Unwrapping Metallica.com

As Marshall McLuhan writes in his essay, entitled The Medium is the Message: “The personal and social consequences of any medium- that is, of any extension of ourselves- result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” (Durham, 129).

When Shawn Fanning left Northeastern University to found file-sharing program Napster in 1999 with capital from his uncle, the idea that one could send a song or full album to someone else through a computer was still novel and impressive.

Today, with the flooding of file-sharing programs including Morpheus, Gnutella, Limewire, and others, users of these programs tend to take the medium’s humble beginnings for granted.

This is not the case with the music industry itself, which has moved beyond its success in forcing Napster to charge its customers money for downloads, ultimately leading to a preliminary injunction in July, 2000 and the company filing for bankruptcy in 2002, and has begun to explore ways in which the medium, the internet in general and file-sharing specifically, can be exploited to its benefit.

To help explain how musicians and their labels have maintained an audience in an era when the industry finds itself challenged by file-sharing programs such as Limewire, which negate its position as a financial mediator between the music and its audience, I will use the heavy metal group Metallica as an example throughout the essay. I will show that the Internet has provided a forum from which artists can work with record labels to provide various forms of activity that will engage their audience in a way that discourages free file-sharing.

“Metallica doesn’t give a f*ck about anything. If it looks right for us we just go for it; we don’t worry about the consequences.” (Alderman, 9) The words of Lars Ulrich, taken in response to a reporter questioning the drummer’s anticipation of the consequences of being seen as the music industry’s spokesman on May 3, 2000, congealed with it a universal industry sentiment, driven by frustration with the increasing popularity of free file-sharing.

On that day, Ulrich and his lawyer, Howard King, not only met with representatives of Napster to demand a workable compromise between the Recording Industry Association of America and Napster, but also, in a move that made Ulrich the industry’s scapegoat spokesman, released a list containing the names of 335,435 people who had downloaded any Metallica song using Fanning’s program.

Ulrich might have been successful in his campaign to shut Napster down, but the image of himself, and, consequently, his band, was left tarnished after he had made it clear that being both a Napster user and Metallica fan was an oxymoron.

What could Metallica and the music industry itself do post-Napster, when not only were alternative file-sharing programs showing up to replace Napster, but they were showing up in larger numbers (Grokster, Blubster, Napigator, etc) and attracting audiences who had left the RIAA vs. Napster legal battles with a bad taste in their mouths?

The most visible way to cultivate an audience for a music group or individual artist on the Internet is to establish a website. For this purpose I will be looking at Metallica.com and its features that aim to engage an audience for monetary reasons.

The first thing I notice when arriving at the site is the first headline, reading, “The Metallicavault.com website has been updated with some NEW MUSIC.” Clicking on the link, I am brought to an explanation which reads, “To access the Vault, you must use the code that came with your purchase of ‘St. Anger.'” I haven’t purchased St. Anger, so I am not allowed to view Metallica’s new music offered on its website.

In case the offer sounds enticing enough, the website offers up a teaser telling me that if I buy St. Anger I will not only have access to the newly updated material, which consists of four live songs recorded on video, but I will have access to all the material uploaded to the site since St. Anger’s release. Is Metallicavault.com an approach to appeasing fans or a way to get consumers and fans of the band like me to purchase Metallica’s latest album?

Nearly every artist or group with a website has a banner stretching from one side of the screen to the other with oft-customized words which equate to the same thing; news, band biography, media, tour information, merchandise, and fan forum.

In the case of Metallica.com, the banner reads, “News, Media, Band, Fanzone, Tour, Merchandise, and Extras.” When Susan Willis writes, “Packaging acts to separate the consumer from the realization of use value and heightens his or her anticipation of having and using a particular commodity,” she might as well be talking about an artist or group’s website, with each feature on the banner providing a unique way of packaging the artist or group to heighten the viewer’s anticipation of the artist or group’s products. (Durham, 338)

Metallica.com’s “Media” section, listed second after “News,” provides a form of packaging that instantly links its audience with Metallica’s existing products. When highlighted, yellow text appears above “Media,” reading, “Albums, Video/DVD, Compilations, Photos, and Misc. Video.”

Clicking on “Albums” results in the viewer being taken to a page that lists all of Metallica’s existing albums in its discography. One can click on an album to view information such as the name of the album, who produced the album, where it was recorded, its release date, its Billboard chart position upon release, and the name of its tracks. Included with the name of the tracks are sound bites of each track, giving the site’s visitors easily-accessible samples of the group’s music, a feature not available through any other medium but the Internet.

Anticipation of the commodity is made available through the band’s supply of music samples on its website. If enough of the samples sound appealing, I might be inclined to purchase the album. Providing an alternative to file-sharing programs, Metallica’s website offers smaller snippets of songs with the hope that if a listener takes a liking to enough of the snippets of an album said album will be purchased rather than downloaded for free on the Internet.

If, as David Kusek writes in his book entitled, The Future of Music, “the balance of power is shifting into the hands of the digital kids,” than the record companies have become more active in terms of playing by the rules and sensitivities created by a generation of consumers bred on instant gratification. (Kusek, 100)

LimeWire can provide a consumer with an entire song in the matter of a few seconds, depending on that consumer’s internet connection, so Metallica’s website attempts to counteract that by not only supplying snippets of the song, but by including the lyrics of each song as well.

One might not be able to download the entire song to a computer and burn it to CD, but one can gain access to the song’s lyrics, a feature that the band’s website hopes will prove to be an attractive enough feature to gain its consumer’s attention and direct it towards listening to a sample, which, in turn, will attempt to steer the consumer toward purchasing one or many of the band’s albums.

Those unfamiliar with the band can familiarize themselves with Metallica through the website’s “Band” section. Consisting of a three-part history segment, a timeline, and biographies for each individual member of Metallica, the “Band” section offers fans, new and old, information that serves to build audience interest and fan participation, which will be discussed in depth in correlation to another feature of the website, the “Fanzone.”

The “Band” section seemingly gives Metallica an opportunity to connect with its audience without word-of-mouth filters present outside of the Internet. It appears to act as a direct source, despite the fact that this information is being obtained through multiple sources like Metallica’s Webmaster, Jeff Yeager, and its data management company, Iventa Corporation. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky once wrote in “A Propaganda Model” that, “The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’ and on the basis of professional news value.” (Durham, 281)

Those responsible for supplying the information contained in the “Band” section of Metallica.com are in a position where they control what the Metallica fan digests, from the biography of each individual member of Metallica to the history of Metallica. They choose what to include, and perhaps more importantly, what not to include, in this section.

For example, noticeably absent from lead singer James Hetfield’s biography is the fact that he took a two year period away from the band before Metallica released St. Anger to deal with alcohol addiction. Included in his biography is information that would compel its audience to grow more interested in the band and not turn its audience away from the band with potentially upsetting information such as Hetfield’s former addictions.

One could argue that the information provided in the “Band” section and the music samples, texts, and photos offered in the “Media” section culminate into one unified effort the website calls its “Fanzone” section. There are two basic features to the Fanzone; Metallica’s fan club and the website’s message board. Clicking on the former sends the viewer to Metclub.com, or the Metallica Club.

If one has become more interested in Metallica through the website’s “Band” section, which allowed one to familiarize oneself with the band’s members in a way that personalizes the band, thus bringing it closer to the human interests of the consumer, and “Media” section, which provided one with music and video samples that made the band seem important and perhaps grander in scale, one can join Metallica’s fan club.

Once at Metclub.com, I click on “Join Now” and am taken to a website that explains the various forms of membership, of which there are six, all with varying features depending on how much one is willing to pay; the cheapest being the “US Standard” at $25.00 a year and the most expensive being the “International Premier” at $60.00 a year. Although Dick Weissman’s claim, found in Navigating the Music Industry, that “Napster’s demise was the only way to develop the online music industry” is probably true in the sense that it forced labels and artists to realize the potential of offering songs directly to consumers through their websites, Weissman fails to detail the potential the Internet has for establishing a fan base unique from that which was first established by promotion through CD inserts. (Weissman, 176)

By focusing so intensely on the effect of peer to peer networking and file-sharing, Weissman and many others ignore the counter-effect bands and artists can have by providing unique features such as a fan club which offers signed memorabilia directly from the band’s website. While file-sharing programs take money away from the band its record label, the band and its record label can obtain additional finances from an alternative avenue unique to the Internet, and while the money obtained from the fan club might not come close to making up the money lost to illegal file-sharing, the fan club is nonetheless a successful Internet effort propagated by Metallica and

Most interesting from a free file-share countering perspective is Metallica’s latest attempt to make the medium its own by establishing Livemetallica.com. Instead of offering the same songs that could be found on LimeWire or any other file-sharing program, Livemetallica.com offers only live songs performed at the band’s concerts. While Susan Willis writes, “Late twentieth-century capitalist culture is cluttered with an ever-expanding array of already reproduced works of art,” these songs translate as more than mere reproduced works of art, most especially for those who attended the concert from which the downloaded songs, bought as a package at $9.95, were taken. (Durham, 342) One might be inclined to buy the concert in MP3 form later if only to burn it to a CD, play it in one’s car, and be able to tell one’s passenger that one attended that specific concert.

The live CD might be a reproduction of a work of art, but because that work serves as an extension of one’s experience with that work as a member of the audience during its production it achieves greater use value. If Metallica’s “Madly in Anger Tour” came in fourth as one of the highest grossing music tours in North America in 2004 with $60 million over 83 shows, each show seating fans in the tens of thousands, one can only begin to imagine the potential a venture like Livemetallica.com presents. (Concertpromoters.com)

Let’s say that 20,000 people attend a Metallica concert in Portland Oregon and only one out of 20 people download the concert from Livemetallica.com. That figure would still equate to $10,000, and keep in mind that the figure only accounts for one out of the 83 concerts Metallica intends to post on Livemetallica.com.

The music industry’s relationship with the Internet extends beyond file-sharing, however, and Metallica.com’s various features have acted as a source with which to prove that theory. Susan Willis’s article, taken from Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, can be used as a tool to unwrap the forms of packaging found on any artist’s website, including that of Metallica.

The filters Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky detail in their “A Propaganda Model” are seen clearly to work in conjunction with Willis’s “Unwrapping Use Value” to show that although the consumer must be addressed in a way that works with his or her already established avenues such as file-sharing, those in control of what the consumer is offered are ultimately the seemingly objective informers. Jeff Yeager, as the Webmaster of Metallica.com, chooses what visitors to the site are able and not able to see, according to the wishes of what Hernan and Chomsky refer to as the elite. Visitors don’t read about the lead singer’s struggle with alcohol because it’s more marketable to talk about the group handing bassist Robert Trujillo a one million dollar signing bonus.

Dick Weissman writes: “The record labels produce, copy, market, promote, and distribute the recordings. In order to continue making a profit in this speculative business, the record companies must control almost every aspect of this process.” (Weissman, 176)

From the 25 to 60 dollar a year fan club membership to the 10 to 13 dollar live CD, Metallica and its record company, Elektra, have created a forum that not only counteracts the financial damage illegal file-sharing has directed toward the music industry but they have also created a fan club unique to Metallica.com, where fans can access previously unseen and unheard material controlled not by consumers, as with file-sharing programs like LimeWire, but by its executives and band members.

Alderman, John, Sonic Boom, Perseus Publishing; Cambridge, MA, 2001.

Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Kellner, Douglas M., Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, Blackwell Publishing; Malden, MA, 2001.

Kusek, David, The Future of Music, Berklee Press; Boston, MA, 2005.

Spencer Concert Systems, Concertpromoters.com, Kansas City, MO, 2005.

Weissman, Dick and Jermance, Frank, Navigating the Music Industry: Current Issues and Business Models, Hal Leonard Corporation; Milwaukee, WI, 2003.

Yeager, Jeff and Swanlund, Niclas, Metallica.com, Iventa Corporation, 2005.

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