30 years ago, record store employee Brian Slagel put out a compilation of local bands called The New Heavy Metal Revue presents Metal Massacre. That compilation, the first release on Metal Blade Records, included a little band called Metallica, as well as Ratt, Black N’ Blue, and Cirith Ungol, and it went on to launch an empire. Since then, the label has grown to become one of the most indentifiable metal labels in the world, and is the current home of Amon Amarth, Between the Buried and Me, Cannibal Corpse (the ABC’s of metal!) and countless others. We caught up with Slagel to talk about his label at 30, what he looks for in a signing, and, er, the Goo Goo Dolls.
First off, happy anniversary! I know this is probably an impossible question to answer, but do you have any favorite bands that you’ve worked with or just personally have the most connection to over the last thirty years at Metal Blade?
That is an impossible question. Obviously the one’s that we’ve worked with for a long period, and so many of the bands are good friends of mine, but I think back to Fates Warning, Lizzy Borden, Amon Amarth, Cannibal Corpse, all those bands have been with us for so long. You’ve been working with them for so long, and they’re all not only bands you work with but they’re all friends of mine, too. It’s cool, but we’ve been pretty lucky. I’d say probably 99% of the bands that we’ve worked with we actually like working with, so we’ve been pretty lucky with that over the years.
Obviously Metallica is a huge success story, and was involved with Metal Blade Records, are there any other bands that have gone on to greater success, whether at Metal Blade or not, that you’re particularly proud of?
Obviously Slayer, another seminal super famous metal band that started with us, have gone on to have kind of a good music career, I think. Same thing there, a lot of the Metallica guys are all good friends of mine, so it’s cool to see the whole metal scene that’s been so huge much bigger than any of us ever would have thought back in 1982.
That’s what I was going to ask next. With Amon Amarth and Six Feet Under, you’re having records by extreme metal bands charting now and selling a decent amount of records, did you have any idea that was going to happen back in the day?
Absolutely not. Certainly in ’82, none of us ever thought that it was going to get a hundredth of how big it is now. It’s really incredible, and then you fast-forward a little further and you start seeing with bands like Cannibal Corpse and Six Feet Under and Amon Amarth, who would’ve thought that those really extreme bands would have the success that they’ve had as well? It’s insane. For me, I never go into it thinking about selling records or any of that stuff, you really just do it for the love of the music, and the fact that it’s been able to do so well and all of these bands have been able to make a living and survive off of music is incredible.
Absolutely. You ‘ve gone through some growing pains over the years, back in the late ‘80s you were distributed through Warner, is there anything in particular you’ve learned from working closely with a major label?
Well, sure, that was an interesting experience, we were there for four years, from ’89-’93, I think. It’s interesting, and obviously we’ve been through Sony/RED for quite some time now, too, so we’ve kind of been in both of those camps. Being at a major label there are obviously some advantages, the reach and the power that the majors have. But it was a weird time for us because when we first started there, Warner was this really cool, major label, but they kind of started as an independent really, and had grown, and by the time that we left there it had become a part of this gigantic corporation, and we kind of saw all of the trappings of that. We were there when the whole “Cop Killer” thing happened, and it started this whole thing where they had to proof all the lyrics, and it just became very conservative, and the freedom that we loved to have we kind of lost a little bit, which is ultimately why we left at the end. But it’s interesting, certainly being in that environment coming from being a small independent label to work there, we certainly did learn a lot on all aspects of the music industry at that time.
You famously signed Goo Goo Dolls, did you see something in them? Did you have any idea that they would become the much less punk-rock band that they were when you signed them?
That’s certainly not why we initially signed them, they were this cool punk band that played Buffalo, N.Y., and we liked them a lot and they were really cool, and even as we were kind of building them, they were just a really fun, live band that was really amazing to work with, and they kind of became over time more of a commercial thing. Then all of a sudden the big hit was “Name,” and it was everywhere and it was kind of a ballad and they became known for that. But you just never know how these things are going to evolve and it’s pretty amazing. We loved working with them and they were on the label for so long, and they were always fun to see live and a really fun band to be around, so I’m really happy that they ended up having all of that success.
Are there any bands that you really tried to sign that just got away over the years?
There’s a couple. If you go back to the beginning and we had some money, we probably could have done the first Metallica record, then a few years later there was a bidding war of which—I laugh—because back then it wasn’t that much, between us and Combat Records for Megadeth, and I think we offered $8,000 and Combat offered $9,000, so they went with Combat. It’s always money issues. Same thing, we got offered Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell, but they spent money on it, so they had a pretty big advance at the time and we just couldn’t do it. But hey look, I can’t complain, you can’t win ‘em all and we’ve managed to do ok.
You have a lot of bands on the label, how do you figure out the release schedule?
We have to really work on that because it is difficult, we try to have only one major release every month, and it works out pretty good. It’s funny how the business rolls now, we’re literally talking about releases that we’re plotting for 2014, crazy. So just based on bands’ schedules and when everything has to happen you have to start looking so far ahead. It’s worked out pretty well, but sometimes you get into positions where two or three things all happen at the same time and you have to maneuver them around, but the bands are all really pretty easy to work with for the most part, and we’ve been pretty lucky with getting every schedule getting to not overlap each other too often, but there’s a lot of planning that goes into that, for sure.
How personally involved are you with scouting all of the bands you sign?
I certainly listen to tons of stuff, and the way it rolls is that we get bands or demos and we have a bunch of people from the staff that will listen to it first and if they think it’s pretty good, I’ll listen to it. I still listen to stuff, if somebody I know pretty well sends me something, I’ll definitely check it out. But ultimately before we sign anything I’ve got to really love it, otherwise I don’t really want us working on it, or the staff has to really like something, too. If I love something and the staff’s not into it, its not fair for them to do it either, so everybody has to be really into it. But I listen to everything that comes in. I don’t get to see as many bands live before we sign them as I used to be able to just because there’s so much to do now and so many bands are located all over the place, so that’s a little bit difficult. But I certainly hear and at least try to have a conversation with the band.
Is there anything in particular you’re looking for, other than you and your staff enjoying the band, when you’re scouting a band?
Not really. The music’s really got to strike you first, and its one of those things if you hear something and really like it there’s no checklist that we go through in particular. Its got to be fresh and new, and sound a little bit different, you know, you don’t want to sign the 50th band that sounds like something that’s already out, so in all of our opinions it’s got to be something that’s a little bit different. The chance of talking to the band, we want to see where they’re at. We like to work with good people, so we’ve got to get a little bit of a vibe there and t really helps if the band is willing to work and willing to go on the road and tour, if they have the capability to do that. If they’ve been working on their social media stuff, that the sort of thing, really.It’s happened many times over the years, that we’ve found a band we really love, but they haven’t gotten all of that stuff together, you still do it and hope that everything else comes around, but it’s nice to have a bit of a head start if you can.
Are there any trends you actively try to avoid in any metal bands?
It’s not that we really avoid anything, because you just never know, I definitely like a certain style of music and have kept a roster over the years of what I like, I’m not really into super commercial poppy sort of stuff. You know, the kind of more corporate sounding metal that’s out there right now I’m not really into, not that we avoid it, we listen to all of those things, but that would be more difficult for us to sign than anything else, because it doesn’t really run on my musical taste.
You mentioned social media earlier. You’re very active yourself on Twitter. How important do you think that is?
I think that its hugely important. Social media right now is just an amazing tool that we have to communicate directly with all of the fans which is just phenomenal. I think it’s really important to get the information out there to everybody, and the interaction part of it is just really fun, too. I love to hear what people think about things, and what people say, I think it’s certainly revolutionized the way you market and promote records now. If you’re not getting involved in those sort of things you’re really missing out, and I think the bands that are more involved in that, especially the younger bands, that the better they will be because it’s a great tool that they will be able to use.
Last year, you pulled your catalog from Spotify. What’s your take on streaming services now?
All of this stuff is evolving and it’s hard to say whats going to be the long term thing. For us, we just try to do whatever is best for the artist and what makes sense for them, so it’s all an evolving process, and well just have to see where it goes, and we get involved with all of those sort of things more and more on a daily basis, but I don’t know the crystal ball of whats going to happen. I think as long as it makes sense for the artist, then it makes sense, I guess.
You just said you have no crystal ball, but where do you envision metal evolving, say five years down the line?
The cool thing about metal 40 years in now, is that it’s become a genre that’s not going to go away. There were times from the 80s and 90s when people thought it might go away, but now fifteen years later, it’s a pretty well established thing. I cant see that things are going to change tremendously in terms of how things go, I mean touring is always important, visuals are important, how people get the music will be interesting to see, but I think right now metal is probably in the healthiest state its ever been. You’ve got the older bands, whether its Maiden, Metallica, Cannibal Corpse, whatever, are all bigger than they’ve ever been before, and you have a whole crop of new bands coming up, and I think I’m probably more excited about the new music that I’m hearing. So many interesting new bands are coming up that I think over the next five or six years that everything will continue to be good. I’m hoping that all of these young bands come up and have success, too. I think that’s probably the big key.
Are there any bands you want to name-drop in there?
Obviously Ghost is a band that has a lot of stuff going on now, so hopefully they’re one of the new bands that can break through. We have a couple of bands in solitude and another new band called Gypsyhawk who are cool that we like, its all this sort of 70s and 80s influence by these new bands, so that seems to be maybe where things may be headed. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Do you, looking way down the line, envision there being a 60th anniversary of Metal Blade?
If I could live that long, that’d be awesome. I never thought we’d get to 30, so I certainly can’t rule out 60, that’s for sure.