Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth sat down with the Metalluminati’s Audriana Gates in Tempe, Arizona on the second week of their summer tour with Volbeat and Hellyeah. Schaffer discussed his views on the present-day music biz, the future of record labels, and even his own future plans for Iced Earth to have their own label.
The tour has been receiving great reviews. From your perspective, how has the it been so far?
It’s been great. It’s definitely a different audience, and that’s good for Iced Earth to spread awareness of the band. We’ve always been preaching to the choir, so to be a support band — especially for someone as diverse as Volbeat and Hellyeah – it’s pretty cool.
You can tell a lot of people don’t know who we are right off the bat, but by the end of our set they are into it. Our website traffic has gone absolutely crazy.
Getting on this tour, how did you expect the crowd to receive you?
Yeah, it’s different but there’s a lot of metal in Volbeat’s music for sure. I love it. They are one of my favorite bands of all time.
I haven’t been excited about a band since I was fourteen years old, but I became a really big fan of [Volbeat frontman] Michael’s and we became great friends. There is a lot of mutual respect there. So, when he invited us out on tour, I was like “Hell yeah let’s do it.”
If for the fans, their only exposure to Volbeat is the radio songs, then they might not be into Iced Earth. But a lot of the Volbeat fans are into their heavier stuff as well, and I think those people will like us and what we do.
Iced Earth is no stranger to the music scene. What’s your take on how the industry has changed, even in this last decade?
It’s a big difference. You can’t really rely on physical sales anymore. The business model is changing and I hope that it becomes better for the artist.
The artists have definitely been the ones who have been the most taken advantage of by the “system,” or the record industry. I think it’s going to lead to a situation where you have more contact from the artists directly to the fan base. I think that cutting out several different middle-men — people who are reaping a lot of the profits from the work that we do — will be good for the artists.
With that, what is Iced Earth doing differently in order to garner those sales?
Well, really right now, we’re obviously touring a lot. I mean we’re about 120 shows into our world tour since this album (Dystopia) came out in November of last year.
We’ve been hitting it hard and we’ve literally been around the planet. All over from North America, Central America, South America, Europe, Australia, China — we’ve done a lot.
So, touring vs. album sales?
For metal bands, we have such a loyal base. So, I think we’ve suffered from it less than a lot of other people in the music industry, like the pop stars. Our fans seem to be a little more loyal.
At the same time, this is definitely… it’s changing. I just don’t know what the model is going to be yet. I’m just not sure.
Iced Earth has always been known for their album artwork. Do you think there is still going to be that significance in putting out that type of artwork, or are you guys going to try to do more to put stuff online instead of physical copies?
Well, we’re definitely going to always do cool artwork because that’s part of the whole theme. It makes for an entire vibe for a tour package. Your theme of that record is what your stage show revolves around and the merchandise and everything so we’re always going to do that.
I can imagine that Iced Earth will probably always do physical copies. I just hope that someday we can be our own label and deal directly with the fans.
Physical copies are important for an older group of fans. For some of the younger people that grew up with the Internet and just downloading and basically stealing music, it’s a different thing. They may not care about it. But we definitely have a fan base that does care about physical copies.
With downloading and piracy, what do you think the record labels need to do to embrace this change? You’re not going to stop people from illegally downloading music.
I think the record labels are going to be a thing of the past before too long. It’s not going to break my heart. It’s just that right now we’re in a transitional situation here where it makes it difficult for mid-level bands, and it’s definitely difficult for baby bands.
I don’t know. Starting off in a new band today in this market is a pretty scary thing. Guys like Metallica that are just giant machines that move, they are a phenomenon — I’m sure they’ve felt it, of course, but not at the same level. They are such a strong machine. I don’t think it’s as much of a struggle for them as it is for some of the mid-level bands.
That’s where we reside. So, for us, we have to be proactive in thinking. I set goals five, ten years ahead. We are going to be our own label. That’s definitely going to happen. It’s just the financing and making it where we have a database of fans that’s big enough to take it over.
Iced Earth has never been a band that was on the radio. So, what is your industry advice for the bands that are coming up now and trying to make it in an industry where there is little radio play and no MTV anymore?
The only advice I can give anyone is that you can’t give up. You have to have the integrity to stay true to your craft.
A lot of bands make the mistake of coming out and there’s a new fad or a new trend or whatever it might be within the music business, and the system ends up signing fifty bands that sound like the one band that actually made it.
I expect in the next couple of years there is going to be a bunch of Volbeat wanna-bes and they are going to be the leader of this new genre of music that they have created. That’s a typical reactionary thing that happens with labels – they start signing a bunch of bands that are copying a sound.
Well, you can’t really look at it like that.
A lot of times, what happens is that if you’re playing something and you decide to jump on a bandwagon, more than likely the style that you were initially doing was what was natural for you. And by the time anyone even recognizes you, that fad is going to be over. You gotta stay true to your craft and have integrity.
It’s not easy these days. But I think if you can build up a fan base, you just have to stay true. Of course, I’m talking about metal music — that’s all I know. And I know if you don’t stay true, the fans will never forgive you for it.
On your website, Iced Earth has the mantra: “It’s a long way to the top if you want to Rock ‘n Roll.”
What do you have to say to these national and international bands that are trying to make it, but immediately think they’ll be playing top-notch venues? Don’t you think you have to pay your dues?
Of course everybody has to go through that.
What would say about a band walking away from a tour just because the venue was sub-par?
Well… they are never going to make it.
No. You can’t do that. It doesn’t work that way.
It’s a battle. Every day. I think it’s a battle even on Metallica’s level at some degree. Sure, they have the machinery, the giant crew, but it’s still… this life is not for the squeamish, you know?
It’s really hard when you are starting out. We did the van tours and moved our own gear; as soon as we stopped playing, broke down, played every shithole you could imagine for really bad money – but that’s what you have to do! Then, you get a loyal following if you show that kind of commitment and they know you’re there.
Don’t you think so that the shittiest venues have probably had the best crowds?
You’re bringing the music that they wouldn’t get to hear otherwise.
Yeah, it’s definitely true. We’ve had some amazing shows in little shithole clubs where the crowd energy is awesome.
So get out there, play shitty venues, and pay your dues?
Yeah, you gotta do what you gotta do. You gotta pay your dues. You can’t quit. If you want to make it in this, you can’t quit.
It’s no secret that your line-up has changed drastically over the course of your 27-year career.
What is it about the dynamic of this current line-up that makes Iced Earth what it is and makes you want to keep going?
Well, this is a very committed lineup. There have been a lot of changes, and I think they were necessary to get point where we are now.
There’s a lot of love in this band, a lot of brotherhood. It’s cool. Everyone wants to be here. We’ve had to make sacrifices to do this tour. Iced Earth has only opened for four bands, and that’s not because we haven’t wanted to do more. The reason why we’re on this tour is because Michael and I are brothers. When you’re in a support slot, everyone has to take a pay cut — and some people didn’t want to do that, so you find out who is in this for the long haul.
I can’t raise people’s salaries until we start getting bigger. The exposure has to be more. This is an investment in our future. I know that, and so does everybody that’s here — but some people couldn’t handle it.
That’s why this line-up is great! And I hate to subgenre everything, but Volbeat, Hellyeah, and Iced Earth – that’s attracting three different crowds of people.
Yeah, it’s a great package. They’re cool people, all of them.
The Volbeat people are amazing and the Hellyeah guys are cool as shit. All of crews are getting along great and working together. It’s a cool thing.
Dystopia came out in 2011 to positive reviews with Stu Block on vocals. Many claimed it to be a return to Iced Earth’s core sound.
Where do you see the band’s sound headed when you guys get off the tour and start writing?
I think it is gonna… you know what, I never know how to answer that question. (laughs)
It’s always the natural next step, whatever that is. I think it’s going to be a similar approach in the song writing. Stu and I are an awesome team together — in the writing process, in the studio, on the road. I don’t see any need to change it because it works killer. We have a lot of fun together, sometimes too much fun together and we get ourselves in trouble. (laughs) We’re 120 shows into this thing, and Stu’s voice has been amazing every night and his work ethic is incredible. He’s a warrior. He’s committed to this shit. That’s really cool.
I think that – as far a creative thing – Dystopia still a fairly new record, so it’s kind of hard for me to start blowing up that bubble. I have some ideas, some musical ideas, but I don’t have a theme. That’s where things for me as a writer start to come together – when I come up with a theme for a record or how the artwork’s going to be, then it helps me create. We’re a little early for that.
I think in the fall, we’re going to start doing some stuff. I also have the DVD that we’re getting to film, so we have to do post-production for that – mix it, edit it, and all that stuff. I’ve got my hands full.
When will the DVD be out?
I think probably spring. We’re recording it and filming it too late to get it out for Christmas, so I imagine that it’s going to be February or March.
And then a new album?
Yeah, we’ll be focusing on a new album – but the cool thing is that we’ve got a lot of touring opportunities. We’re on the radar of other bands for support, which we need to do so we can grow. There’s some stuff that may happen that will obviously dictate what our schedule is for next year.
Iced Earth is headed to Europe for Bloodstock, right?
Yeah, we’ve got several festivals, and that’s one of them.
We’re doing some headlining shows in Ireland and Scotland. Then we’re doing the DVD on August 19, and then we have a break until December.
So, to get that word out there, what are your thoughts on the use of social media? Do you run your own Twitter accounts?
Um, no. (laughs) Should we? Yeah. probably.
I actually have a Twitter account that I use for Sons of Liberty (my solo thing) because that was more of an activist thing, but I just don’t use it very much anymore. All the other guys have Facebook accounts, but I don’t.
Are you just anti-Facebook?
Yeah, I’m pretty much anti-Facebook. I have one just to administer Sons of Liberty’s Facebook, but that’s just sharing information and that’s not rock star bullshit. It’s just about real issues that are going on. I’m into that.
The personal Facebook thing would just be another thing I would have to deal with that I really don’t want to. People know how to get in touch with me.
Do you think that’s a sign of the generational times?
Yeah, probably. I’m sure it is.
I also think it is part of the dehumanization that’s going on. I look around and people are fucking staring in their phones wherever you go. Nobody sits and talks. I mean I’ve seen couples go out for dinner and they’re both staring at their fucking phones. I’m like, “What’s wrong with you people?” I think it’s doing some damage.
We’ll see. All this new technology, it’s good and bad.
We’ll try to keep up the good side — thanks for talking with the Metalluminati, Jon!