Between rock and a hard place: lessons in D2C and streaming from metal acts
Metal and hard rock have long existed within their own self-created ecosystem – providing a supportive space for musicians and fans that operates on its own terms outside of the mainstream. This is one of the closest and deepest communities in music where membership is conveyed most directly through dress codes and merchandise – with T-shirts, patches, badges and more acting as important outward-facing signifiers to others in the same community.
Live music is also a major part of the subcultures associated with these genres, offering a real-world space where likeminded fans can congregate. The mass cancellation of festivals and tours as a result of the global pandemic has meant that unique sense of connectivity has had to evolve – seeking out new ways to connect via livestreaming but also by going even further into merchandise and physical product, sold via D2C (direct-to-consumer) stores, as a point of identification, offering fans a new sense of belonging in a time of isolation.
Metal acts were among the first to really grasp why livestreaming must be about more than just a 60-minute show – it has to be just as much about the community and how it can be fostered in new ways. Suicide Silence, for example, undertook what they termed a Virtual World Tour in July 2020, made up of 39 livestreams of performances that were specific to individual locations around the world. Fans who each paid $10 to watch the stream could request songs and take part in a Q&A with the band members. Connecting with fans here went far beyond the show itself and was localised around each date on the virtual tour, creating a template for others – not just in metal – to follow.
There were many other standout events here. Norwegian band Kvelertak undertook a “one-day world tour” with full production on 10th April. The 2000trees Festival creating the 2000screens virtual festival. And the appositely titled Slay At Home Festival which mixed archive performances and new performances alongside collaborations, guest appearances and even art installations; what began as a two-day virtual event in May eventually grew into a monthly series from September.
Mega-acts like Metallica also led the way, screening films of past shows each week as part of Metallica Mondays on their YouTube and Facebook channels. Code Orange set up a weekly livestream series, also every Monday, on their Twitch channel. Equally leaning on the community power of Twitch, Matt Heafy from Trivium staged concerts on his channel while Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park used Twitch to take suggestions from viewers and worked up new songs from that, getting fans deeply involved in the creative process. Sepultura created SepulQuarta, a weekly series each Wednesday where the band played new material, dug into their past and answered fan questions. And Steel Panther did brief daily posts, involving assorted guests, under the banner of What Fucking Day Is It? to provide some comic respite.
Having some form of live music presence – even as a livestream – is essential for the audience to congregate around.
Live is the chance for the audience to connect with those songs, but also have a deeper engagement and a deeper feeling about those songs that they love or that they're going to come to love
“As a record company, it is your job to make sure that ultimately the artist is able to earn from that connection.”
Beyond livestreaming, metal acts were increasingly innovative in their use of D2C retailing, creating new products that reflected the times and made fans feel included. Face coverings featuring band logos and iconic artwork became a major new merchandise line for most acts here. My Chemical Romance repurposed masks for a desert show that had to be cancelled because of COVID-19, with proceeds going to support their out-of-work crew. Megadeth gave masks (featuring band mascot Vic Rattlehead) away free with any purchase from their online store. Pantera used the lyrics from 1992 song Walk (“Be Yourself / By Yourself / Stay Away From Me”) for a highly topical T-shirt, with 40% of proceeds going to MusiCares. Code Orange went one step further by creating a full see-through face mask based on the artwork from their Underneath album.
Both Iron Maiden and Motörhead created jigsaws based on classic album artwork for fans stuck at home to help alleviate the boredom while Don Broco launched a highly limited-edition action figure (only 46 were sold) and AC/DC even made Christmas tree ornaments.
Underpinning everything here was a continuation of the need to place the fan at the centre of everything metal acts do. That fandom was rewarded with special livestreams but also the fans were able to show support for their favourite acts (or their charity causes of choice) by buying new merchandise lines that often displayed humour in adversity.
It has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone, but there has been some light in the dark. “Sometimes disruption can be a good thing,” says Barley Phillips of the challenges his company has faced. “It's been a really, really tough year for a lot of people. Ultimately, what it's also done is really sharpen the focus on what people are doing – what the industry is doing and how we're working with bands.”
This is a two-way street between artists and fans and the pandemic showed both the importance and resilience of a shared community. The long-term effect of this should be an even deeper nurturing of fan communities and a D2C model that shows that merchandise can have a symbolic and unifying power that stretches far beyond the actual items themselves.