The Mastermind of Metal Blade - A Conversation with Brian Slagel

M.DREW: Thirty years have gone by. Did you ever imagine when you started Metal Blade as a record store employee, that you would ever be where you are or as big as you are?
BRIAN SLAGEL, FOUNDER and CEO, METAL BLADE RECORDS: Never in a million years [laughs]. No way. Back then everything was so small, it was impossible to imagine.
M.D: To your mind, across three decades, what’s the best album you’ve ever released?
BS: That’s impossible to say because we’ve released so much stuff and my favorites change all the time. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s really asked me that question. There’s a lot of stuff that I like. I think it’s impossible to pick one specific one out of the thousands.
M.D: How about this, then. Out of the first few that you released, is there one that comes to mind as having really jumpstarted your label’s profile?
BS: I would say that the first thing that we did that probably started to take the label to the next level was “Show No Mercy” by Slayer. Which obviously is a landmark album for Metal Blade and for Slayer and everything else. Certainly out of the first couple years that we were doing it, that was the one that I thought ‘wow, this is a really great record,’ and felt like something more than the just the little underground theme we had happening that was starting to build.
M.D: Speaking of those early days of heavy metal, and obviously they’re not directly associated with Metal Blade anymore, but did you feel a sense of pride or impact when Metallica was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
BS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Those guys have been friends of mine since day one and they’ve been beyond incredibly nice about the role that I played in giving them their little start. I think it’s a pretty small role, but they’re like ‘look, if it wasn’t for you, none of this would have ever happened.’ They flew everybody out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies and all that stuff, and we had some good time to talk about it. They’ve had an unbelievably amazing career and they’re still very good friends of mine, and it’s amazing to be along for the ride to see them do this. It’s insane.
M.D: You’ve always been very humble when speaking about your impact on heavy metal’s emergence. Phrasing the question differently, what do you think Metal Blade’s part in metal’s popularity is historically, and who do you believe are some of your contemporaries in helping the genre become what it is?
BS: Well look, there’s so many components that go into making a genre as big as it is. Certainly, we’ve been lucky to have been around for a long time and put out some good records. From a fan’s point of view, from me being a fan first and foremost also, to see these bands come from nowhere and actually have careers and stuff, but it’s such a big – I think so many people play a role in a genre becoming big. Not only the labels, from Earache and Nuclear Blast and Roadrunner to all the small labels that played a role in it as well, to all the magazines and the radio shows and the TV shows, there are so many different parts of it that made this thing so big. And obviously the most important things are the fans. If it wasn’t for the fact that we have so many die hard fans who love this music it never would have become this big. It’s a real community effort, I think. I can’t pinpoint one area that made the music big; I think it was a massive effort of so many people pushing the ball up the hill.
M.D: For thirty years, Metal Blade has essentially remained independent, mostly free of major labels. How difficult has it been to be your own force over the years, and at any point were you tempted to sell into a major company?
BS: We were with Warner Brothers for a few years, from late 1989 to 1993, and there was definitely an incident that if it had gone a certain way, we probably would have had something like that happen to us at that point. But, the way things worked out, incidents happen, and obviously we’ve had a million offers over the years. For me, being at a major label early on in our formation and learning the good things and bad things about that, I just look at what we have here, to be able to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it, there’s no corporate board or anything we have to go to to be able to make anything happen. Just that freedom is worth more than anything else. To me, it’s never really been about the money, I make a nice living doing this, I’m very comfortable, I don’t care about that sort of thing as much. It’s more about the music and having the freedom to do what we want to do. Unfortunately, as we see, Roadrunner is a great example, if you sell completely to a major label, many things can happen [laughs].
M.D: Do you feel like maintaining your independence gave you a competitive advantage? Did it make you more agile in the marketplace?
BS: Certainly in the long haul it does. In the short term, when you’re competing, well, not really competing with the major labels in the ‘90s, that made things very difficult. It was hard for us to keep bands, it was hard for us to sign bands when you have the major labels out there throwing around lots of money, it was very difficult to compete against that. But on another level, it probably helped us survive a lot longer, because we can move at different things at different times without being bogged down by the whole corporate thing.
M.D: In all of your time with the genre, what’s been the biggest musical change you’ve witnessed in heavy metal?
BS: I think probably the biggest thing was the vocals. When all of the, however you want to talk about it, Cookie Monster vocals is one thing people like to say. But the really super heavy vocals. Once that started to come in – musically there’s been a lot of different vibes from fast and technical to this and music has always been one thing. But I think vocally, if you could draw the line, from clean vocals in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then the super heavy vocals. That’s the one that’s really changed, and the fact that you have all these really super heavy vocalists. The fact that so many bands have sold so many records with that style, nobody would have ever predicted. You would think singing in that style is super, super underground, but a lot of bands have sold a lot of records doing that.
M.D: As metal continues to evolve, it seems like there’s been a resurgence in heavy metal’s popularity in the past five or eight years, and musically that’s meant a bunch of different emerging trends. You cited the vocals, but of the musical trends, which ones do you think are good for the genre, and which ones do you not enjoy?
BS: For me, I grew up in the ‘70s, so I love that sort of Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath sort of stuff. Definitely a resurgence of that, and through the early ‘80s, Iron Maiden sort of stuff, there’s been a big resurgence of that. That sort of stuff I love, and there’s all these new bands coming out, In Solitude and Devil’s Blood and Gypsyhawk and so many cool bands who are doing this almost retro-y kind of thing. So I LOVE that. That’s stuff I really, really do like.

There’s some genres out there that are probably a little more commercial, and I’ve never been a big fan of the commercial side of things. I don’t have anything against it, it’s just not my cup of tea. Kind of commercially stuff that’s been coming out that I’m personally not that into, but look, at this point in time with the way the music industry is, I don’t care what sells, just so long as enough sells to keep the industry going, I’m happy for it.

M.D: When you started, it was LPs and cassette tapes, then CD’s and so forth. As time went by, how did your label adapt as the market went increasingly toward digital distribution?
BS: I think one thing we’ve learned over the years is that you have to change. You have to not be afraid to change. I grew up on vinyl, and when vinyl first started to go away in the mid-‘80s, I was like ‘no, vinyl’s not gonna go away, it’ll live forever!’ and I made the big mistake of making a lot of vinyl and we got it all shipped back to us pretty quickly [laughs]. We had a massive warehouse filled with vinyl at one point. I learned then that no matter what I think, change is gonna happen and you really do have to embrace that change. So I think moving into the digital age now, we’re trying to embrace as much as we can. Everything going on with the music industry now, we have to number one, have a really good relationship with your fans, that’s extremely important. And, you know, you have to put out good quality music. I think that’s one thing that has helped a little bit, and certainly has helped metal in the last few years, if you don’t put out something good, people won’t buy it. You have to put out quality product. We’ve been trying as hard as we can to do that, and I think we’ve been pretty lucky to be able to do that. We’ll see how everything goes. But it’s funny, you mentioned the digital market, and our sales through the U.S. are still eighty percent physical sales and twenty percent digital. Outside the U.S, it’s probably something like ninety-ten. Even though it’s changing for a lot of people, it hasn’t quite done that for us. Although every year it gets less and less for sales of a physical product.
M.D: Speaking of digital sales and distribution, there’s been a lot made in recent years over the idea of file sharing and music piracy. A couple of years ago, Metal Blade joined the RIAA, which has made a name for itself by pursuing litigation against file sharers. How, in your mind, is digital file sharing different from the early days of tape trading, which helped launch the careers of so many underground metal bands?
BS: We never really did join the RIAA. We were kind of piggy-backed in with some of companies that were distributing us. We never signed any paper, we never did that. We were just piggy-backed in, and next thing we knew we were listed on their website as being part of their thing and we thought ‘well, that’s interesting.’ [laughs]

That being said, the difference between file sharing now and tape trading in the old days is that I can’t make a million cassettes and share them with a million people. You can do that with the file sharing. So, it’s a tough question for me because I think music in general is probably more popular now that it’s ever been because more people have access to music than ever before and obviously that’s a great thing. And I think file sharing for people who want to check something out, or listen to it, or see if it’s any good or make sure it’s something that they want to buy is good, and if they like it they should go out and support it. But I think people fail to realize that this is a real thing, these are real people with real jobs and the bands are all struggling. I understand the ‘we hate the major labels, the major labels rip off their artists,’ there’s certainly a lot of teeth to that, but at our level, bands need every penny they can get to try to survive and make records. I just hope that people who like the music will support it. I think one of the reasons we’re lucky and metal is so strong and doing so well is that people do understand that and they are incredibly supportive. I can’t thank everyone enough and the artists the same way. We love the people involved in metal and the fact that they continue to support it.

M.D: For those on the outside looking in, what’s the difference between how a smaller or niche label maintains a relationship with their artists versus a larger label like Warner or Sony?
BS: If you’re on an independent label for the most part, you can call up the guy running the label at any point and talk to him about what’s going on what’s going on and sit down to have meetings with them. You don’t get that at a major. You can talk to you’re A&R guy, but the guys running the label would be rare to have that sort of relationship. So you have a more personal relationship with the guys who are controlling everything. We’re all fans, as well. Everybody who works at an independent label, everyone who works at our company as well, we’re all music fans, me included. I think it’s comforting for bands to know that they’re with people who understand the music, like the music and we can all relate to it. That’s definitely something you don’t get at a major label. We’re like a family here. You know everybody, everyone works together really well.
M.D: A lot of artists you’ve had over the years, from Slayer to the super early days of Metallica to GWAR and others, have gone on to sign with larger companies. Do you ever feel like your label is a farm that cultivates talent which then moves on and you get another young crop?
BS: Well, certainly in the ‘80s, we had to think of it that way. We were a very, very small label and independent labels in the ‘80s, that’s what we were. We were a farm system to the majors. I initially had no problem with that, I just wanted success for all these bands. What we learned through the ‘80s, I think we lost sixteen or seventeen bands to the majors and only three or four of them went on to have successful careers. In a lot of cases, for example Flotsam and Jetsam, went on to the majors, it didn’t work out, and they came back to us. That was another impetus for us moving to Warner Brothers is we did get tired of seeing bands go to the majors and not seeing those bands be successful. Over the course of the years, there’s only been a couple times now when we’ve had bands move on to majors. I think they understand what they get when they go there and you’ve seen all the “Behind the Musics” and everything else out there. In the world of the independents, we’re a much bigger label now than we ever have been, we have major distribution in all thirty territories, in a lot of ways we can compete fairly with the majors.
M.D: In your eyes, do you view the major labels as direct competition for Metal Blade, or do you see yourself more against the Nuclear Blasts and Century Medias and Victorys of the world?
BS: I don’t ever think of it really as a competition particularly. Especially when it comes to the metal labels. We all know each other, we all work together all the time, we’re all music fans. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is make metal bigger. We’re all happy if a band from one of the other labels becomes successful. So I don’t know that it’s really a competition. And the nature of it these days is, I can’t remember the last time we were trying to sign a band and there was a major label involved. You’d have to go all the way back to Korn or somebody like that where we were involved early and one of the majors got involved later. Definitely the dynamic of the game has changed so much now.
M.D: Looking at the scene around you, and putting you on the spot for a second, who are some of the bands not currently on your label that you really enjoy?
BS: Oh, there’s a lot of them. New bands, I like this band called Rival Sons, they’re on Earache, they’re really cool, I’m a huge fan of Coheed and Cambria, I’m a huge of Within Temptation and Arch Enemy, Hatebreed, Lamb of God, there’s a lot of bands not on our label that I’m a big fan of.
M.D: And absolutely putting you on the spot, who’s your favorite artist on your label currently?
BS: [laughs] I don’t know that there’s a favorite, but there’s a couple up-and-coming bands that I’m really excited about. This band from California called Gypsyhawk, they’re very much that seventies, Thin Lizzy sort of vibe.
M.D: They’re hitting the road with The Sword soon, right?
BS: Yeah, they’re doing a whole tour with The Sword, which is another band that I really like. I’m beyond happy that that’s a perfect tour for them. I’m really excited about [Gypsyhawk]. There’s another band called Satan’s Wrath that just put a record out, musically it’s super seventies and early eighties thrash, I think it’s really cool. I’m also really excited about the next In Solitude record. So there’s three up-and-coming bands that we signed that I really, really like.
M.D: As metal has continued to evolve, particularly in the digital era where anyone can hear anything they want, it seems like bands and promoters and whatnot have cast themselves into smaller and smaller subgenres of metal. To your mind, does this help bands target their audience more effectively, or does this divide the audience more than it needs to be?
BS: I think if you talk to any band, it’s pretty rare that they’re going to give themselves a label like that. It’s generally always the press or sometimes the fans trying to put someone in some subgenre. It’s been like forever. There’s really nothing I can do about it, that’s for sure. I guess it can’t help and can’t hurt. It certainly helps for someone who doesn’t know anything about a band to look at it and decide ‘well, what type of metal band is this?’ They’re black metal or thrash or whatever you want to call it. So at least you know coming in what it is. To a certain degree you can paint yourself into a corner a little bit, if people aren’t open-minded and say ‘well, I only like a certain type of metal, and I would never listen to another band from another genre.’ In that case, it does hurt it sometimes. But I mean look, this has been going on since 1983, or all the way back into the seventies even. Nothing anybody can do about it, it just is what it is. I mean, Metallica and Slayer were speed metal bands when they first came out. I think if you ask anyone now ‘are Metallica and Slayer speed metal bands?’ they go ‘what? What are you talking about?’ [laughs]
M.D: There’s a belief that that comes from a desire among metal fans and metal press to constantly have heard something no one else has heard, a sense of ‘undergrounder-than-thou.’ Do you think that’s where that comes from?
BS: Sure, absolutely! I actually love that because it’s always been this way in the metal world. I love that everybody’s so passionate and always trying to find the next thing, the next band. As a fan, I love doing that as well. I’m sure that that’s played a role in it, too. The other thing that is a positive I feel is that you have to have a scene, you know, seven or eight or nine different bands all doing something similar that helps push it along. If you go back into the eighties you had speed metal and then you had thrash metal and then you had death metal and metalcore and all these subgenres that became scenes. Then all these scenes became big and the bands became all more or less generic metal. But I think if you do have that sort of ‘all of us together, doing the same thing and we’re trying to make it work,’ that helps move it along. In that case, if you have a band that wants to call themselves something, and there’s a bunch of other bands in that subgenre, and it becomes a scene, it certainly doesn’t hurt in the long term.
M.D: I’ll let you go on this: thirty years in the business, if you had the chance, what’s the one thing you’d do differently, and what’s your greatest success?
BS: I try not to have too many regrets, I definitely try not to do that. If there was one thing I could go back and reverse differently, I mentioned this earlier, I would have stopped making vinyl a lot sooner. That almost put the label out of business, making all that vinyl and believing in it when I really shouldn’t have [laughs]. I was a young kid, what did I know? I would have changed that.

I think our greatest success is just being here thirty years later, still being a viable working label, especially in the climate that the music industry is now.

M. Drew

Music Editor

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