Social Media and Metal
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Over at Artisan Norway, Jens Fredrik Ryland has been musing on social media lately. There isn’t much to disagree with in his post; it’s pretty rational and straight forward. I think the punchline, essentially, is:
Social Media is really all about branding and marketing. And for bands like ICS Vortex or Borknagar it’s a brilliant opportunity to take a bigger part of how the band is presented, to form the image and to communicate directly with the audience. I know some people are sceptics, but what is it you really want to achieve as a band? When you release an album your goal should be to play concerts and with that meet the audience. And Social Media platforms allows us to interact with the audience we can’t reach in concert.
Platforms like Twitter rank very high in ease-of-use. 140 characters is limiting (call it a McConversation), sure, but I can remember corresponding with bands I liked via hand-written letters. Thinking back to those days, that was a lot of energy to expend. Nobody had a lightweight micro-blogging platform to compare it with, but the investment was still substantial. Let’s say you wanted to correspond with just ten fans a day; I’m sure most sane people would choose Twitter and Facebook as their preferred medium over snail mail.
However, I think especially in a genre like heavy metal, social media brings with it certain artistic compromises. In the end, technology will prevail; that is simply how it goes. Reactionary luddites are wasting their time. But let me try and explain this compromise in a somewhat roundabout way.
Everybody knows Opeth these days, but if you discovered them early enough, this is the extent to what you knew about the guys behind the music (note that I think this image is from a more recent re-release of the album; it came out originally in 1995):
In the late 1990s I spent a fair amount of time wondering about this picture. Who the hell were these guys? This isn’t trivial: the mystique of the actual musicians themselves added to the atmosphere of the album. (Side note, I love buying albums on MP3, but boy do I miss holding the artwork in my hands.) Opeth’s Orchid changed me; it opened my eyes to things I didn’t think were possible in metal. I know a lot of people had this experience with Blackwater Park, and I’m not interested in that discussion here, but for me I don’t just recall the music; I recall the image. More precisely: I recall the silhouette of one.
Fast forward to the present day, and Opeth is in NYC with Katatonia for two shows at Webster Hall. Katatonia is a very important band to me, as well. Just this year I traveled from NYC to London to see their 20th anniversary show, where they played 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down in its entirety. So Katatonia finishes their set, and the set-change for Opeth is underway. Opeth’s backdrop is a larger-than-life portrait of the cover to their latest, Heritage:
I don’t have to point it out, do I? What a difference 15 years makes. From mere silhouettes on the back to their faces on the front; it’s quite a contrast. And let me be clear on this: I’m not a reactionary, and I don’t expect a band to put out the same album for the entirety of its career. In fact, bands that can evolve and continue to release good material are the salt of the earth. You will note again that I flew to London to see Katatonia; by 2001 they were not even really a metal band anymore. Artists have this right to change, and the fans have the right to stop listening when they please. But back to the other night, here I was at the set-change staring up at this picture. A picture that, while quite strange in its own right, is devoid of the band’s earlier magical mystique. I ended up leaving Webster Hall before they went on.
Ultimately, this is much like what I see as one of the downsides to bands using social media: the loss of the mysteries behind the art. No, I’m not a teenager anymore and I understand that these are people too, but I’d prefer not to have to reckon with Ihsahn’s breakfast. To bring it back to Jens’ earlier point, the branding and marketing can, in my view, reach a saturation point. A point that is detrimental to an artistic aura.
Last year, my girlfriend and I went to the Twin Peaks Festival in Washington state. There’s a guy who runs a definitive site dedicated to the show yet religiously does not attend the festival. Apparently this is due to the fact that some of the actors regularly appear at the festival, and he doesn’t want to have to face them as real people. I’m deeply sympathetic to not wanting to peer behind this curtain as well. I worry that social media doesn’t just allow you to peer, either; instead, it tears the curtain down, lights it on fire, and everybody dances around it in the nude. Sure, I know, just don’t follow those accounts, then. It’s a fair objection, but again, I’m not interested in being a reactionary. I’m just trying to point out a problem that I see. I’ll live with it.
This probably won’t resonate with some. It’s fine with me if you listen to Jay-Z. But Jay-Z is sugar water. He said it himself: “I’m not a business man; I’m a business, man”. That line is as clever as it is true. I recently chatted with someone I met who works in social media advertising. I asked her about some accounts she manages, and soft drinks came up. I’m sure there are plenty of metal musicians out there who think of themselves as businesses as well; I’m not an idealist. But extreme music attracts an inordinately high percentage of people who care deeply about the artistry first and foremost. And quite often, it’s a very dramatic and painfully self-serious art (we make peace with this and love it all the same). But I’m not sure there is a hashtag to represent that.