Billboard caught up with Ulrich to learn more about how he embraces Metallica’s legacy, avoids Daniel Day-Lewis-esque sabbaticals in between projects and aligns with streaming partners in a post-Napster music industry.
Metallica has been a band for nearly 35 years now. Do you still pay attention to those kind of milestones?
Thirty years was a few years ago, about three or four years ago. I kind of lose track -- when you’ve been a band as long as we have, you can find an anniversary in anything. Back in 2011 we celebrated our 30th anniversary with a week’s worth of concerts in San Francisco for our fan club, but you gotta be careful. You don’t wave the flag continuously for old laurels and things that you’ve done way in your past. It’s tricky to find the right balance between looking into the future and celebrating the past. These days in rock 'n' roll, as active as we’ve been over the years, you can find a celebration in almost anything, so we kind of shy away from doing too much of that.
Onstage at Cannes Lions, you said “no f---ing way” used to be your response to working with brands. How has that perspective changed for you?
We’re definitely open to it now, but it’s tricky. I wouldn’t say that we’re proactively out there hunting down brands to try to fulfill some piece of a larger battle plan or manifest or something. People think I’m joking, but when I say we’re available in the Yellow Pages, within the entertainment industry, you know how to reach out. People can find us. So if they have things they want to get to us, we’re somewhat easily accessible through our managers and record companies. We’re not living under a rock like Daniel Day-Lewis who hides for 10 years at a time making shoes or whatever. We primarily engage these types of endeavors when they’re presented to us around the release of a new record or something you want to get out there to people -- major tours, milestones, new records. You can put on a more proactive role in securing these types of relationships. We haven’t put out a new record for six, maybe seven years. We did a movie a couple years ago, and we do a quick evaluation and said, “What’s the downside?” And if there’s no radical downside and we see what we can get out of it, I wouldn’t say we sit around and say, “OK, if we don’t get to Antarctica in the next two years, our mission statement has failed.”
You were a vocal opponent to Napster and digital piracy, and famously held out on iTunes and other digital services until 2006. But as we see artists align themselves with Tidal, Spotify and now Apple Music, how do you approach the digital-music landscape? Do you feel the need to choose sides?
You don’t want to necessarily say yes to everything that comes your way. Obviously, in the case of Apple, they’re a bigger brand or company than anybody and they have some very smart people running it. So we’d call [Apple Music] a no-brainer. Personally, I have 37 Apple products and that’s just me not counting the rest of my family, so that’s a fairly easy one for me. We’ve been in a relationship with Daniel Ek and Spotify for a few years, which has been very rewarding. He’s a smart guy and getting our music out, we try to align ourselves with the people who are smartest. You can tell a lot about the companies by the people who run them. With Daniel, he’s very passionate about music so you feel safe with him. Same with Eddy Cue and the people who run the music over at Apple; they’re very passionate about artists and music and so on, so you feel like there’s safe relationships to be in. Some of the other companies you maybe deal with a little more cautiously. We try to put ourselves somewhere in the middle. We’re not necessarily the tip of the arrow coming in first, at the same time we don’t like to be too difficult and demanding. We flow in with the waves as they reach the shore.