In 1991, Metallica released their massively successful “Black Album,” which, to this day, is one of the best-selling records in history. Metallica had been a successful rock band before, but the Black Album launched them into international stardom. They toured the world multiple times over, sold out stadiums, and dominated the charts.
Then they took a hiatus. They were overworked. And likely shocked and needed time to digest their new-found celebrity (not to mention ‘fuck you’ money).
Then in 1996, they announced their first new album in five years. My teenage self nearly crapped his pants. Metallica was my favorite band. I lived and breathed their first six albums. I learned to play guitar just so I could learn their songs. I counted the days to the new album’s release the way little kids count the days to Christmas.
(Keep in mind, this is back before albums got leaked online. This is back before they uploaded songs to YouTube. You had to wait like three months for the album to show up in record stores, and even then, sometimes you’d have to show up at midnight and wait in line to buy the hot new CD.)
(In other news, I’m old.)
One night, the week before the album came out, MTV was premiering a song from the new album at midnight. My best friend Michael and I stayed up to watch it…
…and fucking hated it.
It was the blandest, most passionless, bluesy-rock garbage. These were the kings of thrash, the acolytes and torchbearers for the heaviest of heavy music.
And they cut their hair and cashed it in for… this?!?!
Any music fan who lived through the 90s is undoubtedly familiar with the narrative of Metallica as the biggest sellouts in music history. Here was a band that not only redefined an obscure niche genre of music (heavy metal) but also took it mainstream in the most badass way. And then, at the peak of their success and fame, Metallica abandoned everything that made them Metallica and put out a litany of mediocre old man blues-rock albums that were as forgettable as Lars Ulrich’s Ride the Lightning era mullet or James Hetfield’s 1989 porn ‘stache.
The music video that traumatized my 12-year-old self. Turns out the song’s not that bad.
As a 12-year-old who worshipped Metallica as pretty much every 12-year-old worships some stupid celebrity, I was crushed and heartbroken. It felt like finding out my father wasn’t really my father. This person (or in this case, group of men) who I had become so attached to that I assume they loved and cared about me, their super fan, turned out to not give a shit at all. They just wanted another mansion or another boat or something.
This “sell out” narrative has afflicted a lot of mega bands over the years. In fact, pretty much any band that has maintained a successful legacy over multiple decades (Aerosmith, Guns N Roses, U2, Rolling Stones) has suffered from the “they sold out” or “they got old, quit drugs, and suck now” narrative.
(In fact, in the 2000s, rock fans have become a parody of themselves: we love to hate the bands that we love the most. We torture ourselves by staying stuck in the past, back when we loved bands “before they were cool,” basically taking whatever we appreciate most and then removing our own ability to appreciate it. Rock fans are fucking stupid. And yes, I include myself in that statement.)
Music was my first love. And it has always made more sense to me as an art-form than writing does. It just so happens that I am a better writer than I am a musician, so this is where my creative energy gets channeled.
Throughout my writing career, I’ve always thought of my work in terms of songs and albums. I’ve always thought of my career and trajectory not in the terms of Dan Brown or Stephen King or Wayne Dyer, but rather in terms of Led Zeppelin, Slayer, Megadeth, or Opeth. Music is the metaphor by which I conceptualize everything I do. Because I feel like music is the only thing I really understand.
With the overwhelming success of Subtle Art this past year, while figuring out how to cope with my own startling success, my mind naturally searched for rock music analogs. There are plenty. Nirvana’s “Nevermind.” Van Halen’s first album. And, of course, Metallica’s Black Album.
It’s no secret that most incredibly successful artists do their best work early in their career. While there’s likely a lot of reasons for this, I think there’s a big fat glaring one that I actually learned from the business world: there’s an inherent antagonism between innovation and success.
When these rock bands were young, they had nothing to lose. Nobody knew who they were. They were sleeping in roach-infested basements, scraping together a couple hundred bucks to record demos. Not only was there no reason to not try something a bit crazy or “out there” to get some attention for themselves, but there was also absolutely no reason for them to simply copy other bands that had come before them. Why listen to a cheap Thin Lizzy or King Diamond rip off when you can just go listen to Thin Lizzy or King Diamond?
Therefore, these scrappy kids in basements with their shitty instruments were pushed to innovate, to not only create a new voice that differentiated themselves from the pack but to create a new voice that threatens to revolutionize the pack itself.
Metallica blew up because they took an obscure genre called “heavy metal” and played it so damn fast and so damn hard that people couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Led Zeppelin introduced more musicality and harmonic complexity to their songs than rock fans of the 60s thought possible. Dream Theater took a genre long-considered dead (prog rock) and reinvigorated it with a modern style and sonic diversity.
These bands blew up by revolutionizing people’s understanding of what was possible. They were not only different, they redefined what was normal and expected.
Obviously, this brought them great success. But there’s a side effect of redefining the playing field. You go from being the scrappy upstart to being the establishment. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose. You go from fighting to be noticed to fighting to hold onto what you’ve got. As a result, creative risks no longer make strategic sense. In fact, they become a problem.
The idea behind this antagonism between innovation and success comes from a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. The book describes why large corporations are rarely the ones to innovate the new technologies or practices that inevitably destroy them: they have too much to lose. Corporations, because they’re already in power, are more interested in maintaining that power. So it doesn’t make sense for them to invest in innovations that could threaten it.
Christensen actually wasn’t the first to become aware of this dynamic either. This dynamic also applies to scientific advancement and maps pretty well onto the famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn that shook up the academic world in the 1950s. Kuhn pointed out that major breakthroughs in science come from scrappy outsiders because, by definition, the biggest scientific breakthroughs are theories that challenge the entire existing paradigm. The big academic institutions and mainstream scientists have built their careers and funding on the current paradigm — therefore, to seek out theories outside that paradigm is career-suicide.
It’s funny listening to the 90s Metallica albums now. They’re not nearly as terrible as I, and many others, remember them. In fact, if you just forget that Metallica was a transcendent and genius metal band in the 80s, then their 90s output is as good, if not better, than most of the alt-rock bands of that decade. They were still a damn good band.
I think artists who hit the transcendent level, where their innovation revolutionizes an entire genre of music, and they soon find themselves as the new establishment, have one of three choices on how to proceed with their careers:
- Stay in their lane and just keep rehashing the same sound over and over, ad infinitum (Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Foo Fighters) – Inevitably, the band’s sound will no longer feel fresh and exciting, but rather old and repetitive (probably even to themselves). But the upside is that people will always know what they’re getting from the band, and the superfans will always stay loyal. These bands see their music as a cause — something to stay loyal to through thick and thin.
- Cater their sound with the changing tastes of audiences in an attempt to stay relevant (Metallica, Aerosmith, Van Halen) – Bands that are less married to the art and more married to the career will pivot and look for ways to remain relevant and memorable as mainstream tastes evolve. These bands see their music as a business — something that must adapt and change to stay alive. Hardcore fans will get upset and the band will be criticized, but their career will continue, and in many cases, they will continue to release good music, even if it feels bland compared to their earlier offerings.
- Try to continue to innovate and risk losing everything they’ve built (The Beatles, Miles Davis, Nirvana, Radiohead) – Then you get the rare few who maintain the courage to continue innovating in the face of their commercial success. They manage to maintain a casual indifference to the money and the fame. Or, in the cases of Miles Davis and Kurt Cobain, they openly loathe it, and intentionally set out to subvert it. These bands see their music purely as art and refuse to let any other considerations interfere with that art. This is a high-risk/high-reward strategy. A musician must possess an incredible amount of talent and drive to pull it off, to reinvent themselves successfully and be just as good in their new form(s) as they were in their initial form. Artists who attempt this and fail are usually tossed aside as “one hit wonders.” Artists who succeed become perennial greats.
What’s interesting about all three of these options is that you can’t have everything with any of them. No matter what you do, a sizeable chunk of your fanbase will revolt and get pissed at you. With Option 1, the casual fans and bandwagon hoppers will get bored and lose interest. With Option 2, your superfans will feel betrayed and lash out at you (and claim they were fans “back when they were good.”) With Option 3, you run the risk of everyone wondering what the fuck you’re doing and leaving.
Therefore, in a weird sense, an artist experiencing massive success is presented with no “good” options in terms of continuing their career. Either they decide to just cash checks for another decade or two and turn their art into another job like any other. Or they have to repeatedly risk it all to continue exploring their creativity.
This is such a mindfuck because to be in this position, you’re already experiencing an absurd amount of success. The human mind expects its endeavors to always move in an upward trajectory, but in creative fields things never seem to be linear.
I think every artist must come to terms with their decision. And, by all means, if you look at them, they have. Metallica gloated in the late 90s saying, “Yes, we sold out… every seat in the house.” Their fans nearly had a collective stroke (myself included). But that was their prerogative. Metallica decided after ten years of headbanging, maintaining their career and fame mattered to them more than the art. And that’s fine (Cliff Burton was likely the real artistic drive in the band, anyway, and he passed away in 1987.) Opeth, one of my favorite death metal bands of all time, recently did a complete 180 and started putting out obscure-sounding prog rock albums. They sounded nothing like their previous output. As a result, they alienated the majority of their own fanbase. But Mikael Akerfeldt, the band leader, said that ultimately he was fine with this. It was a price he was willing to pay for playing the music he wanted to play. And along with the fans, I’m sure he lost a lot of money and fame as well.
So, it comes back to that old maxim I keep harping on: What are you willing to give up? (Choose your struggles.) Are you willing to give up novelty and newness? Relevance and fame? Or artistic creativity?
Not that these are mutually exclusive. But you have to decide what you value the most out of the three, as that will dictate most of your decisions.
I’ve made my decision, and am prepared to live with the consequences.
(Photo Credit: Gavin Whitner)