Metal Bands Scramble to Find Footing in the Wake of Coronavirus Shutdowns

The Hu
Courtesy of Better Noise Music

The Hu

Groups like Mongolia's The Hu & thrash vets Testament are all feeling the pandemic's effects.

About 320 nights of the year, Saint Vitus Bar -- a 200-capacity venue in Brooklyn -- hosts performances by such bands as Gozu, Witch Taint and Pentagram giving their all for a room of headbanging, concert-shirt-clad fans. When Saint Vitus co-owner/booker David Castillo extrapolates, he figures close to 1,000 bands a year pass though the nearly 10-year-old club.

All over the world, up-and-coming as well as major club-level bands make a living touring venues like Saint Vitus, Nashville’s The Basement East and Minneapolis’ Turf Club. But when the attempt to contain the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most clubs globally, it took the livelihoods and potential futures of hundreds of small and midlevel bands and possibly just as many venues with it.

“It’s kind of like the food pyramid,” Castillo explains. “The very top of the pyramid is a stadium band like Black Sabbath. Not many bands can fill a stadium. But as you go down, the base widens and there’s a lot more bands, so you have to do a lot more volume. There are a lot more bands that can fill a smaller-cap room.”

One of those few metal bands that fills stadiums, Metallica, started offering a free Metallica Mondays concert-streaming series of previous live shows on March 23. And since Knotfest Japan was canceled, the Knotfest organization instead began posting a previously taped performance from a Knotfest act every Friday, beginning with Lamb of God on March 27. However, most smaller heavy music lineups trying to build or maintain audiences don’t have that kind of quality footage on hand. And while numerous solo artists of various genres are streaming live performances from home or home studios, it’s more challenging for metal bands.

After Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick returned from a European tour that also featured Death Angel and Exodus, Testament singer Chuck Billy and his wife, Tiffany, tested positive for COVID-19, while Death Angel drummer Will Carroll has been in critical condition in a San Francisco hospital since March 18. Chuck said in a March 27 Rolling Stone interview that Testament bassist Steve DiGiorgio has showed symptoms as well, but DiGiorgio hasn’t made any public statements about his health. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt also revealed on March 31 that he tested positive for the virus and feels that he has recovered.

Skolnick is a metal performer, but he’s also a jazz player who does guitar clinics and solo performances, so he has the ability and audience to go live from his Brooklyn home. “It’s certainly a blessing during these times. However, it applies more to individuals than bands,” he observes. “It seems it would be hard, if not impossible, to do a band performance [from home], especially a metal band, which relies on proper sound engineering and production.”

Skolnick had intended to start building a paywall for some of his appearances via PayPal, Venmo or other crowd-donating options long before the pandemic. However, he believes, “If [online] becomes the main way of reaching an audience for longer than is now expected, then it will probably have to be monetized.” He also wants some content to remain free because he feels that there is a need “to keep fans engaged without a paywall.”

The metal community may traditionally be music’s ugly stepchild -- subjected to off-air presentations at the Grammy Awards and short shrift from commercial radio and the mainstream music press -- but labels, fans, bands and venues are coming together in the midst of the pandemic, scrambling to reimagine a music scene and careers that incorporate social distancing. The stories are as different as the artists themselves. For instance, Metal Blade Records president Tracy Vera had more than a dozen bands end tours that were in progress or cancel pending ones, including Killswitch Engage, Satan, The Black Dahlia Murder and DragonForce.

In addition to the loss of each night’s pay and the merch sold at every show, groups are missing out on income in less visible ways. “Some bands have had to eat the cost of merchandise made for the tour and bus down payments,” says Vera. “We’re trying to help some of the bands; for example, we bought some of Sacred Reich’s tour shirts, and once our direct-to-consumer warehouse is able to pack and ship again, we’ll sell the shirts bundled with a CD and LP at a special price.

“Some of our artists do paid meet-and-greets, as they actually can’t afford to tour without them in the best of circumstances,” continues Vera. “King Diamond did them on his latest tour; fans have waited their whole lives to meet King, so those meet-and-greets were really special. Fates Warning does them and also Armored Saint. I can imagine these could go away forever now, which is a shame.”

A-list bands may be able to charter jets or have their crew help get them and their equipment home. But sometimes, even with help, the circumstances are overwhelming, as is the case with The Hu, a Mongolian metal lineup that has been rising in the ranks. Better Noise Music GM/senior product manager Rose Slanic explains, “The Hu finished off their [European] tour, along with Malaysian festivals. When their upcoming Japanese shows were canceled by the promoter, they retreated to [the island of Bali], rented a house and recorded. During that time, however, their home country closed its borders.” The band and its crew flew to Australia for a scheduled tour, but after a few shows, the rest of their dates had to be canceled due to border closures and crowd restrictions. The Hu are currently in limbo in Australia as they wait for Mongolia to reopen its borders and for flights to be available.

Some tours didn’t even get off the ground, notes Vera, saying that Tyr from the Faroe Islands and Satan from the United Kingdom both had to cancel their U.S. tours, “and visas are expensive and nonrefundable.” While some labels are pushing release dates back to hopefully coincide with live dates later this year, others aren’t, including Metal Blade’s The Black Dahlia Murder. Its first album in three years, Verminous, will drop April 17.

“Their tour with Testament was timed for the new album release,” says Vera. “But that’s gone away, and we -- the label, band and manager -- are collectively challenged to find ways to keep the band in front of and engaging their fans. Luckily, we have a full slate of content to post up until the release date, but the challenge is what to do between release and when they can tour again.”

At press time, Slanic, who also works with Motley Crue at Better Noise, affirms, “We haven’t delayed any of our releases at this moment. We’re continuing to move forward with our radio schedule. The Hu will have another single going to radio in April. But there are some younger bands that are going to have issues from not touring and not having income. We have weekly calls with them to discuss ideas and things we can do in order to help them secure some funds.”

The behind-the-scenes crew members are also a concern for Better Noise and many others in the metal world. “It’s a very big mandate for our CEO Allen Kovac to give back to the people not on the road making money on tour and the crew because it’s hurting [the crew] probably more than it might be hurting some of the bands,” says Slanic. “Allen is working diligently with Merlin and A2IM to see how we could get everybody in the music industry, and especially in the indie community, to work together to give back to these people.”

Like the Recording Academy’s MusiCares charity establishing a COVID-19 relief fund and other music-related charity events that are popping up daily, the metal community is also rallying behind its own. Gimme Radio, which launched online in 2017 as a 24/7 metal-focused service, counts about 20 musicians among its approximately 70 DJs, including Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe. (Full disclosure: The author is a volunteer DJ.) Gimme Radio started online tip jars for listeners to help out the DJs. Plus, it has offered one-off radio shows for metal bands to get in front of their public.

“We have so many bands [doing radio shows] coming up soon, like Mayhem, Origin, Sodom, Necrot and Cloak,” says Gimme Radio CEO/co-founder Tyler Lenane, adding, “As of this past week, the average contribution during one of these shows with a tip jar is over $400. One artist made $850 during one two-hour show. That’s real money to these artists.”

It’s very early days of monetizing live online interactions for metal bands. But for some, it’s not even an option. In Finland -- home of such bands as Ensiferum, Children of Bodom, Apocalyptica and Nightwish -- the website of its ministry of the interior states that fundraising is subject to a permit. It indicates that “nonprofit corporations or foundations engaged in activities that are in the public interest can be granted a permit to finance their activities,” but most metal bands aren’t nonprofit entities.

Other groups are reluctant to ask fans to donate to an online chat or performance on social media. Monster Magnet frontman Dave Wyndorf, whose band played the Live Music Club in Milan only days before the city shut down, says, “It’s a crisis time; the last thing I want to do is ask for money. I don’t think fans owe me anything. I owe them something: a good record.” He plans to work on a new album during this unexpected downtime.

Monster Magnet rescheduled the U.S. leg of its tour celebrating its 1998 album Powertrip until 2021, and so far, Wyndorf is uninterested in online opportunities. “I think Internet presence is overrated. I think the public has something better to do than follow rock bands. The fans are great, and hopefully they'll be there when we put out a new record. It wasn’t the first thing to think about in a global pandemic, to have someone buy my T-shirt,” he says. “I can’t blame people for doing it, though. Obviously, smaller bands get hit harder because they have to play more to get their money, rather than some pop diva who can go out and get it all in two shows and also sell ancillary items.”

Metal Blade’s Vera fears that metal and hard-rock bands will fare worse than other genres, both in the short and long term. “The only way a midlevel band can get by with a modest living is by constantly touring and selling merchandise. Streaming is currently skewed toward pop music, and some subgenres like black metal barely seem to stream at all.” There’s also the concern that after the pandemic has retreated, the anxiety may remain. “My fear is that this current situation will harm the touring industry overall on a financial level that some promoters, agents and clubs may never come back from, but also that people in general may develop an aversion to large gatherings.”

Saint Vitus’ Castillo himself performs with the groups Confines and Primitive Weapons, so he understands especially well the plight of bands that play his club. The venue’s own staff of about 25 is mostly freelance and out of work, and while Saint Vitus has been keen to expand its brand beyond the Brooklyn venue, it’s now focusing on future live streams and possible pay-per-views, and working on a “plan of engagement.” To that end, in conjunction with Revolver magazine brand partnership manager Chris Enriquez, Saint Vitus launched via Instagram Live an Age of Quarantine: Music to Work/Slack To series that has so far featured members of Russian Circles, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Kristina Esfandiari of King Woman.

Some artists have the luxury of making music full-time; however, many club-level band members return to day jobs when not on tour. But with the pandemic, most of those gigs have also disappeared. While details are hazy, some relief for self-employed musicians, bartenders and creatives may come from the government. The Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act includes a new type of unemployment insurance for contractors, freelancers and self-employed workers that should benefit musicians and crew. The government will decide who qualifies on a case-by-case basis.

Although bands can’t tour, labels, managers, publicists and marketers supporting the music industry are busier than ever, working from home to aid their acts in any way possible. “We’re just looking at things differently, working on what we have already in our vault to create more content out,” says Better Noise’s Slanic. “Our senior vp of digital marketing, Omar Rana, has supplied us with best practices and things we can do that are effective during this time. People are in a negative [head space] staying at home; they’re not used to that. So we’re trying to create positive energy and engagement. We’re coming together at this time to at least make them smile or uplift their spirit. That’s really the goal for everything we’re trying to do.”