Thursday, 16 February 2012

What happened to Metal Hammer?

When it comes to magazines, the British get it right more than most. Whether entertainment, information, tabloid, technology or food, they manage to do something which their Anglosphere peers are rarely able to achieve: a well proportioned balance of content, economic imperative (advertising) and individual editorial/writer personality/flavour. Metal Hammer is a magazine I have read, on and off for about twenty years. Indeed, I even subscribed to the print edition for a few years as well as the ipad digital bookshelf version earlier this year. Until about the time Terry Bezer (aka Beez) left Metal Hammer magazine and podcast in June 2011, both magazine and podcast were exemplary of the British magazine tradition outlined above. Since then the magazine has been “revamped” and reoriented and to some degree rebranded for a somewhat different audience. Let me be clear, as rad a dude as Beez is, as a “mere” contributor, I doubt his leaving was the reason for this change. In fact, the change might have been the reason for his leaving, which was abrupt and completely silent with regards to explanation of any sort. But that is a story for another time.

Metal Hammer was always unapologetically marketed to a raucous, outsider, youth, hipster, underground crowd. Its demographic was as at least as complex as its subject matter. For many years it was divided into two broad sections, the magazine proper and a supplement at the back entitled Subterranea. Indeed, it was this latter section which yours truly achieved the most satisfaction. The magazine proper deals with relatively “mainstream” hard rock and metal acts with fairly equal coverage of young/new bands, established acts, as well as American, European and UK based scenes (and recently more globally including Central and South America, the Middle East, South East Asia, and South Asia). Advertising is typical of the core demographic – gothic/S&M/“evil”/anti-religious/rebellious influenced fashion as well as appealing to Angloshpere binge drinking culture and more recently musical instruments and related equipment. This is rounded out by album reviews, live reviews, letters and news typical of the music magazine genre. Subterranea also follows this pattern but its focus is more on marginal and so-called underground acts including death metal, black metal, grindcore, doom and other music not normally within the metal canon but nevertheless aesthetically congruent. It frequently contained interviews with well known scene leaders and demonstrated a calibre of knowledge and writing somewhat less trendy and more “in” the scene itself.

Metal Hammer today still mimics this format, yet from the layout to the timbre of the writing, from the advertising to the choice of bands in both sections has resulted in a flattening, or at worst a homogenisation of the previous diversity and complexity. What this results in is a surrendering of the middle ground between accessibility and underground credibility. Hammer once stood as a readable and open minded counter balance to the pop-hype of Kerrang! and the tougher-than-you tr00-kvlt-ism of Terrorizer. Now however it reads like a slightly thicker version of the former on the quality of paper of the latter and with fewer posters than either. I mean, the most recent issue features an interview with Sammy Hagar (yes, as in Van Halen) in Subterranea. Really? No, really? I am happy to vouch for the relevance of Van Halen in hard rock and metal, but in terms of relevance to a black/death/grind/doom underground, Hagar has none. Just why the market needs a re-tooled version of Kerrang! is beyond this writer. It won’t stop me from specyalatin’ though...

With the push to online delivery modes through the Apple Store’s Bookshelf platform it is obvious that as with the rest of the industry, the focus is moving away from actual ink and paper. The internet allows far more satisfaction for the “hardcore” music enthusiast. S/he is able to chase down the most obscure information across a warren of different sites and sample a previously impossible range and density of music. S/he is already online, has RSS feeds set up and regularly receives news about release dates, fan packs, studio reports and new artists. This type of reader no longer needs a physical magazine. Therefore, if a publisher is to maintain a print presence in a shrinking yet still not irrelevant market, it must appeal to the widest demographic possible. All of this is understandable and yet I cannot help but to feel sad. I have lost a long term companion in the re-jigged Hammer. Like a good friend who found god, it still looks the same, talks the same but everything is just somehow “off” and when s/he says what s/he thinks all you can do is remember how things used to be.

Hammer, we ain’t done yet but it won’t be long. Don’t make me say “Twas nice knowin’ ya”. For the rest of you? Stay metal.
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