Rockers' revenge

Heavy metal now rules the airwaves too. By Ian 'Creeping Death' Burrell
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Stuart Williams hasn't forgotten his school days in Aberystwyth. "Where we lived in Wales, in the middle of nowhere, there were three of us in the class who were into rock music - the other 27 thought we smelled and were dirty and they just wanted us to go away," is his recollection. "We were four hours from the nearest rock gig."

A generation later, Williams is having his revenge, as the sons and daughters of his former classmates come down for breakfast chanting the latest Metallica lyrics from "Creeping Death" or "Blitzkrieg".

Quite simply, Williams and his colleagues are responsible for one of the British branding successes of modern times; a marketing exercise that has helped make rock music fashionable. As Emap's publishing director of rock, Williams is the powerhouse behind the Kerrang! brand, which has been instrumental in transforming heavy rock from its Eighties nadir as the favoured soundtrack of men with poodle perms, and red-and-black striped Lycra trousers, to the music of choice for today's edgy youth.

It is an extraordinary achievement for a brand that began life in 1981 as a one-off heavy rock supplement for the now defunct music weekly Sounds. When that supplement sold out, the publishers - United Newspapers - were encouraged to repeat the experiment until Kerrang! became monthly, fortnightly and, ultimately, weekly (at which point of the late Eighties it was bought out by Emap).

During that period in British music history, when dance culture ruled, rock was still regarded by many as the preserve of geeks, parodied in This is Spinal Tap, the 1984 movie spoof of an English rock band on tour. But Williams knew rock's potential. In his later childhood, he had moved from Wales to Holderness, a village in the backwoods of New Hampshire, and found to his delight that he had access to five rock stations - with the result that half his classmates shared his love of a power chord. "Even five years ago in Britain, every 17-year-old wanted to be a DJ," says Williams. "Now they're all claiming to be in a band. This is not a niche market. The biggest-selling band in the world in 2002 was [American heavy rock group] Linkin Park."

Kerrang! is now not just a magazine but a website, a television station and a radio station broadcasting over the internet, on digital audio, satellite television and FM. When the last set of official listening figures were released by the radio industry body Rajar last month, Kerrang! was the surprise success story, with an audience of more than one million tuning in for five million listening hours a week.

For the stricken music industry, such platforms are a godsend. "What we have been able to do is grow the market and drive it because we have the full support of the bands and the record labels to make it bigger," says Williams. Kerrang! pulled in an audience of 256,000 in the West Midlands, where it is available on FM. It has now applied for a Manchester FM licence and will later turn its attentions to Belfast, possibly followed by the south coast and Wales. The station is available on local DAB (digital) radio services in Liverpool, Preston, Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Newcastle, Stockton, Aberdeen and Glasgow.

"[Kerrang!'s sustained success] is purely down to the brand," says Shaun Gregory, the MD of national brands at Emap's radio division. "What's happened over the years is that the brand has been nurtured, invested in and looked after." Over the past decade, the Kerrang! name has been grown through association with a series of events that have made it increasingly credible with a wider audience.

That started with a modest gathering for the first Kerrang! awards in the Notre Dame Hall off London's Leicester Square in June 1994 - where a small number of readers got to rub shoulders with Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard - to the Kerrang! weekends at Camber Sands in East Sussex, attended by 3,000 young fans and 50 acts. More recently, Game On, a special event staged at the Millennium Dome in London, has reinforced the Kerrang! brand in the mind of the skateboarding fraternity, by mixing edgy music with celebrity skaters. It's a long way down the road of brand extension since the Eighties when the art director, a Noddy Holder lookalike named Krusher, would hand-draw the cover-lines with a felt-tip pen.

Kerrang! staff range from teenage writers to the kind of late middle-aged men who once wore those stripy trousers. Both age groups recognise and respect the brand, and sometimes can be seen at the same gigs - the 50-year-old Black Sabbath dad with his 14-year-old Sum 41 son.

Phil Alexander, the editor in chief of Kerrang!, said: "We have now got three generations of readers and you have people who read Kerrang! when it first emerged that now bring their kids to shows. There's a pan-generational appeal." But not everything smells quite right in the mosh pit. While the Kerrang! brand may be expanding in its broadcasting spheres, the sales of the magazine are shrinking and the latest circulation figure of 62,591 represents a year-on-year decline of 11 per cent. Alexander explains the decline in terms of the magazine's need to appeal to the "taste-makers" and be more cutting-edge than other elements of the Kerrang! family. "We learned that Kerrang! as a media brand has to do different things across the platforms," he says. "The radio station cannot be as hardcore as the magazine. And there are bands that we love for the magazine but who make videos that don't bear repeated viewing."

Gregory is anxious that potential listeners to the broadcasting elements of Kerrang! are not put off by a lingering association with lyrics about taking daughters to the slaughter. "Some people think it's just about 'kids drinking sick'," he says, "as someone said to me recently. It's not about that."

For Williams, Kerrang! is a broad church, or graveyard even. "People from the outside have always thought Kerrang! is a heavy metal magazine but the truth is it has never been just that," he claims, somewhat dubiously. Although it certainly started as such, it is now the home of a loose collective of lost tribes: metal heads; punks; industrial rockers; goths and the emos (sensitive "emotional hardcore" head-bangers who prefer their ear-splitting riffs accompanied by odes to lost girlfriends). And is one of the most enduring music brands around.