An Unpopular Take on the Wintersun vs Nuclear Blast Debate
I’m sure that by now many of you have read all about the recent Wintersun vs Nuclear Blast public blowout and have come to form an opinion aligning towards one side or another. Even if you aren’t a fan of the band, its been an interesting debate to behold —- and wow is it a debate. On Facebook, on Twitter, and on various popular metal sites fans are saber rattling back and forth and with varying levels of vitriol, or in some cases, sarcastic apathy. That its such a huge headline is a testament to Wintersun’s popularity within metal worldwide, as well as a barometer for the passion of their fans. Most of the comments I’ve read have been leaning in support towards the Jari Mäenpää / Wintersun camp, with blasts of venom directed at Nuclear Blast and in particular their unapologetic response. That’s to be expected of course, given the now mythic rock n’ roll parable of bands being screwed by the suits at the label —- and also, you don’t usually find die-hard fans of a record label, let alone those willing to defend it at every turn. But there are a few things being overlooked in the discussions surrounding this issue and I feel the need to point them out. To better understand the delays behind Time II, its worth taking a look back at the production delays of its predecessor.
Nuclear Blast’s response to Mäenpää ‘s allegations that the label is the cause for Time II’s delay can best be characterized as being rather patient. They really could have nailed him to the wheel by revealing facts and figures about their level of financial commitment to Wintersun over the years. In case you needed refreshing, Wintersun released their debut on Nuclear Blast in 2004, and then proceeded to take eight long years to produce a follow-up. Emphasis on the word produce, because the saga that was the making of Time I revolved around Mäenpää’s penchant for turning studio perfectionism into procrastination. Remember that the album was half finished in an actual recording studio with drums, bass, and guitars recorded by the time the initial November 2006 release date passed. This was a band making progress, even while suffering from an initial delay —- which was understandable and generally accepted by their fans at the time. Mäenpää however insisted that the synths, guitar solos, and vocals would be finished at his own home studio, and so the years began to trickle by. The next major update came when Mäenpää went public about needing a more powerful computer to handle all the orchestrations he was layering, and as we’ve found out since, Nuclear Blast provided the additional funding for this equipment. By the time Mäenpää had finally managed to progress to the mixing phase, it was late 2011, and yet another year would pass until its release in October of 2012.
In all this time spent waiting for that release, Wintersun’s popularity blossomed and echoed, their debut continued to sell well, particularly in South America and Japan. The continued recording delays however made it difficult to take advantage of that popularity through touring (the odd one-off festival appearance aside), and so tangible income was virtually non-existent. Most labels wouldn’t pony up for tour support in the wake of a declining music industry, much less so for a band whose new album was now perennially delayed —- particularly when they had already reinvested in its recording costs. Its hard to fault Nuclear Blast for Time I‘s near decade long delay, as by all accounts they lived up to their end of the bargain. Mäenpää himself said as much in an interview with Radio Metal:
Of course they gave me some hard times! (laughs) With good intentions, though. But they believed in me and in our band, and they supported us as much as they could. Of course they couldn’t give a 100,000€ budget, because we’re still a very small metal band. It was just impossible to give us millions! (laughs) But they definitely helped us as much as they could all these years. They always helped me get the new equipment and the new computers I needed.
In the same interview, Mäenpää claims that most of the delays were due to technical problems with the recording process, particularly in the lack of computer processing power. He admits to being naive at the start of the recording process in thinking that he could do everything at home on his own home computer:
I was a bit naive at the beginning. I didn’t realize that making those orchestrations would take so much computer power. Actually, I didn’t have much experience, or any experience at all, to record music with computers. After the first album, I got my first computer programs and sample libraries, and I started learning on the go. I learned quickly, but I also realized quickly that this stuff needs a lot of power! These orchestrations are usually made with much bigger computers, like those soundtrack composers use, like ten computers linked together. I could only afford one computer, and I had to work with that. It was time-consuming, the process was very slow. It took a lot of time.
If you read the above quote and immediately thought to yourself, “Well why didn’t he just cut his losses and go back into a professional recording studio with knowledgeable engineers who could help him get what he wanted?”, you are not alone. Mäenpää knew going into Time I‘s recording process that his songs were meant to be long, complex, and requiring massive layers of keyboard orchestration, yet his whole approach to the recording process was backwards. As many metal bands with symphonic elements to their music have already known, a home studio is best for tracking rough demos of songs, crafting rudimentary keyboard sketches for future symphonic elements, and occasionally even recording album quality bass and guitar work. Drums are best recorded at a professional studio, and there the rough homemade keyboard sketches can now be translated into studio quality keyboard orchestrations with a professional at the helm of software and hardware designed to handle it. Mäenpää failed to understand that basic, common sense laden schematic and allowed a measure of self-delusion and grandeur to lead him to believe that he could accomplish an orchestral production with little to zero skills as a recording engineer. Okay, so the album finally came out, and one could look back on that experience and say “Lesson learned”. Incredibly, Mäenpää is all too eager to repeat history with Time II, insisting on being allowed to handle the production all by himself yet again.
His demand to Nuclear Blast is for the label to fund the construction of a full-time Wintersun studio (as opposed to the apartment based home recording studio he used for Time I). Mäenpää elaborates on the reasons why in his statement:
Building a professional studio for Wintersun would give us the freedom to make music nonstop. It would upgrade our album sound significantly and most importantly speed up the album making process significantly. This would even raise our live game. With proper pre-production, able to tweak our live sounds and setup properly we would sound pretty incredible live. We would also be able to rehearse more and that would allow us to be able to play live more often and come to places where we normally have not been able to come. The studio would allow us to have more time for everything.
That only sounds reasonable if you aren’t aware of Mäenpää’s history with self-recording, and even then barely so —- the costs of building a recording studio from scratch are incredibly high. You’re talking about purchasing or leasing a building, buying multiple computers with high powered processing capability, hard drives galore, numerous speakers, guitar rigs/cabinets, recording consoles (go ahead and Google some prices), soundproofing construction work for a drum room, a practice room (presumably, since he’s talking about using the place for live rehearsals/pre-production), and installing security systems (because duh). Nuclear Blast understandably denied this request, and there are rumors that they had already paid Mäenpää the recording budget for Time II in full (where did that money go?). As these concerns have been leaked to fans, someone of course suggested a Kickstarter campaign. We aren’t privy to the details of Wintersun’s record contract, but its likely that a Kickstarter campaign would violate a few things. Nuclear Blast does have a business model they typically adhere to, and its hard to fault them for sticking to it in this case. I see it this way: They are the company that have invested monetarily in Wintersun and getting the fruits of that investment has proven to be way more difficult than needs be. Why should they allow Mäenpää a contract-breaking, risk free way out of the debt they have incurred on his behalf? This is a business after all.
Consider the recording history of another Nuclear Blast artist in Therion, who have been with the label since the release of 1995’s Lepaca Kliffoth. If you’re unfamiliar with their music, Therion create heavily symphonic, organically recorded string-drenched metal with a variety of male/female backing choir vocals. One listen to any one of their albums post 1995 will give you a general idea of the complexity that is involved in the recording process of a Therion album, but before I give you a more specific example, consider this: Therion’s recording strategy over the early years of their deal with Nuclear Blast was fragmented into specific goals, the largest of which was the continual construction of their own recording studio, Modern Art, which was achieved over time by directing portions of their recording budgets towards its creation over the course of many years and albums. They bet on themselves and their continual touring that they’d sell enough of each album to repay Nuclear Blast every time, and they did.
Other successful metal bands also worked hard at achieving similar goals in business relationships, such as Blind Guardian (with Virgin Records Germany) who established their own Twilight Hall studio over many years and continue to record there today. Back to Therion, their success at this strategy culminated in Nuclear Blast giving them a 100,000 Euro budget for the recording of their 2004 twin albums Sirius B and Lemuria. The sessions for these albums included a total of over 170 musicians including a full symphony and various operatic vocalists, a wide variety of different musical instruments, as well as a few special studios to record those specific elements in. The main recording work was of course done at their home base of Modern Art studios. Two albums delivered in one recording process that took an amazingly short nine months and cost less than Mariah Carey’s in-studio catering budget. Oh, and they’re both masterpieces that make Time I‘s production sound like child’s play.
That’s how you do it, that’s the blueprint right there. You don’t take eight years to deliver your second album, and then publicly call out your record company for not plunking down a truckload of cash for a recording studio (that would cost far more than 100,000 Euros). You continually release a series of albums in a reasonable amount of time, tour furiously in between each, and grow your band as a small business that can repay the investments made by your record company while saving for your own investments (like a recording studio). You get with the program and realize that there are many professional recording studios where many well known symphonic metal bands like Nightwish, Kamelot, and Avantasia (to name a few obvious choices) go to get some fairly spectacular results. There are skilled engineers and producers that can work with you can help you achieve what you want —- Miro Rodenberg from The Gate studios in Germany comes to mind —- and most importantly, they can help you achieve it in a time frame you can afford. I want to know about all the meetings that Nuclear Blast had with Mäenpää where they tried to persuade him to let a professional studio and engineer help him finish. Labels have relationships with those studios, there’s a rapport and trust there built on past experiences. Mäenpää could’ve had his studio by now if he wasn’t consumed by his own nitpicking need for perfectionism and control. You tell me if I’m being unreasonable.
Having said all that, I’ll freely admit that I do enjoy Wintersun’s music, and I want to see the release of Time II happen, but I can’t in good conscience agree with what Mäenpää or his fans are asking for here. It would set an incredibly damaging precedent for Nuclear Blast to agree to a Wintersun kickstarter campaign, as well as painting them in a poor light business wise within industry circles. If your impression of the people at Nuclear Blast is one of suits and accountants, I’d suggesting getting a grip on some perspective. Yes they have a business to run but if they were really all about the money, they wouldn’t be in the heavy metal business would they? I think that the people at that label are pretty similar to most of us, they’re metal fans who happened to love it enough to make a career of it. I’ll receive no benefits for siding with Nuclear Blast on this issue believe me, and some of you will vehemently disagree with my stance —- I’m fine with that. If you’re an agitated fan who was previously venting their anger at Nuclear Blast for what you see as an injustice, I’d like to think I’ve given you something to chew on. I look forward to talking more Wintersun in 2020!