RSS Feed

METAL BLADE – 1982-2012 (30 Years Of Metal)
Anthony Morgan
June 2012

Brian Slagel
Pic: Stephanie Cabral

Born February 14th, 1961, Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel grew up in Woodland Hills, California listening to 70s hard rock mainstays like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Kiss, AC/DC, UFO, and many others. Brian wrote for various heavy metal fanzines during the early 80s, founding The New Heavy Metal Revue as well as trading tapes within the underground metal community. Gaining employment at Oz Records, he would immediately ask the owner whether the store could begin the sale of imported material.

“I did the first ever US heavy metal fanzine,” Brian remembers. “I was literally covering all the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, and all the stuff that I was really into. When I started working in a record store, people were telling me that I should start to go see these local LA heavy metal bands. I started to go see those bands, and I realised that there was a good scene happening in Los Angeles at the time. Of course back then – before the internet and cellphones, and everything else – there was no way for anybody to know that those bands even existed. Being influenced by the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and compilations like Metal For Muthas (February 1980), I got the idea to put together a compilation of local heavy metal bands. I spoke with the importers that were dealing with the record store, and said ‘Hey, if I put together this record would you guys sell it?’ They all said ‘Sure,’ so I ended up doing it.”

The resultant compilation – Metal Massacre Vol 1. – was issued during June 1982, and featured the Metallica composition ‘Hit The Lights’. Inaugural full-length Kill ’Em All didn’t arrive until July 1983. “Lars (Ulrich, Metallica drummer) and I were friends before that,” the CEO shares. “He went to a Michael Schenker Group show at a place called The Country Club in LA in December (22nd) of 1980. My friend John (Kornarens) – who was the only other guy in LA that even knew anything about the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – saw him in the parking lot wearing a Saxon T-shirt. Nobody knew who Saxon was, so he went up to him and said ‘Where did you get that shirt?’ He said ‘I just moved here from Denmark, and I’m really into all this stuff.’ The next day he ended up coming over to my house, and we just started hanging out because we both loved the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. He had some records that I didn’t have and I had some stuff that he didn’t have, so we just started hanging out. I guess he then jammed a couple of times with James (Hetfield, Metallica vocalist), but nothing really happened with it. When I was putting together the record, he called me up and said ‘Hey, if I put a band together can I be on your compilation album?’ I said ’Sure,’ and that was the start of Metallica.”

A second pressing of Metal Massacre Vol. 1 featured a different version of ‘Hit The Lights’, that version including future Megadeth vocalist / guitarist Dave Mustaine on guitars instead of Lloyd Grant. “I had no money when I started this,” Brian admits. “I had to borrow money to pick up a couple of thousand copies of the original record – with the first pressing. The original songs they had on there were basically recorded on a little cassette the night before, the final deadline for the record. I ended up licensing the record, and it was this whole big mess. There was a second pressing like you said, and at that point they had done the No Life ’Til Leather demo. They wanted the better version of that song on the record, so that’s what we ended up doing on the later version.”

Over the years, the chairman has remained in touch with Metallica. “I remain really good friends with all those guys,” he confirms. “Lars and I are still really good friends. It’s fun whenever we get together; a lot of times we revert back to being 17-year-old kids again, and we’ll talk about music and stuff. So yeah, I’ve been friends with him the whole time. It’s been really amazing to see their whole career, and how big they’ve gotten.”

Metal Massacre Vol. 1’s second pressing omitted two numbers as well, including the Steeler tune ‘Cold Day In Hell’ which was later included on the outfit’s 1983 self-titled debut (the second was Ratt’s ‘Tell The World’, later featured on Ratt’s August 1983 self-titled EP). “I had no contracts when I did this,” Brian confesses. “I had no idea what I was doing (laughs). When it came time to do the second pressing, I actually had to have some sort of proper contracts. At that point they had put out a couple of their own singles and they were talking about putting out their own record, and so they didn’t want to have it on the second pressing. I think they were saving it for their own record (Steeler), basically.”

Metal Massacre Vol. 1’s release planted seeds, seeds which bore fruit and gave birth to Metal Blade Records. “I had no money for the first compilation album, so I didn’t really expect that this would become a record label or anything,” the head honcho cautions. “One of the distributors though – Greenworld that was based in LA – came to me and said ‘We know you don’t have any money, but you kind of seem like you know what you’re doing. We can offer you a pressing and distribution deal, so we would pay for all the pressing and manufacturing and issuing the product if you can bring us some bands.’ I thought ‘Why not? That sounds like fun.’ I just spoke to some of the bands, and saw if they could record something that I could put out. Slowly but surely several of them said yes, and it started to be a real label kind of. Originally I was gonna call it Skull & Crossbones Records, but somebody else had that name. I just tried to figure out something that would sound kind of heavy. I was a big fan of medieval stuff and I had a big sword collection, so I thought ‘Blade… Metal Blade… Alright. Why not?’”

Brian having contributed to various fanzines proved beneficial. “It certainly helped because I knew more people because of doing that, and also even just working at the record store,” he notes. “Knowing different labels and distributors and those things certainly helped a little bit, because again, we’re talking about pre-computers, cellphones, and all those sorts of things. It was really just a network of penpals; even before that, I had penpals from all over the world that were metal fans that helped because they could mention things. For example, I knew somebody in Chicago and they mentioned this band called Trouble – they sent me their demo. Those sorts of things certainly helped.”

Issued during December 1982, Damnation Alley by female-fronted LA metal outfit Bitch was Metal Blade’s first proper outing. “They were good friends of mine,” the mainman recalls. “The guitar player used to come into the record store that I worked at all the time, so we became really good friends. I would hang out with them all the time and really all the bands, like Steeler, Bitch. Every week we would go to the Steeler house or the Bitch house and all hang out. I was good friends with all of them, and Bitch had some stuff recorded so we started putting their things out as well. It was all just kind of the scene back then.”

Arriving in July 1983, Metal Massacre, Vol. 3 included the Slayer cut ‘Aggressive Perfector’. “I had gone to see Bitch play at a club called Radio City in Anaheim, California, and one of the bands opening for them was Slayer,” Brian informs. “They had probably about four or five originals, but they also did the best version of ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ by Iron Maiden (the original featuring on Maiden’s April 1980 debut) I had ever seen until that point. They were pretty amazing. I went backstage after the show, talked to the band, and they had some 18-year-old kid manager. I said ‘Hey, I do these Metal Massacre compilations. If you can give me a track, I’d love to put a track on one.’ They said ‘Sure,’ recorded the song, and it was put on the record.”

This culminated in the Metal Blade release of two Slayer full-lengths (December 1983’s Show No Mercy and September 1985’s Hell Awaits), and a Slayer EP (August 1984’s Haunting The Chapel). “From thereon in, I started to see them a lot more because I thought the band was great,” the founder recounts. “They started to write more original material, and then we started talking. I said ‘Hey, if we could record a record somehow I can put it out,’ so we started talking about making a record. I think it was Tom’s dad and Kerry’s dad who came up with some money. We got a really good deal on the studio, went in, and recorded the record. That started the whole thing from there.”

Metal Blade’s early association with Slayer was arguably a great initial coup. “I think all the stuff that we did in the early days was good, and Slayer…,” Brian begins. “Especially Show No Mercy was the first record that we had which started to sell some decent numbers. So absolutely, it was a very important part of the process.”

Metallica 1982 (l-r): Ron McGovney, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Dave

The appeal of compilations has been lost with the advent of the digital age, whereas during the 80s compilations like Metal Massacre and Metal For Muthas were more important in discovering new artists. “We talked about pre-internet, and back then the only way to really get turned onto bands was through these compilation albums,” the CEO adds. “It made sense back then, and now with so many different labels, the internet, and easy access, there’s so many different ways that bands can get exposure that compilation albums don’t mean nearly as much as they used to. Back in the day though that was it; that was the only way you could really do it, and get exposure for bands. It was way more important back then than obviously it is now.”

Metal Blade’s early model was a modest affair. “The first three years was just me by myself in my mom’s garage, kind of doing everything on my own,” Brian divulges. “After about three years I was actually able to have an office, and hire employees for the first time (laughs). That was kind of a huge step. All I was doing was just trying to put out good heavy metal music, and support the scene. Luckily there was a lot of good stuff happening back then, and we were really lucky to work with a lot of really cool bands.”

Metal Blade’s relationship with Greenworld distribution lasted roughly six years. “Starting out in the beginning, I knew nothing,” the chairman concedes. “I was a 20-year-old kid that was just starting out, so I didn’t know anything about the business. As time went on, we definitely had some problems with them. They ended up starting Enigma Records, and they ended up going bankrupt I think in late 1988. That wasn’t much fun because they owed us a lot of money and there was this whole big legal thing, so it was definitely difficult. Back then they were a distributor, and they weren’t necessarily into the music as much as we were. I know Cirith Ungol had a tough time with them, because they were doing records with them also.”

Following the conclusion of that relationship, Metal Blade began an association with Warner Brothers Records. “We had lost so many bands to major labels,” Brian laments. “At that point, we were kind of like ‘Well, maybe we should go through a major label so that we stop losing all these bands.’ We were talking to Warner Brothers and Sony, but ended up going with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately that deal probably happened seven to eight months after Greenworld / Enigma went bankrupt, so it was very difficult in between that time having no money (laughs). We somehow survived though.

“It was really interesting being on a major label. When we first signed with them it was really awesome just being a part of the whole thing, but unfortunately as time went on it got bought by a huge company – Time Inc. who was a big magazine – and had problems with Body Count’s ‘Cop Killer’ (from March 1992’s Body Count), and all the censorship stuff.

“After that, they had implemented something. They had a guy whose job was to look at all of the lyrics for all the records that they put out, and decide if they were okay for Time Warner. One of the first things we put out was a Gwar record (March 1994’s This Toilet Earth), and they said ‘No. You’ve gotta take this song (‘Baby Dick Fuck’) off, and you’ve gotta change the lyrics to this song.’ I was just freaked out because I was like ‘I’m not gonna tell any artist that they have to change their lyrics. It’s not right.’ I ended up having a meeting with them, and saying ‘Look, if this is gonna be the case then I don’t think I can be here anymore.’ To their credit, they weren’t happy with the whole situation either. They agreed, and we moved on. It kind of ended a bit rough, but it was awesome to work with some really famous music people. That was kind of fun.”

Music historians allege that metal died somewhat during the early 90s in the wake of grunge. “I think mainstream metal kind of wasn’t there, but the underground was still very, very successful and doing good,” the head honcho stresses. “In the 90s we had Gwar and Cannibal Corpse and King Diamond, and a lot of really good artists that did very well. We also actually did a lot of marketing for the grunge stuff; we did marketing for Faith No More, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, a bunch of that stuff. I kind of like some of those things, and even though it wasn’t metal it was certainly very heavy. On the other hand though, even though I guess the underground was still very healthy mainstream metal wasn’t cool to talk about. We actually found it was pretty decent through the 90s, and we were able to get through it without too many problems.”

Critiqued against the 90s, metal arguably experienced greater success during the noughties. “This new crop of bands and new scene came up,” Brian argues. “I think the 2000s were very, very good. The last three to four years have been three to four of the best years we’ve ever had actually, so things continue to be good.”

Dave Prichard (Armored Saint)

Of the full-lengths which form Metal Blade’s back catalogue, the mainman finds it difficult to select an overall favourite. “I don’t have a favourite record because there’s so many,” he recognises. “I could probably list about 150 of them maybe (laughs), but one special record for me was Armored Saint’s Symbol Of Salvation album (May 1991). At the time they had left Chrysalis, and their guitar player Dave Prichard was a very good friend of mine who passed away from leukaemia. They had done all these great demo tapes that wouldn’t have seen the light of day, because the band was thinking about maybe not going on. I went to them and said ‘Look, we have to record these songs. They’re so good that we can’t let them go to waste.’ The band reformed, and were able to get Dave Jerden who did Alice In Chains and Jane’s Addiction, who was great. To be able to make that record, keep those songs alive, and keep Dave’s memory alive was really important to me. Just the fact that it came out really well and did pretty well was important. That’s one record that I look back on where I was really happy to be involved.”

And as well, Brian finds it difficult to select an overall favourite Metal Blade recording artist. “That’s always tough to say,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know. I’m friends with so many of the bands, and I’ve loved working with so many of them. We’ve had a really long, long relationship with the Cannibal Corpse guys though. They’re such great guys and so easy to work with. I’ve always been huge fans of theirs, and they’re all really good friends of mine and really nice to work with. Many of the other bands are like that too.”

To this day, the founder still attends concerts and listens to newly emerging artists. “It just has to be something that’s kind of interesting,” he concludes, queried regarding the criteria prospective groups have to meet in order to be offered a recording contract. “There’s really no criteria in terms of what we look for. It’s just whatever I hear that I like. When we’re looking for new bands, we definitely try to look for something a little bit different than whatever’s the most popular thing at the moment. We don’t want to just sign a bunch of bands that sound like somebody else that’s happening then, so we always try to do something a little bit different. We always wanna meet the band and make sure that they’re good guys, and they’re willing to go out and do some work. If you sign a band and put out a record, you wanna make sure that they’ll go out and support it. That’s kind of important, but other than that just something that you really like. There’s really no specific criteria in terms of what we look for.”

On past occasions, Brian has felt certain bands exhibited too commercial a flavour to be offered a recording contract. “That happens sometimes for sure,” he affirms. “You get stuff that might sound a little bit different than what we would definitely want to do, but long as it’s a metal thing and it’s what we like then we would do it. You never know though. Sometimes you sign stuff that people think is too commercial, but we still wanna work with it (laughs).”

Taking a cursory glance at Metal Blade’s recorded output, it’s evident that the label have opted not to sign more commercial outfits in the Nickelback vein. “That’s not my cup of tea,” the CEO expounds. “I’m a tried and true metalhead. I’ll always love the underground stuff, and the heavier things. The label’s always been about the stuff that we like, and what I like. That’s really the stuff that I love. I grew up in the 70s, and the music business in the 70s was always about having bands who had nice, long careers and trying to make them have big careers that were credible careers. I think we’ve always tried to do that here too, so we’d never wanna give up on something just because it wasn’t in the mainstream or it wasn’t hip or cool at the time.”

The advent of social media and the rise of the internet has greatly shaped how labels interact with music fanatics. “We’ve been really positive about social media, and tried to use that as much as possible,” Brian submits. “I think it’s awesome that we’re able to have that sort of access to the fans, and the people out there. I love it. You can find me on Twitter at @brianslagel. I’m on there all the time (laughs). I think it’s great. I think it’s important for the bands and stuff too. I think all of that social media stuff has been really cool to be able to connect directly to people, and listen to what they have to say and their opinions. It’s fun.”

Brian Slagel
Pic: Stephanie Cabral

“It’s just another tool that we have, just like anything else. To be able to market and promote stuff I think is really good, but I think you can have it in addition to working with all of the magazines and radio stations like we always have. It’s always nice to have extra tools that you can use to get exposure for things. I think that definitely helps.”

Physical album sales account for the majority of Metal Blade’s sales figures. “In the US we’re selling 80% physical and 20% digital, and physical sales are certainly higher in Europe,” the chairman imparts. “Across all new releases, it’s fairly physical oriented. Just with heavy metal in general, I think. Everybody is the same; we’re all metal fans. Number one, we’re insanely happy and thankful that all the metal fans support us. They definitely love the physical product, even the younger fans. We’ve noticed that in their teens and in their early 20s, they still want to have a CD that they can hold in their hands. It’s pretty amazing.”

Cover artwork arguably provides one specific incentive to purchase a physical album, highlighted by the pieces illustrator Vincent Locke has designed for Cannibal Corpse. “We always try to put together the best package possible so that it entices people to buy it,” Brian ventures. “You have to have good artwork, good packaging, and different things. That certainly does help a lot, absolutely.”

The head honcho owns an iPod, however. “I have probably five or six of them,” he laughs. “I’m a collector too though, so I collect vinyl and CDs. I do that. I’ve put all of my CD and vinyl collection into iTunes, so I have iPods that I can just take with me. It’s really awesome on planes, and in the car and everything else. It’s easier to have. If it’s a new CD I’ll usually go out and buy it, so I can add it to my ever growing, gigantic collection (laughs).”

The rise of the digital age has inevitably coincided with the rise of illegally downloaded material. “Look, it is what it is,” Brian reasons. “It’s there. I think to some degree, the cool thing about people having access to music is more people are listening to music than ever before, and they have access to it. In some ways it’s made music better because you notice that if people do buy it, it has to be really good. You’re able to listen to it ever before you’re gonna buy it, and if it’s not good you’re not gonna buy it. That forces bands and labels to put out a good product, which I think is a good thing actually. Like I said, we’ve been so blessed by the metal community who’re supporting all of the artists. I think they realise they’ve got to support it, and so they’ve been supporting them and in turn us. It’s been really great. I do like the fact that there is a lot of access to music, and more people than ever are listening to music. You have to take the positives as much as you can out of it.”

News surfaced in September 2011 that Metal Blade was in the process of removing its catalogue from the music streaming service Spotify. “We didn’t really take any off of there,” the mainman corrects. “A long time ago we had a licensing deal with the European side of things when Spotify first started, but it was only a limited thing so it ended up expiring. We didn’t get the right deal from them. It’s kind of similar to when iTunes first started; they dealt with all of the major labels first – got all of the major label deals done first – and then they came to the independents. I think that’s kind of what’s happening with Spotify. You’ll eventually see more of our stuff up there, I think.”

Digital companies such as Spotify and YouTube reportedly offer meagre royalty payments. “Yeah, but I think it’s changing,” Brian hopes. “From what I’ve seen, I think that that’s slowly changing. All of this digital world is all new, and now that movies are involved it’s changing. It’ll be interesting to see where things end up.”

Metal Blade Records is still a private venture, though the founder has been approached “quite a bit over the years” with the prospect of selling the company. “I’m definitely not in this for the love of the money,” he states. “I’m in this for the love of the music, and having the freedom of an independent label; to be able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and however we want. We don’t have to go to some corporation or board of directors to get anything approved. That freedom really outweighs any money that anybody can ever give. We’ve talked about it quite a bit over the years, but it just never made enough sense to us. You see what happened to Roadrunner and that’s always a big risk, that those sorts of things can happen.”

Metal assortments would largely ink record contracts with Metal Blade during the 80s which lasted one to two albums, and subsequently sign to a major label. Nowadays though, metal assortments remain signed to Metal Blade for long-term durations. “I think luckily the independents these days have a lot of power, so we can actually compete with the majors in terms of how many records we sell and the types of deals we can do,” Brian observes. “It’s a lot different now than it was back then. Absolutely we’re able to keep these bands for much longer now.”

The CEO has yet to make plans for an eventual successor at Metal Blade. “Isn’t 50 the new 40, and 60 the new 50?,” he questions, chuckling. “I honestly haven’t thought about that at all. I’m still having a good time doing this and having fun, and I can’t see me giving this up anytime soon. I’m sure eventually it may happen, but I think in the short term at least – for the next five to ten years – I don’t think a whole lot is gonna change here. In ten years maybe I’ll have a different perspective, but we’ll see. I think if anybody was to take over, they’d have to have that passion. We have a lot of really great employees here too, so I’m sure if ever I decide to go away it’ll still be good. I don’t see that happening any time soon though.”

Metal Massacre was released on June 14th, 1982.

Interview published in June 2012.

<< Back to Features

Related Posts via Categories