What Metal Can Learn From K-Pop

So before I start writing about all the new music 2022 has already thrown at us so far (definitely the opposite of last January), I wanted to think out loud for a bit on some stuff that’s been on my mind for the past few months now. Namely, what I think metal as a genre and an industry could and should be doing better. During my foray into beginning to explore K-Pop last year, I got to learn about more than just new music, I got to understand how the Korean music industry has simultaneously structured itself around both digital streaming and physical music sales in a way that prioritizes both and yields tangible results. And of course, a reality check first. Metal bands and labels likely don’t have the budgets that some of these K-Pop companies have, but not all K-Pop companies have major label budgets, some of them are mid-sized companies, and some are fledgling startups. Yet all these companies seem to understand how to generate interest, build it, and capitalize on momentum, something that I’ve long lamented that metal bands and labels absolutely suck at. Here’s a few things I think metal could learn from K-Pop:


Smaller promotional windows generate more interest.

Metal bands of all stripes tend to do the following: Release a track or lyric video (more on that below) or music video months and months ahead of time, maybe another single or two down the line, and then finally, the album is released. The amount of time varies of course, it can range from a few months to a half a year, but of course the album’s initial announcement is usually released well ahead of any promotional single, at times up to eight months out or longer. I’ll pick on one of my favorite bands a little bit here… check out the November 5th, 2021 announcement date for the December 3rd, 2021 release date of the “Deliver Us From Evil” single, which itself is coming out over half a year ahead of the September 2022 release date for the upcoming untitled album. The band is citing delays in vinyl manufacturing for the reason for such a lengthy gap between the single and the album. That’s an extreme example of course, so consider this December 1st album announcement/MV release for Hammerfall for an album coming out at the end of February. A little better I suppose, but still, a single release three whole months out from the actual release of the album is rather far out… too far out to sustain any excitement over that considerable period of time. Do you remember what that December 1st Hammerfall single sounded like (no durr… sounds like Hammerfall jokes plz, they’re funny but now’s not the time!)?

Some of these manufacturing derived lead times are so lengthy, that even I forget that a single has been released or that an announcement was made, particularly with so many releases to consider and so much other noise on the media landscape (and I’m actively trying to pay attention!). And as the Blind Guardian example suggests, the vinyl manufacturing situation has continually gotten more and more precarious, delays caused by an ever mounting queue of orders for new releases, re-releases, Adele, record store day special editions, more new releases… etc, you get the picture. To fill in the details here, I’ll link this fantastic, illuminating article written by Eric Grubbs on the reasons for the vinyl delays (really worth the time, it’s a short read too). So lets assume that the lengthy gap between the announcement of a pre-order date along with the release of a single/MV and the eventual release of the full length album is largely due to approximating the lengthy lead time required for vinyl orders to be fulfilled. Labels/bands stick to this process because they ideally want to time both the digital and physical releases to hit the market at the same time. I’m arguing that I don’t think such a long lead time is necessary to ensure strong physical product sales. A considerable subset of metal fans are loyal physical product buyers, and would snap up a pre-order for a well made vinyl whenever it went live. And yes that includes a potential vinyl release after the digital album has already hit the streaming services. You might notice I’m not even mentioning CDs yet — hold on a sec, I’m getting to those.

In K-Pop, the announcement-to-release cycle is incredibly tiny in comparison, and specifically designed that way on purpose. Companies will usually time the announcement of an upcoming release with an eye to deliver said release within a few weeks. Take the recent January release of the new solo album by Mamamoo vocalist Wheein. The company releasing the album, The L1VE, made the announcement for her new album Whee on December 24th, 2021, and as you can see to the left, they provided an image for fans which detailed all the specifics of the promotional campaign leading up the album’s release on January 16th, 6pm KST. This promotion schedule release image is standard operating procedure in the K-Pop industry. Everyone from the biggest groups like Twice or Itzy or Stray Kids to singers from groups releasing solo albums like Wheein see their releases launched with similar images, and more importantly, with a similarly compressed window of time in mind. Twenty three days was the gap between the announcement of Wheein’s album and it’s actual release. If you glance over the dates listed in that image, you’ll see a gradual build up of things for fans to look forward to… the pre-order date to start, the track list on another day, music video trailers, and concept photos on other days, all leading up to an album spanning medley and full artwork reveal right up until the big moment, release day, where the unveiling of the album is typically accompanied by the release of the lead single’s music video as well. Granted K-Pop fans can be rabid, but this very precise but controlled release of information leading to the moment of release inspires a frenzy of tweeting, retweeting, discussion on reddit and VLive (a K-Pop based social media app/site). The hype that is generated is real and it’s designed that way on purpose, these little tidbits of released information, almost on a daily to near daily basis can yield impressive sales and streaming numbers for artists. Wheein’s album just debuted at number four on the Gaon album chart in Korea, not a bad swing for a solo record in a super competitive, uber crowded market.

Now I’m not suggesting that metal needs to co-opt this idea and run with every single detail, but taking the vinyl pre-orders out of the promotional release build up equation would go a long way towards generating hype for fanbases of bands. It’s a noisy world, you know this, I know this. There’s a lot of stuff being released that we’re all having to attempt to keep track of — TV shows, music, gigs, all in addition to the daily grind of work, bills, food, and sleep. And again, this is coming from a guy who writes a metal oriented music blog, I’m shouting as loud as I politely can: Make it easier to be a fan! Trim down the release schedule for metal albums from announcement to release. I don’t need to hear about a damn album being released six months from now. Tell me a month to a month and a half out for god sake. Two tops! Maybe consider timing the release of the single/MV closer to the actual release of the album, so the song will still be lingering in my mind and have me genuinely excited about a nigh-impending album just around the corner, not something that might someday be eventually released many months from now when I’ve long forgotten said single and lost whatever lingering excitement it was able to generate. And hell maybe take a page out of the K-Pop playbook and try out a schedule release image strategy along with it’s gradual rollout — teasers for the MV, a full artwork unveiling… don’t just dump all the info out at once months and months ahead of time, try to generate some actual hype and anticipation. And most importantly, build album release windows with a CD preorder and digital/streaming release in mind first — and allow the vinyl to lag behind if necessary (which apparently will likely be the case for awhile). This brings me to the following point:

Stop releasing CDs in jewel cases. They suck. Music isn’t software. Digibooks are also boring. Do better.

I abandoned the idea of buying music in jewel cases years ago when I realized that what I was getting out of these costly purchases wasn’t worth the money I was shelling out. Even during my halcyon days of collecting all kinds of music on CD including metal, I lamented the lack of anything remotely interesting going on in the presentation. A tiny booklet with some relatively uninteresting artwork, a few band photographs, and miniscule print wasn’t something that I was pleased with as a collector. When I stopped, part of the reason was that digital music was so much more convenient, but also that metal bands rarely offered releases that were presented in an interesting way. A jewel case release looks like software, in fact I’ve bought CDs before whose “booklet” was nothing more than a two page insert, mirroring the discount software you’d find in jewel cases in the bargain bin at a CompUSA way back in the day. The last metal album I bought on CD was Maiden’s Senjutsu in it’s “deluxe” edition, essentially a gatefold digipak, the cheap cardboardy kind with the inlet CD trays. The artwork in the booklet was of course, CD booklet sized… and as such, relatively difficult to discern details and leave a lasting impression. This was one of metal’s premiere artists releasing a new album, and I bought it out of fan loyalty and an urge to throw some support their way, but I felt tepid about the physical product I was holding in my hands and haven’t looked at it since. For a genre of music that prides itself on it’s fans supporting physical releases and supporting the bands, why the hell do we get such uninspired physical product?

A few months prior to that, when I was just getting into K-Pop, I found a little store tucked in the front corner of a Korean grocery that sold K-Pop albums and bought my first one (Mamamoo’s WAW). I wasn’t sure why at the time, but in retrospect I realized that I missed the fun of buying physical music and these K-Pop releases were visually beautiful, with thoughtfully designed packaging that wasn’t jewel case shaped and offered more than just a flimsy booklet inside. Most K-Pop releases are lavishly packaged (check out the vid below), with photobooks and photocards on high quality paper, with often unusually oblong physical dimensions that result in something that looks fantastic displayed on a shelf. My physical K-Pop collection has grown to seventeen releases to date, all of them wildly unique from group to group, even within a group’s own discography, the variance can be shocking. Eye on Design’s Tassia Assis wrote up this really excellent feature on K-Pop packaging and why that industry puts an emphasis on delivering quality products to fans, and how sales of CDs are skyrocketing there when they’re heading towards the gutter over here in the west. As the mode of listening to music shifts ever more to domination by streaming services, there is still a place for CDs in the physical release market for metal music. They’re cheap to press by themselves, an economical choice for bands offering a t-shirt/album bundle, and not subject to the aforementioned vinyl manufacturing backlog. But I’ll be brutally honest, as someone who used to have a physical jewel case music collection that numbered well over a thousand albums, I feel no urge to buy metal albums on disc at the moment. That needs to change.

Give me and many other metal fans who quietly feel like me a reason to pull out a fistful of cash like Fry shouting “shut up and take my money”. Metal of all stripes desperately needs a K-Pop like reinvention of the physical CD format, particularly in mirroring the way some of these K-Pop artists use their physical album presentations to express storytelling elements or conceptual themes (there’s a lot of that in the genre, I was surprised too). And I know what you’re thinking right now — the budgets in metal just aren’t there. I’ll concede that they aren’t in the realm of your typical K-Pop company, but I see metal bands wasting money on printing standard jewel case editions or slightly less boring digipaks or gatefolds or the worst offender of them all, the dreaded slipcase around a standard jewel case edition. Enough everyone. Stop wasting financial resources on these utterly forgettable products, and work with a product designer to create a truly unique physical CD product that is lavishly packaged, and filled with interesting items (metal bands need not copy K-Pop groups here, you don’t have to deliver photobooks… the possibilities are wide open). The production costs of such an item would likely necessitate a smaller print run of these at a higher price, but all the better. Metal fans are loyal. And if you reward that loyalty by offering them something that smacks of quality, they’ll gladly purchase it not only in the earnest effort to show support, but also because its something they genuinely feel an urge to own. Amongst all my metalhead friends, I can honestly only name one who still buys metal CDs on the regular. That’s a problem.

Metal bands need to rethink their approach to music videos, and abandon lyric videos.

This isn’t so much inspired by K-Pop as it is by simply watching the music video output of most metal bands. It might be highlighted by my observing the juxtaposition in quality that K-Pop offers on the music video front, where a well thought out concept and execution on the MV front is crucial to the success of a comeback (ie a release). No one wants metal bands to take out personal loans to film MVs, but there’s got to be a better way to go than releasing some of the dreck that’s being shelled out lately. One of the recurring topics of discussion on MSRcast episodes is us poking fun at some terrible metal music video we’d watched before or during our recording session, and it’s made me start thinking about doing a feature here highlighting actual good music videos within the genre (because lets face it, they’re few and far between). The reality that a lot of bands are facing is a lack of touring income over the past two years, which has only just begun to pick up again in the latter half of 2021. So with my appeal to bands above to consider making better physical product, I’d throw out a secondary appeal to them as well — stop wasting money on terrible music videos. If you have a genuinely great idea and can pull it off with what will likely be a small budget, then go for it. But the band playing in a darkened, wet-floor warehouse is just played out. The soundstage/greenscreen setup with low budget CGI is also tired. There’s nothing exciting about seeing a metal band playing on a make believe battlefield. Call me a curmudgeon. You know I’m right.

Labels would argue that you need to have a visual representation of your music, and YouTube is a easy outlet to utilize for promotional reasons. I understand that, but not every release needs to come with a music video that would turn off newcomers and make your existing fans cringe or just tab out to hear the song in the background without the visual distraction. The less expensive option that metal bands still seem insistent on utilizing is the lyric video, a widely reviled format that is as embarrassing as it is aggravating. In the metal realm, I’ve seen maybe one that was actually well executed, but that was by Katatonia, a band whose dark tone and melancholic feel lend themselves to some nicely thought out lyrics. With all due respect to Brothers of Metal (a band I like), “Prophecy of Ragnarök” doesn’t need a lyric video. There’s nothing lacking in a band’s single release being a simple image of the cover art to go with the audio. And if bands really feel the need to crank out a video, either go all in on a visually engaging concept with the most amount of money you can spend (on the big budget front, Sabaton did an excellent job with their recent MV for “Christmas Truce”…released five months ahead of the album proper of course), or really think about how you can get the most out a lower budget. That means largely avoiding CGI which you know will look tacky, and instead being true to the who the band is, and maybe showcasing a little personality beyond “grrr we’re tough”. I’ll point to Red Fang as a band who delivers consistently entertaining MVs on a very limited budget (check out “Wires” below for proof), but they utilize their low budget approach in such a creative way where their personalities come through the screen. It’s time to stop throwing a couple grand at MV studios who deliver mediocre results, and really think up some truly fresh ideas or at the very least, use that couple grand MV budget in a smarter, less predictable way.


Okay I’ll end it here. It felt good to get some of this off my chest, even if no one in a position to affect any change in regards to my ideas ever reads this. Sometimes I have this stuff gurgling around in my head for ages and it’s something I bring up in conversation again and again in person with friends who are no doubt sick of it — so it’s better that I spill it out in these beginning of the year thought pieces. I think we all know metal bands have had to weather the financial impact of the pandemic in a more blunt way than say a typical K-Pop group would (though I’d be remiss not to point out that even that industry is hurting due to the lack of live shows). I know many metal fans who would agree with some or most of what I’ve written above, and I think listening to this kind of feedback would benefit a lot of bands and labels in terms of better allocating financial resources, giving fans better quality releases and content, and ultimately increasing physical album sales in a genre where artists really benefit from it. Let me know if you agree or disagree below.

2 Comments

  1. Rob 25
    February 20, 2022

    Personally I could not think of anything worse than CDs in great box boxes or packaging. Storage is a problem as it is, and I like the jewel cases. They’re long lasting and I still have CDs from 1987 which internally are in great condition. I can’t imagine digi-packs lasting so well?
    But I’m old school and I’m not the solution more the problem? So anything that gets people buying physical editions is the way forward. The youth of today definitely need more than a regular, boring looking jewel case, they can rip and print one themselves and even that is a stretch of effort for most in the age of Spotify etc.

    Reply
    1. TheMetalPigeon
      February 23, 2022

      I totally understand and respect the old school collector mindset of storage being a factor, because I was a collector myself at one point. I think the thing that metal bands and labels are not facing up to is that there’s a steadily increasing number of once physical product buyers who are slowly being turned off buying physical releases just due to them making the jump to streaming. For 12 bucks or whatever a month, you get access to all the music you want, and there’s no effort being made to make buying physical product an appealing thing anymore. It’s gotta be about more than just the actual cd itself now, it has to be a physical product that feels more akin to a piece of art that would look great displayed on a shelf, or feels lush and indepth when you open it. It’s astonishing to me that the metal world of all things is so slow to catch on to this and is being lapped by pop artists no less.

      Reply

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