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Equilibrium Refound

Google Stats Reveal Metal's Rise and Fall

June 9, 2008

Nature is based on the idea of process. This process is created through cycles. In the small, they repeat a process to transfer energy to matter and back again. On the larger scale, the process that contains the cycles goes from birth to middle age to death, and must be restarted externally by another cycle. Cycles contain cycles, and together they form the process as a whole.

Information also runs in cycles. First a distinctive pattern forms; then slowly, as it references and is referenced by other patterns, it becomes similar to other patterns. At some point it is absorbed, and becomes a subset of some other pattern. This cycle is repeated within other cycles, and reflects the knowledge gained from energy transfer and exploration of different organizational schemes.

With these two cycles known, it is no surprise that human events also run in cycles. In the United States, political parties change alignment every 80 years. Neighborhoods grow, become valuable, and then begin declining into waste before gentrification happens. TV shows start out with new ideas, become mundane, and then get ludicrous as they "jump the shark." New restaurants and businesses are at first better alternatives, but slowly get sold out and become the same old thing, with more advertising.

Yet a few businesses, run by the intelligent, survive; some writers and classical musicians never lose their vitality; some neighborhoods remain the same generation after generation, as do many small towns. They cheat the death cycle by renewing themselves before life has to make them bloated, then calcified, and then kill them off. One of the good things about central control is that it can make this easier.

In artistic genres, bands are well known from the cliche of "I like them but only the first three albums." After three albums, your average rock musician has nothing more to say, and so you get songs based on combined archetypes found in influences, which generally means sappy love and introspective songs. The CDs go directly to the sale shelf, and only the people who were young when the band was vital keep buying, hoping to rediscover the spirit they felt in that time. (REM, we're looking at you. Slayer, watch it, you're that close.)

Underground metal was lucky enough to exist in a pocket of time where running a label was still too involved a process for all but a few diehards, but was accessible to those willing to spend the time and effort in getting it right. This made the music rare, a new frontier; a new space for people who found no other outlet for their creativity to expand, like electronica and punk before it, both of which had their own undergrounds.

Then it got not only easier to set up a label, but easier to attract an audience, since the new kids had discovered that there was this forbidden, dangerous, exciting music called black metal. They wanted to be part of it, too, even though they were what black metal wanted to escape. They invaded. Soon humanist sentiment in black metal bands was common, and the music was accordingly bland, and a lot like rock music. The genre was dying.

Headlines contradict reality frequently, and to tell someone in 1995 that black metal was dying seemed heresy. "Dude, are you on drugs? There's more bands and fans than ever before!" -- indeed. But quality? The new fans were not concerned with the ideas in the music, they wanted to be part of a scene. They wanted it to be safe but appear unsafe, where the earlier people wanted to be unsafe, to explore that lawless frontier in ideas and deeds.

Figure 1 - Trend Comparison: Death Metal Versus Black Metal (Google Fun, Trends, Mosh and Core Dept)
Trend comparison of death metal and black metal in media and Google searches

Slowly things have been changing. The genre that died from within is again dying from within because the horde of me-toos have blunted its edge and made it so prosaic that newer kids aren't seeing the point anymore. The Young Turks who wanted to shock the "true black metal hordes" by mixing hip hop and jazz into black metal are now seeing a newer Young Turk generation, and that generation doesn't care about shocking anyone. They see black metal as dead and sold out like ICP and Metallica.

Statistical data backs this up. While search engine trends aren't reality, they're a reliable indicator of what interests people in real life that they research on the internet. Again, headlines don't match reality; look at the following chart, and see that as media mentions black metal more and mainstreams it, it fades out from searches, which means that fewer people need to see it -- they're inundated in it and disinterested.

Track the "News reference volume" for black metal and death metal (it's the lower vertical half of the chart). Before 2005, it was the fringes, completely; from mid-2006 onward it reached a level comparable to other social trends. See how a few small spikes proceed it reaching a higher level? What you're seeing is people noticing other people talking, and raising the conversation level on that topic. Notice how, for a while, the curve of searches and media mentions are heading in the same direction.

What's interesting here is that in early 2006, searches for both black metal and death metal begin their decline. This is a point of public knowledge saturation, or when all those who might be interested know enough about the subject to avoid seeking it out. Part of the reason for this can be found by looking at the early 2006 media charts: that background noise has picked up speed, and now through the amplification of stochastic resonance, the media mention is at a constant.

At that point, black metal and death metal were no longer rare novelties, but an accepted part of the landscape. What happens afterward will surprise no one who knows that black metal and death metal are partially underground, but have roots in a mainstream genre. They continue to get media mention, but don't reach the critical mass necessary to become a mass public trend. Instead, they level out, and the intensity of searches plummets; they are now yesterday's trends.

Now let's look at a genre that is succeeding in both the mainstream world and underground worlds. To find out what's happening that's more underground, look for high searches and low media mention; to find something succeeding in mass culture, look for something with high media mention and searches at a level lower than media mention. After you find that juncture, look at what happens afterward.

Figure 2 - Trend Comparison: Reggaeton Versus Emo (Google Bounce, Kick, Preen and Suicide Dept)
Trend comparison of reggaeton and emo music in media and Google Searches

Part of the reason for this example is to show what a successful, but not ueber-mainstream (Britney Spears, Barack Obama, Ped Egg) meme looks like. Reggaeton and emo are both going to remain just under the surface for most people, but among a certain segment of the population, will always be positive. Reggaeton peaks in media mention from middle of 2005 through middle of 2006, then essentially flatlines with a few spikes here and there. Emo climbs in searches steadily and, in early 2006, the media picks up on this and it takes off as well.

From this chart, you can see that emo is more widely known than reggaeton, and reggaeton has flatlined while emo continues to shoot upward toward the mainstream. In comparison, the numbers for black metal and death metal are closer to those of reggaeton, and have not flatlined, but continue in their downward progression. Most tellingly, this downward trend in searches corresponds to a slight rise and stabilization in media mention, suggesting a flatlining will soon come.

For all of us who like quality metal, this trend is a good thing. It means the fat of the genre is dying off, and that there will soon be an open space for others to create a new generation. This generation doesn't even need to change stylistically, but it needs to capture what these statistics cannot represent, which is quality art of a musical nature, which means music with something vital and unsafe to communicate. With some awareness, the next generation will know better than to grow recklessly, and will instead police itself by promoting its most vital acts and ignoring the popular but short-lived trends.

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