The economics of heavy metal music

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The economics of heavy metal music

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Economics can be used to study almost anything, including popular music. For example, the late Alan Krueger analyzed the music industry, examining live concert revenue, copyright protection, and streaming services in the book Rockonomics. Similarly, economics can offer insights about heavy metal specifically, a type of rock music characterized by loud distorted guitars, intense rhythms, and powerful vocal styles.

Cultural goods

Heavy metal is an example of a cultural good. Cultural goods, like books, art, and music, can be studied using the standard tools of economics, such as supply and demand. Yet, cultural goods have unique characteristics that require further examination.

Cultural goods embody aspects of both experience goods and information goods. Assessing their quality without experiencing them is challenging, as their value lies in the information they contain rather than in tangible commodities that are more easily compared. As a consequence, heavy metal music relies on word-of-mouth advertising within underground social networks to build a following. Quality signals, like fans wearing band T-shirts and posting on social media platforms, contribute to the genre’s growth, even amidst fluctuations in commercial popularity.

Cultural goods like heavy metal music also generate positive externalities, meaning they produce value beyond private consumption. Heavy metal music helps develop social cohesion among its dedicated fanbase, and it inspires future musicians. These types of positive externalities are a common feature of cultural goods; part of their value is in helping groups of like-minded people form communities. On the other hand, cultural goods can also produce negative externalities, as not everyone will appreciate the noise pollution of their neighbor blaring death metal around the clock.

Rock band concert.

Image credit: Pixabay.

Superstar theory

Another way to consider the distinct attributes of cultural goods is to apply Sherwin Rosen’s superstar theory. Rosen (1981) demonstrated why a small number of top performers appropriate the majority of the earnings in certain industries like music, art and professional sports.

We can apply this theory to heavy metal by considering two American thrash metal bands that became popular in the 1980s: Anthrax and Metallica. Both bands have a similar style and sound, but Metallica has a slight edge over Anthrax in terms of catchy, memorable melodies. In other words, they are imperfect substitutes.

As the superstar theory suggests, this small difference in quality results in a large difference in earnings thanks to recording and amplification technology that allows for economies of scale. Packed stadiums and global album distribution allowed Metallica to become a household name with an estimated $1 billion dollar net worth in 2023. Meanwhile Anthrax, still considered one of the “Big Four” thrash metal bands (together with Megadeth and and Slayer), has a net worth of only $39 million. This “winner-takes-all” dynamic helps explain why it is challenging for the majority of metal musicians to make a living from their craft.  

Globalization and economic growth

Heavy metal originated from the industrial landscape of post-war Birmingham, England, with pioneering bands Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in the late 1960s. Their influence has since crossed borders, reaching nearly every country in the world. However, the number of heavy metal bands is distributed unevenly across countries.

industrial machines.

Image credit: rorozoa on

These days, most metal music is produced in high income nations with the best access to healthcare and education. In particular, Finland had the highest ratio of heavy metal bands per 100,000 residents in 2021 and 2022. Since heavy metal is a highly technical and virtuosic style of music, it requires significant human capital investment. And, because the likelihood of success is lower compared to other industries, pursuing a career in heavy metal is more feasible in countries with strong social safety nets and opportunities for advanced musical training.

Thus, it is not surprising that most metal bands now originate from countries with higher standards of living. Nonetheless, this change in economic circumstances shaped the evolution of metal music. While it once was primarily a reflection of working class struggles, it has become more diverse and intellectual, with over 25 distinct sub-genres including progressive metal, symphonic metal, and folk metal.

Technological change

Technology is an important driver of economic growth, but it also changes how we produce and consume cultural goods.The music industry radically changed in the shift from physical media like vinyl records, tapes, and CDs to digital formats accessed via the internet. Heavy metal was at the epicenter of this transformation in 1999 with the landmark case Metallica vs. Napster Inc.

Napster was a peer-to-peer file sharing program developed to facilitate the transfer of high quality digital music files, called MP3s. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich became an outspoken opponent of the service after an unfinished version of the song “I Disappear,” recorded for the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack, was leaked to Napster. Ulrich argued that Napster made Metallica’s entire catalog of music available for free without asking for permission, prompting Metallica to sue for over $10 million in copyright infringement damages.

The lawsuit raised new concerns about the role of technology and the scope of intellectual property laws for recorded music, and set a precedent for future legal proceedings and industry practices. Napster settled with Metallica and ceased operations in 2001, though they were quickly replaced by other similar services. Because Metallica had originally gained notoriety, in part, through underground tape trading, their actions were seen by metal fans as hypocritical.

Ultimately, improvements in internet speed made streaming more convenient, essentially lowering the price of music relative to the costs of piracy. Looking back, file sharing was likely beneficial for underground music like heavy metal, because it allowed the music to propagate in countries where it was otherwise inaccessible due to religious laws and authoritarian control of cultural goods.


The example of heavy metal economics is a fun application that can help spark student interest in economics. Importantly, it serves as a reminder that art and culture are inextricably linked with economic circumstances, highlighting the impact that market forces can have on creative expression.


Krueger, A. B. (2019). Rockonomics: A backstage tour of what the music industry can teach us about economics and life. Penguin Random House.

Rosen, S. (1981). The economics of superstars. The American Economic Review, 71(5), 845-858.

Header image credit: Pixabay.

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