Mar 18, 2022

Behind The Metallica Black Box

It suddenly appeared, a Metallica monolith which had people panicking about whether they had the finances or space to accommodate such a giant structure. Entrance is gratis, but as Steffan Chirazi learns from the Metallica Black Box debut, the material is infinite.

The image was stark, intriguing, and provocative. A large black shipping container, sitting in an industrial “dock” area, one word painted in large logo letters upon its side: Metallica.

It set off a whole slew of rabbit hole scurries as fans tried to figure out what this monolithic box was all about. Some speculated it was to do with touring; others speculated that it was a fancy way of preparing a new record release statement. And a few even started calling landscapers to flatten their yards in preparation for a “limited edition shipping container,” which they were sure was going to be available, stuffed – of course – with all manner of Metalligoods and mementos.

As it happens, that last scurry would’ve gotten you closest to what the container – the Metallica Black Box – was all about. Except thankfully, you do not need to get the diggers in to squash your back garden, and you don’t need to call the bank and arrange for a hefty loan to finance a 40-foot hunk of metal in your life. No, the Black Box is free, the Black Box is virtual, and the Black Box will be the epicenter for all manner of Metallica projects and historical archives and artifacts. It is a living, in-continual-progression force of historic nature which will be ground zero for creative Metallica matters.

Rather than further trying to articulate the nooks and crannies of this beast, I thought it wiser to engage Jon-Michael Marino from the Metallica side and Brad Mindich of Inveniem and Definitive Authentic. They are the overseers of this rolling project, which in fairness, needs and engages many, many members of the Metallica family from the Metallica Club to the band members themselves. Jon-Michael is the Experience and Activation Manager behind the Metallica Museum, which has been traveling on tour since 2016 and is in the hot-seat for all archival matters in this regard. Inveniem is the best legacy, fan engagement, and authentication company in the world, with archives of any description for a wide range of artists and businesses. What follows is a Q&A with both gents, which explains precisely what the Black Box is and, perhaps more importantly, what it will be indefinitely.

Left: Jon-Michael Marino | Right: Brad Mindich

Steffan Chirazi: Let’s look at Inveniem as a company. I know Inveniem has been a really top storage preservation and storytelling facility for people’s archives for years. When did you start making the move into realizing the potential for virtual museums?

Brad Mindich: The history with Inveniem was looking at everything from both fan and artist perspectives, understanding that artists – whether they had a career that’s spanned decades or have a relatively new career – collect and create things that are all part of their own stories. There’s also an enormous amount of history and legacy, things which are pretty extraordinary both to celebrate from the artist’s standpoint but also to use to engage with fans. So it starts with discovering where things are. A lot of times, artists don’t really know where things are; it’s scattered around, so it’s going through that process of discovery and then the archiving and the preservation too. Quite sadly, we’ve seen lots of examples where things were not preserved or stored properly, and things are flooded, or they’re on fire… very bad things happen. There’s nothing intentional, but even when you look at it from an individual artist’s standpoint, they don’t expect, say, their house to burn down, or a client doesn’t expect their basement to get flooded.

So you start by understanding what you have, where things are, how to preserve them, protect them, authenticate them (this is where our Definitive division comes into play), and document them. If you can do that, you can really work with the artist and ask how they want to share their history, or anything they’ve created, and share that with fans in a very meaningful way. So that was really the beginning.

SC: I’m very intrigued by the sheer physical mechanics of preservation as Inveniem works. Without wishing to tempt fate or say anything, what is your bombproof method when it comes to the storage of archives?

BM: Sure, I’m happy to tell you. Basically, they [the vaults] are five-foot concrete walls with massive steel doors and various other measures. Things like gas-based fire suppression/sprinkler systems. These are the kinds of things that, when you work with a client, you have to make them aware that if traditional sprinklers were to go off, everything would be ruined, so this system is the way.

When we take possession of a client’s artifacts, we store them in these secure vaults that are fireproof, waterproof, and include multiple levels of security and passes to access. It’s extremely difficult, plus there are cameras everywhere. Sometimes I’ll get a question from a client, such as, “What happens if there’s an earthquake? Is the building completely safe?” I can’t guarantee that if there’s a magnitude 10 earthquake, it’s absolutely going to be safe, but it is as safe as we can possibly be.

SC: So we’ve established the security value of it; let’s get into when Inveniem became the host of a living museum for Metallica.

BM: Different clients have different things they want from us. Some will say they just want everything safe and to know what they have. Other clients will want to control their narrative, engage differently with fans, generate new revenue for their nonprofit, do a documentary, a book, a pop-up store, merch, and that only comes from really looking at the stuff. And for bands like Def Leppard or Metallica with 40-plus year histories, there’s so much stuff. The bands say they want to start sharing things that, frankly, they didn’t even know they had. So that’s the first part.

SC: Jon-Michael, this is storytelling and curation, so bring us into how you and Brad first started talking about, and working together on, the Black Box.

Jon-Michael Marino: Brad and I certainly were on, I’ll say, parallel paths. I didn’t know Brad, I didn’t know Inveniem. I had been working, as we’ve discussed in the past, creating fan experiences for a wide variety of touring artists and music festivals since early 2012 and then really with Metallica exclusively beginning in the spring of 2017. That physical world, the physical museums, putting assets in the hands of fans, walking them through an environment that’s been meticulously curated within the confines of a stadium or an arena or a green field, that really began for Metallica on the 2017 WorldWired Tour. I had done much smaller programs for five or six years before eventually working for Tony [DiCioccio – Big Shot] on a few different artists: first Three Days Grace which then led to Muse, which ultimately led to Metallica.

Within the world of music and fan experiences, no one is giving you a shot blindly. There’s too much at risk. No one would be naive enough to say that money is not behind some of this. Of course it is, but it really is an important bond you’re dealing with between an artist and their fans which certainly transcends the monetary value. Once that trust factor is damaged, your relationship is damaged, and a lot of times, you can’t really recover from that. So I think as far as fan experiences, as far as curation is concerned, it’s an extension of the band’s live show. You’re trying to, in a microcosm, capture their personality, their value system, and represent it as accurately and as faithfully as you can; this is not necessarily easy when budgets are involved. When logistics such as sea containers, cargo planes, production schedules, security, and venues are involved, there are many variables that can certainly alter what you would like to do and force you to adjust what you are able to do. That’s a long-winded way of saying you have to build your foundation before you can get up to a higher level. For a couple of years, we did that in the physical realm, which eventually led to me being introduced to Brad and Inveniem during the pandemic because the physical realm disappeared.

Lars Ulrich saved his ticket to the 34th Annual Grammy Awards held February 25, 1992, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Metallica won the Best Metal Performance with Vocal award for The Black Album. "Enter Sandman," which the band performed live that evening, was nominated for Best Rock Song. From the Collection of Lars Ulrich

SC: There was a big phone call in late spring 2020 where the concept of Metallica having a digital museum presence was first raised, so how did you both divide duties and settle on a curation path with regards to what would be used and when?

BM: It’s a really good question. We started the archival and gathering process years ago, right? So the first step was just making sure the band understood what they had. Obviously, what Metallica has is just mind-boggling. The audio, video, instruments, photos, documents, everything. So it started really with pulling all that together. Then Jon-Michael and I got connected a few years ago, working with the Inveniem curators and archivists. Then on the HQ side, there was Tony, Vickie, Marc, and many others. You are correct, there is no possible way to just launch with, “Let’s cover everything with Metallica.” It’s not possible, and it really would’ve been a very bad idea. So, the Black Box idea is easily two years in the making.

2021 was the 30th anniversary of The Black Album, which was such a natural place to start. It made sense that the first collection, the first wing, should be The Black Album era and artifacts from then. Amazing for fans. Very manageable. Very timely. Still an enormous amount of work. The artifacts, the curation, the approval from the band, all those things have to happen, but it put a foundation in place that then allows us collectively to go back 40 years and go forward. An important point is that Lars had said from the very beginning that he did not want this experience to be linear. Right? It’s not like, “Oh, you start with The Black Album, and then we’ll do the next album…” that’s not it. There is no linear with Metallica, and I think that’s a really brilliant way to look at this.

SC: I’m interested to know who is largely responsible for the editorial direction of what is going up in the Black Box from week to week and from moment to moment? Bring us into that picture.

BM: We are in that place where the band doesn’t need to see and approve everything. They do trust us. And I think Jon-Michael is clear even with the physical experiences; our entire business is based on trust, period, that’s it. Like, literally, that’s it. We have really good people on our team who write, curate, spend time, and are thoughtful with this sort of stuff. So we do what we do with it, but then we do turn it over obviously to Jon-Michael and Vickie, as well as other members of the team like Addie, Amanda, Jeff, and Spider Dan especially. We’ll ask if things look and feel right to them, do they like the mix of things; it’s very collaborative.

JMM: All spot on. I would add that with this launch being the first collection, we needed to figure out what we thought the band wanted, make sure that it was correct, and that it was shown in the proper light, both narrative and copy. It’s not a quick and seamless template process. Everything had to be drafted, then re-drafted, and sometimes put back to the drawing board. This process, as Brad said, was going on for years before my involvement. I got introduced to it in November of ’20, and really, the pandemic allowed us to prioritize this thing that kept getting put on the back burner during touring cycles and album writing and recording. It was an ideal time, and there probably wasn’t going to be a better one to focus on the amount of labor and sweat needed to create this.

My role was, as it often is, that of a project manager: to get the Inveniem and Metallica teams on aligned timelines. That was my small contribution to this project. I’m not the narrator, I’m not the curator. The Inveniem team is certainly doing the vast majority of the work. My piece was making sure that we had our checklist, that we had the priorities agreed upon, that the two teams were able to communicate in real-time better than they had in the past and to give both sides the additional oversight to help surpass the goals and meet the deadlines that we had set which, you know, we may have had to push back a few times, but we got there.

BM [grinning]: I do want to just go back to one thing because, look, as we know, Jon-Michael has a giant, massive ego, so I don’t want to fuel his ego any more than it really needs to be, right? But just between us, Jon-Michael’s far more important than, “Oh, I just made sure that everybody was sort of talking!”

SC: Oh, I put the JMM filter on anything he says. I know he’s never going to speak up about himself. But for anyone who’s worked in any sort of project management and curation, it’s the single most important thing because teams have to communicate properly.

BM: He has amazing insight, experience, and trust with the band and management, trust with us too; he was in all our internal meetings and was hugely, hugely important. I cannot, cannot stress that enough. But I’m not going to say anything nice about you after this, JMM. That was it.

JMM: I appreciate it, that was very nice!

PolyGram Records promotional shot from The Black Album in which "Jaymz dies for metal" by Sharpie spear, circa 1991. From the Collection of Lars Ulrich

SC: It is hard to fathom exactly how extensive this archive and history are.

BM: Yes, there is so much stuff in general for every era, obviously not just The Black Album, and your point is well stated. We just see where fans go, what they really get excited about, and comment on. And also, from a design standpoint, this is the other critical thing, Metallica’s website will change, the imagery will change, album art will change. All those things change, so we needed something that was also going to be consistent and not subject to design constraints. [A design] where it doesn’t matter if we’re looking at something from The Black Album era or Death Magnetic, a next record, or another thing, this always has a classic logo and classic imagery. Then the collections themselves expand from there with their own appropriate designs.

SC: I’m assuming that the Black Box will be the home for future eras and project unveilings, that we are going to have a series of exhibits that will build in number. Each of those is going to be an introduction to an era or project, but people will still return to the Black Box and see additional, pertinent content. It’s like the layers of an onion or whatever you want to call it. Each of these collections will introduce people to the particular era or project, but the box is still going to be slowly cranking and cranking and adding and morphing and living. Am I right in saying that?

BM: You are right. So everything comes from the Black Box. The reason it’s called the Black Box is because it’s consistent with Metallica’s branding, you know, Blackened American Whiskey, The Black Album, Blackened Recordings, there’s a synonymity there. It becomes a way not to be constrained by design or structure or whatever it is across the band’s entire history, both going back and forwards.

SC: I do want to narrow it down just to make sure I’ve got this right. I mean very tangibly – physically – are you going to graphically have a different shipping container for the next project and the next project, or is it literally all going to be the main shipping container, the Black Box, and then when you’ll go in, you’ll see The Black Album and then the 40th or whatever the next phase is?

BM: The Black Box is kind of the “superstructure,” and then the collections, the areas, all come in within that “superstructure.” Imagine you were to open this giant (massive container), you walk in, and then you can go in any number of directions.

JMM: We certainly went through however many versions of not only the naming conventions that we would use, but also the narrative, the flow of the process from the user, and the fan experience. Framing it so that it could grow, evolve, and do so without crazy long production timelines, as well as keeping people engaged. On the one hand, if you make the platform a single page of a grid structure where you’re simply scrolling endlessly, that’s not that fun. On the other hand, some of our original grandiose ideas were almost along the lines of a video game where it was out there conceptually, really putting the fan in the driver’s seat of the experience, but we would’ve needed two years of production, and that just didn’t seem practical. While it visually resembles a sea container, the Black Box is also not unlike those used in airplanes, in the sense that it records literally everything, gives away nothing from the outside, and yet possesses vast amounts of “secrets” internally. The symbolism between the two items is clearly intentional. Our Black Box is just way cooler and more artistic than what the FAA uses.

BM: This also has to be accessible to fans across the board. You know, Metallica has such a giant fan base across all demographics that if we built something that was, “Well, you can only experience it in VR,” that’d be terrible. Could there be a VR experience as part of the Black Box where you walk through (a museum)? Of course.

SC: Is there a metronomic frequency with the updating, refreshing, and replenishing of artifacts within the Black Box? Is it every two weeks, every three weeks?

BM: There is what we call a content cadence with these things. It’s not pinned down to “absolutely every two weeks.” It really is driven by a number of things. One is the scale and scope of the particular collection. How big is the collection we’re doing? It might actually be quite big, so there’ll be a lot of editorial work and a lot of content to be produced. Plus, the band, management, and Jon-Michael all have other things to do, so nobody wants to guarantee something which cannot be guaranteed. Nobody wants fans to be disappointed if something is supposed to be there on a Thursday and it’s not. If we say something will be there on a Thursday, it will be there. That’s part of the excitement around it; you don’t know exactly what’s coming and when.

JMM: It’s probably worth noting that one content piece that stuck to a cadence of every week [barring holidays] was the live stream series. That was one piece of it where we did the legwork ahead of time, certainly with a ton of help from Spider Dan driving that process. Every Saturday for ten weeks in a row, we released a live stream of a concert recording from the vault that fans have either never been able to see or haven’t seen cleaned up and mastered in the 30 years since the show occurred. So I think that’s awesome. That 10-week run essentially brought us to the end of the initial Black Album collection within the Black Box, and then we’ll start to move on to the next collection in theory, with the release to follow. And then, to your point earlier, you’re still going to see new content added to the old collection as well as new subsequent collections. There will be an ever-evolving content process.

BM: I will tell you this, I thought about it the other day, we could release something every single week literally for the next 50 years and not run out of stuff. The fans have no idea just how exciting this is with regards to what’s coming and how this is expanding. Honestly, I’m so excited about it. We all are.

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