was really just metal by another name.

The pattern repeated itself in the early 1990s; grunge became the “real” metal, opposed to the “false” and “pop” metal of the hair bands. But like hair metal, grunge couldn’t survive the overcommercialization of the genre; the minute faded flannel shirts began flooding into Gap stores — and the moment the music industry began churning out Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains copycats like Candlebox, Silverchair and Puddle of Mudd — the grunge movement collapsed.

Grunge and metal audiences overlapped because fans of both genres were fans for something they believed was “real” in the sense that it was more than just entertainment or a product line. When hair metal and grunge were inevitably over-commercialized — when they became the product lines they were created to either protest against or ignore — they lost credibility with audiences.

Maybe that’s why the Opeth shot glasses have rubbed so many the wrong way (check out the comments on Opeth’s Facebook page to get a taste); the illusion of the “real” is fragile — too much direct marketing of non-traditional metal products threatens to puncture that illusion for metal fans.

Pop was never a “real” genre in the sense that people build identities around it. The same is true for jazz, classical music and even the blues — the “realness” of the blues comes from its history, not from any form of identity if conveys on the listener.

The only “real” genre that seems to withstand the withering effects of overcommercialization is hip-hop, which is built — at least somewhat — on the glorification of material success. It’s hard for the “lifestyle enclave” of hip-hop to be threatened by commercialization when part of that lifestyle directly involves the worship of “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Despite the commercial aspect of hip-hop, we can’t deny that many fans of rap and hip-hop see their enclave as being “real” as early Nirvana devotees saw grunge. Early rap stars like Public Enemy referred to rap as the “CNN of the ghetto,” and the best hip-hop still reflects the thoughts and experiences of its audience. There’s still a serious core to hip-hop that resists the crass commercial sire song of lesser artists. In that regard, “serious” hip-hop and “serious” metal have more in common than many fans of either genre perhaps realize.

I find myself thinking that being a hard-core metal fan requires a certain amount of doublethink — fans are required to believe metal is not a commercial enterprise, even as marketing is directed to them. It’s a thin line for the metal industry to walk. Too much product-pushing threatens to push away fans.

The goal, then, is to mass-market to people who have at least part of their identity tied up in the belief that they are nonconformists.

You can’t do that by hawking shot glasses, subs or sweaters.

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