(In this post Andy Synn offers some opinions and poses some questions — and invites your answers in the Comments.)
Now that the financial crisis is over… fair and equitable punishments have been meted out to those involved… the banks have all learned their lessons… and nothing like that will ever happen again…. I think we can safely move on to discussing more important topics, right?
All (slightly depressing) jokes aside, zeitgeisty terms like “too big to fail” actually have their use and can be applied and utilized in a bunch of wider contexts. Case in point, what happens when a Metal band becomes “too big to fail”, and how does a band even reach that point?
The impetus for this column actually came when I read, with some incredulity, that Metallica are to release a total of 27 (yes, 27!!!) live albums before the end of the year – one for each show they played during 2014.
And while, in some ways, it’s a neat idea – providing dedicated fans a chance to have that almost-boutique souvenir of their Metallica experience – it does continue to support the idea that the “Metallica experience” these days is one more focused on producing product than it is on producing new music.
And hey, that’s also ok… that’s fine… it’s their livelihood, it’s essentially a business, and there’s an argument (I think a pretty strong one) that the band don’t exactly have the same fire they used to – the same drive to create. That they don’t feel the need inside to make new music, to express things the way they used to, and instead simply enjoy playing and performing live, and write new songs only when they have to, in order to provide them with a new product to promote.
So it seems to me that, in that sense, Metallica are definitely “too big to fail”. They have such a huge fanbase, such a vast worldwide following (many of whom aren’t exactly what we would call “metal people”), that it seems that no matter what they do… no-one say the “L” word… they’ll always sell enough copies to be “successful”.
They’re also “too big to fail” in another sense though.
Think about it… who could, or would (or should), replace them in the event that the band suddenly, and catastrophically, imploded? There’s an argument that, despite what you might think of them, they continue to hold a key position in the metal landscape, and that their sudden absence would leave a very serious void in metal’s representation in the music world as a whole.
And thinking about Metallica’s position as a linchpin of the metal scene (don’t laugh… it’s true, even if you don’t like it!) got me thinking about the relative position of other bands in the scene, of all different sub-genres and from all different places and backgrounds.
It got me thinking about just how fragile the existence of most metal bands can be, and how difficult it must be to reach that point where you know that you’ve finally “made it”. And by “made it” I don’t mean going mainstream, or selling out, or anything like that… I simply mean reaching a point where your band has become big enough to be self-perpetuating. Where your fanbase continues to grow and develop naturally, almost of its own accord, and where you’re finally able to comfortably survive.
From my perspective being in a band involves (if you’re lucky!) progressing through several stages.
First off is the struggling local band stage, which can be depressingly long or amazingly short, depending on how closely you fit with what’s currently “in” – and even then, you’ll probably be struggling to be heard amidst a sea of other voices, all clamouring for the same attention, unless you’re lucky enough to be one of the rare “breakout” acts that suddenly jumps into the public’s attention.
This is the stage where you see the greatest turn-over of bands, where they barely get going, or where they end up stuck at this level for too long. It’s also where you’ll see the ubiquitous “scene queens” – seemingly transient groups of band members who form one very “in” sort of band, receive a lot of local hype, but break up not long after… only to re-appear quickly in a new line-up with another very “current” sound… and the cycle repeats ad infinitum.
A fortunate few get past this, whether by luck or by design or by sheer bloody-minded perseverance (so far that’s been my preferred tactic), and start to feel the ball rolling under its own power. Gig offers start to increase, the band’s profile starts to build, critics start to (slowly) take notice. It’s a great time… but also still a very fragile one. A single misstep, a missed opportunity, an unforeseen delay… can cripple a band at this point.
Of course even once a band gets properly established in the public consciousness, it’s still unlikely that they’ll be able to survive on the proceeds of their music alone. It’s still a precarious balance. And a bad album can sour people to the point of totally poisoning them against a band.
Even 4 or 5 albums into a “serious” career… you’re still at the mercy of shifting public opinion and your own ability to maintain a certain level of quality. There’s STILL a lot of pressure not to fuck things up.
Look at Scar Symmetry for example – the departure of Christian Älvestam certainly led to a very uncertain period for the band, dividing their fanbase and leading a lot of people to wonder about the band’s continued existence.
Thankfully the addition of both Robert Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist on vocals helped to right the ship, and they’ve recovered from this and gone from strength to strength ever since. But it still demonstrates how even a supposedly “established” band can, in reality, exist on a razor’s edge between failure and success.
At the top end of the scale you have a band like Opeth who, I hope you’ll agree, have become “too big to fail” in their own right. The divisive, but ultimately successful, Heritage is, in my opinion, a perfect testament to that.
No matter what you think of it – whether as a fan or as a detractor – you have to admit that it’s the sort of album that could easily have ruined the career of a lesser band.
There are, of course, some relevant arguments to be made in parallel with the points made about Metallica earlier.
There are those who claim – somewhat contentiously – that this retro-progressive reworking of the Opeth sound is more of a Mikael Akerfeldt solo project than a continuation of the original spirit of the band, and that the band’s “brand name” is being used purely because of the commercial and critical clout associated with it.
And whether there’s any truth to that or not, it still supports the idea that Opeth have become “too big to fail” – the identity of the band, the name, the history, the established fanbase, have all reached critical mass and become self-perpetuating.
And that’s not exactly a bad place to be!
So, here’s a few questions to discuss in the comments…
Where… when… how… do you reach the point where you’ve “made it”, where you are, in no uncertain terms, “too big to fail”?
What does that mean for the music bands produce? Do they then have to simply maintain the status quo, or can it give them the space to experiment more freely?
And what bands do YOU think have made it and are now “too big to fail”?
I think for a band to truly be “too big to fail,” it needs some combination of a sterling discography (5+ albums, maybe?) of critical and commercial acclaim, and some event – a change in style or lineup, a benchmark album, etc – that some segment of the fan base will always clamor for, while attracting new fans along the way. Metallica easily could have petered out and disappeared due to their output in the nineties, but because some fans hold out just a sliver of hope for “Ride the Lightning II,” while others possibly came onboard with “Death Magnetic,” they continue to be immensely popular.
On the Opeth side of things, I don’t think bands owe it to the fans to keep making the same style of music over and over. I know that Dream Theater (another TBtF band, IMO) has said that they will keep making “Dream Theater” albums, and that different musical styles are what the members’ solo albums are for, but I think bands have every right to change up their sound, explore different influences and ideas, and figure out what kind of music they want to make NOW, as opposed to the kind of music they made THEN. The counterpoint to this, of course, is that if that change is too drastic or done too soon, then the band can… well, fail, I guess.
Now I’ve ranted far longer than I intended to, so as far as bands that are too big to fail, I’ll only throw out four: Agalloch, Gojira, the Dillinger Escape Plan, and Dave Grohl/Foo Fighters.
Is it ironic that DT, as an ostensibly “progressive” band have stated that their career from now on will consist of the same sorts of albums over and over?
Obviously I think, when it comes to the question of whether to change your sound or not, the success of that change depends a lot on how open-minded your fanbase are… I wonder if DT just feel like it would be safer to “give the people what they want”, or if they just really feel like playing in the same ballpark for the rest of their career!
I for one think that maybe Dream Theater, at least for now, goes with that statement as they’ve run out of ideas. Perhaps LaBrie has new things to try in mind, but he does have his solo project for that, or if Petrucci wants to shred his life away, same thing.
It’s just that as a band there’s nothing that someone brings up that is different and they are all on board with, so they say “well, lets do Dream Theater”. And so not stop producing “new” stuff.
To me their latest album was uninspired, in spite of what they said about it being very representative of the band, a masterpiece of sorts, being “Dream Theater” at its core, hence naming it as they did.
I draw a parallel to Amon Amarth, who at least (IMO) the last few years have released Twilight of the Thunder God 1, 2, 3 etc. I’ve enjoyed all of them, but also believe the band is stalling without the desire to stop producing.
Forgot to add I also think of Amon Amarth as a band too big to fail.
I am not big on USDM, come on! these guys have made the same album atleast 10 times, and every time they get the same praise. And no matter what they do, people will always discover them as they are getting on to extreme metal. it is one of THE Death metal bands, so young’uns will always be chekcing them out.
Same probably goes for the original TNBM bands and even First wave bands, like Mayhem, Immortal, Gorgoroth and Darkthrone. and Bathroy/Venom/Mercyful Fate from the first wave. They are the innovators, so people will always go to them when first getting into the genre.
CC are definitely up there (though even they are at risk of getting stale sometimes I feel… possibly an issue for bands with such a large catalogue?) as a band who have hit that TBTF threshold. they’re not going anywhere until they want to!
As for Gorgoroth though, I am less sure to be honest. The War of Two Gorgoroths took its toll, as did the re-recording debacle, and recent issues with live shows and singer problems… I actually think they’re in not the best place currently. And the Black Metal scene is notoriously unforgiving (and sometimes fickle)… so will be interesting to see what happens there!
Amon Amarth. I haven’t liked either of their last two albums, nor has any of my serious metalhead friends, but they’ve gone from playing mid-size venues in front of 200 enthusiastic metalheads to headlining at the House of Blues. Every metal show I go to there’s at least two of three Amon Amarth shirts even though no one I know would wear an AA shirt to a show. They’ve become a HUGE BRAND in part because their music is undeniably great and in part because Johan Hegg does such a great job of being the “likeable viking metal dude who wears a drinking horn on stage, it’s awesome man you gotta see them.”
Good call. They are basically set for life now I think. Unless the band themselves get tired of the whole Viking thing…
The Melvins. Over the years, they’ve interspersed their more traditional (uh, relatively speaking) heavy rock stuff with albums of mostly unlistenable wankery–I actually kind of like _Prick_, but _Chickenswitch_ and _Colossus of Destiny_ make Metallica’s _LuLu_ seem like _Meet the Beatles_ by comparison. And yet, their legend has only continued to grow, and, to my surprise, they’ve gained a huge following among metalheads, not a group usually known for its tolerance of self-indulgence and audience-baiting experimentation. They played Maryland Deathfest, fer crisssakes. Go figure.
Not one I would have thought up, but definitely a good example of a band strong enough to weather (and indeed to enjoy!) storms of weirdness and divisive albums!
Since you brought up Opeth, does anyone else here really like the new album? I got it last weekend, not expecting much., but felt like I wanted it anyway because I have every other Opeth album. I almost never listen to _Heritage_ It’s not the lack of death metal that bugs me about it. On the contrary, it bugs me for the same reason a lot of new death metal does: there’s lots of great playing, but the songs seem unfocused, disjointed, and, frankly, unmemorable. I’ve had _Pale Communion_ for less than a week, and it’s really connected with me already. Hell, I can even remember the songs, and I can barely remember anything off _Heritage_.
More on topic, I wonder if Cynic, in spite of their relatively small discography, is one of these TBTF bands. I’m sure there are people who hate the new record, but it doesn’t seem to have sunk their career. Like Opeth, they’re a band whose musical instincts I’ve learned to trust, even when they’re not travelling in the direction I’d want them to travel.
I like a lot of Pale Communion myself actually. There’s a couple of duff songs, but a lot of interest imo.
Cynic were one I considered, but their career’s been so weird, it was hard to categorise them or talk about them in this context! For me anyway!
On a tangentially related note, surprised you didn’t embed LOG’s “Set to Fail” in this article.
More towards the point of this, I’d say pretty much any band that had a significant effect on pushing the genre forward at one point in its career will be too big to fail most of the time.
It was considered, but I already had another song with that title picked out!
it’s a shame that Metallica makes it seem so difficult to write and record new material on par with their early work, when there are so many other metal bands that started around the same time who have no problem maintaining their original sound and intensity and who approach the making of new albums with enthusiasm and excitement. i don’t know if that seemingly lazy attitude towards new material is part of being “too big to fail”, but it’s super el lame-o :p
Interesting. Here are some quick, poorly thought out thoughts.
“Making it” and being “too big to fail” are very different things to me. Making it is very vague, and I’m not really sure how to define that these days. It used to mean making enough money to continue making albums, or getting on the radio, or having your video played on MTV. Now? I have no idea.
Too big to fail is how I see bands like Metallica, U2, Radiohead, and Pearl Jam. They’re basically so giant and accepted that it doesn’t at all matter what they produce. They could put out albums of nails screeching on a chalkboard, the plop of shit in a toilet, or the sounds of Thom York’s little fists pummeling the Edge’s face for an hour, and the fans will eat that shit up and proclaim it genius. No matter how hard they try, they simply cannot fail.
For an artist, I think that’s the absolute worst place to be. Lack of quality and creative stagnation are death. For a business? That’s different. Making money is the lifeblood of a business. So once successful artists become successful businesses.
There are exceptions. There are bands who’ve maintained their integrity while becoming too big to fail by this definition. I think New Model Army is one, though the scale of their big in “too big to fail” is nowhere near that of U2. Despite the fact that I haven’t liked an album of their in years, and their fans will eat up anything they put out, I don’t at all doubt their sincerity or desire to continue making good, relevant music with strong, relevant lyrics. But, again, I do think they’re the exception to the rule.
It seems difficult to say how a band (e.g., Metallica) becomes TBTF. But I think when a band has a fanbase that reaches beyond the adamant metal cohort, say a housewife considers buying a Metallica discography set for her husband who likes rock music, they are TBTF. Probably has something to do with media exposure in terms of album sells. And there appears to be a difference between a TBTF band and a rather successful metal band (for this category I’d say a band receives wide acclaim within the metal scene, e.g., Revocation). An easy way to judge I think is to look at Grammy award of best hard rock/metal album.
*Can* a band get this big anymore? Is it even possible?
I can remember the “rise” of Metallica into the mainstream consciousness, I was there (as many of you, of course). I remember insane pals talking about Master in the immediate months of its release, and I remember the news of Cliff’s death (in those pre-internet days) and the video for One: that was a pivotal point IMHO. All metal videos that made it on tv were hair metal shit, easy to diss, laugh about, and be imbarassed by. But the One video, with the quotes from Johnny got a Gun, it showed that Metal could be serious, artistic, even well read! I was PROUD of that video (still am).
And from that moment on, the ball was rolling. Many started the “sold out” talk, but I remember (forgive me, I am so old!) the Hero of the Day video, with a young couple making out, and of course it wasn’t TRVE metal anymore, but it made it through many channels that wouldn’t go a thousand miles near a metal band.
Because, mainly through good production values and marketing, Metallica had shed the dirty, ignorant, drug addict, boozey image of metal (even if they still were dirty and drunk), they were RESPECTABLE metal, invited to open the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert like a well respected band, in a time when Queen fans and metal fans couldn’t be more far from each other, at least here in my country.
So I was a spectator to this rising, and looking back I can say it had less to do with actual music (although I still like the Black Album and Load) and more with image, videos, marketing.
Nowadays? Just too many bands. TOO many. And the media attention is elsewhere.
The only way a band can become the next ‘tallica is by having among its members the Rod Smallwood of the 21st century.
Excuse me for the lenght!
Iron Maiden anyone? They could release an album of galloping bass lines, solos, and cockpit recordings from bruce, and it would still sell millions.