Ever since the first Metal Massacre compilation was released all the way back in 1982, Brian Slagel has left an indelible mark on the world of heavy metal.
In his thirty years as the head honcho at Metal Blade Records, Slagel has overseen the rise and success of some of metal's most enduring acts, including Cannibal Corpse, Gwar, Amon Amarth, the Black Dahlia Murder, King Diamond and more, not to mention featuring the likes of Metallica, Slayer and Ratt on the early editions of the Metal Massacre compilation.
With Metal Blade celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, we recently caught up with Brian Slagel to discuss the past, present and future of the label — and metal in general.
With that first Metal Massacre compilation, what did you start out to accomplish?
This was back in the days way before the Internet and it was almost impossible for bands to get any sort of exposure. So I'd seen all these good bands playing around Los Angeles, ones you wouldn't have known existed if you didn't live in L.A.
I was influenced by and a huge fan of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the compilations they put out, so I thought, "Why not try and put together a compilation of these bands so people outside of L.A. can hear them?"
I know you were working at a record store as the time. Is that how you came across the British bands?
I had heard about most of the before. I was a big tape trader when I was in high school and one of friends from Sweden had put a copy of Soundhouse Tapes from Iron Maiden on the end of an AC/DC live tape and said, "Here's a new band you might like."
So I heard that and freaked out because I thought it was amazing, and then started to get more into the scene. I started buying Sounds and Kerrang! magazines from Europe and kind of got into it from there.
Those in favor of illegal downloading usually bring up tape trading as being essentially the same thing. What do you see the different as?
The tape trading we were doing was mostly live stuff, because we were such huge fans of the bands. It wasn't that we were trading albums, it was the live stuff that we were into.
I suppose the big difference is that back then it was so small. There were only a handful of people who could get involved in it and now millions of people can be involved in it because of the technology.
There are so many great bands on those early compilations — Metallica, Ratt, Slayer. How did you hone your ear to be able to pick up on what makes a great band?
I was just a huge fan of metal, so I was just lucky that the stuff I liked other people seemed to like. But there's nothing other than just a huge love of the music and I've been lucky enough that other people have liked what I've liked.
That's kind of the most fun for me, turning people onto new music. From the beginning of the label 'til now, that's been the one constant: I just love to turn people on to new music.
What still gets you excited about a new band?
I still remain to this day a big fan of metal, and it's so much fun to hear something new that you really like, and that I can get into as much now as I did 30 years ago. For whatever reason it's still there.
You still seem to take a really personal approach to working with your bands. I see clips of you all the time interviewing bands on the label.
Yeah, you know we're really lucky to work with a lot of great people and they've all become friends of mine over the years. It's kind of fun when you're able to do this and work with people you like, too. It's really amazing.
In many ways, Metal Blade has become as much of a brand as any of your bands. Was there ever a backlash when you branched out and did something like, say, Goo Goo Dolls?
A little bit, but we've done it so rarely that it hasn't been too much. People kind of laughed back then, like, "Really, you guys had the Goo Goo Dolls?" I think a lot of people didn't even realize we had the Goo Goo Dolls. [laughs]
What would it take for you to do something like that again?
Well you know, they really evolved. They were just a punk band in Buffalo when we signed them and we had this label where we were doing a lot of a punk stuff. You never know how bands are going to evolve. Sometimes we take different routes with bands that may be a little bit more commercial and may be a bit different that what we normally do, but like I said, you just never know where they're going to evolve to. But 99% of what we do is still pure metal.
In the mainstream market, we're seeing digital sales eclipse physical for the first time ever. That said, I know metal heads still love their physical products. How have you seen that shift taking place in your corner of the marketplace?
Well it's interesting. Like you said, metal fans want a physical product — especially on new release. In the U.S., we're probably doing 80% physical, 20% digital. And outside the U.S. it's even more than that. And then you sort of flip it the other way for catalog, mostly because catalog isn't available in stores any more.
With the sorts of trends, and take a band like Whitechapel that has a really young fan base, they're probably 85%/15% physical to digital or more, I don't see — at least for the metal fans — that CD format going away that quickly.
It's been a slow evolution. Every year it gets a little less physical and a little more digital, but over the next four or five years, certainly in our world, I can't foresee that the CD is going to go away that quickly. It's been a very slow process. People still want to hold something tangible in their hands.
We're always trying to make the nicest packaging and stuff that we can as well.
Have you noticed vinyl gaining any ground on CDs?
Oh absolutely. It's still relatively small in comparison, but the fact that vinyl, this far down the road, is still popular is great. I grew up on vinyl, I've always been a huge fan of it.
It's still a smaller market and it gets a little bit bigger every year, but I don't know that it's ever going to eclipse CD sales again.
A lot of Metal Blade's stuff isn't on Spotify right now. How do you feel about the trend towards streaming music?
Well it depends. We try to do what the artists want us to do and what we feel is best for the artist. It has to make sense for them to do it. All of this technology is new, and you're not sure where it's all going to go and how it's going to flesh out, so we'll just have to see.
I think Spotify is kind of similar to when iTunes came out. They did all their deals with the majors first and eventually got to the independents, which kind of took a while. And I think that's what's happening with Spotify.
So we'll have to see where it goes. We're not on a lot of the streaming stuff. Some of our stuff is, but not everything. We're just seeing how everything's going to work out really.
How have you seen your role as a label change over the years? A lot of labels are switching to the 360 model these days...
We don't do 360 deals, because I don't think they're very fair. No one company can do all of that stuff really well.
But I think what we've always done... and we're trying to embrace technology as much as we can, because if you dont embrace it then you're going to go away. I think we're becoming more of a service company in some respects.
We work with the bands and the management and everyone involved with them to really build the brand of the band to be as big as possible. And the music sales are going to follow that. We're very active in social media. I think probably more active than most, and that's a really important thing.
We're just trying to be a team to get these artists to the next level, and that's that one constant. There's still some theory that people have that a band can record an album themselves and put it out and it's going to be big. But you still have to have people around it to promote it. If you have a team of fifty or a hundred people helping you, it's certainly better than having one or two, so that's kind of where we see our role and how our role has changed over the years.
It was really cool to see Metal Blade pick up on social media so early and do such a good job of connecting with the fans.
Thanks! It's important to us, and I think that whole technology of being able to have a direct relationship with the fans is amazing.
Getting back to the history of the label, when you were putting the first Metal Massacre together, how did you go about approaching those bands? Were they pretty receptive to the idea?
Oh yeah! Back then the prospect of being on a record was a huge thing. There wasn't really anything like that, so everybody I went to said yes. The only band that said yes that didn't make it on the first one was Motley Crue, because they had their own record out and it started to do pretty well, so they didn't think it made as much sense for them. But everyone else was pretty full on, "Yeah, absolutely!"
I know it's a bit like asking you to name your favorite kid, but is there anything you're particularly proud of when you look back at Metal Blade's 30 years?
Well just the fact that we're still here doing it thirty years later. If you would have told me or really anyone in the metal scene starting out in 1982 that in 2012 you'd still be doing this and that metal would be huge and successful, we all would said, "You're completely insane. That's impossible!" [Laughs]
Just the fact that it's still here and that metal is doing so well... metal's probably more popular now than it ever has been. The big bands are really popular, there's a whole crop of new bands coming up that have a really good potential. So just the fact that 30 years down the road it's a real artform that's not going anywhere, it's not considered a trend or a fad anymore, it's a really genre that's very healthy. That's truly amazing to me as a fan who's been lucky enough to be on the ride.
Are there any bands you regret never getting the chance to work with more extensively?
There's a couple here or there. Obviously we would have loved to have been able to put out the first Metallica record, but I had no money at the time, so that just wasn't going to happen. [Laughs]
We had the opportunity to do Cowboys From Hell with Pantera, but again it was a money issue, so it was kind of a bummer that didn't happen.
But otherwise we've been incredibly luck to work with so many great bands over the years. You know, I really wouldn't go back and change anything if I had to.