It didn’t surprise Missy Williams to hear that as many as 300 people showed up on a Thursday night in Rhode Island to see Great White, a band that hasn’t had a hit record since the late 1980s.
“People still love these bands, and when they perform, the fans come out of the woodwork,” said Williams, a loan processor for a Santa Rosa, Calif., mortgage company who runs a website called “Hair Metal Queen.” “The people who go to those shows aren’t just there because they want to go to a show. They really want to be there.”
Without radio airplay, recent hits, or videos in heavy rotation, so-called “hair metal” bands such as Great White have managed to continue their musical careers. Out of the spotlight and under the mainstream radar, they play hundreds of shows a year for still- devoted fans in small clubs such as The Station, the West Warwick, R.I., venue where a pyrotechnics-fueled fire Thursday night killed at least 95 people.
“A lot of people don’t know these bands are still touring. We have a roster of what we call heritage acts, and they’re very viable,” said Obi Steinman of STC Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based company that manages such ‘80s metal stalwarts as Warrant, Slaughter, and L.A. Guns. “Some of the bigger bands like Poison still make millions every year, and bands like Warrant and Great White do very, very well. They play everything from 400- to 500-capacity clubs, and in the summer we do everything from 2,000- to 20,000-seat arenas and festivals.”
A substantial portion of Great White’s fan base dates to the band’s late-1980s heyday, when the group scored three Top 40 hits, including its biggest, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy.”
“If I’m a 20-year-old music fan in 1988 and I enjoyed that band, bought their music, and went to their concerts, 15 years later that’s not likely to change. I think that speaks to the demographic right there,” said Keith Hastings, programming director for rock station WAAF-FM (107.3), which used to play music by bands such as Great White in the 1980s.
“Whereas 15 years ago they were doing large arenas, now they’re doing 500- or 600-seat clubs,” he said. “But there’s definitely a market out there, and there’s definitely a fan base.”
That fan base was evident at Rock Fest 2002, an annual show sponsored by Los-Angeles based Metal Edge magazine. Last summer’s tour, featuring the vintage bands Dokken, Ratt, Warrant, Fire house, and L.A. Guns, played more than 40 cities for crowds ranging from 2,000 to 20,000. Great White had been scheduled for this year’s tour, according to Steinman.
Fans of veteran metal bands range from “15 to 40 years old,” Steinman said. “Last summer we were very pleasantly surprised that younger kids were coming out.”
At 27, Williams might be among the younger of those fans, but she’s been hooked on the music since an older relative introduced her to the Bulletboys when she was 13. In recent years, she has attended concerts by vintage bands such as Tesla, Poison, and Faster Pussycat.
“I listen to other stuff, but these bands are still my favorite,” she said. “I got into these bands when I was a kid, and it’s part of my youth. The music is great, and they know how to put on a great show.”
Paul Gargano, executive editor of Metal Edge, said that at Poison concerts last summer, he saw “just as many kids in Slipknot shirts [celebrating a contemporary act] as Poison shirts.” While ‘80s metal bands aren’t topping the charts anymore, they have remained reliable concert draws, he said.
“Popular culture deals with what sells the most and what will get people to turn on the TV, and Great White hasn’t been that for 15 years,” Gargano said. “People look at who’s selling records, but they don’t look at who’s selling concert tickets. And one thing that’s been consistent for the past 10 years - the one subgenre you can count on to make money on the road - has been the ‘80s bands. Poison has played sold-out shows four summers in a row, with one new record.”
Veteran bands, Gargano said, generally “put on a better show than many new bands do. They were raised in such a competitive live market, they know how to compete. These bands know how to put on a show and give people something for their money. Would you rather see a show with pyro or without pyro? Everyone would say `with pyro.’ That’s the reality.”
Some younger fans attend shows out of curiosity, while others discover the music through movie soundtracks weighted with 1980s songs. “There are kids out there who are fans of Korn and Poison,” Gargano said, again linking a newer band with veterans.
Over nearly two decades, Great White has sold about 7 million rec ords. And many ‘80s metal bands still sell “anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 copies a year from their catalogs,” Steinman said.
“We like to say that the fan base is still intact, but as people get older, they don’t spend their money in the same way. They don’t buy as many CDs, and they don’t go to concerts except occasionally,” he said. “But the hard-core fans are still out there, and there are still a couple hundred thousand who will buy the records, T-shirts, and concert tickets. And when we do these package tours, the fans come out in hordes.
“You’re talking about a band that had three Top 40 hits,” Steinman said. “This is a classic rock band. Everybody liked Great White. This is party rock. People want to rock, they want to party, and these bands entertain you.”