Brian Slagel built Metal Blade Records from the bedroom of his mom’s house in the 1980s and is now the boss of probably the most influential Heavy Metal record company in the world. We left Part One with Brian saying, “It’s difficult because we’re really good friends with all of the bands. It still is business, and sometimes you must make difficult decisions.” Here is Part Two.
That separation remains a challenge. I ask Brian whether he ever got too close to the flame. He’s honest in his reply. “Well, I think that the biggest scare of all was in 1987. I talked about it in the first book where you know I grew up with vinyl, and I was a massive vinyl collector. I kept all my vinyl over all these years. I still have a huge collection. And you know, everyone kept telling me, hey, CDs are here. CDs are here, and CDs are gonna replace vinyl, and vinyl’s gonna go away.
“And I’m like, no. It’s not. It’s not gonna happen. So, we didn’t stop making vinyl. We kept making vinyl like it was gonna continue. And then, literally one week, all the record stores across the United States decided we were done with vinyl. They shipped it all back. The way the business was constructed then, which was difficult, was that basically everything was on commission. So, you ship out all the records, you get paid for them, but then if they all ship them back, then you owe that money.
“So, at that point, I owed a couple of hundred thousand dollars to our distributor, and I didn’t have that kind of money back then. We worked out a plan, a repayment plan for them, but in the meantime, we had no income coming in. So, I basically had to run the company and got every credit card I could possibly find, so I had like 20 credit cards and just ran the company for about six months on that until we could finally, get over that.
“But that was a huge lesson for me, and I was like, okay, from now on, whenever there’s any sort of new technology or new whatever, instead of resisting, I’m going to embrace it.”
The irony is that the purchasing of vinyl has now swung the other way, with it becoming very much the go-to purchase over the last decade or so. Did Brian notice the change in the States, particularly pre-pandemic? I noted that I was buying more vinyl than ever.
“Yeah, we have the same struggles we’ve had, even before the pandemic, to try to make vinyl. There are more and more plants now. So, it’s getting a little bit easier, but certainly, the one thing over the pandemic and this second book is really weird because I finished it before the pandemic started. And then it couldn’t come out because of the pandemic. And then it’s coming out much later now due to a paper shortage, which is why it was supposed to be out last year.
“But it’s out now, but we still have the same challenges with vinyl, and vinyl still sells well, but now we’re in this worldwide economic slowdown. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing and to how you’re doing things business-wise. I mean, generally, in a recession, we usually do pretty well, but you have to be careful what you manufacture because you don’t want to be in a position where you’re sitting on a whole bunch of vinyl that you can’t move. You don’t want to over-manufacture or under-manufacture, so it’s a really difficult thing now. But luckily, our staff is great at figuring out what makes sense, not only just vinyl but also CDs. CDs still exist and still do a pretty good business too.”
One of the things that has become apparent since the pandemic is how much the price of vinyl has increased. Brian has noticed it too. “Yeah, that’s a big thing over there, not only just in vinyl, but I know merch sales and merch stuff over there is crazy expensive. It is here too, but not quite like it is over there.”
Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent far too much money on vinyl during the pandemic because I couldn’t go to gigs, I couldn’t go out. Did Brian notice any kind of change in the purchasing during those couple of years? “Oh, 100%,” he says. “I mean, we had two of the best years we ever had, quite honestly, because of the same thing. You know, people weren’t going out to dinner. They weren’t going to shows. They weren’t going anywhere, so what did they want to do? They want to stay at home and buy music.
“We sold tonnes and tonnes of vinyl and CDs. And obviously, the streaming numbers were really good, and because we didn’t really have any new releases, and we have a thick catalogue, we went back and reissued a tonne of records on vinyl. Different variants and different packages and just all these sorts of things worked out really, really, well for us, and it helped the bands because the bands couldn’t tour or do anything.
“So, the more money we could give them in royalties, the better for the bands. You know, we’ve always had amazing fans in our world, and I think they also felt, hey, what can I do to help? And the only thing they could really do was buy whatever merch the bands already had and then whatever physical product they could. And between the two, most of the bands were able to survive and continue making music. Which is the most important thing.”
Does Metal Blade have a fan base that will go to Metal Blade to look for music as much as the band’s sites because they know that you’ve got a stable that will suit what they are looking for? “Oh, 1000%,” Brian says. “We exist because of the fans buying stuff and listening to things and doing whatever. We’ve tried to work really hard over all the years to cultivate a certain, I don’t want to say style but a quality that people know. And hopefully, it’s pretty good.
“And, you know, luckily, my taste, and the rest of the staff, our tastes are pretty like what everybody else likes, so we’re lucky in that realm too. But yeah, we try to stay true to what we do. But we also signed a bunch of different stuff. I like all sorts of different styles of Metal, and you know not everybody that’s a fan of Metal Blade is going to be a fan of everything. But you know, if they come in and say OK, well, I like old school stuff, here’s all this old school sounding stuff. And then, I feel like the extreme stuff, there’s a whole bunch of that stuff. It’s hard to get everybody to like everything. I like everything but I’m in the minority in that I think sometimes.”
As it happened, I’d reviewed a band on the Metal Blade label the day before called Tanith from Canada. A three-piece who are a real ’70s throwback, but there is some contemporary style to it as well. And then Metal Blade has the likes of Cannibal Corpse. For many, it wouldn’t be obvious that they were on the same label.
In the book, Brian refers to Nu Metal as the only genre that he really struggled with. For a lot of us of a similar age, I think we all struggled with that and still struggle with it.
In Swing Of The Blade, Brian talks about the ’90s and the changing face of Metal. When Nu Metal emerged, was he ever under pressure to take on any of those bands to keep the label going? He’s candid in his response. “Not really. The funny thing about the ’90s that I talk a lot about is because it’s like this lost decade, and there’s loads of great Metal that came out that people may not listen to. I always go on and on about if you’re King Diamond and Mercyful Fate fan. You like the early stuff? Please listen to that stuff from the ’90s and early 2000s because it was good.
“We did pretty well. The underground was still really big in the ’90s, and we were selling Cannibal Corpse, Six Feet Under and GWAR. A lot of these bands were selling in the hundreds and thousands of copies of stuff, which is legit in the underground. Those are legit numbers. We still had to be careful about how we spent things, and we probably overspent on a couple of things that we probably shouldn’t have. That didn’t make it easy, but there wasn’t a time where we were like, oh my God, this is going to end, and we must sign something terrible.
“No disrespect to them. I mean, it is what it is, and I have a lot of friends for who Nu Metal was the gateway to getting into all the other heavy stuff. So, I appreciate that, and you know of all those bands I talked about it in the book too. We tried to sign Korn in the early days, and I never considered them Nu Metal. I just consider them a different style of Metal, and to this day, they’re still really great now. Some of the other stuff wasn’t quite my taste.”
To read the interviews with Brian Slagel, keep an eye on https://www.metaltalk.net/tag/brian-slagel.
Swing of the Blade: More Stories from Metal Blade Records can be ordered from https://www.metalblade.com/swingoftheblade.