NPR logo Anvil: A Real-Life Spinal Tap

Anvil: A Real-Life Spinal Tap

Why do some bands seem to find an audience overnight, while others fail to reach anyone even after years of hard work? This, of course, is the million-dollar question for music labels — and one that mystifies me on a nearly daily basis.

Katie White and Jules De Martino of The Ting Tings had played together for barely a year before hitting it big. The first album Arctic Monkeys ever put out became the fastest-selling debut in British music history. Meanwhile, one of my all-time favorite bands, Five Eight, hasn't had a hit in more than 20 years of playing together, even though it's got a wealth of the talent and inspiration needed to make great music.

Which brings us to the band Anvil. A new film called Anvil! The Story of Anvil tells the story of this long-struggling Canadian heavy-metal group and its meteoric rise to the bottom.

Anvil formed in the late 1970s and did everything it was supposed to do to become famous. It put out well-reviewed albums, toured with bands like The Scorpions, Whitesnake and Iron Maiden. Anvil is often credited with inspiring and influencing better-known groups like Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth — all bands that, as noted in the trailer, sold millions of records, while Anvil remained largely unknown.

I remember reading how Island Records essentially decided to make U2 massively famous with 1987's The Joshua Tree. It was the band's fifth album, but the one that the label decided was worth pushing. It certainly worked, though I wonder if any of the earlier records would have also found that level of success if they'd had the label's support.

The Web and cheaper recording equipment make it a lot easier for artists to go it alone. But there remains that intangible something that makes some bands "win" and others "lose," and it's not just talent or a lack thereof. It's a sort of collective energy, with fans and media feeding off one another. But what makes that happen?

What band do you think should be big, but isn't?