If you believe the naysayers, rock music is dead: dead in the charts, dead on streaming, even dead on social media. It’s a debate that refuses to go away; earlier this year, Adam Levine provoked outrage on Metal Twitter for suggesting that bands were a “dying breed”, while this year’s Grammys dragged up the same tired arguments about metal in the mainstream that we’ve been having for over a decade. Rock and metal were nowhere to be seen in Spotify’s most-streamed lists for 2020 – the number 1 streamed artist, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, currently racks up five times as many monthly listens on the platform as Slipknot.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. Recently, artists like Yungblud, Bring Me The Horizon and Architects have proven that rock and metal can still make a mark on the mainstream here in the UK. Bands such as Ghost, Parkway Drive and even Swedish power metallers Sabaton have graduated into arenas. And, perhaps most unexpectedly of all, heavy music is finally starting to have a bigger impact across social media, where platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are enabling young fans to discover metal in whole new ways. Enter: the metal influencers.
“I’ve been uploading to social media for over 10 years now,” says Sophie Lloyd, a British guitarist whose videos have amassed tens of millions of views. “It started as a virtual portfolio for me to look back on and see my progress. Then it became something so much bigger.”
Sophie is one of the foremost figures in a rising number of rock and metal influencers doing major numbers across social media. Her videos encompass everything from original songs to play throughs of classic rock, pop and metal tracks, to video game ‘shredleys’ – and they’ve crafted her a career in a world where guitar players get fewer opportunities than ever to ‘make it big’.
“My first decent payout from YouTube was after I released my original song, Delusions,” she reveals. “That’s when I realised the possibilities of making a living from social media. However, as I do mainly covers on my YouTube, most of my videos aren’t monetised, so it’s been important for me to have multiple streams of income including brand deals and crowdfunding.”
While Sophie has been posting her work for a decade, it’s in the last 18 months that her status has skyrocketed – a sign of the pandemic, perhaps, where people have had more time than ever to dive into social media, but also evidence of the changing ways in which fans are engaging with rock music.
“It’s insane,” says Kiki Wong, another metal guitarist-cum-influencer from the US who has seen her social media numbers skyrocket – sometimes by as much as 100,000 followers for a single video. “I’ve been making so much content lately - now more than ever I’ve been inspired to create.”
Kiki has a markably different backstory to Sophie, having spent years around the music industry as a session musician for the likes of Bret Michaels, Usher and Taylor Swift, before gravitating towards influencing by ways of the travel and fashion industries. It was with metal, though, that her heart truly lay, and after receiving a rapturous response to a few guitar videos she posted on Instagram, she decided to concentrate on her playing – and the views began to climb.
“I’ve played music since 2009, and after that I did embark into that influencer world, and I realised it wasn’t working for me,” Kiki admits. “I was an imposter, I wasn’t being who I really was. And then I went back to my roots and what I wanted to do, which is music.”
The numbers behind Kiki’s rise are dizzying. A fun, ten second clip of her playing a Rammstein riff over a sound effect was played over two million times on TikTok. A cover of Blinded By Fear by melodic death metal legends At The Gates has racked up a quarter of a million views on Instagram alone – four times higher than the number who actually follow At The Gates on Insta. This isn’t just memes and laughs; this is exposing fans to heavy metal on a global stage.
Blinded by Fear by At the Gates. 🤘🏼 What do you want to hear next? 🎸 ##metaltok ##guitar ##guitartok♬ original sound - Kiki: Daily Metal Guitar Riffs
“Before, you’d have to rely on TV and print to find new bands, but kids have so much information at their fingertips,” says Metal Hammer’s own Yasmine Summan. As well as writing for Hammer and NME and presenting the On Wednesdays We Wear Black Podcast, Yasmine uses their social media platforms to raise awareness of issues facing the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members of the rock and metal community. It’s amassed them over 115,000 followers, making them one of a rising number of young rock journalists whose social media presence far outweighs the reach of their own articles. “It makes sense that they don’t want to watch MTV all day,” Yasmine continues, “and would rather find out 10 new bands in a 60 second video on TikTok. It’s just easier, quicker, and more accessible to everyone across the globe.”
And it’s not only kids that are using social media to engage with metal in new ways.
“It’s actually a large mix of people,” says Sophie. “I try to tailor my pages to the right audiences, so I’ll do a lot of classic rock covers for the slightly older generation of rock music lovers on YouTube, and then on TikTok I’ll do shred versions of artists such as YungBlud, Bring Me The Horizon, Lil Nas X and BlackPink for the Gen Z’ers. And my Instagram is kind a mix of everything!”
Kiki has also seen a surprising mix of ages engage with her content. “There are metalhead parents that have little babies, little two year olds, and they’re showing little duets with them,” she notes. “There’s a kid holding a toy guitar, playing next to my video, and I’m like, ‘This is everything, this is literally why I’m doing this’. I want to continue to inspire these younger generations to keep metal alive, to keep guitars alive, to keep guitar sales happening, to never let this world die out.”
The rise of metal influencers has helped spark a sea-change in rock’s standing on social media. Whereas platforms like TikTok were initially seen as playgrounds for pop and r’n’b stars to go viral, it seems the tide is finally starting to turn in rock’s favour.
“We've seen a huge increase in the popularity of rock music on TikTok,” says David Mogendorff, TikTok’s UK Head Of Artist Partnerships. “Last year, the genre racked up over 22 million video creations - that is, videos made using the sound. A huge number.” He credits rock’s resurgence on TikTok to “huge online communities of people connected by their love of the genre”, and while he notes the likes of Bring Me The Horizon, Yungblud, Biffy Clyro and Royal Blood have made an impact on the platform, metal influencers such as Kim Drac and Cassyette are also name-checked as a large part of rock’s growing influence.
“The power of TikTok is that it helps fans discover music they might have never stumbled across otherwise – or rediscover songs that they haven't heard for years in a new light,” David adds. “This breathes new life into tracks and creates a whole new type of creative engagement between listeners and artists.”
Reply to @toetoeto Thankyou to everyone who has been streaming my song Dear Goth x😍🖤💜 Full live vid out on my YouTube now ##fyp ##deargoth ##newmusic♬ Dear Goth - Cassyette
It’s an engagement that influencers are pioneering - and metal, it seems, is finally joining the party. Even if the ‘I word’ still sits a little uncomfortably for some.
“I don’t mind being labelled as an influencer,” says Cassyette, a musician who spent years in bands and behind DJ booths before getting a career boost thanks to her TikTok shenanigans. “It’s just that, over time, the term has been tarnished a little. I hope that we can reclaim the term and can influence for good. I hope that I can influence people with the genre of rock and metal to express themselves through music, fashion and make-up, and maybe help people that are struggling with their identity. I hope that’s the kind of influencer I can be.”
“The ‘influencer’ term is a really interesting one because a lot of times, people are gonna associate it with somebody that takes pictures of themselves travelling the world and not doing very much,” offers Kiki. “I’ve turned into a ‘music influencer’. I’m used to the term, but the two don’t usually go hand-in-hand.”
“I usually lean more towards the term content creator or musician, as that’s what I am and what I do,” says Sophie. “I used to find the word ‘influencer’ embarrassing and I find people often roll their eyes at it, but recently I’ve been embracing it. I’ve managed to build something beyond what I ever thought was possible, and work incredibly hard to maintain it, and there’s absolutely nothing to be embarrassed of about that. Basically, call me whatever the hell you want.”