People tend to romanticize the music industry. Behind every successful band is, it seems, a story of a renegade A&R representative who discovered them cracking away at a dive one night and the rest was history.
The reality is far less enchanting. These days, record labels are more concerned with branding than talent. It’s not a matter of what you can do, it’s a matter of how. Lizzy Grant was a failed singer-songwriter before Interscope rebranded her into a sultry, self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” while Katy Hudson was a gospel recording artist before Capitol Records and songwriting wizard Dr. Luke helped transform her into the girl-kissing Katy Perry.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Breaking a Monster, Luke Meyer’s new documentary that chronicles the industry journey of the Brooklyn band Unlocking the Truth. If that name sounds familiar, well, it should. Back on June 23, 2013, the group staged a raucous gig on the sidewalks of New York City’s Times Square, where pedestrians were left floored by this headbanging trio of 11- and 12-year-old black kids from Brooklyn who shredded through heavy metal tunes like a gang of 30-year-old vets. Video of the performance went very viral, and in July 2014, it was announced that Unlocking the Truth had signed a much-ballyhooed $1.8 million deal with Sony Music Entertainment.
And that’s when things got complicated.
Breaking a Monster follows the band’s soul-crushing record industry journey. “It’s all about branding,” their label rep tells the perplexed boys early on in the film, before showing them a mock-up of the kids transformed into anime Boondocks-like characters for an accompanying cartoon.
“The guys are such a blank slate,” says Meyer. “They wanted to jump into the world and wanted to be rock stars, but they had no idea what it was going to be about. When people meet the guys, they usually meet them with their idea of who they think they should be—like a Boondocks cartoon, or these cute metalheads. It’s a place where you can see this divide between the guys’ intentions and the label’s intentions.”
And with each successive, relentless pitch meeting, the boys’ spirits shrink further and further, to the point where they just put their heads in their hands in frustration. When a label rep asks guitarist/front man Malcolm Brickhouse why he’s acting in such a way, he snaps back, “I’m not tired, I’m aggravated.”
“It was pretty difficult at times with these meetings—especially with this one particular lady at the label, who had a meeting with us once where she was just talking at us for six hours,” bassist Alec Atkins, 13, tells The Daily Beast. “We were pretty young at the time so we were pretty restless and wanted to get up and do something else, but she just had us in this meeting for six hours.”
“There are so many different types of meetings,” adds drummer Jarad Dawkins, 13. “Sometimes we have meetings at our lawyer’s office, sometimes we have a meeting with a company. It depends on what the occasion is.”
The band is down in Austin, Texas, to perform a handful of shows during SXSW and promote the documentary. They look beaten down, and even apologize for their lethargy midway through the interview. “We’re very, very tired,” says a weary Malcolm, 14.
Between the viral video, a spate of performances in the spring of 2014—including SXSW and a Coachella set that the Los Angeles Times raved was “as well-practiced as units three times their age” and offered “a glimpse of Coachella’s future”—and the news of the label signing, Unlocking the Truth had built up a considerable amount of momentum. And then poof. Since the signing news, they’ve yet to release their debut album, which has been stuck in a bizarre holding pattern with Sony. The boys are desperate to shed the contract, and are in the midst of doing so as we speak.
“It’s been very difficult. We’re speaking to our attorneys about leaving Sony, and it’s very complicated,” says Alec. “The album is ready, but because our attorneys are talking about us leaving the record label, it’s going to be a whole process of getting our music back.”
Jarad shakes his head in despair. “I believe that the movie gave an accurate visual of what happened behind the scenes. It shows that when we were trying to put the album out and people were asking for it, that we couldn’t put it out for no good reason.”
That $1.8 million contract, like most music contracts, sounds a lot more lucrative than it is.
“The $1.8 million is what happens if you add up all their advances for five records, and it increases in amount with each successive album,” says Meyer, who explains that in order to go beyond their advance, they need to sell over 250,000 copies of a single album, which these days is a bit of a pipe dream. “That’s what everyone says about the music industry,” adds Meyer, “it’s got all this glitter on it, but it’s always less flashy than it looks.”
The film also spends a great deal of time tracing the boys’ relationship with their manager, Alan Sacks—an industry vet best known for co-creating the TV series Welcome Back Kotter. It’s no mean feat trying to wrangle together a group of rowdy kids who, at times, are more interested in playing the latest Grand Theft Auto video game than practicing, but Sacks rules with an iron fist, banning Malcolm from skateboarding and, in one gripping sequence, taking a coveted bottle of soda and pouring it out in the middle of the street.
And that “lucrative” contract starts affecting the kids in strange ways. In one scene, Malcolm demands to see some evidence of the money, refusing to leave a van until he does. What he doesn’t realize is that the $1.8 million deal is a 360-deal that covers not only five albums, but also a cut of touring, publishing, merchandise, etc. In another remarkably self-aware moment, Malcolm turns to Sacks and asks if the only reason they were signed was because they’re these young, cute black kids who are into heavy metal. “You think Malcolm’s making this big discovery, but then you realize that he’s known this all along,” says Meyer.
Unlocking the Truth’s road to stardom began at age 4, when Malcolm and Jarad first met. Jarad began playing drums at age 2, and when he was 7, Malcolm’s mother bought him his first acoustic guitar. Six months later, he upgraded to electric. Around that time, Malcolm’s mother, who also serves as the band’s co-manager, took the boys to see one of their favorite bands live. “Back in 2009, we went to see Disturbed at the Izod Center,” Malcolm says. “It was our first concert ever, and we knew that’s what we wanted to do.”
Malcolm and Jarad performed as an instrumental guitar-and-drums duo, practicing in Malcolm’s apartment every day. Their first live show went down on March 7, 2012. That day, they competed in Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, and managed to advance to the second round before getting knocked out. It was then that Malcolm’s mother came up with the idea of having the kids do a series of street performances to build buzz. “We realized that most people who perform outside don’t get as much attention as us,” says Malcolm.
After a few DIY gigs they realized they needed a bassist to round out the group, and taught their pre-school pal Alec bass from scratch. And when these kids perform, they look as if they’ve been possessed by the spirits of Dimebag Darrell and Jeff Hanneman.
“I like the excitement of performing,” Jarad says. “How people feel entertained, and look at you, and get excited. We’re trying to become one of the best metal bands out there, and I believe that really shows in our performances, and how excited we are to perform for different crowds, people, and cultures.”
And then the bombardment of label meetings kicks in, as well as a lengthy rebranding period wherein Sony tries to convert them from an instrumental outfit to a group with singing—hiring a vocal coach to train and deepen Malcolm’s voice, which hasn’t quite cracked yet.
Despite the label imbroglio, Unlocking the Truth remain optimistic about their hard-rocking future. They’re happy to be missing school in order to melt people’s faces off across the globe, and hope to one day play Madison Square Garden, which they describe as “a very big dream.” They’ve also come to terms with the fact that their lives will never be the same.
“Our whole lives changed after we were signed,” says Jarad. “We can’t just go out and ‘do things,’ we have to get everything approved. But we realize that we’re not normal kids anymore and we have a career ahead of us, so we don’t want to mess that up.”