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Heavy Metal Tug-of-War: Mainstream versus Underground

Posted by on April 21, 2017 at 4:22 pm

For over 45 years, heavy metal has been considered "outsider music for outsiders” and its influence has always been vigorously debated.  Deena Weinsteen (Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture and Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology) argues that the distrust of heavy metal is as a result of the deep-seated misunderstanding of the “energetic, rebellious culture of metal”. It represents a grouping whose taste is not often catered to by the media.

Heavy metal is viewed as either mainstream or underground.  Ironically, many of today’s heavy metal stars will be tomorrow’s classic rock/mainstream legends.

Metal anthropologists like Sam Dunn (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey) and others, have extensively researched this genre. These studies show that the metal culture consists of unconnected factions.  Additionally, when an underground band moves into mainstream territory, it is criticized for “selling out” and loses credibility. An underground band has credibility but has a limited amount of fans. Conversely, mainstream viability means that you are reaching a wider audience where the odds of becoming rich increase.

Corporate influence on this tug-of-war cannot be ignored.  The music industry tends to overexpose acts, always on the lookout for “the next big thing”.  Unquestionably, mainstream bands enjoy a wider fan-base.  With more sales, they can devote more time perfecting their music and not stop to work a 9-to-5 job just to support themselves financially. In 2006, the hit “This Calling” by All That Remains allowed them to reach a wider audience, merging the heavy metal style with elements that could be termed as “palatable” to the general public.

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Although bands nowadays can substantially increase their revenue through tours and videos, many are still influenced by the corporate masters with the latter's "get-rich-quick" mentality.

In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a trend towards signing bands to regardless of talent, and many substandard bands were dragged down as well as underground bands with great potential, simply because corporate targets were not being met.

In the mid 90’s came nu-metal, a fusion of rap with elements of alt-rock/grunge designed essentially for mass consumption which was ideal for the record industry. The 2000’s saw the ascent of metalcore and each new synthesis continually replaces the one before.  Over time, bands that start out as underground, after starting out on their own unique paths, will enter into the realm of “Classic”.  For example, Black Sabbath, whose taboo-bashing style contrasted significantly with the flower-power movement of the late 1960s, can now be found featured in many all time great compilations of classic artists.

Very simplistically, if a band wants to make more money, mainstream is the way to go.  There is the temptation to remain underground but the downside to this is that it puts invisible constraints on the band's talents, with the possibility that stagnation might occur.

A middle ground that benefits both sides is ideal. Metal should remain somewhat underground, yet increase its commercial success, and the art form will evolve without disenchanting its base.  If not for such an evolution, bands such as Iron Maiden and Metallica would not have enjoyed the mass exposure that keeps metal alive.