Heavy Metal and Progressive Rock – Putting Bodies in the Theaters and Killing the iPod?

I recently read two interesting blog posts which made me think about how quality metal and progressive music is surviving the declining music industry and increasing its fan base.

Maybe People Don’t Go to Shows Because Bands Suck

Eyal Levi’s post on metalsucks.com, “Maybe People Don’t Go to Shows Because Bands Suck,” describes how progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater, Opeth, and Muse have been able to survive the crumbling music industry. Levi describes how he attended sold-out concerts by each of those bands. The audiences were enthusiastic, and the bands sold a lot of merchandise. The shows seem to be unaffected by this struggling state of the music industry. Levi states that the reason for the successful performances is the quality of the show:

People will pay for quality. People will pay money to be blown away. Bands that can’t blow people away are getting hit the hardest by the economy. In these trying times, people are only going to spend their money on sure things. Maybe these so-called “headliners” shouldn’t be headliners. Maybe these bands got to the position of headlining because the momentum of the trend they lucked into swept them there. Maybe now that the bubble is bursting, the truth behind what really gets people out to shows year after year is coming clear. Music, and showmanship win. Always. Never underestimate your audience.

I’ve been fortunate enough to attend some incredible progressive rock and heavy metal concerts over the past year. Four of the highest quality shows were by Dommin, Orphaned Land, and Dream Theater. Every single one of them, whether expensively staged or not, had one thing in common – quality, individualism, and absolute dedication from the performers. That’s what sets these performers apart from the mainstream. They may not attract amphitheater-sized audiences, but their loyal fans will ensure their future survival.

Up-and-coming goth metal band Dommin was the opening act for The 69 Eyes during last fall’s tour (read our review here). Aside from a backdrop with their logo, Dommin had very little in the way of stage decoration. But after they started playing, it was obvious that they didn’t need pyrotechnics to attract an audience. Their soulful performance drew an audience mostly unfamiliar with their music away from the bar and up to the stage. The entire crowd was jamming along by the end of the set, and the band was surrounded by new fans at the merchandise stand after the show.

Israeli progressive heavy metal band Orphaned Land was formed back in 1991, although they have only recently begun touring the United States. The band played packed the tiny Bottom Lounge theater with a crowd of about 80 loyal multi-generational fans . Like Dommin, Orphaned Land’s stage decoration consisted of a backdrop with their logo on it. Lead vocalist Kobi Farhi exuded a unique, simultaneous aura of peace and power (read our interview with Farhi here). I was particularly fascinated by the front row, which was filled with teenaged fans dancing as passionately as if they were at a Lady GaGa concert. Orphaned Land needed nothing more than a quality performance to literally get their fans jumping.

Progressive legends Dream Theater need no introduction to any true metal fan. These guys have been cranking it out since 1985, and their fanbase keeps getting bigger and bigger. There are three main reasons that the band attracts such loyal fans. First and foremost is their well-crafted music and technical mastery. Second is their live show (read our review of their 2009 Progressive Nation performance here). Their legendary virtuosity is always mind-blowing when seen in person. Now that they’ve been around for so many years, they have a high production value in their shows including a big overhead projection screen, a plethora of guitars, keyboards, and basses, and Mike Portnoy’s monster drum set. The final reason is their artistic integrity. Through the years, they’ve gone through hell to maintain control of their musical creativity against the wishes of several record labels.

Prog-Rock Is the Antidote to “Frivolous” iPod Era

In Greg Kot’s interview on Turn It Up, Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson: “Prog-Rock Is the Antidote to “Frivolous” iPod Era,” Wilson claims that the growing progressive rock audience is moving towards buying music on vinyl rather than downloading.

It tells me I’m not alone,” he says. “Vinyl sales are rising not just because people my age are feeling nostalgic, but because kids are getting into it. One of the interesting things history tells us is that for every action there is an opposite reaction. And with the current trend toward convenience, there is a reaction against that. People are looking for something more organic and special from music. They come to our shows because they want something with more substance, a bit more epic, something less frivolous than downloading the latest Britney Spears single from MySpace. And it’s not just music, but a general social trend. With this incredible influx of technology, there is a sense of people looking for something more soulful from their lives, something more real. Kids are getting bored with the idea of computers and cellphones. And what do kids do best? They rebel. They rebel against the norm, and the norm is download culture.”

I agree that many music fans are getting sick of the soulless garbage fed to us by record labels, regardless of the genre. Contrapuntist and I enjoy sifting through the heavy metal videos available through our on-demand cable service. We were searching for new music a couple of weeks ago, and we were dismayed by how many of the metal bands sounded and looked the same. Luckily, we came across Orphaned Land’s recently released video, “Sapari.” Their sound was so different from everything else that it soothed our ears. The same goes for another of my new favorite bands, Mutiny Within. Lead singer Chris Clancy’s voice stands out from all the growling vocalists out there, and the complexity of the music holds me prisoner every time I listen to the album. Bands like Orphaned Land and Mutiny Within touch my soul in ways that those cookie-cutter bands cannot because their music is honest and unique.

I don’t believe that progressive rock will kill the iPod or MP3 players (I use my Samsung phone as an MP3 player. I’ve hated Macs ever since high school). I’m a progressive rock fan, but I love listening to other genres of music on my MP3 player. I especially enjoy putting my player on the shuffle setting when I’m not sure what I want to hear. However, progressive albums just don’t work on an MP3 player. It drives me nuts when a one-minute track pops up from a concept album, such as Pain of Salvation’s Be.  The track is meant as a transition between songs, but when heard out of context, it’s just annoying. I generally avoid listening to Be on my MP3 player because of the choppy transitions between tracks. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t give up my MP3 player just because I don’t like listening to progressive music on it.

I also do not necessarily agree with Wilson’s opinion about downloading music. I rarely download music, because I enjoy holding the actual album in my hands, looking at the cover art, and reading the lyrics. Nevertheless, I think that it’s important for fans to be able to choose how many tracks they would like to download off of an album. Some fans think it is a bad thing to download a single track because then you don’t get an overall impression of the band’s music. But that track can also open a door to a new world of music. Contrapuntist and I have purchased numerous albums after hearing only one track.

In the end, Levi and Wilson have the same message – quality and individualism in music generates a dedicated fan base. For many years, music fans have had to tolerate a slew of wannabes who rip off original acts. We’ve had little choice but to swallow what the record labels gave us, whether it was a gaggle of hair metal bands in the 80s or a multitude of boy bands in the 90s. Now, because of the Internet, music lovers can bypass the posers and choose substantial, soul-touching music. And that is the type of music which will survive.

Only time will tell how the music industry will cope in this new, fan-driven world.

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