D. Randall Blythe is the singer of Virginian metal band Lamb of God. The group's most recent release is 2015's VII: Sturm und Drang.
Earlier this year, I got wind of a two-day mini-tour headlined by my buddies, the French metal giants Gojira. I love Gojira and have publicly supported them from the second I first heard them, but what made me decide that I had to attend these shows were the opening bands: Oni, Code Orange and Deafheaven. This was a heavily-stacked and highly-diverse bill; something interesting enough to make me want to leave my surf shack for a few days. Also, these three bands are coming up in a musical climate vastly different than the one my band, Lamb of God, started in, and I wanted to see how they were navigating the constantly shifting and treacherous waters of the modern music business.
As a long-term professional musician working in today's increasingly cynical world, I fight daily against the bitter trap lying in wait for all of us older band dudes: the dreaded "these-damn-kids-today-don't-have-a-clue-about-real-music-the-old-days-were-so-much-better-everything-sucks-now" mentality. No one wants to hear yet another creaky old timer bitching about how everything has gone to hell, and besides that, it's not true. There is still tons of amazing music being made. In fact, there's more music being made now than ever before, BUT (and this is a big "but") with the massive increase in musical output, it's getting harder and harder to find bands that stand out from the thousands of others. And if making music is how you earn a living, while it's true that everyone has always been fighting for their piece of the same pie, now the pie is a lot smaller, the chefs are a lot stingier and there's a whole lot more starving people than when my band started. It's always been tough to turn a buck in the music game, but the reality is it's a lot tougher for young bands now. Allow me to wheeze away for a second and explain my viewpoint.
One of the most common questions I've been asked over the years by both aspiring musicians and hack journalists is "What advice can you give to a young band just starting out?" My immediate answer was (and is to this day) "Don't do it. The odds are against you. Go to college or learn a trade so that you can get a job and actually pay your bills." This pisses people off, but honestly, I'm not trying to be a jerk or discourage them from playing music at all — I'm merely laying some fiscal reality on them. I encourage everyone to play music — it's great fun and good for the soul — but I'm never going to lie and say your chances of actually making money from it are anything other than dismal.
More appropriate questions to ask would be "How do we become the best band we can?" "How can we build a loyal audience?" Besides the obvious (practice, practice, practice; play anytime, anywhere, to anyone who will watch you; and always give it 110 percent), my answer would be this: "Be different than everyone else." This answer is more crucial now than ever before because of one thing: technology.
We are both blessed and cursed to live in an increasingly hyper-connected world. With the advent of the internet and cellular phone technology, a virtually endless amount of audio and video music files are readily available to anyone who has a computer and/or cellphone. The amount of music instantly available at the touch of a 4.7-inch screen is staggering, something I never could have imagined when I first became involved in the underground music scene in the 1980s. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a William S. Gibson novel. I love it.
It's also easier and cheaper than ever before for bands to write, record and release music. Band members don't even have to be on the same continent to make a record, much less hunkered down together in the same studio. My own band has approved album mixes from tour... in fucking Australia. To young people today, that might not seem like a big deal at all, but trust me — it is. When my first band recorded our demo to two-inch tape, it wasn't out of any desire for superior analog sound quality or some sort of hipsteresque sense of nostalgia — it was because that was the only thing available. We listened to the mix on the studio speakers, then got one single cassette copy and gave it the old car stereo test. We passed the tape around between band members until my girlfriend's crappy tape deck ate it — end of demo (until we drove down and hassled the engineer for another copy). Hard drive disasters do happen from time to time, but for the most part, a band's recorded music is safe in perpetuity (as long as the internet doesn't collapse), and that is a wonderful thing.
But here comes the bummer: all this amazing science fiction–style stuff comes at a high price. Cheap recording technology has resulted in a bewilderingly massive amount of music available, and while I believe more music is always better for the world, there's almost too much to choose from. File sharing, meanwhile, has virtually eradicated one already historically meager form of revenue for bands: record sales. In response to declining sales, many smaller labels have folded and the larger labels' budgets have shrunk, which means less money for bands to record with and smaller tour support funds. Another label response to their decreasing coffers is the dreaded "360 deal." (Just Google it, as it's too distasteful for me to even explain beyond this analogy: bend over and grab your ankles, bitch.) And the paid streaming services which are now becoming the preferred method of music consumption for many? Well, let's just say somebody is getting paid a nice chunk of change — it sure as hell ain't the artists, though.
In an artistic sense, the instantaneous availability of almost every tune ever written has also killed something that has historically produced and nurtured tons of great bands: the unique regional music scene. When anything is available to anyone anywhere, bands in local scenes no longer ferment in their own isolated juices, influencing and learning from each other, all the while building a signature local sound. In this scorched earth data overload climate, never again will we see the fertile environments that birthed musical giants like the Bay Area thrash scene, or the D.C. punk scene that Dischord Records documented so well, or the street aggression of the mighty New York hardcore scene, or the close-knit swampy metal/punk hybrid bands of New Orleans. How could there be, when most young musicians' sonic influences arrive instantaneously via the vast World Wide Web, instead of the older players and peers in their own community? Me pining for the good old days aside, I think this has led to a decrease in originality and distinctive tone in underground music. (For Pete's sake, is the term "underground" even valid anymore? Music can't really be considered "underground" when anyone anywhere can easily obtain it without leaving their couch, now can it?) Instead of the distinct flavors of unique regional music scenes, we now have an endless and bland global electronic list of "subgenres", which quickly become codified, sad, little parodies of themselves as soon as a few of the early defining and groundbreaking bands gain a little traction with a wider audience. Then, via the magic teaching tool of YouTube, the mimic monkeys immediately come whooping out of the woodwork, clutching their brand-new bag of copped licks and grinding the joy right out of those tunes.
If all of that stuff sounds like I'm being a cranky old Negative Nancy who refuses to accept the changing times, I'm not. I'm just pointing out some difficulties that young bands face today that I wasn't up against. And like I said, there is a lot of great new music being made these days, and I honestly want to see these younger bands succeed. I don't have any grand answers to the challenges of being a new band in the modern era, but watching Oni, Code Orange and Deafheaven I did take note of what they were doing right. They all worked hard to gain new fans, which is how you sell merch, which is the key to making a living as a band today (honestly, that's it — I am really just a glorified black T-shirt salesman.) What exactly did they do right?
First of all, each band took the stage and didn't half-ass it. All of them were musically tight, and I mean really tight — this is only achieved by constant touring and rehearsal. There are no shortcuts. But merely being musically tight isn't enough to hold a crowd's attention (except amongst some specialized and highly geeked-out music nerd circles.) Oni, being the youngest group on the bill, came out first; neither venue was more than half full when they started, but their singer, Jake Oni, immediately engaged the crowd that was there, getting them to respond with raised fists and loud yells. This is critical for a new band: get the audience to pay attention enough to interact with the group. People always remember interactive participation more than passive observation. Code Orange took the stage with unbridled ferocity, displaying one of the most savage, aggressive vibes I have seen in years — the band looked like they were ready to eat the audience. And Deafheaven's frontman, George Clarke, stalks around exuding a creepy psychosexual vibe that clearly freaked out some unsuspecting kids mashed up against the barricade — it was hilarious to watch. All three bands put on a show that in one way or the other caused at least part of the audience to stop checking Facebook long enough to check them out. This is no small feat these days — if you don't believe me, look around the next time you are at a show and count the number of faces you see bathed in the sickly glow of their pocket Jesus.
Second, musically they all offered something a bit different than the average heavy band. Oni could fall under the "prog-metal" umbrella, but due to having a member from Grand Cayman, not to mention recording their album there (yes, a Caribbean metal band — who would have thought?), some subtle island vibes and soca rhythms seeped into the riff madness. They also are the only metal band I have ever seen with a xylosynth player (I know it sounds weird to have a freaking electronic xylophone player, but the dude shreds and it works with their music). Pittsburgh's Code Orange are a product of the American hardcore scene, but besides bruising breakdowns, they incorporate a large variety of influences into their bludgeoning sound, from metal to industrial to rock. Harsh electronics and brutal noise/negative space are stabbed dagger-like into their song structures to great effect, creating a discordant wall of noise that sounds like a nightmare come to life, not a run-of-the-mill hardcore band. And the Bay Area's Deafheaven's epic black-metal-dipped-in-luscious-shoegaze tunes are a pure example of a band smartly employing musical movements and dynamics. Their songs are like a beautifully cooked multi-course meal, not a quick trip to 7-11 for some junk food. Of course, all these bands have influences (as all bands do), but the way they use them makes them stand out. This is important.
Third, they all were cool offstage. This means I didn't see or hear anyone whining or complaining about their place on the bill. I didn't see anyone acting like a jerk to fans, the other bands or the venue employees. I didn't hear anyone bitching while they were humping gear out the backdoor of the venue. Furthermore, all the bands seemed stoked to be there, and I believe that they honestly were, because, really, getting to play shows to hundreds of people, even if a lot of them have never heard your band before, is fucking awesome. I know — I did it for years. The "being cool" offstage factor is way more important to the success of a band than people probably think. If a young band leaves a bad taste in a headlining band's mouth by acting like spoiled entitled little jerks, that headlining band won't keep it to itself. It's a small music scene, we all know each other, and we see each other often. When we do, we talk shop. Don't be a dick, or no one will carry you out and give you a shot at snatching up some of their audience.
Put on a good show, be different and be cool — these three requirements aren't particular to today's protean music industry. They have always been applicable, so in some ways, nothing has really changed at all. But for the reasons I outlined earlier (and many more), things are tougher for young bands to support themselves these days, so they are more important now than ever. It might not be fair, but you younger musicians have to be better and work even harder than we old guys did. I wish all you young guns the best of luck — the way things are, you're gonna need it. The (strangely) good news is that we live in an incredibly divisive time right now — while that might be bad for society in general, it's always been great for new punk, metal and hardcore music. I think we're going to see that paradigm manifest for sure over the next few years. As the almighty Bad Brains put it: "the youth are getting restless." I look forward to hearing their output.
(And oh yeah … Gojira crushed it.)