Fans of heavy metal music have created their own subculture that encompasses more than just appreciation of the style of music. Fans affirm their membership in the subculture or scene by attending metal concerts (an activity seen as central to the subculture), buying albums, growing their hair long in most to (almost always) all cases (although some metalheads do wear their hair short; one very famous example is late 70s to 80s-era Rob Halford), wearing jackets or vests often made of denim and leather, adorned with band patches and often studs, and since the early 1980s, by contributing to metal publications.
The metal scene, like the rock scene in general, is associated with alcohol, tobacco and drug use, as well as riding motorcycles and having many tattoos. While there are songs that celebrate drinking, smoking, drug use, gambling, having tattoos and partying, there are also many songs that warn about the dangers of those activities. The metal fan base was traditionally working class, white and male in the 1970s, and since the 1980s, more female fans have developed an interest in the style. Also, its popularity and interest in it has grown among African Americans and other groups recently.
Heavy metal fans go by a number of different names, including metalhead, headbanger, hesher, mosher, and thrasher, being used only for fans of thrash metal, which began to differentiate itself from other varieties of metal in the late 80s. While the aforementioned labels vary in time and regional divisions, headbanger and metalhead are universally accepted to mean fans or the subculture itself.
Heavy metal fans have created a "subculture of alienation" with its own standards for achieving authenticity within the group. Deena Weinstein's book Heavy Metal: The Music And Its Culture argues that heavy metal "has persisted far longer than most genres of rock music" due to the growth of an intense "subculture which identified with the music." Metal fans formed an "exclusionary youth community" that was "distinctive and marginalized from the mainstream" society. The heavy metal scene developed a strongly masculine "community with shared values, norms, and behaviors." A "code of authenticity" is central to the heavy metal subculture; this code requires bands to have a "disinterest in commercial appeal" and radio hits as well as a refusal to "sell out." The metal code also includes "opposition to established authority, and separateness from the rest of society." Fans expect that the metal "vocation [for performers] includes total devotion to the music and deep loyalty to the youth subculture that grew up around it;" a metal performer must be an "idealized representative of the subculture."
While the audience for metal is mainly "white, male, lower/middle class youth," this group is "tolerant of those outside its core demographic base who follow its codes of dress, appearance, and behavior." The activities in the metal subculture include the ritual of attending concerts, buying albums, and most recently, contributing to metal websites. Attending concerts affirms the solidarity of the subculture, as it is one of the ritual activities by which fans celebrate their music. Metal magazines help the members of the subculture to connect, find information and evaluations of bands and albums, and "express their solidarity." The long hair, leather jackets, and band patches of heavy metal fashion help encourage a sense of identification within the subculture. However, Weinstein notes that not all metal fans are "visible members" of the heavy metal subculture. Some metal fans may have short hair and dress in regular clothes.
In the musical subcultures of heavy metal and punk, authenticity is a core value. The term poseur (or poser) is used to describe "a person who habitually pretends to be something he/she is not," as in adopting the appearance and clothing style of the metal scene without truly understanding the culture and its music. In a 1993 profile of heavy metal fans' "subculture of alienation," the author noted that the scene classified some members as "poseurs," that is, heavy metal performers or fans who pretended to be part of the subculture, but who were deemed to lack authenticity and sincerity. Jeffrey Arnett's 1996 book Metalheads: Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Alienation argues that the heavy metal subculture classifies members into two categories by giving "acceptance as an authentic metalhead or rejection as a fake, a poseur."
Heavy metal fans began using the term sell out in the 1980s to refer to bands who turned their heavy metal sound into radio-friendly rock music (e.g., glam metal). In metal, a sell out is "someone dishonest who adopted the most rigorous pose, or identity-affirming lifestyle and opinions." The metal bands that earned this epithet are those "who adopt the visible aspects of the orthodoxy (sound, images) without contributing to the underlying belief system."
Ron Quintana's article on "Metallica['s] Early History" argues that when Metallica was trying to find a place in the L.A. metal scene in the early 1980s, "American hard-rock scene was dominated by highly coiffed, smoothly-polished bands such as Styx, Journey, and REO Speedwagon." He claims that this made it hard for Metallica to "play their [heavy] music and win over a crowd in a land where poseurs ruled and anything fast and heavy was ignored." In David Rocher's 1999 interview with Damian Montgomery, the frontman of Ritual Carnage, he praised Montgomery as "an authentic, no-frills, poseur-bashing, nun-devouring kind of gentleman, an enthusiastic metalhead truly in love with the lifestyle he preaches ... and unquestionably practises."
In 2002, "[m]etal guru Josh Wood" claimed that the "credibility of heavy metal" in North America is being destroyed by the genre's demotion to "horror movie soundtracks, wrestling events and, worst of all, the so-called 'Mall Core' groups like Limp Bizkit." Wood claims that the "true [metal] devotee’s path to metaldom is perilous and fraught with poseurs." Christian metal bands are sometimes criticized within metal circles in a similar light. Some extreme metal adherents argue that Christian bands' adherence to the Christian church is an indicator of membership in an established authority, which renders Christian bands as "posers" and a contradiction to heavy metal's purpose. Some proponents argue personal faith in right-hand path beliefs should not be tolerated within metal. A small number of Norwegian black metal bands have threatened violence (and, in extremely rare instances, exhibited it) towards Christian artists or believers, as demonstrated in the early 1990s through occasional church arsons throughout Scandinavia.
At concerts, in place of typical dancing, metal fans are more likely to mosh and headbang (a movement in which the head is shaken up and down in time with the music).
Fans in the heavy metal subculture often make the corna hand gesture formed by a fist with the index and little fingers extended. Also known as the "devil’s horns," the "metal fist," and other similar descriptors, the gesture was popularized by heavy metal vocalists Ronnie James Dio and Ozzy Osbourne.
The heavy metal scene is associated with alcohol and drug use. While there are heavy metal songs which celebrate alcohol or drug use (e.g., "Sweet Leaf" by Black Sabbath, which is about cannabis), there are many songs which warn about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse and addiction. "Master of Puppets" by Metallica (which is about how drug abusers can end up being controlled by the drugs they use) and "Beyond the Realms of Death" by Judas Priest are two examples of songs that warn about such dangers.
On a 1985 edition of Australian music television show Countdown, music critic Molly Meldrum spoke about intolerance to other music within the subculture, observing "sections who just love heavy metal, and they actually don't like anything else." Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, a guest on the program, readily concurred with Meldrum's view, and opined that his comments were "very true". Directly addressing the resistance to alternate genres seen among certain heavy metal fans, Mercury asserted: "that's their problem".
Interviewed in 2011, Sepultura frontman Derrick Green said: "I find that a lot of people can be very closed minded – they want to listen to metal and nothing else, but I'm not like that. I like doing metal music and having a heavy style, but I don't like to put myself in such a box and be trapped in it." Also that year, Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante admitted that hardened members of the heavy metal subculture "are not the most open-minded people when it comes to music."
Ultimate Guitar reported in 2013 that thrash metal fans had directed "hate" towards Megadeth for venturing into more rock-oriented musical territory on that year's Super Collider album. Singer Dave Mustaine stated that their hostility was informed by an unwillingness to accept other genres and had "nothing to do with Megadeth or the greatness of the band and its music"; he also argued that the labelling of music fans contributed to their inability to appreciate other types of music. That same year Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt also alleged that most members of the subculture are resistant to the musical evolution of artists within the metal genre, stating that it "doesn't seem to be that important" to those listeners. He added: "I think most metal fans just want their Happy Meals served to them. They don't really want to know about what they're getting. For a while, I thought metal was a more open-minded thing but I was wrong."
Journalists have written about the dismissive attitude of many metal fans. MetalReviews.com published a 2004 article entitled "The True, Real Metalhead: A Selective Intellect Or A Narrow-Minded Bastard?", wherein the writer confessed to being "truly bothered by the narrow-mindedness of a lot of [his] metal brothers and sisters". Critic Ryan Howe, in a 2013 piece for Sound and Motion magazine, penned an open letter to British metal fans, many of whom had expressed disgust about Avenged Sevenfold – whose music they deemed too light to qualify as metal – being booked to headline the 2014 instalment of popular metal event the Download Festival. Howe described the detractors as "narrow minded" and challenged them to attend the Avenged Sevenfold set and "be prepared to have [their] opinions changed."
Despite widespread lack of appreciation of other music genres, some fans and musicians can profess a deep devotion to genres that often have nothing to do with metal music. For instance, Fenriz of Darkthrone is also known to be a techno DJ, and Metallica's Kirk Hammett is seen wearing a T-shirt of post-punk band The Sisters of Mercy in the music video for "Wherever I May Roam". Tourniquet band leader Ted Kirkpatrick is a "great admirer of the classical masters".
Some metal fans are also fond of punk rock, most notably the hardcore punk scene which helped inspired the extreme metal subgenres and even fusion genres such as crossover thrash, grindcore and the New York hardcore scene.
The term metal elitist is sometimes used by heavy metal fans and musicians to differentiate members of the subculture who display insulated, exclusionary or rigid attitudes from ostensibly more open-minded ones. Elitist attitudes are particularly associated with fans and musicians of the black metal subgenre. Characteristics described as distinguishing metal elitists or "nerds" from other fans of metal music include "constant one-upping," "endless pedantry" and hesitancy to "go against the metal orthodoxy." While the term "metal elitism" is usually used pejoratively, elitism is occasionally defended by members of the subculture as a means of keeping the metal genre insulated, in order to prevent it from selling out.
Heavy metal is also known for its large quantity of fusion subgenres including nu metal, folk metal and symphonic metal - contradicting the notion of metal as an isolated musical genre. Many popular groups within the genre are also fusion-music acts not represented by any larger subgenre, such as Skindread and Matanza.
Main article: Heavy metal fashion
Another aspect of heavy metal culture is its fashion. Like the metal music, these fashions have changed over the decades, while keeping some core elements. Typically, the heavy metal fashions of the late 1970s – 1980s comprised tight blue jeans or drill pants, motorcycle boots or hi-top sneakers and black T-shirts, worn with a sleeveless kutte of denim or leather emblazoned with woven patches and button pins from heavy metal bands. Sometimes, a denim vest, emblazoned with album art "knits" (cloth patches) would be worn over a long-sleeved leather jacket. As with other musical subcultures of the era, such as punks, this jacket and its emblems and logos helped the wearer to announce their interests. Metal fans often wear T-shirts with the emblem of bands.
Around the mid-2000s, a renaissance of younger audiences became interested in 1980s metal, and the rise of newer bands embracing older fashion ideals led to a more 1980s-esque style of dress. Some of the new audience are young, urban hipsters who had "previously fetishized metal from a distance".
Heavy metal fans can be found in virtually every country in the world. Even in some of the more orthodox Muslim countries of the Arab World a tiny metal culture exists, though judicial and religious authorities do not always tolerate it. In 2003, more than a dozen members and fans of Moroccan heavy metal bands were imprisoned for "undermining the Muslim faith." Heavy metal fans in many Arab countries have formed metal cultures, with movements such as Taqwacore.
Heavy metal subculture appears in works of fiction, mostly adult cartoons, and 1980s and 1990s live action movies.