An article came out earlier this month that made the relatively bold claim that Metallica have lost more money than they’ve made since 2010. The authors claim that the band’s failed festival, the disappointment of Through the Never, and the fact that they’ve only released one album, the much-maligned Lulu collaboration with Lou Reed, have added up to the fact that the band is playing shows overseas out of necessity to make money. This week, we posed the question to our staff: have the last five years really been a bust for Metallica?
Bram: I say no way. It’s a possibility that the band might not be making as much as they have in their peak, but we’re talking about a band that has the best selling album of the SoundScan era. The Black Album has sold 16 million copies and is still selling about 2,000 copies a week. Been to a show or mall lately? Chances are you saw someone wearing a Metallica shirt. You’ve also got to take into consideration the fact that the band have bought back all their masters (MASTERS!) and are now running their own label. Yes, that was probably pretty expensive to do, and might have cost them a lot of money, but now they’re making significantly more money than they did when they were an Elektra or Warner band from a catalogue that’s more popular than most current bands’ albums. There’s certainly an argument to be made that creatively, they’ve spent a lot of time, money and resources on stuff aside from their music, but they’re still a touring juggernaut, regardless of where they play. Feeling bad for Metallica losing some money is like feeling bad for a superstar athlete for not taking the highest multi-million dollar deal.
Chris: My gut tells me that Bram is right on this, because owning your own label is no small feat. Having the best selling album of the SoundScan era is also a laudible accomplishment, especially considering that The Black Album is one year shy of its quarter-century anniversary and still selling like mad. But from the standpoint of remaining prominent on the metal community’s radar, Metallica has not done a lot besides touring to keep themselves in the public eye. The follow-up to Death Magnetic is taking nearly as long to appear as Death Magnetic did, and the failure of “Orion Music + More” was nothing short of an embarrassment. So while the band may not be going through a financial bust, like the article claims, they are certainly going through a period that will be a net negative in their history and on their reputation. Then again, we are talking about the band that released St. Anger, so this is definitely not the biggest blemish on their reputation. And given how successful the band has been for nearly four straight decades, I highly doubt that anyone will care about this period other than the metal historians that write Metallica’s biography in 2025 (the band will probably still be playing live shows even then).
Chip: I went back and read the article and I have to say it’s probably not as far fetched as it seems. So let’s take each of their “loses” at face value. The first being a horribly received album. While money could have been potentially lost the majority of lost money would have been from Warner Bros./Vertigo, not the band. I’m sure they still got their huge recording advance and whatever album sales percentage they had agreed to. So you can discount this album as putting the band in the red. Here’s where they could be hemorrhaging money though: They were part of a film that tanked at the box office. The article claims the film lost $32 million. But how much of that loss equates back to the band themselves? Probably quite a bit, as the production company for the film is listed as “Blackened Recordings” which means that even if they had other investors come in to finance the film in the pre-production stage, the band’s production company is on the hook to eventually pay those investors back. It’s not impossible that all $32 million dollars in losses will be completely on the band’s shoulders. The next is the festivals. The average music fan has zero, and I mean ZERO, clue the amount of time and money it takes to plan a festival the size of the Orion fests. Most people think you slap up a stage and sound system, invite some bands and watch the cash roll in. Couldn’t be further from the truth. Last year I produced a local music festival in CT which hosted 40 bands on three stages over the course of three days/nights. The bands were paid, but a pittance in all honesty, and that festival still required roughly $25,000 in sponsorship dollars just to cover costs. Now extrapolate that to 40 bands who are averaging probably minimum $15-25k for their appearances, renting the grounds to actually hold the festival, staging, lighting, sound that was 10x what I had, ten times the staffing that needed to be paid, etc., and you are talking probably $3-5 million (or more) in guaranteed money needed just to cover costs and pay the bands. If that money doesn’t come in through corporate and non-corporate sponsorship dollars then you rely on ticket sales, which a good festival promoter should never do. Maybe they didn’t have a good festival promoter? Regardless their losses from those two festivals could easily be in the tens of millions of dollars range, easily. Again, the band is most likely on the hook for all of these costs through whatever production company they own.
So yes, it is completely feasible that the band has, financially speaking, lost their collective asses over the last five years. Now, claiming they are in debt means poor business choices on their part and they went into these ventures without the reserves ready to back up potential losses. Again, not out of the question if they aren’t receiving the business advice they should have been. I don’t care how many Black Albums they’ve sold, the real question is did they make enough money off of those 16 million albums to cover anywhere from $35-50 million in losses over the last five years? That’s the real question at hand and I’m not sure any band, no matter how big, can claim that they can. Remember this isn’t a question of, did the last five years tarnish their legacy or did the last five years ruin the band as a viable commercial entity. The answer to both of those questions is, no. They still sell albums, they still sell merch, they still successfully tour. However, were the last five years a financial bust for this band? Absolutely. Enough of a bust to put them in debt? Possibly. Stranger things have happened to separate a rock star from their money. It would certainly explain their eagerness to play corporate parties and every festival they can get in on after years of forgoing them…
Zach: I’d be hard pressed to call the past five years a complete bust for Metallica. Hell in 2013, Metallica generated $86 million in revenue over 30 shows (an average take of over four million dollars a show). Sure there were probably a lot of costs that went into it, but that’s still pretty damn impressive for any band. And let’s not forget the successful Big 4 shows, culminating with Metallica playing a packed Yankee Stadium.
And frankly, so what if they haven’t released a “proper” new album since 2008’s Death Magnetic? Of course I’d still love to hear new songs from Metallica, but it’s not like a new record is going to generate a shit ton of royalties for them. So rather than focus on a new album, they’ve been trying to be creative in different ways, such as releasing a film and putting together festivals. Were they successful at either? Well, no I’ll give you that. But during a time in the music industry where bands have to think outside the box and can’t rely on CD sales, at least Metallica is trying something different. They could have just kept touring and making bank, but instead they took a few risks. They may not have exactly paid off, but at least the band (who everyone loves to call sellouts) tried.
Nick: It’s hard to say since we don’t know Metallica’s exact earnings. (remember, gross sales are BEFORE everyone takes their cut and expenses are covered) Through The Never was an expensive bomb, yes. Sad? Sure, But True. Good on them for getting ahold of their Masters though, it’ll only Fuel getting them out of the financial hole that both the movie and Orion no doubt put them in. It definitely won’t Cure their problems there, but considering The Memory of The Black Album Remains as strongly as it does and consistently sells a lot of copies, that source of income will probably never reach The End of the Line.
As far as a new record goes, are we really in that big a hurry to hear new Metallica? Their post-’91 output has been one Bad Seed after another as far as most of the fanbase is concerned. And with the kind of things the band is saying about new material, it’s hard to be excited about a new record if they themselves aren’t either. They could be a legacy act at this point; if the Day where we see a new release Never Comes, a lot of people might not be heartbroken. Let’s face it, no matter what they put out, a huge chunk of the internet will be Wasting their Hate on it. It won’t be another Ride The Lightning, and to a huge subset of the metal community, Nothing Else Matters but that – the Holier Than Thou Attitude you’ll see on any given comments section of Metallica-related news posts aren’t going to go away if they can squeeze out One great record.
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters if it’s been good or bad: Metallica is a permanent entity, and some creative and professional missteps aren’t going to Hit The Lights on that machine any time soon. But, overall: rough couples of years? Yeah.