How 2020 Reminded Us of What Being A Metalhead Is Really About

In March of 2020, metal fans watched their entire world change. Over the course of about two weeks, every major tour was postponed if not canceled outright, while big cities around the globe indefinitely closed their venues’ doors until the COVID-19 quarantine was over. Over the next nine months, bands did whatever they could to keep their listeners interested, from livestreamed shows to all-star covers to drive-in movie extravaganzas. But with the live arena officially gone, most headbangers begrudgingly seemed to concede that this was the year where metal didn’t really happen.

But maybe that’s bullshit. Maybe 2020 taught us more about what it is to love metal than any year before it. By taking away the social scene of live music and forcing us into the bizarre, sci-fi wasteland we always sort of knew was coming, metal fans were forced to reaffirm their love of heavy music any way they knew how–and became stronger in their convictions for it.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: canceled metal shows? Not the worst thing to happen this year. Besides the millions of people who lost their health and even their lives to COVID-19, there are the many millions more who lost their jobs, homes, health insurance, stability, everything to the pandemic. This piece isn’t meant to equate the suffering of, say, a Machine Head fan who didn’t get to mosh in 2020 with the tribulations of a healthcare worker putting in triple shifts during this nightmare, it’s merely to highlight how this was a unique year for fans who often build their lives around seeing live music.

So: it’s undeniable that the loss of concerts changed the lives of metal fans the world over. Listening to music is obviously a daily part of a metalhead’s routine, but live shows are where the scene as we know it comes alive. Metal culture exists almost entirely around the stage, especially in smaller towns and markets where local bands are big draws and getting together to bang your head is really the only way to meet other metalheads nearby (other than, say, FetLife). The end of shows wasn’t just losing something to do on the weekends, it was losing a pillar of the metal fan’s social identity.

At the same time, metal’s live scene can be exhausting. Ask any dedicated metal fan, and they’ll admit to attending at least one show they didn’t want to just so they could hang out. More so, metal’s rigorous live schedule can sometimes lead to bad habits like drinking out of boredom and starting drama with other members of the scene for bullshit reasons. Getting burnt out on something you love can be a significant bummer, and by removing live music, metalheads no longer had the chance to take their scene for granted.

Quite the opposite–stuck indoors, metal fans had to connect with their favorite music in different ways. The most obvious was a return to the songs itself, checking out new releases they might have missed otherwise while also enjoying their classic records in glorious, gatefolded vinyl. The former seems evident in how many relatively underground releases ended up on best-of lists throughout the last month–who knew so many fans would extoll the virtues of Spirit Adrift and Mrs. Piss?–while the latter seems reflected in the fact that, according to Bloomberg, September 2020 saw vinyl records outsell CDs for the first time in 34 years.

It also helps that metalheads were prepared for everything to turn to shit. Sure, no one was exactly ready for the insanity that COVID would bring, but at least metal fans had been expecting some sort of horrific apocalypse since “War Pigs” first dropped. While everyone else was psychologically reeling at the concept of the world being gripped by a disease, most headbangers were listening to at least three or four records with that exact scenario on the cover. Outside of the military and hardcore doomsday preppers, extreme metal fans probably own more gasmasks than anyone else in the world.

For their part, musicians went new distances to make sure their audiences stayed entertained, performing livestreamed shows from studios, rehearsal spaces, and empty venues. Not only did beaming these semi-gigs directly into listener homes give fans a way to enjoy at least some of the energy of concerts, but it also created a level playing field among artists that couldn’t exist on tour, where time and money often allows for attending only one show or the other. Corey Taylor and Obituary were suddenly both playing to global audiences, even if one of them did so from an empty arena and the other from their home studio. No show was more exciting or epic than the other, and fans could enjoy them all from the comfort of their couches. Back in the day, the idea of paying for a livestream ticket felt laughable; now, it was a way to support your favorite artists from lockdown.

This became a theme of 2020: putting your money where your mouth is. For most bands, losing tours meant losing their most direct form of income, and so they turned to their fanbases in the hopes of finding new revenue streams. Between vinyl, streaming tickets, and limited-edition merch, fans could help out their favorites artists in a plethora of awesome ways. Meanwhile, by initiating their Friday sales where all proceeds went directly to artists, Bandcamp showed how much more artist-focused it was than its peers in Spotify and YouTube. This showed the different ways in which fans could help bands while simultaneous creating a new level of connection between musician and listener. Your favorite metal guitarist might seem inaccessible most of the time, but when they earnestly need help, it’s a solid reminder that they’re a working stiff, just like you.

This was made especially clear by how the rock and metal communities responded to those who passed away this year. 2020 was the year that everyone from lifelong diehards and underground newcomers lost their heroes. The polar sides of this spectrum were embodied by the deaths of Eddie Van Halen, a legendary guitar virtuoso who launched a billion parties and left a massive legacy in his wake, and Power Trip’s Riley Gale, a powerful up-and-comer who inspired the new generation of metal fans with his down-to-earth activism and took with him all of the promise he embodied. Both of these artists’ bands shot to the top of the Billboard charts after their deaths, seemingly because their fans actually had time to react, mourn, and enjoy their music. The mainstream media even picked up on Gale’s death, acknowledging that though Power were an underground thrash band, the voice Riley leant millions of fans is one that we’ve all come to appreciate.

Perhaps the most crucial part of how 2020’s terrifying roller coaster affected the metal scene was that shared humanity. There was no longer a sense of one scene versus the other, one band’s tour being greater than the rest, every concert being the biggest, most important night of your life. Instead, metalheads seemed to understand that we were all in this together. When the George Floyd riots erupted, metalheads gave to black-owned businesses and released home-recorded EPs to raise money for bail funds. When the election came around, voter registration initiatives blew up. By uniting under the banner of isolation and quarantine, metal fans certainly spent plenty of time arguing and bitching online — but they also dedicated funds and time to helping out out the artists and causes they believed in.

Hopefully, 2021 will see live shows made possible once more, so that bands can get paid and fans can have something to do on the weekends. But even then, we can only hope that when metalheads return to “normal” life (as normal a life as any black-clad miscreant has, anyway), they don’t forget the lessons they learned in 2020. Moving forward, one likes to think that metal fans can stop putting too much emphasis on the social scene, get behind their favorite artists in any way they can, and recognize that we’re all just humans who love to crank Slayer. Otherwise, this year was actually just the loss everyone made it out to be.

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Words by Chris Krovatin