HEAVY ROCK’S PASSION PLAY
By Scott Starr
Luke Holmes was in the thick of it, shaking hands and accepting drinks from well-wishers he’d never met before.
Like many younger bands facing the daunting task of succeeding in a music world bereft of record sales, Ocean Grove’s members were taking matters into their own hands, driven by the one constant which seems to permeate a new generation of musicians. “We were talking about how much work you put in and what you get out of it,” Holmes, the band’s frontman, said from Melbourne. “But I think at the end of the day there’s just going to be passion involved and there’s gonna be a never say die attitude. We’re going to wear our hearts on our sleeves and be unapologetic and take the world by storm in what we’re doing or we’re not going to do it at all.”
The band’s efforts at that January fest helped propel their release, “The Rhapsody Tapes,” to an opening week spot at #5 on ARIA, unheard of for a hard rock recording on Australia’s official music chart. Major music publications, from the U.K. to Australia, have given highest marks to the effort, which evokes the ambition and variation of a Millennial-aged spawn of Faith No More. Yet newer bands are finding it tougher than ever to build momentum in an era where big dollar recording contracts have largely disappeared, and finding space amongst the toxic overload of social media squawk is often times more luck than skill.
So what’s motivating this generation of musicians to keep pushing and creating music for a society which increasingly treats listening to musical creations as a birthright without further thought to helping the creators earn a living?
For Griff Dickinson and his Birmingham, U.K.-based outfit Shvpes, the enjoyment of writing songs and playing live outweighs the worries of making it in the music business. With an aggressive mindset that blends melodic metalcore with Dickinson’s alternating singing style of staccato word wizardry versus smoothed-out choruses, birthing in England has given the band a chance to find its legs. “I think you get a bit more authenticity over here with music because you’re not trying to sell a product, you’re just doing exactly what it is you want to do,” Dickinson said. “I’d love for our band to get big but first and foremost we do it out of passion and that’s something that’ll never be taken away from us.”
Yet promoting their music is still a necessity. Earlier this year, Shvpes (they flipped the “a” so the band could be easily found in a Google search) participated in a live-streamed intra-band Jiu-Jitsu tournament on the Facebook page of a major British metal magazine. The response was rewarding and eye-opening to the band -- 17,000 views in 48 hours was a number the fledgling group’s members were happy to see.
“Once you get picked up by bigger things, and luckily we have, you can start getting a bit more creative and have more platforms you can exploit,” Dickinson said. “We try to take self promotion in a different form now instead of being so direct about ‘Listen to our band.’ We’re trying to catch people through other methods because everyone’s just trying to push their music on you these days.
“We can’t force people to take us out on tour, which is ultimately going to make or break this band, but we can write the best songs and make every band turn ‘round and go, ‘Fuck, I need that band on my tour!’ So that’s what we try to do. I wouldn’t say it’s exhausting, it’s all passion.”
One musician who has seen the evolution of the modern music industry is Tyler Bates. After slogging through over 1,200 live shows as the lead guitarist in various bands in the 90s, Bates hit paydirt in recent years with a 1-2 punch unparalleled in the music business.
Building on the success of composing the soundtrack for the blockbuster movie 300, Bates hooked up with director James Gunn and created the film scores for even bigger hits Guardians of the Galaxy Vo. 1 & 2. If that wasn’t enough, he befriended Marilyn Manson and co-wrote and produced his highly successful career rejuvenation album “The Pale Emperor.” Bates is flashing his live chops on the road this fall on a tour with Manson as they promote their latest collaboration, “Heaven Upside Down.”
Driven like his younger counterparts, Bates has followed his heart and mind on the path to musical nirvana. “I’ve always loved music so much, so even though I wanted to be successful in music becoming a rock star was not the primary drive behind my determination,” he said. “It was never about money and as long as I was able to eat I was OK.
“I’m happy when I’m part of something, like for instance with Manson, especially because we’re very short on true rock stars anymore since we’re in an era where everyone seems to be one,” Bates said with a touch of cynicism. “To help or be part of making an album with him as a collaborator that has really helped energize his career has been rewarding for me as a person and as a friend. As an artist, it’s a great challenge.”
As much as these artists love the art of creating, the modern-day reality is that self-promotion is a critical piece of getting a newer band off the ground. Long gone are the days of record label bidding wars and million dollar recording contracts. In their place is the sobering fact that “making it” is tougher than ever.
Belgium’s Oathbreaker recently completed their first U.S. headlining tour 10 years into their careers. Vocalist Caro Tanghe embraces the DIY world of a lesser-known band’s steady ascent. “Social media is something I like to do. It’s such an easy way to communicate and I think we’ve grown so used to it that I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to have those tools. I can’t even imagine being on tour 20 years ago.”
Tanghe follows a routine during a tour that keeps her in touch as the group’s de facto manager. Each morning she’ll check online to see how ticket sales are proceeding in upcoming towns. Boston and New York were back-to-back on the schedule earlier this year and quick posts to her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts allowed her to notify fans one show was about to sell out but the other still had a few tickets available. It’s a tricky path to stay in touch with fans but not be influenced by them, especially with a sound as unique as Oathbreaker’s, which features extremes from black metal to shoegaze.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” Tanghe says. “We’ve been really lucky with (latest album) Rheia that there haven’t been a lot of negative reactions. I don’t want to be busy on social media all the time. I just want to use it in a way that will affect our live shows or our record sales. But letting it interfere with how we write music - no, not ever.”
For Ocean Grove’s Holmes, social media is a good device for feedback but “I think you shouldn’t pay that too much time.
“We never really wanted for music to be the be-all and end-all of our lives. But we’ve just approached music with the idea that we can do this because we’re young and can go out and see the world as friends. Hopefully in making music maybe we can have an impact on someone’s life. I think if you approach music from day one with the idea of ‘I wanna be the biggest band in the world, I wanna make money,’ I think you’re going to be disappointed at almost every hurdle.”