By Daniel Kelly
Ten studio albums, four live albums, a cover album, five extended plays, 37 singles, nine Grammy Awards, six number one albums, one questionable album with Lou Reed, 120 million records and a career spanning almost 40 years.
All this from a thrash metal band- a genre which received no radio attention and even now is seldom seen in the mainstream.
Metallica became one of the greatest acts of all time. What can we learn?
I’m no musicologist, but I think its fair to say Metallica isn’t the most technical of metal acts. James Hetfield’s yell, though tuneful and satisfying doesn’t have much in the way of range compared to his contemporaries. I can’t bring to mind any of Kirk Hammett’s wah-soaked guitar solos compared to a Jimmy Paige or Brian May and Lars Ulrich is better known for suing his fans than for his skills as a drummer. So what does Metallica offer in the way of music?
Riff after riff after riff after riff. The writing process is stripped down to its bare essence and each song is built from a core principle- a belter of a riff. From those catchy riffs comes more than a couple of heavy metal anthems.
Timbre? Doesn’t matter. Texture? Not important. Their gear and producer could change with every album yet they would remain unmistakably Metallica. Listen to Seek and Destroy, Ride the Lightning, Leper Messiah and Enter Sandman and look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that they aren’t the most catchy riffs you’ve ever heard. Its sticky, unexpected but above all else its damn simple.
They also (to borrow an expression) have an umbilical relationship with their audience. Even if at times it can be tumultuous, Metallica know that ultimately it’s their core fanbase which will keep them where they are. Through members-only clubs such as the Met club, they can interact with their core fans directly on the internet and give them priority access to tickets, music and merchandise.
More importantly (and something John has touched on in his planning masterclass) they stand for something. When they first came onto the scene in Los Angeles on the early 80s they stood in opposition to the makeup and mundane lyricism which defined heavy music of the era. They appealed to the spotty angry teenager because they were spotty angry teenagers and had no fear about alienating some music fans if it meant building a loyal following and a core fanbase. It’s important to stand for something otherwise you appear to have no message and there’s no reason for anybody to care what you have to say. You end up with Kylie-Jenner-Pepsi-style dross and ultimately appeal to nobody.
After their hiatus trying to build their listenership in the early 2000s with ‘Load’ and ‘St. Anger’ they realised that their values and interests were better served doing what they do best for the people who made them who they are. In 2008 they enlisted design agency Turner Duckworth to create an album cover which represented Metallica’s brand of thrash. Sure, the album cover for Death Magnetic isn’t subtle- but it IS Metallica. It uses the semiotics which people associate with the golden era of Metallica’s long career of headbanging. People knew it was classic Metallica without even hearing a single song.
Metallica probably are aware to some extent that hard work beats talent. They did gruelling tours in the 80s. They stayed up until 2 am in Los Angeles so they could call gig promoters in Europe. They tested their music in as many markets as possible and weren’t satisfied with staying in the underground circuit in Los Angeles. They wanted to see where their music worked and didn’t work. They showed their music to everybody who would listen. It showed too. Through what was essentially word-of-mouth, by the mid-80s, they were selling out arenas.
Finally – Metallica understood how a good partnership can catapult your brand to prominence. In 1986 they opened for Ozzy Osbourne on The Ultimate Sin tour. This lead to old-heads accepting Metallica as the dawning of a new chapter in heavy music, offering them some legitimacy. It also helped Ozzy attach himself to a hip new musical act, implying his finger was on the pulse of his chosen genre. Both bands had a shared goal and the partnership ended up being very beneficial for both bands.
Though they’re musicians Metallica has absolutely mastered the brand strategy, making their logo almost as recognisable as their chunky riffs and James Hetfield’s signature ‘YEAHHHH.’
Although I was always more of a Slayer fan myself.