One of the miracle stories of rock music is the resurgence of Black Sabbath. In 2013, the band overcame serious setbacks — substance abuse, internal strife, and cancer among them — to release its first-ever Billboard Number 1 album and complete a successful tour of North America that will continue to South America and Europe. Three of the band’s founding members, now in their 60s, are playing with renewed passion and energy even as one of them, lead guitarist Tony Iommi, receives treatment for lymphoma. I believe the success of Black Sabbath demonstrates the power of tribalism – a mysterious but effective form of audience bonding.
Tribalism occurs when people or organizations create a cult-like bond with their followers, often through the use of visual symbols, language, and rituals. Tribal brands (and musicians are brands, too) make their fans feel like they are members of a special club, no matter how big that club actually is. Harley-Davidson creates tribalism through events and In-n-Out Burger through its Not-So-Secret Menu. Tribal branding is essential to the success of many pro and amateur sports teams.
Black Sabbath embodies a special kind of tribalism that combines a heavy dose of attitude, powerful music, the appeal of a Satanic jester and a lot of good old-fashioned head banging.