A year ago, hard rock band Avenged Sevenfold was one of the most fortunate bands on the planet. Blessed with a supportive label, record sales beyond the 2 million mark, a rabid fan base and a lucrative tour schedule, the group seemed to have nowhere to go but up.
But everything changed on Dec. 28, 2009, when drummer James "the Rev" Sullivan was found dead of an accidental drug overdose. Once the shock had passed, the band's surviving members faced the task of finishing the record they had already started writing with Sullivan -- and deciding what the future would hold after that.
"We're not sure what's going to happen after this touring cycle," says lead singer Matt Sanders, who goes by the stage name M. Shadows. "Our goal right now is to just get kids to hear the record, because we want them to remember the Rev." Avenged Sevenfold's final album featuring Sullivan's writing, "Nightmare," will be released July 27 on Warner Bros. (Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy played the drum parts Sullivan had written on the album and will tour with the band.)
The group should have no trouble getting kids to hear the record -- Avenged Sevenfold falls into that small category of bands that don't need a hit or radio play to sell half a million albums. "Our fan base stays with us," Sanders says. "And it grows with each album, too-last time we went on the road, our audience jumped 40%."
Sanders says that touring and T-shirt sales account for the majority of the group's income. "We go look at [Nielsen] SoundScan and we'll sell 8,000 records in a market, and when we play there, 14,000 people show up," he says. "We want to be like Slayer or Megadeth; those bands never sold tons and tons of albums, but they can tour forever and always have people come out."
Sanders describes Avenged Sevenfold as "the biggest band you've never heard of."
"We toured with Iron Maiden in Europe, and they're so huge over there," he says. "And people don't come up to them on the street or anything. The focus is on the music."
Warner Bros. VP of marketing Xavier Ramos says the band never really takes a break from its fans. "There is no off-cycle for them," he says. "Even when they are in the studio, we are still releasing content. We have these fans, but we can't take them for granted and want to super-serve them."
When they started the campaign to promote "Nightmare," Ramos says he and Avenged Sevenfold decided to ignore conventional wisdom on several occasions.
"We didn't want to release the first song, 'Nightmare,' as just a stream before it went to iTunes and radio," he says. "Instead, we created a video that featured the lyrics that we released on May 18, the same day it went to the other outlets. We didn't want kids to stream it a million times and not commit to buying it, and we also wanted to draw attention to the art and the lyrics. We wanted to create an experience and not just have someone listen passively."
The group is also creating online video content, but Ramos says it will avoid the "reality TV" format that so many viral music videos feature. "We want to keep a mystique about the band, and to see them just sitting around the studio or talking about washing their cars wouldn't really fit," he says.
Guitarist Zachary Baker, aka Zacky Vengeance, says he's always trying to think of clever ways to reward fans. "I worked a lot on our album cover, and I didn't just want to post it on our website one day and move on," he says. "We wound up breaking it into 18 pieces and hiding them on fan sites all over the Internet, and then posting clues, so fans could put together the puzzle."
The music this time around doesn't stray too far from the band's previous effort, although this one is by far and away the darkest lyrically. "The last record was more eclectic," Sanders says, "and for this one we went back to our metal roots." The album owes a debt to early-'90s Metallica, which Sanders cites as an influence, while veering into proggier Rush territory on an 11-minute track.
"We've never tried to write radio hits," Baker says. "If I hear our song on the radio, it's cool and I'm proud, but it's never a goal."