In 2022, the Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’ revived two hit songs from the 1980s, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, sending them back up the charts for a new generation of fans.
Of the major “big four” thrash metal bands of the 80s and early 90s – the others being Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth – Metallica has since overtaken them all to become the biggest metal band in history, selling over 120 million albums and 22 million concert tickets since forming in 1982.
Read on to find out how they’ve stayed at the top of the game for 40 years, and what their career can teach you about successful marketing.
1. Shut up and play the hits
Metallica are a prolific live band and have toured almost constantly since the early 80s. Some years they have even topped 150 live performances.
With a back catalogue that includes 10 studio albums, four live albums, 12 video albums and a cover album, Metallica have plenty of songs to choose from when they go on tour. But looking over their set lists from the past 40 years, you can see that the most-played songs are their big hits: ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Seek and Destroy’, ‘One’, ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ and ‘Master of Puppets’, among others.
They could easily choose to play long, self-indulgent sets of new songs, B-sides and rarities, but instead they focus on giving a great experience to the very audience who has supported them throughout their career. Like all good marketing, Metallica focuses on the benefits for the audience, and is part of the reason for their enduring popularity and committed fanbase.
2. Harvester of Borrow
Like many artists, Metallica didn’t just create their iconic sound out of thin air. Instead, they looked to their influences, added their own flavour, and took it from there.
Take lead singer and rhythm guitarist, James Hetfield, for example. His trademark style – dark heavy riffs, dropped tunings and fast down-picked chugging – owes much to the work of punk rock and heavy rock bands and musicians of the time, including Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Joey Ramone from the Ramones.
Likewise, strong marketing doesn’t require you to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it’s often better to take tried-and-tested ideas and strategies and apply them in new and creative ways. A good example of this is with the internet, where statistical data, behavioural science and algorithms have been used to build platforms and tailor content that responds to and targets different audiences online.
3. Don’t be afraid to be authentic
In 2004, Metallica had hit a wall. Despite being wildly successful commercially, the band were dealing with the fallout from their lawsuit against file-sharing site Napster, long-serving bass player Jason Newsted had quit, and relationships within the band had reached breaking point.
In classic rock-star fashion, the band hired an aircraft hangar to record their new album, along with a $40,000-a-month group therapist to help the band through their various issues, and a film crew to record the whole messy process. The end result was the unforgettable fly-on-the-wall documentary, ‘Some Kind of Monster’.
The film showed the band, warts and all, as they worked through their insecurities and rivalries to create the St. Anger album. While the band don’t always come across well – the documentary has been described as a real-life This is Spinal Tap – the willingness of this loud, angry band to be vulnerable on screen, speaking off the cuff in their own voices, endeared them to a generation of fans.
Breaking through the corporate polish of the “Metallica” brand allowed them to reach an even bigger audience, who appreciated hearing their authentic voices, and seeing how raw and real they could be.
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