The immoderate rise and expeditious fall of a global digital rock empire

In 2013, Future Publishing sold three magazine titles, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog, to multi-media content creation and distribution start-up TeamRock for £10.2million. Just 3 years and 8 months later, TeamRock went into administration and Future Publishing bought back the titles for £800,000. We sat down with three core members of the Metal Hammer staff to find out what went wrong

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Monday 19th December 2016 was a day just like any other day for the guys and gals who worked on Metal Hammer, the prestigious, 30 year global institution that proudly styled itself ‘the heavy metal bible’. There was a sense that despite the long, illustrious history, a fresh core team of individuals were starting to bring the magazine kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Merlin Alderslade had steadily worked his way up the ranks over 5 years to become Editor and alongside Features Editor Eleanor Goodman, Online Editor Luke Morton, the rest of the core editorial team and a global roster of writers, photographers, artists and freelancers, they were beginning to take Metal Hammer into a glorious new future.

On that day, Alderslade recalls making plans with his team about The Golden Gods, the magazines’ prestigious annual awards ceremony, and discussions were made for features set to appear as late as September 2017. The atmosphere in the office was jovial, with an end-of-term vibe permeating the air. It was the most thrilling part of the holiday season, where anticipatory pre-Christmas jubilation had yet to be shattered by tipsy relatives and crap television. Work was just beginning to wind down and there was a palpable sense of excitement as to what 2017 had in store, not just for the magazine, but for metal as a genre.

Just before 5 o’clock, a man and a woman walked into the office, neither of whom the staff recognised, and called everybody into the middle of the room. They were wearing suits, and as such, immediately stood out in an environment where standard uniform is ripped jeans and Megadeth T-Shirts. The two interlopers had with them a thick stack of envelopes; they were letters explaining that TeamRock had gone into administration and that 73 jobs were to be terminated, effective immediately. There was no money available for redundancy pay-outs and to add insult to injury, the staff would not be paid their December wage. ‘As soon as we got called into the middle of the room,’ recalls Alderslade ‘I thought ‘we’re f**ked!’’

Throughout its history, Metal Hammer made every effort to be a conduit that unites metal fans from around the world; during its peak, the magazine was being published in 11 languages in countries as far-flung as Israel, Serbia, Japan, Hungary and Poland. Unlike a wealth of other music weeklies and monthlies that would seem to snidely patronise the reader, Metal Hammer was never condescending. Instead, it presented itself as the warm, friendly fount of metal know-how, desperate to tell you all the secrets about the mystical, mythical legend that was ‘heavy metal’.

It’s unsurprising that TeamRock were so keen to buy the title, alongside sister publications Classic Rock and Prog, and hold them up as the central focus of their global digital radio network. The deal TeamRock struck in 2013 was unprecedented in music media; after a five day negotiation with previous owners Future Publishing, the company bought all three titles, their websites and staff for a cool £10.2million. The idea was to ‘provide and create premium content to rock-music fans across the world via digital platforms’ to a ‘large but un-served community.’ TeamRock CEO Billy Anderson summed the concept up neatly when he said, ‘we bought the biggest and most respected magazine publishing group in rock in Europe and pushed that through with radio as the accelerator.’ In essence, they wanted to take an aging, traditional format – print media – and embolden it by squeezing it and selling it through a shiny, new digital filter.

It was an ambitious enterprise and in the halcyon days of 2013, one that the magazine staff broadly embraced, as Alderslade attests. ‘The CEO gathered us all together and explained the vision behind TeamRock and why they wanted to bring the magazines in as a foundation of this new venture and honestly it felt quite exciting. It felt like a company that was run by rock fans who were trying to create a global Rock Empire! I thought investing £10.2million was a pretty solid sign that they had confidence in us and if they were willing to spend that amount of money, then they must've had a lot of ambition. It sounded like a brilliant idea and it was exciting to be treated like the crown jewel in all of that.’

It’s nigh-on-impossible to pinpoint the precise moment where TeamRock’s empire began to crumble but the cause is much easier to identify. ‘You could see there was a lot of money being spent on what felt like quite extravagant things’ says Alderslade of the situation today. ‘During the first few months they sponsored a drag car and showed it off at The Golden Gods Awards. That car became a bit of a running joke amongst the staff.’

Smart marketing strategy to get the TeamRock name established as a prominent force in rock and metal media? Or gaudy, excessive but ultimately hollow gestures that essentially amounted to a baby company waving its metaphorical bollocks around? Whatever your view, it was clear that the black was gradually diminishing into the red, as the money dwindled and the debt escalated. Rumours of the dire straits rumbled, mainly around the offices and private messages of rival publications, but those working for TeamRock were oblivious to just how improvident their paymasters were being. ‘We knew the company was making a loss, but were assured that it was a normal part of working for a start-up' says Goodman 'I joined in 2015 and it felt like a pretty normal business - it's not like there was Champagne everywhere.’

Unfortunately, for a print industry striving to remain relevant in a digital age, ‘normal’ amounts to the majority of magazine media being in a constant state of flux. It’s something all three Metal Hammer scribes acknowledge and most writers can attest to the unstable nature of the ever-evolving industry. We live in an age where treasured print institutions are under constant threat; Morton used to work for Front before it ceased publication in 2014 and Goodman was former deputy editor for the sadly defunct Bizarre before she joined Metal Hammer. ‘I've been working on magazines for ten years’ she says ‘and I've seen them collapse in every company I've worked for, so I’ve always had the attitude that every day could be my last. But it's very different having that mentality and being confronted with the reality of someone walking in and saying it’s your last day, especially when there’s been no indication from your employers that anything was amiss.’

As is common when adversity strikes, the staff gathered together to drown their sorrows at the pub; as Goodman recollects, what else were they to do? ‘We all went and got some drinks and tried to process the news, just work out what the next steps were practically. Some people were worried about mortgages or rent and were calling their relatives in tears, asking for help. Beyond that, it was about working through the emotional turmoil. A job is obviously a big part of your life, especially one like this that takes up so much of your life and we all feel so passionate about. We’d joined this magazine that we’d all read growing up and now it wasn't going to exist anymore. It was just mind-boggling!’

Word spread fast and the metal community reacted almost instantaneously with condolences. The staff’s phones buzzed and beeped constantly with hundreds of messages of support from industry folk, friends and family. Ben Ward, frontman with London-based stoner heavy metal outfit Orange Goblin, started a JustGiving crowd funding campaign to raise money for the staff. He set an initial goal of £20,000, which was smashed within hours. After 30 days, 3698 supporters pledged a total of £88,760. Mention of the crowd funder is the only time in our conversation where the three Metal Hammer writers are momentarily speechless, clearly still overwhelmed and touched by the support the global metal community offered them when they needed it most; one pledger summed it up succinctly. ‘As we say in the pit – if someone falls, you pick them up.’

‘The rock community is the best in the world and I don't say that just because we work in it,’ says Alderslade. ‘I go to a lot of gigs and festivals all the time, I like to think I'm fairly well-versed in a lot of other fan bases and there's nothing like the rock and metal industry! If it didn't have that camaraderie, none of us would be here doing what we're doing now. But even saying that, to see that spirit directed towards Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog was still pretty mind-blowing, especially when we’re constantly hearing things like 'Print doesn't mean anything to people anymore.’ We're so used to seeing people have negative perceptions about metalheads and I think this just proves that, when the chips are down, we are all here for one another and we are a proper community.’

Whilst it’s undeniable that print media has taken some major hits in the 21st century, the JustGiving campaign is proof that these magazines and the people that contribute to them still matter to thousands of readers around the world. Print’s dilemma is not too dissimilar to the quandary the music industry itself found itself in with the rise of digital and the decline of physical formats, but Morton points out how it could potentially survive. ‘I think print media’s like vinyl; if you like music but you're not that bothered, you'll get a Spotify account and you’ll glean information from Blabbermouth. But if you consider yourself a music connoisseur, you'll buy as much as you can on record and won’t think twice about shelling out a fiver a month to read more in-depth features about the music you love. I don’t think having a place in the latter rather than the former is a bad place to be.’

With sales of vinyl on the rise and, for the first time ever, actually eclipsing digital sales, it’s safe to say that no-one can really predict the constantly fluctuating ways that the public choose to consume media. In January 2017, Future Publishing bought back the rights for all three magazine titles, their events and the license for the TeamRock digital radio service for £800,000. That figure doesn’t include staff salaries (the £10.2million TeamRock paid for the titles in 2013 did) but it’s undoubtedly a far more sensible deal in a business environment that's unpredictable. Something this is certain is the pedigree of a publication like Metal Hammer gives them access to bands that most websites and blogs could only dream of. For their comeback issue, Metal Hammer were able to set up an interview where Avenged Sevenfold frontman interviewed the inimitable Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. ‘That’s something which had never been done before and probably won't ever be done again’ says Alderslade. ‘That's the power of print! That's the kind of thing that we can make happen. It's the power of the name of Metal Hammer and again it shows that we can still make great things happen when people support and believe in us.’ 

Now that Metal Hammer, along with Classic Rock and Prog, has been saved, the plan is to pick up from where they left off. ‘Our job is to create an exciting vibrant metal magazine that can appeal to anyone that considers themselves a fan of heavy music’ says Alderslade. ‘Whether your favourite band is Armoured Saint or Code Orange, we want people to find something they love about this magazine; as far as we’re concerned, if you like heavy music, we've got something for you. You might not like all the bands in there, and that's totally fine, but we will always have something there for you and we will never try to just recklessly go with trends or try and betray what Hammer's supposed to be all about. We will always have a mix of bands in there that represent the absolute amazing vibrant scene that is metal. Because there's so much to be excited about in the metal scene right now and it makes us excited for what we've got coming up in the year ahead.’

Metal Hammer's 293rd issue, their comeback special, is available now