Tour & Destroy: The Case For Metallica As The World’s Biggest Touring Act

Metallica: Tour And Destory
Brett Murray
– Metallica: Tour And Destory

Metallica is a touring force of nature. Not only did the band pioneer and refine a style of heavy metal that continues to inspire generations of fans and musicians 38 years after they first began, but the stalwart foursome has retained and even continued to gain relevance as a high-octane touring band, headlining stadiums and arenas and setting touring records at will across the globe while showing no sign of slowing down. 

Making the case for Metallica as the biggest all-time touring band is not difficult. The numbers speak for themselves: according to Pollstar Boxoffice, Metallica sold nearly 22.1 million total tickets and grossed some $1.4 billion since 1982, dwarfing huge rock bands of the era including AC/DC (14.3 million tickets) and Ozzy Osbourne (10 million, 13.2 if counting Ozzy plus Black Sabbath). The closest competitor on dollars grossed is Guns N’ Roses, with nearly $800 million grossed largely thanks to the band’s mammoth “Not In This Lifetime” reunion tour. 
Those 22.1 million tickets puts them in select company, including just behind the one and only U2 – which until recently held the all-time touring record on its “360” run – solidifying Metallica’s rightful place as one of the biggest bands in the world, and still growing. Over the past five years alone, the band’s headline touring business puts them in a class with not only U2, but The Rolling Stones as well as newcomers like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. However, when accounting for the reach of Metallica’s business – which includes breaking a slew of attendance records on their current tour clear to Moscow – while playing 48 countries and every single continent (including Antarctica) over the course of their career, fervent and rabid merch consumption totaling $125 million in North America since the Black Album and into the high teens per-head on its latest touring, and the band’s road touring with no-gimmick reunion or farewell announcement necessary to drum up extra business – and Metallica may just be the biggest band in the world.
“I keep thinking and forcing myself to think all our best years are still ahead of us. We may even turn professional and do this full time one day,” jokes original Metallica drummer and oft-spokesman Lars Ulrich. “That’s the MO.  It’s always, ‘What’s your favorite record?’ It’s the next one, the one we haven’t recorded yet. it’s always about the possibilities, always about what can be, what’s coming. That, to me, is what this is all about and I think that attitude is a big part of the why Metallica still connects to so many people around the world.”
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Pollstar reached the Metallica founding member just before the band’s opening night “S&M2” concerts at the spectacular new Chase Center in the band’s San Francisco hometown. Those Sept. 6 and 8 shows add to the attendance records broken on the current “WorldWired” tour that kicked off in late 2016, with dizzying numbers across the globe – from The O2 in London (two nights at 20,500-plus) to KFC Yum Center in Louisville (23,084) to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium (64,232). 
The total estimated gross for the tour is a gargantuan $430 million on 4.1 million tickets including the Chase Center shows, and continues with South American stadium dates in April.
Many bands would be resting on their laurels nearly 30 years after the massive success of their 1991 behemoth release, the untitled but universally referred-to Black Album that sold some 30 million copies worldwide. But Metallica, particularly in terms of its touring, remains in a class by itself.
(Photo: Ross Halfin)

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“How did that happen? The natural order of things is you have your peak, it’s hard to match it, you decline, somebody else comes and takes the crown away and that’s just the way it’s been in music forever,” says Q Prime head Cliff Burnstein, who along with Peter Mensch has managed Metallica since 1984. “How interesting is it that Metallica, taking that 1991 as a starting point even though that was their fifth album, here we are 28 years later and the band is huge. Nobody has eclipsed Metallica.”
The band hatched a perfect blend of heavy rock, borrowing from heavy punk bands at the time for early chugging hits like “Seek And Destroy” from their 1983 debut LP Kill ‘Em All, and quickly evolved into something grander, bolstering an already-compelling heavy thrash with infectious vocal melody and triumphant and majestic flair, leading to crushing, anthemic metal masterpieces riddled through 1984’s Ride The Lightning and 1986’s Master of Puppets, a stark contrast and breath of fresh air amid the popular hair metal and synth-infused pop of the era.
The momentum continued to build as the band solidified its place among the greats with the technically accomplished and mechanical onslaught heard on 1988’s …And Justice For All, capping a run that culminated with the breakout commercial success of 1991’s Black Album that brought the infectious “Enter Sandman,” whose menacing minor opening guitar lick has surely joined staples like “Stairway To Heaven” and “Smoke On The Water” as songs banned by Guitar Center employees.
“We could tour off the first five albums forever,” Burnstein admits.  “But would we have the same staying power? Would there be an erosion of interest if we didn’t have new things to put in front of people from time to time? Would the band be as engaged if they didn’t have the goal of putting out new material to play? I don’t think so. These guys are highly creatively motivated. Hardwired will not be their last album by any means. Albums may come at great intervals, but they’re always thinking about new material.”
And, of course, the band has remained extremely active and relevant on the recording side since that Black Album commercial peak, with ubiquitous hits from 1997’s Reload like “The Memory Remains,” high-profile covers like “Turn The Page” by Bob Seger, the ambitious S&M Symphony and Metallica project in 1999, creative experiments like St. Anger and the Lou Reed collaboration Lulu, to a back-to-roots of sorts joining with Rick Rubin for 2008’s Death Magnetic, and the heralded Hardwired To Self Destruct released in late 2016.

Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Ride The Lightning: Metallica backbones James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett playing Toyko circa 1986, already a global force and having released what would become landmark metal classics.

While too many major rock groups have re-formed after long periods for major worldwide tours, made a splash with farewell tours (sometimes to come back again later…) or done mega-packages to pack ’em in, Metallica has been a consistent juggernaut, headlining stadiums on its own dating back into the late ‘80s.
Asked to explain the band’s appeal, Ulrich pauses.“It starts and ends with a song and everything else is secondary,” Ulrich says. “We write songs that we’re fortunate enough that people connect to, the music, the story, the lyric. Part of the magic is that when music really, really works, people make up their own version of what it is that works for them.” 
Case in point is the band’s longtime agent outside the U.S. “The first time I saw the band was when I had them appearing on Monsters of Rock at Donington Park on a lineup headlined by ZZ Top,” says K2 agency head John Jackson, who’s worked with the band since 1985, when the festival featured decidedly non-metal artists such as Bon Jovi, Ratt, and Marillion. “And I remember Lars Ulrich’s skinny legs in his black spandex. I remember my first conversations with the promoter in trying to persuade him to book the band. In a very strange Birmingham accent, he said, ‘You’ve fucking got no chance.’ But I kept at it.”
Jackson’s persistence paid off, and it became a big moment in the band’s blossoming career. “There are shows that can break a band to the next level, and that certainly was. The manner in which they took on that audience, and I mean took it on, they just stormed over there and crashed into the crowd, really setting their mark and showing what’s going to happen in the future. Here comes Metallica.”
The band’s longevity has led to, and perhaps been formed by, loyalty, with many on the team going back decades including longtime concert promoters at Frank Productions, Larry and Fred Frank based in Wisconsin.
“They probably have the best of the best in regards to the team, whether from the security guy to the rigger, to their own traveling catering to the person that oversees the touring, it’s a team that’s been together a long time,” Fred Frank says, adding there’s “not been a lot of changes in that camp.”
That loyalty translates to the fans as well, as is clearly demonstrated during the band’s performances.
“Every night the video screens will come down and the screens are different with memorabilia from when they played that market before,” Frank adds. “They have images of tickets from 20 years ago, newspaper ads from 18 years ago, archives of stuff they’ve kept while traveling these umpteen years. It’s mind blowing and tells you how important it is to them.”
That’s not the only way the band gives back, with longtime charitable efforts and now through its 2017-formed All Within My Hands foundation dedicated to creating sustainable communities by supporting workforce education and the fight against hunger, which has donated $2 million to local nonprofits already.  
“They’ve been donating to local food banks privately for many, many years, every city they go into they leave some money behind for a local charity, usually food banks,” says Vickie Strate, who is head of the band’s million-strong Met Club fan club and oversees the band’s social media and website channels. “When the band said they wanted to go out and spread the word and get more exposure for these issues, the question was how do we get the fans involved?”
Enter the annual Day Of Service, which this past May 22 the band partnered with more than 50 food banks where volunteer shifts are filled solely by Metallica fans, who received T-Shirts and other perks for helping out. 
“The best part is that a lot of times the food banks report to us that the fans have come back multiple times,” Strate says.   
– Metallica
WorldWired indoor show.

The band puts its money where its mouths are, too, announcing in August that more than €1.5 million ($1.65 million) was donated to local charities on its most recent European tour leg, and has launched the Metallica Scholars program, donating $100,000 to each of 10 community colleges, $1 million in total, toward boosting job training and trade skills for students. Roughly 1,000 students will benefit from the program as the first Metallica Scholars.

Metallica’s roots are important, as demonstrated during its hometown opening of the brand-new 18,000-capacity Chase Center in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district, with a 20-year anniversary of the band’s “Symphony & Metallica” concert. 
The initial show sold out so fast and fans were so disappointed that a second was added – fanclub only, as the demand was so high that diehards from across the globe made their way to the Bay Area, but not everyone was lucky enough to snag a ticket. 
“When they put tickets on sale, the demand was unbelievable. I’ve been here for 20 years and don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that,” Strate says of the first Chase Center show. “But we had a lot of disappointed fanclub members, people who wanted to travel from all over the world and couldn’t get tickets. 
“Collectively, the band and management said what are we going to do here?  We ultimately ended up running a contest or enter-to-win where everyone had the same chance.”  
Longtime fanclub members were given the first-chance for floor seats; otherwise everyone had the same chance to win tickets in a fair and transparent way. 
Obviously, the tickets wouldn’t be so hot if the band wasn’t revered for its enduring live show. A big part of that is yet another person who’s been with the band since the early days. Although he started his relationship with the band as a promoter in the mid-’80s, joking that he couldn’t get radio stations to give away tickets for a few club shows in Wisconsin (they all sold out anyway), Dan Braun has been with the band as its show director for 25 years.
“We get to go out and try to take a 20,000-seat arena and make it feel as intimate as possible,” Braun says. “How close can we make it to a nightclub? You look at photos from this show and you almost can’t see the separation of the barricade from the audience to the stage, which was a particular goal of mine. How close can we get James to the audience in a safe and practical environment?”  
Always known for staging and production innovations such as the stadium “Snake Pit” section giving diehard fans an enclosed, up-close experience on the Black Album tour in the early-’90s, the band’s current leg continued that tradition, with huge LED video cubes above and hundreds of Verity drones swarming the space above the band. 
Metallica WorldWired aerial
– Metallica WorldWired aerial

“The reveal for the show, the Kabuki drop if you will, is when the audience steps into the arena and looks in and wonders ‘Uhhh where’s all the stuff?” Braun says of the up-close and personal stage design, crediting Tait Towers, Meyer Sound and the rest of the creative team. “James had been fascinated with drones for a long time, so we had the opportunity to use some safe and reliable drones and the folks at Tait Towers made all of that work, and they had the song called ‘Moth Into Flame,’ so it all worked out. 
We certainly took it to the next level and we pushed them and helped them discover some new things about their products too.” Long innovators, Braun says he believes Metallica doesn’t get the credit it deserves in the production realm. “I personally believe in my heart that the biggest change in staging since the Romans took the Greek stage and put it on an elevated platform was Peter Mensch putting an audience inside the stage with the ‘Snake Pit.’ This was a heavy band, in 1991 putting the audience inside the stage to be closer to the audience. They get very little credit and are very humble about it, but they’ve done more things that have been copied by people, and it’s been a joy to work with them.”
One of the things that keeps the show exciting for the band as well as the fans is not doing the same setlist any night, but that means rehearsal for the band, which has its own dedicated “Tuning Room” space in the bowels of a venue to work out any songs they may not have done together in a while, as well as Braun and the production team being able to work on the fly, too.
“You’re really building two or three tours and then planning on the audibles,” Braun says, adding that as many as 70 different songs could be played during one tour leg. “Certainly for the guys operating the tour every night, Rob [Kanning, lighting director] and Gene [McAuliffe, video director] and our video people and the spotlight folks, there’s definitely no sleeping at the switch because Lars [who crafts the setlist] will keep it interesting every night, and I think that’s great for the audience.”
Also keeping it interesting for the band is playing new markets and reaching new fans, something Metallica continues to do despite hitting all seven continents (capped off with a private gig in Antarctica in 2016).
“What’s happening in Latin America over the last five years is crazy, what’s happening in places like Southeast Asia is crazy, what’s happening in Eastern Europe –  it’s unbelievable we can go into a place like Estonia and play to 60,000 people, and it’s just incredible what the energy is, the event itself and how appreciative they are that you come there,”  Ulrich says. It’s really cool that that can still happen. As long as that keeps happening, we’ll keep doing it.”
The band has taken a somewhat official two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off touring approach that has led to a happy medium for all involved, Ulrich says. It also helps to keep the shows varied from year to year. 
“The touring environment is just so much healthier than it was, and the festival experience means you can sort of rotate between playing indoors, arena-level shows, stadium shows and then you can play festivals so we quite comfortably rotate between those different experiences,” Ulrich says, adding that it keeps fans as well as the band excited and prevents burnout.
“We’re doing it for the right reasons, which is that we want to rather than have to, which obviously makes a big difference. Over the last 10 years we’ve finally found out the model that’s working or us,” he adds. 
The model surely works, as longtime agents at Artist Group International Dennis Arfa and Adam Kornfeld, can attest. 
“I think Metallica may be the biggest band in the world,” says Arfa, who heads AGI. “Not only are they a stadium attraction, but they sell out in secondary and tertiary markets where you wouldn’t see many artists playing at all. The fact they can do the type of business they do all over the world – the two biggest apparel pieces in the world are a Yankees hat and a Metallica T-shirt. This isn’t a 10-year phenomenon, this is a stadium band since the mid-’90s and they have continued to win on the biggest levels, with $6 million-plus grosses.” 
Ross Halfin
– Metallica
The band’s lineup since 2003: bassist Robert Trujillo, guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist and singer James Hetfield.

Kornfeld, the band’s agent at AGI for the last 25 years, adds, “They are really rewriting the book on what you can make on touring and merchandise. It’s been incredible and only continues to grow.”
Continuing the momentum doesn’t seem to be a problem, with the well-oiled metal machine taking care of itself, fans and its business. 
“We basically wrote a six-year plan to cover the world,” Burnstein adds. “We haven’t gotten to some of these things yet, and sometimes there’s a surprise like the S&M redux, but we don’t over-tour, we keep people fresh and realize everybody needs to recover.”
Ulrich says the band has become something bigger than himself or his colleagues.
“To me, as I grow a little older, I used to say, ‘Metallica, man, that’s James and I and Kirk and Rob, we are Metallica and Metallica belongs to us and you don’t fuck with Metallica,’” Ulrich says. “I don’t think like that at all anymore. I think that Metallica is all of us, and Metallica belongs to everyone. Metallica is more like a state of mind or ethereal position or situation. Nobody owns Metallica. It’s a place we go and a place we escape to and a place where we can feel better about who we are and connect to other people and to the fucking universe.”