Sabaton: The Battle of Identity

By Ruben Broers, Guus Timmermans and Floor Veldmeijer

Music has always been subject to technological change. When around 1860 the first recording of a music piece was made, it forced music to become a dual-efficient commodity: now both live and recorded music could be lucrative. With the invention of respectively the vinyl, the cassette and the CD, recorded music became a mass product. These two faces of music, live and recorded, were the two most defining and the most accessible ways of getting to know the musician that you love. Identification with the musician was done via the music itself and the relation was otherwise formed by interviews done by the mass media. The musician could still sustain their artistic lives with this double income.

However, the rising popularity of the internet in the last decade changed everything. The possibility of endlessly digitally copying music pushed the musical container into an artificial state and became superfluous. This change introduced the decline of the recording as a source of income. The illegal pirating of music killed one of the two revenue streams. The rise of streaming services thereafter compensated this fall-back but did that too little. Nowadays, recorded music isn’t a huge source of income anymore and musicians are predominantly relying on the commission earned by performing. This last development forced the musician to expand their horizons beyond music. Recorded music is nothing more than a sales pitch for the musician’s live shows nowadays. This is where they get their true revenue. To quote musicologist Keith Negus on this matter: Music is a means to another end rather than an end in itself.

In the modern digital age, the musician is relying more and more upon forming a (group)identity. The record companies are now commoditizing an identity via music. Nevertheless, this evolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the industry. With the help of the internet, getting close to an artist has never been so effortless. The proliferating use of social media actualizes a closer bond between the musician and their audience. This blog post will focus on a sense of identity contrived by working with YouTube as a storyboard, explaining notes the band made on their songs and other works, obtaining both a better connection with existing fans and building bridges to a broader audience with the help of the algorithms of the video service. The case study in this blogpost is built around Swedish metal band Sabaton, highly successful on musical platforms like Spotify, as well as on Youtube as historical storytellers. With this transcendence of the traditional borders of the media, they could be a blueprint for the future of interaction between musician and audience.

Through their music, Sabaton aims to tell the stories of historic battles, events, wars and soldiers. Because they do this through the perspective of the people, soldiers during WW1 for example, there is very little historical reflection on the subject matter. Because of this, and the subject matter itself, they had to defend themselves from accusations of nazism and rightwing sympathies. Although we will not focus on that, we wanted to mention it, because Sabaton does deal with very sensitive subjects in a way that does not appeal to everyone. For this blog post, however, let us move past this controversy and look at their content and music without moral or ethical judgement, but purely as a case study for the use of YouTube; because Sabaton uses YouTube in a very interesting way.

Sabaton has two channels: one is its regular music channel, the other is The Sabaton History Channel. On that channel they dive deeper into the subject matter of their music, explaining the history behind it, as well as some anecdotes about the creation of the song. This ‘show’ is hosted by Indy Neidell, a veteran of historical YouTube channels. The entire channel is a collaboration between TimeGhost, Neidell’s main channel, and Sabaton.

Through this collaboration, the music of Sabaton gets introduced to a whole new audience. An audience that might not be familiar with metal music, but who are interested enough in history to watch Neidell’s other channels, mainly the TimeGhost and World War Two channels. I say that because of how YouTube’s algorithm works: these channels are all linked as ‘Featured Channels’, a list of channels that the original channel wants to highlight. In a few videos of the World War Two channel, Neidell mentions his work for Sabaton History and implores viewers to go and watch that too. For these new viewers the band Sabaton is rooted in historical content, perhaps more than metal music. 

Broadening the audience is not the only thing that the band gets out of their interaction with Youtube, although it is the most interesting. They also have another way to connect to their existing fans, to earn more money through YouTube and Patreon, a crowdfunding platform built to provide artists with a stable income. This comes back to something that Negus wrote: “Yet, as the few, ever more oligopolistic, major corporations began to reposition themselves as music companies (seeking profits from multiple rights rather than dwindling income from record sales)”. The use of YouTube can be viewed as one way to supplement the dwindling income from record sales. 

Through the multiple YouTube channels Sabaton has, they have a global reach, in theory. This is hard to investigate since public statistics do not show the background of the viewers, but the comments on the videos can say a lot. One example, the official video for Bismarck, mostly has comments in English, but there are quite some comments using the Cyrillic alphabet. Even though the song is named after a German World War II battleship, it is not weird that most comments are in English, as that is the lingua franca on YouTube. But all of these Cyrillic comments date from two weeks ago or even later, while the video was posted in April 2019, and most of the comments seem to date from then. This could be because a year the Russian band Radio Tapok covered the Sabaton song Attack of the Dead Men, a song about a battle between Russian and German soldiers in Poland, and they also performed it together in May. Apparently, this attracted Russian-speaking fans to the Swedish band, fans they would not otherwise have attracted. The Russian video for this song has next to no English comments, and the English version has a relatively small amount of Russian comments, showing that the glocalised music might be spreading globally, but the audiences have not fully merged yet.

It seems that songs about battles or people from a certain country attract viewers from that same country. In the comments for many of these videos, you can find people praising their national heroes or lamenting that they do not receive enough attention worldwide or even in their home countries. This is visible in the Sabaton History video on war hero Leslie “Bull” Allen. I did not have to watch the video to find out Bull Allen’s nationality, as I could figure it out from the many comments starting with “As an Australian”. Looking at their tour dates, you can also see that they mainly tour the US and Europe, especially western and northern Europe, and these venues are rather large. Recently, Russia and other countries where Russian is also spoken have also been included in the tour locations. As their last album is solely about the First World War, it is unsurprising that countries that the Great War was fought in and remember it every year are also the countries that the tour was planned in. The only real outlier is the US since they did not include other nations that sent soldiers to die on the fronts of the First World War.  

Sabaton has worked very hard to become known for its niche of historical metal music. This identity resonates with a large audience, and their online presence and the topics they discuss seem to be attracting new audiences with every new location they sing about in their songs, and especially when they talk about in their history videos. It is noteworthy that many of the commenters on their YouTube videos seem to be from the country they are discussing in the video, suggesting that their audience is not as global as they might have hoped. This online audience does seem to translate into real-life concert attendees, as they are currently focussing on the areas which are featured on their albums. This can be seen as a smart marketing strategy and an easy way to find a niche in a large genre, or as underutilisation of metal music’s demographic. Though Sabaton might not be the only one to blame, as algorithms on platforms such as YouTube try to only suggest videos that they think the user will surely love, so it is not too remarkable that their videos seem to garner most fans in areas that they directly reference in their music. So if they wish to expand their audience, they will have to expand their song topics. With this, they could be a prime example of how musicians should interact with their audience in the digital era.

Sources

Cayari, Christopher, ‘’Connecting music education and virtual performance practices from YouTube’’, Music Education Research (2017) 1-17.

Gronow, Pekka, “The Record Industry: The Growth of a Mass Medium”, Popular Music, Vol. 3 (Cambridge 1983) 53–75.

Hargreaves. Miell & Macdonald, ‘’What are musical identities, and why are they important.’’, in: Macdonald, Musical Identities (Oxford 2002) 1-18.

Negus, Keith, ‘’From creator to data: the post-record music industry and the digital conglomerates Media’’, Culture & Society 2019, Vol. 41(3) (London 2019) 367– 384.

Rogers, Jim, The death & life of the music industry in the digital age (New York 2013).

Sabaton, https://www.sabaton.net/news/tour-shows/the-great-tour-is-coming-to-europe-early-2020/

Sabaton looks back on Nazi Controversy: Sabaton News. Anti-Music https://www.antimusic.com/news/16/August/ts18Sabaton_Look_Back_On_Nazi_Controversy.shtml

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