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Headbangers Brawl: In which we discuss Machine Head’s touring plans

Posted by on November 14, 2014

Earlier this week, Machine Head announced that they would be touring. Of course, they announced that a few months ago, only to pull out of that tour to finish working on Bloodstone & Diamonds. This time, they’re playing with no opening acts, because Robb Flynn only wants die-hards there. That combined with the fact that they won’t be playing any festivals while promoting Bloodstone & Diamonds, it’s pretty clear that they’re making a statement. But are they shooting themselves in the foot by only going after existing fans? Joining us in the debate this week is IKILLYA’s Jason Lekberg, who’s also worked at a handful of labels and runs his own marketing company, Lekberg Enterprises.

 

Jason: Of the many things that have saddened me about the reality of the business of music, probably the saddest is how often I’ve seen “stars” go unchecked by those around them. The majority of the professions in the industry are services provided to an artist where the pay for that service is based on the money made by the artist. For instance, managers and booking agents both make a percentage of the artist’s income and of course, labels earn income based on the sales of the artist’s music. This means that all too often those jobs become “make the artist happy so I keep getting paid” instead of “help guide the artist and their vision – even if it means disagreeing with them sometimes”. Of course, the final choice is the artists and there are many good team members out there who have been fired for giving the right advice. Those artists reap their own rewards.

I don’t know Machine Heads manager nor do I purport to have any knowledge of any conversations that happened before Robb’s most recent blog posts and press release. There is no doubt that the accessibility of social media has helped to exaggerate this as well. However, from this outside view it would seem that there could have been a better way to approach these announcements.

There are two announcements that I’d like to focus on. First that Machine Head will no longer be playing festivals and second that their upcoming tour will not feature any opening bands. The incendiary statements around these announcements are what initially spurred me to write this but in writing it, I have adjusted me overall opinion somewhat. Regardless, all of the statements illustrate the opposite of what I believe was Robb’s intent.

Robb gives several reasons for [not playing festivals]. First he states that festivals are physically uncomfortable. “…these people are watching Machine Head at 5PM in the freezing rain with bitter winds ripping across the festival grounds and don’t forget the occasional fatal lightning strike, too.” While it’s nice to think of your fans and their comfort, I would argue that it’s their choice and the majority of the world has shown clearly that they enjoy going to huge festivals. Hell, I don’t personally like this experience either, but far be it from me to tell others not to.

Next, he states that the reason for playing festivals is bogus:

“That is the whole idea of playing festivals or opening for other bands… that you’re reaching a bigger audience, outside of your own fan base. With that knowledge, you then hope that you’re going to draw more people next time through that area, sell more merch, expand your fanbase and make all that went into that particular festival “worth it,” right? But it doesn’t…”

Given context, I really struggle with this statement. The prior 3 paragraphs in his blog had been spent describing the extensive festival touring the band had been doing for the majority of their career. If these festivals had not helped to grow the base of the band how are they now able to launch a tour with no support acts? I would argue that the years of touring have in fact accomplished their exact goal and because of that they can now tour as they please – with no opening acts.
And all of it was prefaced with this:

“We’re not trying to have a good time with a bunch of people who don’t know who we are. If MACHINE HEAD throws a party, big or small, we don’t want a bunch of ‘strangers’ there. This is about us and you guys, the die-hards! The Fucking Undesirables! We don’t care about the others out there. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere. If those people want to be a part of this, they know where to find us. So for the time being, and maybe ‘forever,’ we’re done reaching out for them.”

Let’s just call this what it is; financial management. Robb notes in his blog that “On that 2012 tour we earned more money than we had ever made, some shows were great, a lot were kinda “meh”, but because of fly-dates galore, days-off galore, and some mind-bogglingly bad budgeting we spent all the money we made.” If they don’t fly to festivals or have to pay opening acts on their tour – they make more money. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. Many bands have toured on their own and given the new state of the music industry we all can understand the bands need to readjust and find ways to survive with far less income. This upcoming tour is reasonably priced as well. That’s a smart move by itself.

But why attack “strangers”? At some point in Machine Head’s career every single one of their current fans were “strangers”. In addition, given that there are over 7 BILLION people on this planet, it’s safe to say that even the biggest rock band of all time encounters more “strangers” than fans. Those “strangers” have given Robb and company the career they have. Until The Blackening I could have been easily considered one of the strangers as nothing done prior had inspired me to buy their albums. Given these statements, I’m going to retake my old position as I haven’t yet bought Bloodstone & Diamonds – and now I’m in no hurry to.

I’m happy that Machine Head have had enough success to make a living and choices like these. At the end of all of this I honestly don’t think Robb was trying to attack outsiders. I think he was trying to unify and excite Machine Head fans. He just chose his words poorly. Some may say I’m doing the same by writing this, and so be it. I don’t wish any ill will on them, but I’m going to go listen to Battlecross instead.

 

Chip: I’m going to preface this by saying I am not now, nor have I ever been a Machine Head fan.  So I’m going to approach this simply from a business/PR standpoint, as I have zero vested interest in what Machine Head.  From a business standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to maximize your returns as an artist on the touring front, especially in this day and age with record sales accounting for virtually nothing for indie artists.  If any band thinks they can hit the road and make more money going it alone or with only local support then good for them.  If they fill rooms that way then doubly good for them.  If a band wants to eschew festivals for smaller, more intimate rooms then that’s perfectly acceptable as well.  There are no rules that say that every metal band has to go to Europe every summer and hit the festival circuit.

Here’s where it all goes awry for Machine Head though.  First, no one, not even their fans, needs to know all of this.  Fans, for the most part, don’t care how much money you pull in on your tour.  They just care if you are coming to their nearest city and that they have a good time that night.  Fans, for the most part, also don’t care who your tour with or don’t tour with.  For example, I love Royal Thunder, a much “smaller” band than Machine Head.  When they announce a tour it doesn’t matter to me who they are on the road with.  If they are coming to my area, I’m there.  I’ve booked shows for them when they played with only local support here in CT and I’ve gone to see them open for bands like C.O.C. or play alongside bands like ASG or Ancient VVisdom.  Didn’t matter to me who they toured with and it won’t matter to the majority of Machine Head diehards who that band tours with either.  By Robb Flynn trying to offer up an ‘explanation’ for how they want to tour all he did was make himself sound completely disingenuous and less reputable.  You are concerned about fans standing in the rain at festivals?  Really?  Why?  They aren’t and they are well aware of the hit or miss weather at any outdoor shows.  Everyone is, especially the promoters.  You only want to play for “diehards” and not strangers?  Well, frankly, that’s just flat out bullshit.  Are you guest-listing everyone who owns all your records?  Will you take the money of said strangers when they purchase tickets?  I think we all know what the answers to those questions are. Lastly, telling your fans you make more money touring solo or admitting that some shows are more profitable than others doesn’t make you someone who wants to invite fans behind the magic curtain of your band.  It doesn’t make you sound more genuine.  Frankly it has the opposite effect to the average music fan.  It makes you sound like a douche who only really cares about money and not the quality of the product you are producing.

Again, Machine Head have every right to want to maximize their monetary input.  I would think they were nuts if they didn’t being this is their career, not some hobby band.  All successful bands are run like businesses equal to being run like an artist endeavor, and yes, sorry to burst the invisible bubble, but that goes for successful independent artists as well.  But your fans don’t need that type of interaction with you.  All of your back end housekeeping should be on a need to know basis and your fans don’t need (or care for the most part) to know.  Period.  So should Machine Head adjust their touring model?  They should do whatever the hell they want with their touring model.  They’ve earned that right.  Honestly, they should take away social media privileges from Robb Flynn before they worry about who they are or aren’t going to tour with.

 

Chris: First of all, let me say that I’m happy for Machine Head’s success up to this point, and I congratulate them for reaching this point in their career. To be able to tour without support acts and have confidence that those solo shows will pull in enough funds to support an entire tour is a great place to be, especially for a metal band. There are very few other bands that can make that claim at any point in their careers, and I’m happy to see a band reach that level of financial stability, especially a band that I’ve been a fan of for so long.

Having said that, I have to agree entirely with the points that Jason and Chip raised. Bringing up the business side of touring and trying to make it seem like it’s all for the fans comes across as remarkably disingenuous, and anyone with the slightest knowledge of how the music industry runs will see right through it. Machine Head wants to make more money, just like every other band, and no one will begrudge them that. It’s a given in this struggling industry that every band, no matter how big or small, could use more cash. That’s why things like this don’t need to be said explicitly, especially in public correspondence directed to fans on social media. Robb Flynn has a history of letting fans into the band’s business further than they need to be (remember the Adam Duce firing saga?), and while it is sometimes important to have that level of disclosure, this is a case where no one really needed to have this much information.

Beyond all of that, though, I also see this move by Machine Head as potentially damaging to the metal community at large. Metal as a genre has always held camaraderie and togetherness as cardinal virtues, among bands and fans alike. That’s part of the reason why bigger bands will bring underground acts on tour as opening support. Some bands take it even further by adding local and unsigned acts to hometown shows – I saw God Forbid play a show at the Starland Ballroom in New Jersey in 2007 (the show where the DVD Beneath the Scars of Glory and Progression was filmed, no less), and there were a total of 11 bands on the bill, 5 national acts and 6 local/unsigned bands. Even the biggest bands in metal engage in this practice – when Metallica did the World Magnetic Tour for two years, every leg of the tour had hand-picked support acts that they wanted to expose their fans to. Machine Head was one of those hand-picked bands for the American leg of the tour in the winter of 2009. You would think that an experience like that would teach Machine Head the value of bringing support acts on tour. It may not directly benefit them as a band, but the metal community as a whole benefits from younger bands being exposed to larger audiences, and as veterans with over two decades of experience, Machine Head has a certain obligation to provide that exposure to the new bands arriving on the scene today.

In the end, Machine Head is within their rights to tour however they choose in the future, and none of us will likely have any impact on that decision. But the band is creating an image for themselves that seems to be based around an “us first, community second” attitude, and that will service no one in the long run, no matter how big they are. Whether or not it was Robb Flynn’s intention to do this, he’s put up a barrier between the band and the rest of the metal world by making these public declarations. Furthermore, he’s looking more and more like a celebrity that uses social media as a tool for condescension and bragging. The metal world already has enough people with that kind of attitude (Phil Labonte, I’m looking at you), and Flynn would do well to throttle back on some of his rhetoric.

 

Zach: While I agree that ultimately Machine Head has the right to decide what kind of business they do, I can’t necessarily agree with the tactic itself. Sure, Machine Head has become quite successful since the release of The Blackening, and no one is questioning that they’ve toured their asses off to earn. And yeah, they’ll save some extra cash by not bringing along openers. But I think it’s bizarre for any band to presume that they are too big to do touring packages or play festivals. Let’s be frank, no matter how cheap the ticket is, money is tight for everyone. So to me, seeing even just two of your favorite (or even a band you’re vaguely into) on the same bill adds more value to your buck. That goes double for festivals, where you actually might even win over new fans. Hell, there’s a reason why many bands make European festivals a priority: you get to play in front of a potentially larger audience than you normally do, and might even get noticed by fans who might never have heard your name before. Of course Machine Head die-hards will see them live no matter who else is playing with them. But with a new album out (on a new label as well), why would they want to limit themselves and miss out on potentially reaching a larger audience? Is it really worth saving the extra money over that?

With that said though, that brings me to a point that so far everyone seems to agree on… Robb Flynn needs to take it down a notch. Ok, let me backtrack a little…  There’s was a time when I (along with many others, I’d argue) somewhat viewed Flynn as the Dave Grohl of metal. When he did the PR circuits for The Blackening and Unto The Locust, he seemed like a damn cool guy (always giving insightful interview responses, giving props to other bands, and even admitting some wrongdoing on his part). For a little while, it seemed like Flynn could do no wrong… well I have a feeling that someone told him all that, and it seems like it went straight to his head. It’s great that he wants to stay connected to fans, but it really does feel like he’s oversharing at the expense of coming off as pompous. Like Chris mentioned, it feels like some of his more recent “ramblings” have only alienated him from other bands/the rest of the metal community. It’s great that Machine Head still has a die-hard fan base, but he’s really not doing himself any favors in regards to making new supporters (and in this day in age, you need as many supporters as possible, even if they start off as strangers in a crowd).

 

Bram: Machine Head have a 20-year career and a lot of long, epic songs. I can see why they’d want to do this tour without any opening acts to satisfy their core audience. That being said, they definitely ruffled a feather or two by cancelling their previous tour, and Robb’s choice of words does make him seem a little pompous, not to mention materialistic. That’s one of the benefits and downfalls of Robb having his own blog. It’s great that he can be his uncensored and unfiltered self, but if he would’ve chosen his words a little more carefully, he might have come off a lot better.

As far as the festival thing, I don’t know why any band wouldn’t play all the festivals they could. The European tour circuit is lucrative and puts you in front of countless fans that you wouldn’t normally reach. And if they think they didn’t make some new fans on the Mayhem Fest a few years ago, they probably weren’t paying that much attention. It’ll be interesting to see if they reconsider about six months into the touring cycle for the new album, once they’re finished preaching to the converted.

 

 

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