Metal Blade: Brian Slagel Explains How His Dominant Label Finds New Talent. Story by J. Bennett.
In 1982, suburban L.A. metal fanatic and record store employee Brian Slagel bankrolled studio sessions for his favorite local bands and released the Metal Massacre compilation. One of those bands was a group of young headbangers who called themselves Metallica. Just like that, Metal Blade Records was born. Metal Massacre III surfaced in 1983, featuring a little band called Slayer. Metal Blade soon went on to become one of the biggest independent metal labels in the world, releasing albums from underground superstars like Cannibal Corpse, GWAR and King Diamond. Today, they boast a roster that includes such international heavyweights as Behemoth, Amon Amarth and Pentagram. “You know, it’s funny,” say Slagel, “the way we find bands now probably hasn’t changed a whole lot over the course of the years. People we know—friends, record storeowners, promoters—see bands and they recommend them to us. A lot of times our own bands will recommend other bands that they’ve played with on tour. Predominantly that’s how we hear about bands, and that’s going all the way back to the early days. Back then, you’d have to wait for somebody to send a demo tape in the mail. Now everything is a lot easier and quicker. You hear about a band and you can instantly check out a song online. But the way we find them is the same.”
Like most record labels, Metal Blade is inundated with demos from aspiring acts. “We do listen to everything that people send us, but it’s somewhat rare that we find stuff that way,” Slagel explains. “Word of mouth goes a long way, though. I always tell bands that they should get involved in their local scene, because that’s probably gonna help them get signed more than anything else. But if you’re a band sending out demos, you don’t need to put together a flashy package. If anything, the slicker it looks, the less appealing it is. And make sure you put your best song first. We’ll sometimes get demos with like two-minute intros. Don’t do that. Put your best foot forward and get to the point.”
With music sales—especially those of CDs—down precipitously over the last few years, Slagel says that Metal Blade has had to become more discerning when signing new bands. “It’s becoming really difficult to break a new act these days because you just cannot get the CDs in the shops,” he says. “With the bigger bands, stores will bring them in, but with new bands it’s difficult and over the last few years it’s gotten harder and harder to do that. In that sense, yes, we definitely have to be really careful when we’re signing new bands. They have to understand that they have to go out and work; they have to tour, and they have to make sure they use social media to their advantage.”
Slagel must be doing something right. Despite ubiquitous cries about the death of the music industry, Metal Blade is stronger than ever. “It’s interesting because in all the pessimism and dark talk, the last four or five years have been some of the best years we’ve ever had,” he says. “So while CDs are down overall, they’re not down for us as much as you would think. And of course I have to thank the metal kids for that. They understand that they have to support this music.”
Brian Slagel discusses three recent Metal Blade signees and why the label got involved with them.
Origin: Detroit, Michigan
Style: Melodic thrash
“Battlecross is interesting because we did what we call a development deal with them. That’s when the band has a piece of product already finished, and we’ll pick it up and distribute it for them. It works well for us because there’s not a whole lot of upfront costs. It means we can spend a little more time and effort in promoting the band. We loved the way the band sounded—it’s a very melodic sound, even with the heavier vocals, which is kind of an interesting subgenre thing that’s happening. And they’re a case study as far as a band that has used social media perfectly to get where they’re getting now. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—they really use them well and they’re really active on those sites. That led them in part to getting on that Five Finger Death Punch tour, and now they’re doing a bunch of other big stuff. They’ve done a phenomenal job in [the social media] department.”
Origin: Pasadena, CA
Style: Traditional heavy metal
“They’re a local band, which is something we rarely find these days. Thin Lizzy is one of my all-time favorite bands, and when I first heard Gypsyhawk, they had a real Thin Lizzy vibe, with the dual guitar harmonies and stuff. There seems to be a whole scene now that goes back to the late 1970s/early 1980s metal/rock kind of thing, which I’m personally a huge fan of. We heard Gypsyhawk’s first record and thought it was really good. Then we heard some demos of stuff they were working on and we thought they were doing something pretty special, so we decided to work with them. They’re a great live band, and they have the right attitude. They’re out working really hard, and that’s what you need these days. You can make a great record, which is the most important part, but you also gotta go out and make things happen. They’re doing that.”
Origin: Rhode Island
“The lead singer of this band we have called Primordial is named Alan [Averill], and we have kind of an A&R thing going with him. He’s over in Europe and there’s so many good bands coming out of Europe these days, so he helps us find bands. But what’s funny is that he actually found Pilgrim in the US. They were really underground—I think he actually sent us a cassette that they had done—and they play this kind of doomy stoner rock. Again, they’re hugely influenced by that late ’70s/early ’80s metal stuff—it really comes through in some of the riffs. They’re so good, and the whole staff was really into it. We initially put it out through Alan’s label [Poison Tongue], but we’re working on having them graduate to Metal Blade proper.”