Branding Has Become TOO Important
I was speaking recently to the founding guitarist of a very prominent metal band that shall remain unnamed. Now, this dude’s band has been around for some time, and during that time they’ve gone through quite a few line-up changes. So this guitarist, having seen how I sometimes give Slayer shit for continuing on without Hanneman and Lombardo, asked me: “How many original members does a band have to retain in order to keep their name?” And I said to him what I’ve always said to everybody: it’s not how many members of your original or “classic”* line-up remain in the band — it’s whether or not the musicians who made major contributions are still around.
(And as much I’m loathe to admit it, those contributions don’t have to come in the form of songwriting. The fact that Anthrax and Mötley Crüe managed to make good albums without Joey Belladonna and Vince Neil didn’t matter to a substantial portion of the fanbase, because in said fanbase’s collective mind Belladonna and Neil had as much to do with the sound of Anthrax and The Crüe as Scott Ian or Nikki Sixx.)
That’s why nobody ever gives Napalm Death shit for continuing to call themselves Napalm Death despite the fact that, kind of hilariously, not a single one of their members was in the band when it started. For most people, Napalm Death’s oeuvre really begins with their third album, Harmony Corruption. And so as long as Shane Embury, Mitch Harris and Barney Greenway are all still around nobody really cares that none of these dudes had anything to do with Scum. On the other hand, Axl Rose trying to keep Guns N’ Roses going without Slash or Izzy or Duff didn’t really work out so well for him.
But here’s the thing: I’m starting to change my mind about all of this. I’m starting to think that the second any member of the band’s classic line-up splits, the band should be forced to abandon its moniker.
In this interpretation of the completely-made-up laws of metal, Napalm Death effectively would have ended in 1991, when drummer Mick Harris left the band; Megadeth would have been dunzo after Marty Friedman quit in 2000; Black Sabbath would have been called Heaven and Hell (or something other than Black Sabbath) the moment they traded Ozzy for Dio, and they’d have to change their name again when they traded Dio for Ian Gillan; all of Anthrax’s albums since Persistence of Time, including Worship Music, would have to be released under a different name; and so on and so forth.
Which, I recognize, is ridiculous. Napalm Death may have lost Mick Harris after Harmony Corruption, but they NEVER lost his successor, Danny Herrera — which means they’ve had the same line-up since 1991. My two personal favorite Anthrax albums were made without Joey Belladonna, and I didn’t hear anyone bitching that Dan Spitz wasn’t on Worship Music. And no one ever disputes that Dave Mustaine WAS and IS Megadeth both before and after the Friedman/Menza era, which the remains the “definitive” version of the band.
But if I’m being unreasonable, it’s because, frankly, I’m fighting fire with fire. Because it’s inarguable that band line-ups have never mattered less to most fans than they do in 2015.
Think about it: in 1989, when Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine came out, the idea that Trent Reznor basically made a solo album and released it under a band name was unique. Now, it’s basically the go-to model: bands like The Faceless, Arsis, and White Wizzard go through line-up changes so frequently that it’s just as hard to name musicians who haven’t played with those bands as it is to name the musicians who are currently in the band. Anthrax are on their fourth lead guitarist and third vocalist this century (and that’s totally disregarding the brief period about ten years ago when Frank Bello left the band to join Helmet, a quartet that has had fourteen different members since 1989). For all of the Internet’s bitching about Black Sabbath leaving Bill Ward out of their reunion, the move didn’t hurt the band’s sales or concert attendance even the slightest bit. The Black Dahlia Murder and The Red Chord have changed drummers so frequently you’d think their percussionists were spontaneously exploding, Spinal Tap-style. The members of In This Moment who aren’t Maria Brink basically never get to show their own faces. Slipknot have taken on not one but TWO new members, neither of whom is being treated as anything other than a hired hand. KISS are, quite literally, just employing lookalikes to take the place of ousted members. Projects like Nine Inch Nails and Napalm Death aren’t the exception anymore — they’re the rule.
(And these are mostly bands I like!)
But it’s a little odd to downplay the contributions of various musicians by continuing on like the group hasn’t changed. This is especially true when you’re talking about situations where the new version of a band sounds almost nothing like the old version of the band: Sabbath, Maiden, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Anthrax and Job for a Cowboy are just a few of the bands who, at one point or another, went through line-up changes that violently altered their sound.
Not that it’s hard to understand why all these groups would wanna keep their names despite going seemingly endless line-up changes. For one thing, any passionate musician will most likely view his or her band as “their baby,” and only white trash teen mothers wanna throw away their baby. On an arguably more cynical level, changing your name is a shitty career move. “Your band is your brand,” the saying goes, and it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to build up knowledge about, and respect for, your brand. Without your original line-up, your performance guarantees and recording advances might go down somewhat — but they won’t go down as much as if you use a completely different name. This an extreme example, but for the sake of making my point: if Axl Rose had actually acknowledged that Guns N’ Roses broke up when they broke up, he would have lost the $10,000,000 advance from his label that his then-manager had negotiated while Slash and the gang were still in the band. I’m sure that whatever Job for a Cowboy’s guarantees are, they’re not exactly phenomenal — but they’re a helluva lot better than they would be if the band (which now features only one original member) decided to start going by another name (Welfare for an Astronaut, perhaps?).
(Incidentally, this is why musicians often fight over who gets ownership of a band’s name, which sometimes leads to there being multiple versions of the same band: Queensrÿche, L.A. Guns, etc.)
Nor is it difficult to understand why fans are often willing to go along with the charade (or semi-charade, in many cases): they’ve become emotionally invested in the group, and not only do they not want that group to go away. Basically, they’re in denial.
But the fact that it’s understandable why this phenomenon has occurred doesn’t mean it’s forgivable. The death grip musicians maintain on their brands is detrimental to one of the most beautiful things about bands — that they’re solidified units whose art is the product of a collaboration between multiple unique personalities. So maybe it’s unfair to say “Slayer shouldn’t be called Slayer anymore” — but it’s also unfair to claim that the Slayer of 2015 is the same as the Slayer of 1986 (y’know — the one that is the actual reason any of us even give a hoot about the band in the first place). “Everything ends” is one of those clichés that is a cliché for a reason: it’s totally true. Fans and musicians alike need to wise up and accept that before the very concept of a band just becomes one big joke.
*I’m including the generally-accepted classic line-ups of any given band, because sometimes the version of the band fans remember most fondly is not actually the original version of the band (e.g. Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Anthrax, etc.).