Life After Death Metal

For people who have spent their youth touring the world in death metal bands, trying to transition to normalcy is where things get tough.

Today in Tedium: Heavy metal is a young man’s game. Music has always had visible upsides, but the downsides are just as real. The ambient level of bravado that cloaks the industry is a problem when musicians are proportionally more likely to have mental health issues than those in nearly any other career. And now, with declining record sales, oppressive record labels, and the advent of YouTube monetization, more rock stars and death metal gods than ever are becoming disenchanted with the status quo and leaving the industry. But where do they go? What could possibly follow a life lived out in the euphoric spotlights of the stage, and the punishing trials of touring? Today’s Tedium analyzes life after the concert. — Fahad @ Tedium

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Metal Concert

(Vishu R. Nair/Unsplash)

From obscurity to fame, and back again

The archetypal story of the artist is deeply embedded in culture. It has something to do with sacrificing material pleasure in a pursuit of a vision, answering a call to a higher authority, and perhaps even starving, both literally and in the sense of being spiritually hungry. But up until the Renaissance being an artist was much like being a cobbler or carpenter—if you ended up as a painter or musician, it was because your family was in the business. No special place in the public imagination was afforded to you.

Thanks in part to figures like Titian and Michaelangelo, this cultural narrative began to change in the sixteenth century. Some artists began to see art as their vocation—literally, a divine calling from God, from the Latin vocare. This idea does seem to justify something of the ethereal mystery we ascribe to the creative process. Artists, we like to think, are separate from the world—they are eccentrics who operate at the margins of society; they don’t have the same needs as the rest of us. But what is potentially harmful about this narrative is that it glosses over the less sanitized realities of being an artist, particularly an artist in the twenty-first century. For an account of these, you could do a lot worse than the life of a heavy metal musician, and for that we turn to the band Carcass.

Pioneers of the death metal genre, Carcass had modest beginnings in rural Nottinghamshire in the ’80s. Guitarist Bill Steer formed several school bands in his teen years that eventually coalesced around a group of three guys, with a mutual interest in riffs and medically accurate lyrics. But Carcass were to have a hefty dose of good fortune: the band’s tenure happened to fall squarely in a golden age for heavy metal.

The early period was blurry and characterised by staccato success and failure, according to vocalist Jeff Walker: “None of the shows were sold out or anything. I remember Middlesbrough Town Hall being three-quarters empty.” The band were lucky enough to be located near Earache Records in Nottingham, a newly founded label that focused exclusively on extreme metal. Early demos were hurriedly put together into the 1988 debut album Reek of Putrefaction, drawing little attention at the time. But the band patiently honed their craft over the next two albums. The results were better critical reception, and albums that discreetly crept onto the UK Indie Chart. Things were beginning to look up.

It was a good time to be in rock n’ roll. The international touring infrastructure was already there, set up in the ’70s by pioneers Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, forged into a commercial machine in the ’80s by the likes of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer. Earache Records started booking bigger venues and getting the band on stellar lineups; 1989′s Grindcrusher Tour had the band supporting Napalm Death, and crowds grew from the low hundreds to the low thousands. Carcass was soon headlining the official pre-show party on the night before every Metallica show in the US. Reviewers gushed about their 1991 release being “exceptional … the torch-bearers to carry extreme metal to the masses.”

Carcass Band Photo

Carcass circa 1992. From left: Michael Amott, Jeff Walker, Ken Owen, Bill Steer.

Off the back of their US shows, Carcass signed a deal with Columbia Records in 1993, a watershed moment for any group. But this was to mark the beginning of its demise. If the problems of being the only British band on an American label were not salient at the outset, they soon became so. The only acts broadly classed as ‘heavy metal’ on the label’s roster at the time were Alice In Chains and Corrosion Of Conformity, bands that were more accurately described as grunge than metal. And it wasn’t a good omen that Columbia had just fired three heavy metal acts without warning.

The label always meant to recoup its $200,000 investment through album sales, and by putting Carcass semi-permanently on the road. But herein lay the problem: even great sales by metal standards would have been totally unremarkable compared to pop music. Columbia was taking a gamble on a band that was, as yet, obscure to everyone except insiders, and insiders of a subgenre that was considered particularly impenetrable. Without directed effort, and a chart miracle, Carcass was a business prospect doomed to failure.

Over time, the pan-Atlantic interference grew more invasive. When the band went into the studio to record their label debut, they laid seventeen songs to tape, but the label was unhappy with the output and demanded more, threatening to withdraw support. They suggested that Walker ought to learn to sing properly. Month after month, Columbia stalled the album release for reasons unclear to the band themselves, who grew increasingly frustrated by the whole affair.

After a year of waiting, with hopes thwarted, Carcass left Columbia and returned to their original label. The aptly titled Swansong was released by Earache Records in June 1996. But the experience had taken a toll. The band decided to split up amicably at the time of release, without so much as a farewell tour. The artistic dream reached a deafening crescendo, and the final curtain was drawn.

Concert Devil Horns

(Luuk Wouters/Unsplash)

“The savage boo hoo”

Even with this tapered career, Carcass can claim more luck than most artists. Society’s tendency to valorize heroes excludes another narrative, a more common one. Once you delve under the surface, quiet stories of mediocrity and failure seem to play out nearly everywhere, repeatedly and without fanfare.

Musicians are disproportionately represented in mental health statistics, with research from the University of Westminster suggesting that they are up to three times more likely to suffer from depression compared to the general public—the charity Help Musicians UK found that 67 percent of musicians have suffered depression or other psychological problems. Some will simply run out of juice and burn out. For others, the daily battle against their own minds will cut their lives tragically short. The cultural meme of the tortured artist, beset with addiction, who takes his or her own life is a familiar one for good reason. Well-known examples such as Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell, grievous though they are, are only the cases that break through the prerequisite level of fame needed for the public to care.

And this is all before you add in the chaotic environment of a tour. Rock stars on the road have become a byword for extravagance and debauchery, or at least Spinal Tap-level stupidity. But real touring is a grind: it is physically, psychologically and spiritually hard.

To begin with, there is the basic instability. Traveling has its excitements, but without continuity of place, there is nothing to ground you. No sense of community exists except for the band, usually closer to a dysfunctional family than a group of friends. Then there is the physical hit—sleeping arrangements that change nightly, at best a bunk, often a damp seat in the back of a drafty van. As far as eating goes, expect the nutritional equivalent of constantly punching yourself in the colon. Say goodbye to eating your five-a-day, and say hello to your new best friends: the stale sandwich hastily scoffed down before a gig, the rider beer that no-one else wanted, furtive Ginsters pasties in the dark, and nighttime energy drinks from the BP garage to keep you awake while loading gear. If your aim is to bring on bowel disease before your mid-30s, you couldn’t do much better than a tour diet.

71.1%

The percentage of respondents that had experienced anxiety and panic attacks in a survey of 2,211 self-identifying professional musicians working across the UK music industry. The figure was 68.5 percent for depression. UK data indicates that nearly 20 percent of the general population suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Something about the music industry is making musicians sick.

Sometimes the damage wreaked by a tour can have lasting consequences. After he joined cult rock band Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, Dominic Knight fell into depression:

“I think my experience with Matchbox really did a fair amount of damage to my young brain, in terms of the level in which I was thrust. My first gig with them, I was signing autographs and being offered acid in the car park. I fell into a fully established cult band [and] I wasn’t ready to be put on a pedestal. I had my first mental breakdown at 21 on tour, the tour that broke the camel’s back, the return to the savage boo hoo.”

More subtly demoralizing is the tedium of touring itself. While being adored on stage has no doubt been the focus of many a teenager’s daydream, it’s what happens before and after a gig that really makes up a musician’s working life. Post-show mingling, pleasant fan interaction, yes; but also melancholy mornings, the inability to connect with anyone new beyond a single evening, the hours and hours of low-level discomfort spent in a cramped van, dozing by a window and staring listlessly at miles of countryside, unable to do much of anything. And what of missing your loved ones? Alex Kapranos, frontman of Franz Ferdinand, once mused to the Financial Times about the result of putting depressives in a room with free access to depressants every night, obliterating their sleeping patterns and giving them “no stimulation for 23 hours of the day and on that 24th hour … overload[ing] their systems with stimulus and adrenalin. I wonder what will happen after a few weeks?”

Black Veil Brides

Time spent on stage is a tiny minority of a touring musician’s life. (Terrence Blanton)

Such are the wages of fame and fortune, you might say. But you’d be wrong on the fortune count, because unless you enjoy living perilously close to the edge of financial ruin, the creative life is not for you. The vast majority of metal musicians have a day job unconnected with music. When Daniel Dlimi quit Swedish death metal titans Aeon, he took to social media to explain why:

I simply can’t afford doing this no more. To tour with a band in our size, you lose money on each and every tour. The expenses are always higher than the income, and as if that wasn’t enough, I also need to take time off from my daytime job which means absolutely no income at all during the period of a tour plus the extra expenses … We have done four tours this year alone and each one of them has made us lose money.

It’s a dirty secret of the metal underworld: the only people who make money on the tour circuit are the promoters.

The situation seems to have deteriorated over time. The proliferation of bands and the limited capacity of venues, along with a healthy dollop of capitalism, has given rise to the phenomenon of ‘pay-to-play’ tours. You don’t often find that phrase used explicitly, nor is any overt comparison made to vanity publishing, but that is exactly what it is. Bands up to some magic threshold of size have to shell out to cover the burdensome cost of transport, accommodation, food, replacing gear, and roadies—or, if you’re on a shoestring budget, a single driver who stays awake while the rest of the band sleeps, for nothing more than his keep in snacks and booze. It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem with this. For every musician lucky enough to get paid, there is an army of expendables blowing every spare penny, stumbling inexorably towards failure, bitterness, and a reliance on the welfare state.

726M

The number of albums sold in the US in 1978; 453 million were sold in 2019. Taking into account population growth, this is a 65 percent drop. This doesn’t account for the rise in proportion of singles in the 2019 figure, resulting in even smaller revenue.

How did this happen? The financial incentives of music historically come down to two factors: how saturated your genre is, and the revenue you can expect from album sales, touring, or merchandise in that genre. Reliable statistics on just how many bands were really around in the ’60s and ’70s—when many of our most beloved genres were in their embryonic stages—are hard to come by, so it’s difficult to make any sort of meaningful comparison of genre saturation. But the other side of the equation is clear. Album sales have fallen precipitously. Streaming has replaced it, but streaming is infamously stacked against the content creators. This leaves aspiring musicians with few options except holding down a day job. You can post music covers on YouTube with the hope of crossing the mythical 100,000 views barrier into monetization, or if you have some kind of platform already, you can open a Patreon account to sell merch. The problem is that these financial avenues require totally different skill sets to those musicians traditionally cultivate. Modern musicians are expected to be jacks-of-all-trades—not only instrumentalists, but also producers, video editors, social media influencers, fundraisers, agents, and accountants all rolled into one. Dominic Knight is happy to take on the creative aspects, but rejects the administrative fluff:

The industry has morphed into a whole new beast … [Musicians] spend a huge portion of their time using digital platforms to increase their fanbase and stay relevant. Making videos, artwork and other creative content is part and parcel of the DIY scene, [but] learning how to sell and market yourself in this new world of short attention spans is so far from what we as musicians should be doing with our time.

At one point, finding that “less than 10 percent” of his regular routine was spent on music, Dominic experimented with ignoring social media, in a rebellious ‘screw you’ to modernity. “Almost overnight our shows’ attendance declined, views and listens on our platforms dropped and our musical journey almost came to an abrupt halt.” Dead is the old paradigm of earning a living in music purely through touring and selling records.

Broken Guitar Neck

(Paul S./Flickr)

What is life like on the other side of music?

Ken Owen of Carcass suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1999, three years after the band called it quits. He would spend the next ten months slowly emerging from a coma, and never play drums professionally again. By that point Steer had started a new life in Australia, the other two band members had gone back to living ostensibly normal lives. But what is normal, when you’ve grown accustomed to touring the world and playing to stadiums full of screaming fans? How do you find your place in the complex jigsaw of the world?

“I’m basically in and out of conventional employment. I can’t stay on the dole for long because the government forces you to take job offers, and I never last long at those jobs,” said one ex-musician, who asked to remain anonymous. For many, music is all they know. If the tap runs dry, as Devin Townsend found out, it can be terrifying:

There was a good year where I didn’t do anything. Every time I picked up a guitar there was literally nothing there … That was disconcerting. When the music finally started coming it was a relief because I’m not very good at anything else. I’m qualified to flip hamburgers at this point.

Conventional careers are founded on the idea that the energy of youth carries the lethargy of age. Start out at a law firm in your early twenties and you’ve got a career for life; but be bold enough to start a band at the same time, and you can usually expect to be lost to the degradation of short-lived jobs and welfare within a decade. Not to mention the heartrending sense that you have devoted your youth to a cause that has long since abandoned you.

That’s not to say that career change never happens. Some musicians do make the successful transition into other fields, but it is rare—certainly not frequent enough to draw out any meaningful lessons. One that managed the task was Peter Lindgren of progressive metal superstars Opeth: he obtained two degrees and found a new career as a consultant for the firm Netlight in Stockholm, after 16 years touring the world as an axe-slinger. Or there is the slightly more enigmatic character of Muhammad Suicmez, from tech-death innovators Necrophagist. He virtually disappeared from public life when the band threw in the towel in 2010. While rumors of disbanding were neither confirmed or denied, once in a blue moon, a fresh scoop would appear in the form of a possible third album. But it turned out Suicmez had surreptitiously snagged himself a mechanical engineering qualification and, according to legend, now lives a monastically quiet life working for BMW.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for others. Many ex-musicians I spoke to are doing nothing earth-shattering, but are nonetheless living simple, happy lives. They look on their time in the industry with neither nostalgia nor vengefulness, but clear-eyed understanding. They have learned to take the bad with the good. And many, like Dominic, are still doing music—but on their own terms. “I try and approach music in the same way I used to as a kid, purely from enjoyment and never in a serious manner. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t take my work seriously, but I am no longer precious about what it does or who hears it.”

Of those who have found themselves drifting entirely away from music, some have realized that their motivations were not what they led themselves to believe. “It’s interesting,” says Dominic, “being happier in life and more content and peaceful within myself, I have less inspiration for creating art and music. Give me woodwork, gardening and nature instead of the cliched tormented artist any day.” It is not so surprising, or even regrettable, that many quit. Quitting may be the healthiest thing for the vast majority of people.

Carcass themselves started performing reunion shows in 2008, without Ken, after twelve years of radio silence. In the interim, Jeff Walker had done a country-metal album while Bill Steer played in blues band Gentleman’s Pistols. But according to Jeff, it is “stupid to still dream about a great career in music. Earlier today, I read an interview with the drummer of Queens Of The Stone Age in which he said that the days where a band could become as big as Metallica are over. And he’s right … I’d be lying if I [said] I would not like to have that much success too. But that’s not gonna happen.”

If anything of the artist stereotype has stood the test of time, it must be the encompassing sacrifice to one’s art, and a blasé attitude to bodily destruction. Dave Grohl claimed that rock n’ roll is a young man’s game. It is certainly a game that extracts a high toll on those brave enough to play.

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Fahad Sperinck

Your time was just wasted by Fahad Sperinck

Fahad Sperinck is a failed musician living in Berkshire, UK. Aside from tutoring mathematics to stay afloat, he rebels against wage slavery by doing as little organized work as possible.

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