The week before last Jordan Campbell, one of the editors at Last Rites, wrote a piece entitled “Your Carcass Is Leaking – The Surgical Steel Saga”, in which he took the Nuclear Blast label to task for withholding promos of the new Carcass album (Surgical Steel) from web zines, accused DECIBEL magazine and NB of colluding to promote the album, and suggested that NB had intentionally leaked Surgical Steel to justify its discriminatory treatment of bloggers in the handing out of promos. I thought he was off-base, and wrote a rejoinder.
To my pleasant surprise, I got a nice note from Jordan (who I didn’t know before then) suggesting that we continue the debate, and I agreed. We traded arguments by e-mail, and I’m now posting the dialogue (with Jordan’s consent). I don’t know whether it sheds more light than heat. Judge for yourselves.
After the first pair of e-mail exchanges occurred, my messages got sufficiently long-winded that Jordan started putting his responses after each paragraph of what I originally sent him. So I’ve divided our debate into parts in an effort to make the chronology of the back-and-forth more clear.
I: To start this off, I have to ask you about the statement in your article that print mags like DECIBEL get advance copies of albums and that digital ‘zines get albums at the release date, if they’re lucky. That’s untrue, and I didn’t think it was a secret that digital ‘zines (including ours) do get Nuclear Blast promos in advance of release. Why did you lead off with that proposition? It’s the first thing that pulled me up short when I read what you wrote.
J: Well, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. You’re right, select staffers get advance copies of some NB releases; we just reviewed the new Fleshgod Apocalypse, for instance. And they might be a little looser with their promo distro if we hounded ’em, but I honestly don’t have the energy for that anymore. After multiple instances of extremely unprofessional communication (and despite what some milquetoast nose-turners might assume, it definitely wasn’t coming from my end), I stopped dealing with them years ago. Which is fine, because my tastes and interests are decidedly more subterranean, but our readers (the eventual consumers) are the ones that are on the losing end of the communication breakdown. Not everyone wants to read about one-man black metal from Russia. Sometimes you have to give your audience what they want.
Angry Metal Guy, for instance, has a readership that craves the bigger-budget stuff that NB shills, and his battles with access have been well-documented. The Carcass thing seemed like the culmination of years of stubbornness and passive aggression: they were deliberately filtering their product through their preferred channels. Which is their prerogative, I suppose, but it’s similar to making a Hollywood movie and not screening it for critics. When that happens, studios get called on their bullshit.
I’m calling bullshit.
There’s a fine line in underground music, where commerce and art intertwine so tightly and so uncomfortably, but something about the handling of this record seems…distasteful?
I: I’m confused. In your article you made it sound as if ONLY print zines get advance promos from NB, but now you say it’s “not a hard and fast rule”. In fact, it seems that NB even sends YOUR site advance copies of some of their releases. You also now say that you really don’t care for “the bigger-budget stuff that NB shills” because your “tastes and interests are decidedly more subterranean”, yet I got the impression from your article that you were sort of peeved about not having received a Carcass promo yet, even though they’re not kvlt enough for you. That seems to go beyond concern solely for the interests of your readers.
J: If I made it sound that way, it was likely due to lazy writing, so I apologize. I was far from being “peeved about not getting one yet.” We certainly weren’t sitting around banging on our dinner plates. (Far from it.) But, in five years of writing about metal, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a significant release that has leaked before promo copies were officially awarded to webzines. We were supposed to be the culprits, remember?
The Carcass thing was handled differently from the outset. Promos were given to magazines earlier than usual and withheld from webzines for longer than usual. It was a unique—and dated—business decision, but one that seemed like it was going to work wonderfully. Until it didn’t.
(Also, saying Carcass isn’t “kvlt” enough for me is a more than a little presumptuous. I’m not a twenty-year-old kid trying to boost his cred, I just have the tastes of a dude that’s been into metal for over half of his life. As such, I’d rather introduce readers to cool little projects like Monarque or thehappymask instead of wasting my words whining about how grossly overproduced the latest Fleshgod Apocalypse is.)
I: So now it seems that the complaint is not so much “NB won’t give advance promos to any webzines”, and more like “our site didn’t get a Carcass promo 2 or 3 months before release date like DECIBEL did” — despite the fact that it sounds like you stopped dealing with them years ago and have never asked for a Carcass promo.
J: I stopped dealing with them personally. I only speak for myself, and my opinion doesn’t reflect the editorial direction of the site anymore than Charles Krauthammer’s does the Washington Post. Last Rites has a rotating staff of at least eight active writers at a given time. Attitudes toward the label range from complete indifference to total contentedness.
I: As some of the commenters on my article noted, print zines need promos much earlier than web zines because they have print and distributor deadlines to meet. If bloggers got the promos at the same time, their reviews would all come out months before the release date — which doesn’t make much marketing sense — and months before the reviews in print mags, which probably wouldn’t make them too happy. I’m no expert, but that seems like a legitimate reason to send print zines promos earlier than bloggers, putting aside the point I made about the advantages of having reviews roll out over time as the release date approaches, rather than all at once.
J: Look, this is obvious. All labels have to work around print deadlines. However, 99% of them aren’t deliberately withholding access to webzines until the 11th hour so they can carefully manipulate the public’s perception of their product.
Metal Blade sent out Amon Amarth promos way in advance, even though they knew everyone with ears was going to say, “welp, it’s another Amon Amarth record.” Relapse has been pumping the new Exhumed through the Internet’s veins for well over a month. Season of Mist has been ultra-aggressive in their promotion of the new Gorguts.
This isn’t a sweeping indictment of the industry itself, just Nuclear Blast. Of course there needs to be a buffer between print and web, but we’re talking about the Mirny Diamond Mine here. Which would still be traversable, if someone hadn’t cut the damn brakes on the dump truck before they gave us the keys.
I: AMG’s complaints seem somewhat different. His complaint, as I read it, is that certain labels weren’t sending him promos at all. I know nothing about why that is (or was). If any label made such a decision because his reviews weren’t sufficiently complimentary, I’m obviously not going to defend that. But that seems like a very different issue than what you were writing about in your article.
J: Not to drag him into the argument too much, but he’s publicly supported the piece. People can dig around in his domain and decide for themselves.
Lack of access wasn’t what set me off. There were two triggers:
1. Mudrian’s quote about Carcass being “…the only death metal band that matters.” I’ve written some outlandish, reactionary shit in my day (re: the catalyst for this very discussion), but I’ve never been patently dishonest with our readers. There is no way that any metal fan worth their salt could type that with conviction. Would you tell Luc Lemay that his comeback “doesn’t matter” due to Carcass? That Peter from Vader should abandon his life’s work, because, you know, “only Carcass matters”? Should Bob Vigna and Ross Dolan get off the stage and go back to Yonkers because of Surgical Steel? Come on. This was marketing, not criticism, and as the cross-promotion between Decibel and NB began to build steam, it became increasingly apparent.
2. The fact that the album leaked before webzines were issued digital promos. We were already being treated like second-class citizens—somehow the notion that we grind day jobs and aren’t paid for our opinions renders us questionable—and then we were going to be perceived as jackals for pouncing on the scraps that were illegally scattered by one of their (poorly) chosen ones.
Again, it wasn’t the fact that we didn’t have access at the same time as print, it’s that we had the same access privileges as your everyday pirate.
Impotent rage factor aside, my conspiracy theory about NB perpetrating their own leak has since been proven false. (I’m from Minnesota and I watch a lot of MMA, so you’ll have to forgive my Ventura / Rogan tendencies.) But I’m slightly disappointed in this development, because it would’ve actually been a pretty brilliant move. Surgical Steel is an excellent record that wasn’t properly repped by “Captive Bolt Pistol,” and everything about this record’s promotional cycle—the live shows, the format rollouts, the exclusive flexi-disc that’s only available if you subscribe to Decibel right fucking now!—has been so meticulous. It seemed plausible, and it actually seemed smart.
But the fact that the leak was unintentional just furthers the notion that Nuclear Blast is blatantly out of touch with the realities of the digital age, especially compared to some of the labels I listed above. Even Earache, whose experiments with giving away free Wormrot albums and Kickstarting Nocturnus reissues have been met with muffled mockery, are at least trying.
Don’t you think the fact that the album got out of their hands so easily is an indictment of the old model?
I: I think I better understand where you’re coming from now, at least concerning the Carcass release. But if NB was delaying distribution of the album to web zines longer than usual after distribution to print mags, that wasn’t obvious to me. I think your article went up roughly 6 weeks before the scheduled release dates, and based on my own experience that was earlier than many label promos are typically circulated. So I’m not sure about the basis for the claim that NB was intentionally delaying promos to web zines longer than usual for this particular release. But maybe they did. IF they did, that takes us to the reason for it.
J: When I said “the 11th hour” before, that wasn’t hyperbole. But you’ll just have to take my word on that one—whatever that’s worth at this point.
I: Your view seems to be that it was some combination of cross-marketing between NB and DECIBEL and an effort by NB to prevent leaks. As to the first hypothesis, I would have thought that, as a fan of hyperbole yourself, you’d be more understanding of Albert Mudrian’s quote about Carcass. But to suggest that he and his magazine were dishonestly whoring themselves to promote this album in order to get a somewhat longer than usual period of exclusivity on the promo seems way off base. Mudrian has been a huge admirer of Carcass, like forever. He wrote about them in “Choosing Death”, which came out in 2004, Heartwork was inducted into the DECIBEL “Hall of Fame” more than three months ago (#100), and Necroticism was induced long before that (in the #8 spot). Besides which, by all accounts “Surgical Steel” is a superb album. Do you really believe that saying so makes someone a “hollow huckster” for Nuclear Blast (to quote your article)? That really seems way beyond the pale.
J: Dude, most metal fans with properly-screwed craniums are huge admirers of Carcass. Necroticism is a death metal touchstone, and Heartwork, at least in my opinion, is one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time, subgenres be damned. Regardless of the band’s pedigree, the whole thing smacks of pageantry. In this instance, Decibel is The Worldwide Leader and this marketing campaign is The Decision.
Mudrian’s history and experience should have awarded him the ability to praise a band without cutting a swath through an entire genre. It was obviously empty hype, but rash language opens itself up to be met with rash language. Was it too harsh? Probably. Was it deserved based on the comment alone? Probably.
I: I would add that DECIBEL’s actual review of the album in the current issue, which is hugely complimentary, was written not by Albert Mudrian but by Chris Dick (he also wrote the article on the Heartwork Hall of Fame induction). Would you call him a hollow huckster, too? Just following orders from Nuclear Blast via his editor? I hope not. It seems bad enough already that you’re pissing on the best metal magazine still in print, giving it no credit for having been a huge support to underground music for almost a decade.
J: Jesus, do you have a pending job application? (The best metal magazine still in print is Zero Tolerance, by the way.)
I don’t think I alluded to any of these points in my initial piece, nor am I depriving Decibel of all credit merely by growing repulsed by this specific issue. However, I can state that even writing for a volunteer-based ‘zine, there are instances where we feel compelled to shine a more positive light on certain acts because of a friendly relationship. For instance, if we’re suddenly in possession of a handful of grindcore promos from a new label, we’re not going to give ‘em to the power metal guy for review. (We don’t actually have a “power metal guy,” but you get the idea.) That’s a very basic, general example, and I can only imagine that the need to foster sustained label relations is multiplied by the looming specter of ad revenue and sustainability.
Obviously, any outlet that’s devoting time and effort to covering underground music is doing the scene a service. Some do it better than others.
I: And I really still don’t understand your point about leaks, even though you’ve now acknowledged that your theory about NB leaking the album itself was false. Yes, someone who NB entrusted with the album leaked it. Seems like your theory is that if some scumbag violates the trust of a label who gives them a promo, then that proves the label is “blatantly out of touch with the realities of the digital age” — which to me is a non sequitur. By that logic, every label and every band should just give every promo to every reviewer at the same time. Hell, they should just release everything for free to all fans since it’s going to leak anyway. If you don’t really mean that, then where do you draw the line?
J: I’m not really sure what compels leakers to do the deed, but it might be something as base as a negative reaction to secrecy. At some point, labels need to to realize that, hey, if the NSA’s secrets aren’t safe, maybe my little death metal record ain’t either.
But here’s the thing with leaks: The model of sitting on a finished album for months prior to release has long proven problematic, and in 2013, it’s basically broken. Pretty much every major (and minor) album of the last few years has trickled out prior to its release date. What’s that Einstein quote your cousin’s boyfriend keeps pumping into your Facebook feed? Oh yeah: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It’s painfully obvious that an album is going to leak if you camp on it for an eternity. It’s even more obvious that watermarking is about as effective in deterring piracy as the War on Drugs has been in eliminating trafficking and addiction.
There’s quite a leap between “tightening the promotional window” and “releasing everything for free.” But honestly, they’re basically doing the latter through their flawed approach, just inadvertently. Damn near everyone is going to be tempted by the leak. And by the time September 17th rolls around, will your average ‘head still be chomping to shell out fifteen bucks for an album they’ve already been jamming for a month? Or will their sights be set on hitting a local show? Putting gas in the tank of their Toyota? Buying a shirt that isn’t light-black for a job interview?
The millennial generation wants things right fucking now. You have to give them what they want. If you don’t give them want they want, they’re just going to take it, and you’re going to lose money. Especially in the Netflix / Spotify age, where the tangible product is of ever-decreasing value. This is both a monetary problem and a cultural problem, and instead of proactive attempts at developing a mutually beneficial solution, they’re burying their heads in the sand and sending their tails to chase after the scumbag leaker that ruined the whole damn thing.
And then there’s us, talking business instead of death metal.
I: Well, I was waiting for some insinuation that I was brown-nosing DECIBEL and/or Nuclear Blast, and it came (“Jesus, do you have a pending job application?”). Sigh.
Though I’m especially tempted to say something about your comparing album leakers to Edward Snowden, I think perhaps we have beaten this horse to death, because I got a big whiff of horse bowel when its sphincter went loose. Or maybe I just didn’t wipe good enough this morning. Either way, I suggest we shelve this dialogue and maybe choose something else to debate down the road a ways.
To wrap this up, since the new Carcass album sort of started this whole thing, what do you think of it?
J: Let it be known, the guy that leaked this thing probably deserves to spend a few weeks camping in a Russian airport, but the NSA analogy was more an allusion to fluidity of digital media. And, digitally, Surgical Steel is sounding righteous so far, but I think enjoyment of the record is going to be directly tied to the listener’s expectations.
People that thought a resurgent Carcass would be storming the gates in a blaze of genre-defining brilliance are going to be frustrated. But I think setting personal expectations at that level is unrealistic. It’s not like heavy metal has been in stasis for seventeen years; many other acts have picked up the tools of the trade in the interim, and they’ve grown quite dexterous. (Arsis and Exhumed, for example, have released albums this year that are objectively on par with Surgical Steel.)
However, if your expectations fall somewhere between tempered and nil, Surgical Steel is an absolute blast. While it could be argued that the aforementioned bands might be technically “better” at this stage, they ain’t Carcass. There’s no way to replicate the magic of hearing new music from a band you thought was dead forever. Hearing “Unfit For Human Consumption” kick into high gear for the first time, cresting the summit of “Mount of Execution”…let’s just say that sharper blades of adrenalized nostalgia have rarely—if ever—been wielded. The question: Will those blades leave lasting scars, or will the rush be fleeting?
I: I think it’s a blast, too. It’s loaded with fantastic riffs and solos, Jeff Walker’s vocals are vicious as hell, and the music is brimming with ferocity. I also really like the production — it sounds huge.
I suppose it’s impossible for most people who are familiar with Carcass’s discography to listen to the album without expectations of one kind or another. Some people seem to have been predisposed to criticize it because it doesn’t sound enough like Necroticism or the albums that preceded that one — the crowd who still think Heartwork was some kind of sellout. Maybe I’m not much of a critic, because I’ve been enjoying it too much to spend time comparing it to anything else. The fact that the album is so good is one reason why I’m pissed that the ramp-up to release didn’t unfold the way the band expected and wanted. They deserved better than to have such an amazing comeback undermined by a gutless leaker.
J: Yeah, it’s cruelly ironic that a band that’s so closely associated with the early nineties has been forced to face the realities of modern-day manipulation head-on upon their reawakening. At least Nuclear Blast was kind enough to release a cassette edition of Surgical Steel; maybe that extra dose of nostalgia will temper their longing for the Columbia days.