On the importance of “vintage stage antics” for a thriving metal subculture by Robin Staps (The Ocean)

As some of you may have noticed, there has recently been an explosive, blown-up debate about (the lack of) stage diving on this year’s Summer Slaughter tour between us, Summer Slaughter, and the fans. Apart from all the useless “you better book ‘baby corpse deep throat massacre’ next year, this tour is not metal anymore” rubbish, some commenters have made some very legit points, and I would like to add a few thoughts here.
Do we rely on “vintage stage antics”, as Summer Slaughter Tour Creator Ash Avildsen has called stage diving, in order to get the point in our music across? No we don’t, and despite some venues’ rigid security policies, we have been enjoying this tour a lot. However, there is more to it then leaping into the crowd to impress teenage girls. A strict code of conduct for stage behavior essentially compromises the interaction between band and crowd, and the experience for fans that pay to see a show, as well as for us as musicians. Metal or hardcore shows with a high security prison atmosphere can no longer be the intimate experience that they are meant to be. All the bands on this tour belong close to the crowd, and sometimes in the crowd. This is a gesture that builds bridges, and that’s what sets us all apart from mainstream artists on huge stages, where the distance and the height of the stage becomes symbolic for a hierarchy between artist and crowd: the artist puts himself above the crowd, away from the crowd… like an untouchable deity that is being idolized by those who look up to him, literally and figuratively. While shows of a certain size essentially come with bigger and higher stages, this idolization is what we strive to avoid, through close and intimate interaction with the fans. This is why we meet people, to trade booze and food for merch, this is why we stay with fans, and this is also why we stage dive. As one commenter has put it: “At least the ocean and bands like them lower themselves and treat their fans like friends. Rowdy dysfunctional friends. It connects a crowd more than it ever separates. Isn’t that what music is all about?”

With this whole discussion, what I find lacking most of the time is a bit of common sense. Artists obviously don’t want anyone to get hurt, but there will always be a potential risk involved when a crowd gathers to watch a band play, gets excited, and starts moving to their music—just as there is a potential risk involved with playing football, or doing any kind of sport, really. And in the end, that’s what a metal show is, both for the band as well as for the majority of the audience: a sporting event, a sweaty work out. And much like football players are aware of the potential risk of twisting their ankles or getting bruises while diving after the ball, fans in the first few rows of a metal show are aware of the fact that there may be dancing, stage diving or crowd surfing, and of the potential risk of injury involved with these activities. In the internet age everyone knows that, even people who have never been to a metal show before in their lives.

At the heart of the recent security paranoia lies the case of Randy Blythe, which has become the September 11th of the metal scene. In its wake, we are seeing a drastic tightening of security policies at shows across the globe, and especially in America. And much like the Patriot Act, a result of September 11th, with it has come a massive infringement of civil liberties that has affected our society and changed our lives in many ways, much like the way new security policies at metal shows affect the practice of our subculture, and our freedom of artistic and emotional expression.

Randy’s case has become the horror scenario of professionals in the entertainment industry, who fear that this could reoccur at any moment unless a band’s and their fans’ modes of expression are strictly regulated and controlled. Venue owners and booking agents feel that there is an immediate need for action, and I can hear hysterical calls for drastic measures everywhere. Some venues are instructing their security staff to prevent certain antics at any cost. I have seen bouncers grabbing stage divers by their ankles, violently dragging them out of the pit and over the barricade, and I have seen people face plant on the floor in the ditch between stage and barricades in the meantime, because security staff was too busy escorting crowd surfers out of the building and kicking them out of the show. On the other hand, bands are being asked to sign waivers on certain tours here that forbid them to even TALK about moshing, stage diving or circle-pits. Bands get fined if they break these rules, or even kicked off tours. Fans are immediately banned from shows if they engage in activities that have been at the heart of this subculture since its inception.

While these new rules are there for a reason, it is up to us, the bands and artists of our time, to challenge and eventually break these rules—because in the end, isn’t that what punk rock and hardcore are all about? If I had been following rules and regulations and what other people consider to be good or bad for me for my entire life, I would have never gotten involved with punk rock or metal in the first place. My mom didn’t want me to go to punk rock shows, but I did it anyway, and found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience, stage-diving included. If punk rock can be summarized in a few words, then it is first and foremost about breaking rules, about finding our own way, about trusting our own judgment and deciding for ourselves what is good and bad for us, rather than letting authorities make decisions for us.

It is a matter of becoming mature. Kant defined enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his own self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another”. In that regard, punk rock and all related heavy music subcultures are a form of self-enlightenment, and its motto has always been sapere aude!—use your goddamn brains!

If I was a schoolteacher in Utah, and if it was expected from me to not teach the theory of evolution in class—would I follow this rule, just because some Mormon idiot tells me to? No, I certainly would not. I’d break the rule and teach the theory of evolution, until I was reprimanded and expelled. Then I would move to another state and do the same thing there, because my own sense of reason is stronger than irrational rules and regulations.

Unfortunately, “moving to another state” is not an option here, in the case of the subject of this article. I love metal and hardcore, and I don’t want to have to move on to techno or merengue music due to the environment for living and executing our subculture becoming too oppressive. There is a lot at stake here, and this is why we, the musicians and artists of our time, need to stand up and fight for it. We carry this responsibility, and we are in a stronger position than our average fans to do something about it, because if they ban us from getting back on stage after stage-diving (this actually happened to me on this tour), the show is usually over. And no promoter wants that.

Ben Weinman told me a story the other day, about a girl who sued them a few years back for getting her neck hurt at a Dillinger show. She argued that she had never been to a Dillinger show before and was not aware of stage diving and such. She had to withdraw the claim after the Dillinger camp presented YouTube videos of 5 of her favorite bands (according to her MySpace profile) to the court, all of which showed evidence of stage diving, even by band members. The girl had seen those videos. As Ben put it: “Our case was that moshing and crowd surfing is part of our sub culture and a band or fan conducting themselves appropriately is completely determined by the norms within that culture. The bands she had admitted being a fan of and seeing live in concert were all, at least loosely, part of that subculture and were also known for this kind of conduct. In other words, if you are going to go stand in the middle of a ritualistic tribal ceremony in which people shit on each other, don’t get mad if you get shit on you. Stay home and watch it on the history channel instead.”

When you go scuba diving, you need to get a license, you are made aware of the risks involved and sign a waiver where you indemnify the company you book your dives with against any claims related to health-issues or injuries. Maybe this is what we need for metal heads that go to live shows as well, a general license to attend, which attests that the license holder is aware of the risks involved, that he will NOT sue the venue, or the band, if he gets injured. If that gives us the freedom to behave as we like and as we always have, I would be in full favor of it. But do we really need this?

Another commenter on Facebook mentioned that these no stage diving rules were perfectly legit and understandable, because of course people would sue the venues and bands if they got hurt at a show—just like parents would sue the parents of their own kids’ best friend, if their kid got hurt at the other parents’ houswe…

This attitude makes me angry. It is the paradigm example of a skewed way of thinking: it’s the same logic that allows you to sue McDonald’s for making you fat. A logic that neglects choice, a logic that degrades and flouts human intellect and reduces us to sheep that have to be fenced in order to thrive. Do we really want to raise our children without any exposure to potential threats and dangers, in a perfectly sheltered, brave new world? Then we need to reduce their metal experience to watching videos on YouTube, because we will never be able to eliminate all potential risks at a metal show, where crowds gather to be MOVED by music. People will eventually get hurt in high-energy scenarios, whether that is a metal concert, or a sports event, and that is tragic… but the only alternative is a culture completely devoid of fun, freedom, excitement and drama. As Kurt Schwitters put it: “There is not enough tragedy in human existence“. These days, more true than ever.

Let me finish on a positive note, with a comment by an attendee of the Detroit run of Summer Slaughter: “Summer Slaughter was my 10 year olds’ first concert @ The Majestic in Detroit. The Ocean’s lead singer pulled him onstage, and he dove off. No worse for the wear… And he hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

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** The Ocean’s Pelagial is out now on Metal Blade Records. It’s available HERE. If you’re wondering what Pelagial means but don’t want to spend time looking up the definition we did that for you. Click here.