Giving Up The Ghost

Is it possible to make money in metal anymore?

Image: Thomas Hawk

“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.” —David Lee Roth

Ghost is a hokey-ass sort of proto-metal band from Sweden (who are sometimes for legal reasons referred to, lamely, as Ghost B.C. depending on where you are because I don’t know I’m not a fucking lawyer) who showed up in 2010 with a hilariously titled debut album, Opus Eponymous (which I’m sure many were pissed they hadn’t thought of first). They donned costumes that looked like they were pulled off the set of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut, and kept their identities secret. The image of their cartoonishly evil pope, “Papa Emeritus,” and his guitar-wielding minions, “The Nameless Ghouls,” was plastered over every metal-centric media outlet; they were unavoidable. When it came to the music, everything was suspiciously in place. The songs were inescapably catchy, the production was satisfying and welcoming. At a glance, all seemed right, the gimmick and the music were in harmony.

For the hardcore metalhead who’s been around since before Hot Topic fucked it all up, and who will loudly tell you all about his complete Slayer cassette collection if only you’ll give him the tiniest of windows, Ghost had the false-metal radar flashing bright red and screaming POSERS! For those of us who love metal, but also rock and pop and a good gimmick that supports but doesn’t overshadow, Ghost was a little more complicated. Opus Eponymous is full of well-written, well-recorded songs that push more nostalgia buttons than a Disney Star Wars movie. The Salem’s Lot homage on the cover ties in the horror-movie imagery that goes so hand in hand with the metal. They said things like, “‘Tis the Night of the Witch Tonight” — a la Spinal Tap’s “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock Ya Tonight” — that made you feel like they got the joke and we were all in on it together. Being in on the joke is such a huge part of what being a metalhead is these days. Of course it’s ridiculous. Of course it’s stupid. Of course it’s obnoxious and loud — that’s what weeds out the casual listener.

Fast forward to 2017: Ghost’s catalog has expanded by two more albums (one with Rosemary’s Baby cover art, and one with Amadeus), and a couple of EPs. They’ve made an EP produced by Dave Grohl (who gets to carry out his every whim because, fuck you, he’s earned it). They’ve released a single that’s really just their version of The Bangles version of “Hazy Shade of Winter.” They’ve made dildos. The jokes that made the band so appealing in the first place have run thin. The music has gotten progressively more dull, predictable and quantized to death. The halloween greasepaint is smeared and cracked; Ghost is boring. Ghost sounds like ‘Weird’ Al crooning bogus Latin phrases over karaoke versions of Blue Oyster Cult deep cuts.

If there’s anything positive to take from an act like Ghost, it’s been that at least a band this fucking strange could achieve something like mass popularity. That a bunch of dudes dressed like ghouls preaching quasi-satanic scripture could play “Colbert” and convince them to put the Zapruder film filter on it. That something resembling a heavy metal band could sell out huge venues and make a pile of money. Except now it looks like maybe not. A lawsuit filed last week in the band’s hometown of Linkoping, Sweden that was translated by a reader of (the web’s finest heavy-metal news source), paints a grim picture of the inner workings of a modern band. In addition to finally putting to rest any mystery about the band’s real-life human identities, the suit states essentially (I already told you I’m not a fucking lawyer) this: Four former members of the band have been fired by the singer, named Alfred Matthew Yankovic (Sike! His name is Tobias Forge) because they refused to sign slave contracts that entitled them to no royalties or profits, only wages as contractors who work for him.

The former Ghouls claim Forge has been dodging their questions about profits for years, and has pulled an Axl Rose by seizing control of the band that they helped bring to fame. They allege that over the past five years — a period when the band had been constantly touring, recording, selling shitloads of records (by today’s standards), winning Grammys and selling merch that has become nearly as ubiquitous as Iron Maiden tees — Forge failed to dole out any profits to the other members because he claimed there were no profits to be doled. The rest of the band now wants to see the receipts, because they think Papa Emeritus is ripping them the fuck off. (Never to be outdone by any real-life joke of a metal band, Spinal Tap has also recently filed a lawsuit where they claim profits have been concealed from them for years.) We may not know for a long time who’s right and who, if anyone, is owed how much, but it’s possible to glean from the suit a few scenarios that make the business of being in a band these days look not too pretty.

Of course, we all want to side with the perceived underdog, in this case the Nameless Ghouls Who Totally Have Names Now, but it’s possible that Forge is not ripping his dudes off and the band is still in the red. For a band this visible and this busy not to be turning a profit of any kind is hard to imagine. Do they have a Black Sabbath-sized cocaine habit? Are they chartering private jets for travel? They probably do rack up some pretty huge dry cleaning tabs. For many, or more likely, most bands, the best they can hope for when touring is to make enough money to stay on the road for a while and still have a home to go back to when the tour is over. Record sales across the music industry are in the toilet, so it’s hard to even guess at what a band could or should be taking home, but there are some numbers we can look at. According to The PRP, a metal and hardcore news site that publishes gross sales numbers from concert tickets, on a random Monday night in April of 2016 in Austin, Texas, Ghost grossed nearly $40,000. Let’s call that an average night for the band, even though it might be low. In 2016, they played somewhere in the ballpark of 120 shows, putting gross sales in the range of about 4.8 million dollars from ticket sales alone. Of course, gross sales are not net profits, but it’s already tough to imagine this band is not profitable.

How about record sales? Wellllll, they released an EP last year called Popestar that (sucked) was a Billboard no. 1, selling 21,000 copies in its first week. Their previous record, Meliora was a top-ten record that won a Grammy and sold nearly 30,000 copies in its first week. And many of those were physical CD and vinyl albums, because that’s still a thing that metalheads are interested in. In addition to the aforementioned Papa Emeritus™ dildos, Ghost’s merch has been just about everywhere these last few years. Despite the lack of publicly available evidence of sales or profits from merchandise, again, it’s nearly impossible to imagine they, or at least SOMEONE, hasn’t been raking it in.

It’s nothing new for bands to fight about money and for musicians to get ripped off. Traditionally it’s been white dudes ripping off black people, or white dudes ripping off women. In this case, it might just be another boring old case of a white dude ripping off other white dudes. Or maybe it’s something far worse than the traditional scam: maybe there’s just not much money to be made in rock or heavy metal music anymore. Some people will keep toughing it out, regardless, but as the incentives to dedicate oneself totally to a craft disappear, the quality of the work will continue to decline and it will become less and less relevant. A popular question to ask right now is, “Is rock and roll dead?” If Ghost is our example, then either it’s not possible for them to make any money and the answer is yes, it is dead or damn near it, or they are profitable, but the people making and playing the music every night still aren’t getting paid, so the answer would be yes, rock and roll is dead, it committed suicide. Either way, someone call a priest.

John Dziuban is no longer a musician, and he does not look like Elvis Costello. Metal Minutiae is an occasional column on the decline of rock music.