When Life in Metal Meets an Insidious Demise
“Respect in the scene-priceless
Money in my wallet-$0
Fame in the death metal scene-years of hard work mastering programming and guitar playing
Money in my wallet-$0
Bank account-yea right
Owe everyone under the sun-OF COURSE
KIDS DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND FORGET YOUR DREAMS, YOU'LL END UP LIKE ME, 35 WITH NOT A GOD DAMN THING BUT RESPECT IN A SCENE THAT HONESTLY DOESN'T GIVE 2 SHITS ABOUT YOU ANYWAY. FUCK THIS SHIT, I'M GETTING A JOB, I'M DONE WITH THIS.”
This was copied verbatim a few days ago from the Facebook page of one-man brutal death metal band Insidious Decrepancy, a.k.a. Shawn Whitaker, who also helmed another one-man brutal death metal project called Viral Load for years. Whitaker has been involved in the scene for well over 15 years as a performer alone, so this isn’t the premature whining of some entitled scene kid who thinks the world owes him a favor. Quite the contrary, these are the frustrated words of a man who has gutted it out in the niche market of brutal death metal for a decade and half, and obviously made great personal and financial sacrifices to do so.
Most of us who play extreme music are in the same boat as Whitaker, financially speaking. We work day jobs to finance our musical aspirations, and often shovel a large portion of our savings into recording, touring, and buying gear. This isn’t news to anyone in the metal community, and we’re under no illusions that anyone owes us a living for being a musician, especially in such a small corner of the industry as underground metal. It’s our personal choice to do this; no one put a proverbial gun to our heads, so we know we’re in no position to complain. In these trying times, we should be happy we even have a day job that allows us to chase down something we’re passionate about. Constant complaining is for ineffectual losers anyway, but it’s something we all do from time to time, both as a cathartic release and to stop all that pent up tension from manifesting itself as a brain embolism sometime down the road.
For the most part, we know what we signed up for, and those that continue persevere largely because the immaterial rewards such as irreplaceable personal connections within the scene, friendships, having a creative, positive outlet for negative emotions, and travel opportunities outstrip the material losses and interpersonal sacrifices, and we can continue to justify, at least to ourselves, following our chosen path to near poverty. And who are we kidding? The ego probably also rears its ugly head in there too. Deny it as we might, there will always be a narcissistic element to being in a band.
But as Whitaker demonstrates, we’re always just a cellophane pane’s width away from throwing it all away, though when that point comes varies from person to person. Whitaker may or may not decide to hang it up, but clearly he has come to a sobering juncture, caused by circumstances likely known only to himself and perhaps his inner circle, where it’s just not worth it anymore.
Whitaker’s words illustrate that, in the world of extreme metal, it’s easy to get caught up in being the band guy. When you’re 20 years old, it’s cool to be in a band. All your friends think it’s cool. The metal scene, or at least some sub-sect of it, thinks it’s cool. Your parents…hope you’ll grow out of it soon. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and the good times seem like they’ll never end. At 25, it’s still a great time. Maybe a couple of minor breakout moments have hit, or perhaps your band has even hit the upper realms of the underground and toured around the metal Meccas of North America and Europe a few times, but still your bank account is being bled dry. But that’s alright, because the world doesn’t expect much from 25.
Then 30 hits. The world expects something from 30. Society at large expects a car, a house, a significant other, and at least a fledgling career. Anything less than this is met with pitying condescension and the clucking of tongues. But all of these are, at best, hard to get a grip on if you’re continually pouring money into that next plane ticket to jump on the next tour, or dumping cash that will likely never be recouped into studio time or the next batch of t-shirts. Thirty seems to be when a lot of people in metal take a step back and reflect. But hey, 30 isn’t that old. Thirty is the new 20, they say, 40 is the new 30, so a few continue to soldier on. Of course, 30 is also within the age range that a lot of musicians end up with fledgling families to support, which makes it pretty tough to justify shelling out money for music. But for the unencumbered, it’s all that much easier to maintain the thrift-store, sleep on the floor lifestyle.
Now, Whitaker is 35, and I can’t begin to fake that I understand the inner turmoil he is going through, if only for the tenuous fact that, at least for a few more months, I can still justify my current lifestyle by “being in my twenties.” If his words can be taken at face value, and I have no reason to doubt that they can, he has reached one of those linear, quantifiable milestones in life, taken a quick look around, and realized that for all his efforts, compromises, and sacrifices, he has virtually nothing material to show for it, only the immaterial and monetarily worthless notion of respect. And respect doesn’t keep the lights on or listen to your problems. And so we get an outburst such as this, from a man who has accomplished more than most in underground circles.
As a 29-year-old musician myself, his words are chilling, because the cold, hard reality, especially in today’s economy, is that metal fans simply can’t afford to support every band that they’d like to by buying albums or merchandise. In the instantaneous Internet age, in which groups of teens have their first logo shirts printed before their first single is up on Bandcamp, there are simply too many bands chasing the same dollar around. If I supported every band I like by buying their CDs and t-shirts/caps/hoodies/g-strings, I’d be six figures in the red by now. So, I have to pick and choose which bands get my money. Some, inevitably, fall through the cracks. Maybe Insidious Decrepancy was one of those bands, though I do have two Viral Load CDs kicking around somewhere.
If a hardened and proven lifer like Whitaker is seemingly burnt out at 35, will the same happen to me? It can’t be ruled out. Sure, right now I’m happy where I’m at, blissfully mired in relative obscurity, making absolutely no money from music, and actually spending a few thousand dollars a year to tour and record. In return for my investment, I get to travel once in a while, play my music, and meet some great people, many of whom have become friends. But who’s to say where this will leave me six years and likely five figures in expenditures from now, if my present career arc continues? It could very well be me venting to the largely apathetic Internet masses about being broke, hopeless, and out of the scene.
But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it always will be. Those are the circumstances that cause a select few to push through, and the majority to find themselves disillusioned, penniless, and ready to give metal a wide berth for a while. There’s no solution, and there’s no way around it. It’s just the way it is. But it’s useful for the younger generation just starting out in metal to take a look at Whitaker’s words and keep them in mind. It’s always a bit sad when something that was obviously loved once turns into nothing but an embittered rant and an unceremonious and insidious demise.
Joe Henley is a freelance music journalist and editor currently living in Taipei, Taiwan. In addition to pulling vocal duty in a death metal band, he maintains a website on the Taiwanese metal scene and writes regular features on the touring bands that come through Taipei for a local monthly music magazine.
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