Metal Blade’s Brian Slagel: 35 Years of Hard and Heavy!

SLAYER, AMON AMARTH, DRAGONFORCE, WHITECHAPEL, MERCYFUL FATE, GOO GOO DOLLS. All different styles, all different sounds, yet all connected by the same three words: Metal Blade Records. For the last 35 years, Metal Blade has been one of the premier labels for everything hard and heavy on planet Earth. It’s overseen some of the greatest rises to prominence and to this day has some of the biggest bands in the industry on its roster, including THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER, KING DIAMOND and CANCER BATS. Not bad for a label that was started in 1982 by one man in his mother’s garage…

Haha, yeah, going back and reliving a lot of this stuff now, it’s pretty insane how this whole thing has gotten to where it is!” laughs Brian Slagel: the CEO, chariman and founder of Metal Blade. Speaking from a rainy New York, Brian has orchestrated the publication of For the Sake of Heaviness, a rollercoaster ride through the history of Metal Blade from the early days right through to the present, with all the trials and triumphs along the way. As Brian explains though, the idea had been banded around for a while. “Everyone said ‘You should write a book, you should write a book’ for a couple of years and yet I thought ‘Eh, isn’t everything kinda over when you write a book?’ But we were sitting around with the 35th anniversary approaching wondering what to do – we like to do something every five years to document the anniversary – and it just seemed that the time was right and that we’d start telling some of the story now whilst I can still remember it, haha!

Enlisting the help of renown ghost writer Mark Eglinton, who Brian has nothing but praise for (“Our visions on what we wanted the book to be were the same, I’m really happy with the way it came out.”), at times it reads like a ‘who’s who’ of rock and metal, with a plethora of bands mentioned between the pages. “Yeah, I did wonder ‘Am I name dropping too much here, or what?’” admits Brian with a chuckle, “but we were so lucky to be working with Warner Bros and have the opportunity to with so many bands. We always tried to see what the next thing out there was, and leads you to be able to doing lots of different things.”

Ah yes, Metal Blade’s relationship with Warner Bros, which all started out as a pretty heated battle between Warner Bros and Sony for the attention of the upstart label. “That was where I realised ‘This is pretty ridiculous!’” Brian explains. “Towards the end of the 80’s when our distributor went bankrupt we knew we needed to go to a major label, especially because we had lost so many bands to them in the past, but at that time [Warner Bros and Sony] were bitter rivals and I was negotiating with them both, so I would meet with Sony and they’d ask ‘What did Warner Bros. say?’ and vice versa. It was pretty surreal!”

Surreal, but no less deserved: as the book goes on there are lots of interviews with friends, colleagues and bands about the label and in particular Brian as a person, all of which are extremely complimentary towards the metal guru. Brian himself admits he was pretty blown away by it all, but even more so when he got the foreword from long-time friend and METALLICA drummer Lars Ulrich. “I hate asking those guys to do anything and I said ‘Look, if you can, great, if not I totally understand’ and he was like ‘No, no, no, I’ll do it, don’t worry about it!’ So I said ‘Alright’ and then when I got the foreword I thought ‘This is ridiculous!’ haha!

Brian, of course, is the man who gave METALLICA their break with the first recording of Hit the Lights appearing on the inaugural Metal Massacre compilation. That said, when Lars first said he was going to start a band, it wasn’t met with total enthusiasm. “He was really scattered – he was super-high energy and always had a million things he wanted to do; we’d drive to a record store and he’s be in the store before I could take the keys out of the ignition!” Explains Brian. “We never thought in a million years, especially back then, that any of us would do anything in music – we just loved it! So when Lars said he was going to start a band we all thought ‘Yeah, sure you are – with no experience you’re just gonna start a band? Yeah, sure.’ But he had a way of making things happen and certainly over all these years you can see that.

Brian is also adamant that he doesn’t have many regrets because he’s had an unbelievable career, but surely there must be some bands he wished he hadn’t missed out on? “Yeah, GUNS N’ ROSES! When they were up-and-coming their manager was always saying ‘You need to come and see this band!’ and I had friends of mine who would go and see them and say the same thing, and I just thought they were a glam band, which I wasn’t into! Then Appetite for Destruction came out and I got a cassette tape of the promo before it was released, within 30 seconds I thought ‘Ohhhh, what the heck is this?!’ I first met Slash at the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son listening party in L.A and we had a couple of mutual friends so we started talking and Slash said ‘How come you never came to see us?’ and I said ‘I thought you guys were glam!’ and he said ‘Aw, I hate that people thought that!’ Yeah, tell ME about it, haha!

For the Sake of Heaviness also talks about the moment that Brian genuinely felt Metal Blade was about to collapse: the day that vinyl went out of fashion. “I went to see my distributor and they said ‘We have some bad news for you.’; they’d basically had all the vinyl in existence sent back to them, some 35,000 copies or whatever in one fell swoop.” he says heavily. “We were then in the red for a huge amount of money and I had no idea how I was going to be able to recover for about a week, but I took a step back and said ‘Right, this is a problem, let’s figure out how to try and solve it’, and got every credit card I could, even the ones in the mail nobody ever wanted, and financed the company for a few months before it could get back on its feet.”

Of course, Metal Blade would recover, and Brian certainly feels now that they’re ready for anything the music and record industry can throw at them. “We’ve been through a lot and been able to navigate the waters as much as we can, but we finished the book about 6-7 months ago and it’s changing already! Up until last year physical sales were still 75% of our business – we stand to lose 25% of that this year and we weren’t sure if the other side [comprising streaming and digital services] was going to make it up, but as time has gone on it’s actually made up for it more than we ever thought, so things are actually moving in a much better direction.

Does he have any advice for someone who might be looking to get into the industry? “The key is you have to absolutely, 1000%, love the music. It’s not easy being in this business, especially now, and it’s daunting starting something from scratch, but if you’re truly doing it because you love the music, then that’s the most important thing. You’ll have times when you’re gonna hit a brick wall and you’ll probably think about giving up, but if you really love the music and you’re doing it for that reason, that will get you through all the challenges you have to face. I see people who love the music and they’re still in this business for a long time. I see people who like it that wanna get into it because they think it’s cool and they don’t usually last a long time.

As everyone will, and has, testified, Brian is certainly one of those people who absolutely, 1000%, loves the music. Long live Metal Blade Records – here’s to the next 35 years, yeah?

For the Sake of Heaviness: The History of Metal Blade Records will be released on 29th August via BMG Books. You can keep up with all things related to the label here