An Interview with Founder of Metal Blade Records Brian Slagel

The story of Metal Blade Records is a case in which fandom and passion for heavy metal music swiftly morphed into both genre-defining, and genre-breaking success.

In 1982, Metal Blade’s founder, Brian Slagel, could have never known what he was embarking on when he released the indie cassette compilation, Metal Massacre.

What was intended to be a one-off, quickly exploded into a phenomenon, and with Slagel’s help, seminal acts such as Metallica, Black N’ Blue, Bitch, and Ratt gained entry into the zeitgeist. As for Slagel, the unexpected success of the compilation allowed the small upstart entryway unto the proverbial rock and metal freeway.

Metal Massacre and its follow-up volumes served both as a proving ground for soon-to-be seminal bands, and as a harbinger of Metal Blade’s continued greater success. As the 80s wore on, at each and every turn, fans of the genre could find Metal Blade staking its claim amongst its peers and competitors.

Over the years, Slagel and his label have dutifully served hard rock and heavy metal. Metal Blade, along with a few select others, pioneered, fostered, and perpetuated the genre of heavy metal, assisting in granting it greater exposure, and continued recommence.

Forty years on, Metal Blade is both a safe harbor for elder bands and a beta test for the unknown. As for Slagel, his vision is clear, with eyes always fixed on the horizon. Forty years in, the label’s figurehead has little time to look back, as his focus steadfastly remains forward-facing.

I recently sat down with Metal Blade’s originator, Brian Slagel, for a look back on forty years in the industry, some of his most treasured moments, what’s next, and a whole lot more.

Andrew:
Brian, that’s for carving out a portion of your day with me. I wanted to start with The New Heavy Metal Revue fanzine, which was a precursor to Metal Blade. Take me through its genesis.

Brian:
Well, I was living in Los Angeles, California, and became a massive fan of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I was a tape trader, and I would trade live tapes. A friend of mine in Sweden sent me a live show, and at the very end of it, he put Iron Maiden on there saying, “Hey, you might like this.” And then I heard that, and was like, “Oh, my God, what is this?” After that, I became obsessed with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. There was really no coverage of it in the U.S. or anywhere in North America. I pretty much decided I would start a fanzine based on all the stuff that was going on in England, and kind of emulating what they did. So, I started this fanzine called the New Heavy Metal Revue. To this day, I don’t remember why I called it that, I just came up with it for some reason. I did nine issues of it, and that was it.

Andrew:
Walk me through the progression from fanzine, to forming Metal Blade Records.

Brian:
Well, I was working in a record store, which was awesome. I was selling a lot of the European heavy metal stuff, and one day a guy came in who I knew, he would come in all the time and buy stuff and he said, “You know, there are heavy metal bands here in L.A. too” I said, “There are? I had no idea.” So, the first show I went to see was Ratt and Mötley Crüe at The Troubadour for a dollar. It was on a Wednesday night, and I was like, “Oh, wow, there are metal bands in L.A.” So, I started getting into the scene, and then I saw Bitch, I saw Steeler, all the bands that ended up on the first Metal Massacre tape. I found that there was this really cool scene and clearly – this is a million years before the internet cell phones or even faxes – so nobody knew that it existed. The major labels weren’t aware of it yet, so I got the idea – again based on the DIY aspect of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – about putting together a compilation album of all these bands. The distributors that I was buying all my import stuff from it said, “Hey, if you put together this record, we’ll help you get it made.” So, I went out and just asked all the bands if they would want to be on it, and most of them said, “Yes.” And then I scraped up a little bit of money, and I put the original Metal Massacre tape out.

Andrew:
Looking back, that tape is the jumping-off point for bands like Ratt, Black N’ Blue, and Metallica. When you put that out, could you ever have envisioned the impact that it was going to have on so many bands’ careers?

Brian:
Honestly, no. In the moment, I was just trying to help out the scene. I was hoping that maybe other people would hear it. You know, I couldn’t play the instruments, so my thing had to be finding another way to help the scene out. I loved being at the record store and turning people on to new music. Somebody could come in looking for Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin and, I would say, “Hey, have you heard of this or that?” They would say, “No,” and I’d play it for them, and they obviously would freak out, “Oh, wow. I need that!” I was just trying to help people hear the scene, and hope that something would happen from it. Never in a million years did I think that all the stuff that happened to a lot of these bands would happen. I’m still doing it forty years later – I didn’t have any intention of starting a record label – I was just doing the compilation to help these bands that I loved out. And then, of course, one thing leads to another, and here we are. [Laughs].

Andrew:
So, you put that compilation out to help the bands who were a part of the scene, with no intention of putting a label together, per se. When did the objective change from putting out a compilation to becoming a full-blown record label?

Brian:
So, of course, I made every possible mistake on the first record. I only had enough money for twenty copies. And then it sold out pretty quickly, and all the distributors said, “Hey, we need more.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have any money. Unless I have more money, I can’t do it.” So, I ended up working out a deal with one of the distributors called Metalworks Records, and they basically licensed the album from me, and that’s the one with just the silver cover. But then they never paid me and they went out of business, so I was able to get the rights back eventually, and then put it out again with one of the other distributors, also in Los Angeles, called Greenworld.

Now, I had done a lot of work with Mötley Crüe. I promoted a bunch of their shows, and they were all over my fanzine. I helped with the first-ever interview and review of them in England, which kind of launched them in England. I knew the managers, and one day, they came to my mom’s house, and said, “Hey, we have this album, we have ninety-two copies of it, what do we do with them?” And I said, “We’ll take them to Greenworld.” I guess if I knew then what I know now, right? Anyway, the Greenworld people came to me one day and said, “Hey, look, we know you don’t have any money, but you seem to kind of know about good bands, we’ll give you a pressing and distribution deal. Meaning that if you can bring us stuff, we’ll cover the cost of all the manufacturing and everything.” I thought, “Okay, that sounds like a good idea.” So, that’s kind of where the label started. Even at that point, I didn’t think it was gonna be a label, because I was still doing was doing the fanzine. I was going to college. I was working at the record store. I was helping the local metal radio station. I was writing for Kerrang! But eventually, after putting out a couple of releases, it seemed like it was going well enough that I was like, “Well, maybe I’ll give this a shot and see what happens.”

Andrew:
Some of Metal Blade’s early releases included the likes of Metallica, Slayer, Trouble, Corrosion of Conformity, and more. From your perspective, how did you manage to find yourself on the ground floor of so many seminal bands’ early success?

Brian:
It was pretty crazy. I was just really lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Obviously, you know, all the bands in L.A. were starting to do things, and then I saw Bitch, who were probably my closest friends, and all these other bands, and we’d all hang out together at that my mom’s house and stuff. One night, Bitch played a show in Orange County, and Orange County had a bit of a different scene than we had in L.A., but Bitch played a show there, and Slayer was one of the bands on the bill. I didn’t really know anything about them, but I wanted to go out to the show early just to see the opening bands because I didn’t know anything about any of them, but I wanted to see if any of them were any good. Of course, Slayer comes out, they were amazing, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is incredible.” So, I went backstage after the show and said to the guy who was the manager, “Hey, I do these compilation albums, I’d love to have Slayer be a part of one of them.” And he said, “We’d love to do it,” and that’s kind of where the Slayer thing started. Obviously, being around them in the early years was pretty incredible because they were so great. That’s the one band out of all the bands that we worked with in the early days, that was the one band that I really thought, “Wow, this is something really special. This is different from a lot of the other stuff that’s coming out.”

Once the record label started up, there were a couple of releases that came out by bands who then got signed to a major label, which was kind of a big deal for us. That kind of put us on the map, so to speak. I started getting tapes from other bands like Trouble from Chicago, Voivod from Quebec, Fates Warning from Connecticut, and Corrosion of Conformity from North Carolina. All these bands that were in all these other parts of the country started sending me demos, which clued me in on other scenes even outside of my L.A. bubble. These bands were really good, and I obviously offered them contracts. The funny thing about Corrosion of Conformity, and also D.R.I., because we wanted to sign both at the same time, they said, “We can’t sign with you.” …. “Why not?”“Because you have ‘metal’ in the name of your label.” Now, this was back in the early 80s when punk and metal were two very separate and different scenes. If metal kids went to punk shows – that didn’t go well – and vice versa. So, if you were a punk band, on a metal label, that was not going to work at all. So, I asked both of them, “Well, what if I just started a new label with a different name. Is that okay?” That’s when Death Records came about.

Andrew:
I find it fascinating that you didn’t discriminate in the way that some labels do. You’d handle punk bands, hardcore bands, thrash metal, and beyond. Was that by design? Or did that ethos evolve as you went along?

Brian:
Oh, there’s never been a plan. [Laughs]. We kind of just do it the way we do it. But you know, I like a lot of different stuff, and really anything that’s ever been on Metal Blade, it’s just stuff that I like. I like anything, and everything, and I’ve always had a pretty wide range of stuff that I liked. I also grew up around the L.A. punk rock scene, so I’m a big punk rock fan. I just liked all that different stuff. If I found or heard something that I liked, I would want to help, and I would want to try to work with them. It never mattered what style it was. I think over the years, the only thing that’s changed a little bit is that I do always like to try something different, something new, and have either a sound or sub-genre that’s different from everything else. I do look for things that don’t sound like anything else. You know, when I hear something like Ghost back in 2011, I thought, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” I always like stuff that’s a little bit different and fresh, I guess. Other than that, it’s just stuff that I like and nowadays, stuff that the staff likes as well.

Andrew:
You touched on this a little bit, but a lot of the bands that got their start with Metal Blade went on to sign with major labels. On one hand, that must have allowed Metal Blade to garner exposure, but on the other hand, that must have been bittersweet for you. Can you expand on that?

Brian:
I think it was always bittersweet, but look, we were a small little label at that time, with just a few employees, and we could not compete with what the major labels could offer. I totally understood it. I wished all the bands the best, and I always said, “We’ll do whatever we can to help you,” and all that sort of stuff, but it’s always a bummer when that stuff happens. But you know, the bigger bummer about it was that pretty much all of those bands did not go on to have a huge amount of success after they signed those deals. Most of them actually ended up coming back to us, which is a bummer, because at the time, especially in the late 80s, it became all about hair metal, hit songs on the radio, and all these things. And that really wasn’t what we were doing, so it was always a bummer to see that happen. That’s actually what led us to get a distribution deal with Warner Brothers, because that way, we could have the best of both worlds. That deal allowed us to keep the bands and not lose them to the bigger labels.

Andrew:
I’d even expand on that sentiment to say that Metal Blade, as a label, has provided a safe haven to a lot of bands that have fallen on hard times. What are your thoughts on that development?

Brian:
Well, first and foremost, you always want to help out all the bands. And, you know, they’re also my friends too, so you always want to help out your friends. There were many times when these bands would go to the majors, and they’d have whatever level of success but not enough. It could be bands that started with us and came back, or bands like Anvil, Starz, and King’s X who fell on hard times. These were bands that I really loved, who in the 90s, when the labels were kind of changing, music was changing, they needed a place to go. So, we were very happy to work with all of those bands and to do the best we could with them.

Andrew:
As the 90 rolled on, there was a major shift toward alternative rock. As a label which serves as a purveyor of metal, what sort of challenges did the everchanging scene present?

Brian:
Honestly, from my perspective, as a fan, first and foremost, I wasn’t very happy where metal was in the late 80s, because it wasn’t the type of metal that I liked. Everything was hair, glam, and pop, and in my opinion, metal needed to reinvent itself. I saw the writing on the wall. I knew all these bands. I knew The Smashing Pumpkins, I knew Nirvana, I knew Soundgarden because they were all on these really cool independent labels. I had heard all of these bands from the beginning, and you could feel that there was a groundswell that was going to become the big thing. I didn’t know it was going to completely replace metal, but I think it was, in a weird way, I think it was a really good thing because metal ended up just needing to reinvent itself, which took a little longer and was a little scarier than we all thought it was gonna be. We could see it, and so we decided to transition from just a label to becoming more of a marketing company. We marketed Nirvana. We marketed Guns N’ Roses. We marketed Alice In Chains. We marketed all of these bands because the major labels at that point were signing all of these bands, but they didn’t have a whole staff to help them with it. Especially the underground stuff like college radio, fanzines, and smaller magazines. We picked up on that and did a lot of that for those bands, which was super fun because I was a big fan. I mean, Alice In Chains, I heard the original demo, I saw them play their first-ever gig in L.A. in front of about fourteen people. [Laughs]. It was fun, and we got involved with it in that way. It didn’t make any sense for us to try and sign those sorts of bands, because the majors were just all over every one of them. We did try to sign Korn because they were something different, but we had no shot because the labels were everywhere, especially in L.A.

Andrew:
As you moved forward into the 2000s, metal continued to shift. To that end, what measures did Metal Blade take to continue its relevance?

Brian:
We kind of stuck to our guns in the 90s more or less. I never was a big fan of nu-metal, and like I said, aside from trying to sign Korn, who I thought was a different animal, we never really got into any of that stuff. We just kind of kept sticking to our guns, and even though the 90s were not the best times for metal, there were a lot of bands that were selling hundreds of thousands of records. We had Cannibal Corpse, Merciful Fate, King Diamond, GWAR, and all these bands making really good music around that time. Overall, we did okay. It wasn’t the best time, especially in the late 90s, but we stuck to our guns and did what we did. We just put our heads down and tried to try to get through everything as best we could. And then all of a sudden, it seemed like things were changing again. You know, the 80s to 90s was a big change, and then the 90s to the 2000s was an even bigger changer. All of a sudden, all these really heavy bands were coming out from Europe where there was a huge death metal scene, and then the metalcore stuff came in. That all was a breath of fresh air in the 2000s, where all of a sudden, all these young bands were coming up, and they were helping to lift the entire scene up because they would also talk about all the stuff that they loved to listen to, and all the stuff that influenced them. Suddenly, the whole thing became big again, which obviously, was a good thing for us.

Andrew:
Present-day, the way that we garner, gather, and distribute information is different. With that in mind, how do you go about recruiting new bands as opposed to the early days?

Brian:
I mean, it’s changed, but it hasn’t changed as much as you’d think. Usually, what happens with bands that we ended up finding is somebody somewhere, whether it’s a promoter, a magazine, or one of our bands touring, they’ll see or hear a band somewhere and say, “Hey, you should check out this band.” Rarely ever do we get people coming to us and sending cold-call demos. It’s usually there’s somebody somewhere, who talked to somebody at the label and said, “Hey, check out this band.” Again, sometimes you just hear about it on the internet when somebody you follow starts talking about some new band, “You gotta check this out.” So, that’s probably 99% of the way that we find bands these days. Social media is a very good tool too because it’s really easy to get ahold of people and see what they’re all about. You can take a look at what they’re doing, and all that good stuff.

Andrew:
Forty years is a long time, Brian. I assume when you first started Metal Blade, you had no idea that you would be here all these years later still doing it. In retrospect, what are some of the bands throughout Metal Blade’s history that people don’t know about? Ones that didn’t make it, but that you wish did
.

Brian:
Yeah, there are a lot of those. I could spend about another half an hour talking about that stuff alone. You know, there are so many things involved that come into play with how successful a band is. It’s not just the music industry. You need to be surrounded by good people, good management, good agents, and just not a lot of bands, especially bands coming up, they just didn’t have that. One of my favorite bands that we ever worked with was a Canadian band called Sacrifice, who I think is one of the top thrash bands ever. And they made a bunch of really great records, but for whatever reason, because they’re in Canada, or they didn’t have the right people around them, they never made it big. I would argue that if you listen to some of that early stuff, that stuff stands up for me. It’s up there with Exodus, Testament, and all that really good stuff. So, that was one of the bands that I always thought would be a lot bigger. Clearly, King’s X is a band that I always thought should be huge. I still can’t figure out how they never blew up, it makes absolutely no sense.

Andrew:
On the other side of that coin, who are a few young bands that we should be watching out for?

Brian:
I encourage everybody to go to our website and check out the new bands because there’s a lot of really cool stuff out there. Allegaeon is a band that’s been around for a while, and they’re starting to get to the point of breaking through. They’ve been around for quite a bit, but I don’t know that a lot of people know who they are yet. They’re really good, and they’re a band that we think in the next couple of years is going to break that next level. Another band is called Igorrr, and they’re doing some really cool and interesting new stuff too. The reaction to a lot of the new bands has been great. It’s not easy to break a band, as I mentioned Allegaeon is like ten years in, and only now just breaking through. But there is a lot of good stuff out there, not just on our label, but just in general. I think metal, as a genre, is in a pretty good space right now, and hopefully, that will continue.

Andrew:
Looking back, how would you describe Metal Blade’s influence on the genre of hard rock and heavy metal?

Brian:
Well, I’m happy and honored to be able to do this for this long. None of us back then ever would have thought that any of us would still be doing this all these years later. It’s a very humbling thing to be able to continue to do this. As a fan, I’ve been able to work with a lot of bands and help them have some level of success, and that’s the most fun for me. I think the biggest fun thing for me is just seeing these bands succeed because all these bands are all friends of mine. It’s always great to see them have a lifelong career and be able to afford to make a living off music, which is not an easy thing to do, and not everybody does it. Not everybody on Metal Blade does it. But we’ve got a good portion of bands that have had some success and also a lot of bands who have stayed with the label for their whole career. I find that pretty amazing because when bands’ contracts are up, there are probably a lot of crazy offers, but a lot of them are still pretty loyal, and they stay with us. I’m just happy to play a part in the metal scene that’s still going on because I’m still first, and foremost a fan.

Andrew:
If there’s one moment that’s particularly pertinent in the history of the label for you, Brian, what would it be?

Brian:
That’s always a tough one. I always go back to Metal Massacre, just because it was the first thing, but it’s tough to say because there are so many different things that happened. I will say that there’s a pretty funny moment that I do go back to, and that’s when Metallica was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They invited tons of people out there to hang out with them at this big after-party after their induction. I was hanging out with Lars [Ulrich] and a bunch of other people, and eventually, the party kind of dwindled down to just being him and me. We were wrapping up at the House of Blues when Lars looked at me, and he goes, “How the fuck did all this happen?” I looked at him, and I go, “I don’t know, man. This whole thing…everybody and everything got so huge. I have no idea how this all happened. Never in a million years did I think any of this would happen.” That was a pretty interesting moment for sure, and a memorable one.

Andrew:
Well, Brian, here’s to the next forty years. Last one, what’s next for Metal Blade Records?

Brian:
You know, same old, same old, pretty much. We’re just out there trying to work with as many good bands as we can and have them have as much success as they can. We’re delving into some other things that are kind of fun. We’re doing a whole bunch of branding stuff – we’ve got vodka, rum, shoes, hot sauce, coffee – all sorts of Metal Blade branded things, which is kind of fun. And then for the 40th, we’re going to do at least four shows, one in L.A., two in Vegas, and one in New York. So, we can announce that, and it will basically be the Metal Blade 40th Anniversary Concert Series. There is a lot of fun stuff on the way, and you all should stay tuned for that.

Interested in learning more about the album that started it all for Metal Blade Records? Hit the link to dig into Metal Massacre below:

Be sure to check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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