When I first listened to Metallica it changed my life. Before a certain point I would have told someone that asked about my musical tastes that I outright didn’t like music. After Metallica, and the subsequent dive headfirst into headbangerdom I would proudly call myself a metal-head. Recently, Metallica released a new album, Hardwired…To Self Destruct, so I thought it appropriate to write about an idea that I got from experiencing Metallica myself and delving deeper into the history of thrash metal culture. What makes Metallica, thrash ,and metal unique to other more popular genres of music is that the music is directly tied to a greater culture, and that culture incurs certain costs. Metallica just so happened to be born in the right place at the right time.
Firstly, we need to actually define what a culture is. The way I want to organize this is by designating culture to a special kind of utility. Cultural utility is unique from other kinds of utility in that cultural utility is the satisfaction gained from a good or activity because it is shared with others. You cannot have culture with only one person. On my own, I can listen to Metallica in my room or in the car, but at that moment I am not gaining cultural utility. The cultural utility of Metallica comes when I go to a concert, or when I talk to a fellow fan and we share the bond that the music creates. A more grounded example would be with the way that we use the road. If there were no other cars on the road, driving on the left or right side, would be largely indifferent to most people. However, since the road is usually filled with many cars, the cultural utility of us all driving on the right is great as it prevents accidents. None of us really have ever made the explicit choice to drive on the right side, but the government recognizes that a law like enforcing driving on the right provides cultural utility.
So with every culture, there are two necessary costs. One is the cost of producing that specific good or service which is shared. The other, since we’re dealing with multiple people in culture, is communication or transaction costs. So if either one of these two costs is high, a culture may have a difficult time taking root, and when they are low new cultures have the opportunity to spring up. The most basic example of communication and transaction costs being low is when people live very close to each other. It’s not too hard to yell at someone across the street, or to make a short distance phone call. This is often why we like to think of cultures in terms of ethnicity or country.
Now that we have this theory, we can apply it to Metallica and the Bay Area Thrash culture. Thrash metal bands are known for mostly coming out of the San Francisco Bay area, but Metallica actually originated in Los Angeles. Los Angeles was saturated by glam metal bands, which were the opposite of everything that Metallica stood for. However, record labels would only pick up glam bands, as they were the ones who made the money. Thrash bands didn’t have a way to produce their music on a massive scale. However, during this time the costs of recording studio equipment were falling, and a new record label Megaforce Records popped up to sign Metallica. The still prevalent Metal Blade Records opened to sign other bands like Slayer. The recording costs in this case are the same as the costs of producing the shared good, the music.
But only producing music would not have created the cultural explosion that it did. It needed an easy way to communicate. For thrash, it was cassette tapes and metal magazines. Cassette tapes allowed thrash fans to easily reproduce the music and spread it to friends anywhere in the world. Magazines allowed them to talk to each other, and consolidate information on bands such as tour-dates or album releases. These both contributed to the ease with which the thrash culture was able to grow, and how Metallica was able to be as dynamic and wild as they were when they finally reached San Francisco.
So thrash was built on the backs of not only talented musicians, but savvy entrepreneurs who built the thrash metal culture and studios, tapes, and magazines. There may be out there cultures who are not dependent on communication costs or the costs of producing the cultural good. If you can think of any more interesting examples that either confirm of break this theory, leave a comment. Regardless, Metallica is still super metal. \m/
Photo from http://marklange.typepad.com/blitzkrieg/2013/08/metallica-returns-after-20-years.html
Information from Metal Evolution Episode 6: Thrash