As far as the recording industry is concerned the popularity of any song is based on the purchasing power and attention span of the core demographic. Still nay-saying? Consider what radio formats exist today and if there are any formats dedicated to metal, hardcore, punk, etc. Sure there are radio stations that play heavier music outside of popular music, but it's relegated to late night slots at a college radio station.
As metal died towards the end of the eighties we had Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax that represented the 'Big 4' of metal bands. When these bands started out they each made a distinct mark on metal - with Metallica being the popular example of Bay Area thrash; Mustaine's departure from Metallica came Megadeth as the rival feud; Slayer as the extreme end of thrash; and Anthrax representing East Coast metal.
There were plenty of bands outside of the Big 4 that saw moderate to good success but the problem with a small business segment is that there is only so much room for competing products. When the metal scene became popular, bands seemed to suddenly appear playing similar material and eventually what started as a proliferation of metal became a saturation of metal and the bloated segment in music became unsustainable in the market. There simply were too many damn metal bands that didn't offered anything new, and to make it worse the scene was beginning to fragment and divide into different camps of metal.
The end of the eighties was when metal and hard rock cemented their symbiotic relationship. Guns N' Roses' Appetite foe Destruction was released in 1987 to obscurity until David Geffen asked favors to include the record's first single, Welcome to Jungle which had an accompanying video to be included in MTV's late night rotation. This was the defining moment when video became as important as the single it's self in a band's survivability in music merchandising and advertising. So important was it that MTV began the Best Rock Video category at their annual MTV Video Music Awards in 1989 with Guns 'N Roses' Sweet Child 'o Mine as the winner up against Aerosmith, Def Leppard, and Metallica. The inclusion of the category helped break in heavier music to the masses.
The beginning of the nineties mourned the death of metal, but really it was an inevitable end that had to occur in order to force it underground where it could be rediscovered among new blood with new ears and new ideas. During this transition, rock birthed the weird off spring that is Alternative, which had an impact on future musicians that was to become the next generation of metal and hardcore songwriters. Until the nineties it was faux pas to listen to metal and popular music which stunted the growth of metal for years, but with metal submerging underground again, it fostered a new scene with new rules. Alternative bands such as Alice in Chains and Sound Garden, who had heavy sounding guitars blended with pop sensible-yet-metal-ish vocals, helped the paradigm shift in the attitude towards what became acceptable in heavy music.
As the nineties progressed we saw new acts added to rosters of metal labels like Road Runner and Metal Blade, with bands such as Machine Head, Candiria, and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Major labels were signing heavier bands occasionally to tout them as 'alternative metal' and 'nu-metal' along the way. It was these bands in the nineties that were the front runners that changed the way heavy music was perceived. Without the Big 4 poisoning it's progeny that desperately tried to fit an already overflowing mold of what the major label audience wanted them to sound like, music again took precedence and gave way to creativity over profit.
Now we have to let metal percolate in the melting pot of music and watch it change into something new, bringing in the next generation of musicians to write and play songs that become the anthem of the moment. We will have to wait another decade for that to happen. In the meantime, we will be taking a look at what else is happening in heavy music outside of metal in Part II.