The six ages of a band
From newbies to established acts and buzz bands to heritage acts: the six ages of a band’s career
The French were right: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. In so many ways, nothing has changed for bands over the years despite the fact that everything has changed. You still have a very rigid caste system when it comes to making music and an act’s place on the ladder. As with everything in the mainstream, the power of the major labels may not be as strong as it once was, yet they still dominate the discourse if acts are seeking a break to the big time by virtue of how they control the promotional tools. The democratisation of recording methods and distribution channels means anyone can very easily make an album and get into the online retail stores, yet it still takes old-school methods to get people to know about the release (non-stop touring, radio play etc). As a zillion bands set out for Austin, Texas for SXSW 2013 like indie music Dick Whittingtons, is a rough guide to the six ages of a band’s career.
It’s a crowded field. You’re probably a brand new band throwing shapes in a garage or rehearsal room dive or bedroom or bathroom for the first time. You’re an act who’re finding it tough to find a distinctive name for yourselves, as your drummer (sadly, it’s always the drummer) insists on using some obscure Japanese slang or some name involving “monkey”. You may be a hobby musician who has absolutely no intention of going on tour or wrecking your head trying to make it and who simply wants to make tunes in your shed with your buddies. The entry level acts may well progress to the next stage or they may happily stay under the radar making music for the rest of their life. It’s probably the most wonderfully innocent place of all to be. It’s before the industry arrives.
The buzz band
This is where the industry arrives. One day, you’re a band playing tunes for kicks; the next day, you’re a band playing tunes and wondering what (deep breath) management/would-be agent/PR company/lawyer/A&R scout/publishing company contact/synch supervisor/radio DJ/brand manager at agency you met the other other night/marketing guy/blogger/dude who has 1,000 followers on Twitter etc think of what you’re doing. Everything changes when the industry comes along and nothing is the same again. Buzz bands are the acts you’ll find in abundance at next week’s SXSW, acts hoping and praying that what they’re doing is going to lead somewhere. They’re acts who are most definitely on the radar, but who need to remember that, just like the acts at entry level, that there’s a surplus. There are just too many buzz bands in the game. Only the strong – or the foolhardy – survive and go on to make more than one or two albums. Luckily, you probably get to continue being a buzz band for those first couple of albums.
The third album act
Congratulations, you’ve made it this far! Like a game of snake and ladders, you’ve been up and you’ve been down, but the midway slot on the second or third stage on the circuit’s big festivals is now yours for this year at least. You’re not quite commanding huge fees and your tours yo-yo between various midsize venues, but you’re still in the game and you still have a fanbase. You may, however, be getting panic attacks and doubts about what the hell you’re doing because the writing is on the wall. You know by now that you’re never going to be the new Coldplay or Kings Of Leon and you know that you absolutely abhor with every fibre of your being the other members of your band (especially the singer). You are beginning to appreciate U2 for their command of inner-band psychology and longetivity. The third album really is make or break time.
The established act
This is a very good place to be. You can afford to tour because you now make good cash from your home territory which subsidises the touring elsewhere in Europe or the United States. You’re comfortable with what you’re doing and where you’re at. You got over that third album hump, you know how to pen a tune which gets airplay and you’ve sacked at least two managers and three agents by now. You’re no longer afraid to horsetrade and switch promoters in your home country, which ensures fat fees for those outdoor shows which keeps everyone in cheddar. You’re also the first act that brands think of when they want someone for an ad or big launch or expensive gig. Like I said, a good place to be. In a few years, you’ll move to the sixth stage, but it’s a while off yet.
The superstar act
This is the level all those other bands back at the start, all those would-bes and gonna-bes and could-bes and never-gonna-bes, were aiming for, but they never got here. You did, though it has taken you years to get here. There’s been so much blood, sweat and tears that you’ve lost your mind several times over. You’ve also managed to lose all your friends and early champions but, hey, that’s rock’n'roll. Naturally, you sound absolutely nothing like the band you once were and you’ve compromised yourself so many times that you find it impossible to remember the good old days or even what the good old days were about. You tour, you record, you tour, you record, you do some charity shizzle, you tour, you record, you take a few weeks off. Like the regulars at Cheers, everyone knows your name. You’re happy. You are happy, right?
The heritage acts
The road really does go on forever. Rock’n'roll has got old which means there’s a berth for every act now, regardless of when they first started out slinging tunes. Acts are clocking up 30 or 40 years on the road. You didn’t get this 30 or 40 years ago – think of how you’d feel in 1973 about an act from 1933 or 1943 who were still touring and going strong. Heritage acts are the ones who use the nostalgia for their hey-day to keep the show on the road forever. All those bands from your youth? They’re still going when you’re in your thirties, forties and fifties. The audience may not be as big – or as spry, to be honest – but they can afford to go see you once or twice a year so you keep touring to keep them happy. Occasionally, you’ll bring out a new album to show that you’re still in it for the art, but everyone really wants you to just keep playing the hits. No-one, truth be told, wants a heritage act to release a new album. Unless you’re David Bowie.