Lots of bands are successful by conventional standards – travelling the world, earning enough to musician in general – and you make a strong enough impression on the world, you might transcend your mere mortal status and become a brand instead. In practical terms, this means your musical presence is effectively being eclipsed by your merchandising one instead. The Ramones and The Misfits spring to mind as some of the most obvious contemporary examples, but companies like Hot Topic have introduced the younger generation to any number of acts via t-shirts and other ephemera. Bands that inspired public outrage on first release suddenly find themselves on baby clothing. For long-time fans and curious younger fans alike, it can be totally baffling.
Of course, trends beget sub-trends and mutations within themselves, and this has arguably been taken to its oddest extreme with celebrities wearing extreme metal shirts in public; Kendall Jenner was spotted in public wearing a vintage Slayer shirt, while Kim Kardashian wore a Morbid Angel sweatshirt in a 2017 Instagram post. Sites like eBay, Depop and Poshmark now play host to any number of obscenely-priced vintage metal tees; metal has always been a collector-friendly genre with opportunistic sellers, but it’s hard not to see it as excessive. But in this context it’s one other way that bands can evolve into brands.
KISS arguably serve as the ur-example of this approach, one of the first bands to pioneer music merchandising in the way we understand it today. Certainly there were acts that predated them on this front – The Beatles being the most obvious example – but they were arguably more fad-driven as opposed to sustained lifestyle choice. Today, more than 40 years after KISS enjoyed their peak popularity, you can literally spend your whole life from birth to death in some form of KISS attire if you have the cash and inclination. Nobody’s still wearing those shitty 60s Beatles wigs.
My own first exposure to the idea of band-as-brand actually came through Metallica. As a young kid in the town where I grew up, you didn’t really hear Metallica on the radio until ReLoad hit the charts in the late 90s. But they were a visual presence around town nonetheless; you’d see older teenagers wandering around wearing Metallica t-shirts that had been worn to within an inch of their lives. For a number of years I was reasonably sure that Metallica shirts weren’t sold “new” per se – they were just pre-thrashed with fading, rips and cigarette holes. It was weird and vaguely menacing to a somewhat sheltered kid, but it was intriguing. I didn’t have a good grasp on it, but I could tell it hinted at something darker beneath the surface of the suburban veneer that surrounded me. There was to be found than the dominant surf and skate culture that seemed to entrance so many in my hometown.
(Of course, these days I’m well aware that Metallica had long since ceased to be an underground phenomenon by the mid-90s and in fact had several obscenely successful albums by anyone’s standards. But when you don’t have a solid yardstick to judge by….)
When I actually started listening to them some years later, it quickly became apparent what a disconnect there was between the young men who had recorded albums like Ride the Lightning in comparison to the men who now attracted headlines and Rolling Stone covers. In 2020 it gets overlooked a lot – especially now that Hetfield has gone back to wearing his kutte with Angel Witch patches – but in late 90s and early aughts, Metallica were on a lot of people’s shitlists. The double-whammy of Load and ReLoad, followed by the Napster lawsuit, had left a pretty sour taste in a lot of fan’s mouths. Somewhere along the line they had turned from a metal band and into a larger corporate entity that used “Metallica” as a brand name and had revenue expectations to live up to. Some of those older teens I’d seen wearing their shirts had probably bought into it at some level too, whether or not they realised it. And to be quite frank, I think I have over the years too.
All of this said, I don’t really begrudge bands who move into brand territory. The economics of record sales and touring have pretty much always meant that metal bands make most of their money off merch sales. A band might only have 2 or 3 albums out for you to buy, but they can have a lot more for you to wear. And while I tend to think it leads to a drop-off in quality of music I’m also not sure it’s something that can entirely be controlled either. The odds of making it big as a band are incredibly tiny, and so it’s understandable that you would want to keep such an arrangement going; staying relevant in the public eye and maintaining a long-term income. Not to mention the record label, managers and other hangers-on who have a vested interest in you as a cash cow.
For others, they really don’t have any control over it because they’re not here to object any more. For example, most of The Ramones are dead – instead of members making decisions about the way the band’s image is handled, you have record labels, estates and trademark holders in the driver’s seat.
One thing I do know is that people get into things how they get into things and I don’t think a knee-jerk response of “POSER” is particularly helpful. Kendall Jenner wearing a Slayer shirt sparked countless thinkpieces, most of them bad. Do I think Jenner likes Slayer? Maybe not. But is it impossible? No! Slayer aren’t some obscure kvlt black metal band that no-one’s ever heard of – they’re literally one of the most popular metal bands to ever exist. There are certainly larger conversations here – celebrity exploitation of underground cultures, for one. But that’s probably outside of the scope of this article. Nor do I necessarily think it needs to influence your enjoyment of the work of theirs that you do enjoy. In my own case, I fell into the classic Metallica fan cliché of enjoying the first four albums and not much of anything else years ago. Their modern commodification (which realistically began years before I was a fan myself) is a separate entity, and doesn’t really need to infringe. I’m not sure whether you’d just call that cognitive dissonance or not, but I don’t let it bother me too much.
I cite Metallica as my own experience, but I imagine many of you reading have had similar musical encounters of your own. Interestingly, it recently came full circle to my initial childhood encounter with them, when the band announced a collaboration with surf brand Billabong. I feel too old to be concerned about old issues of subculture tribalism – particularly given Kirk Hammett’s own love for surfing – but seeing the Billabong logo emblazoned onto the cover of Ride the Lighting was definitely something that took me a while to unpack.