Your Favorite Band Just Broke Up. Who Cares?
When should a band break up? If they’re your favorite, the obvious answer is never, or at least not until the lead singer overdoses or dies in a plane crash. But the best answer might just as likely be now—right now, right when you love them the most, when they’re making the best music of their lives. If they go out on top, you’ll never have to suffer the embarrassment of their decline.
At least, that seems to be James Murphy’s thinking. “People get into bands, and just keep going because that’s what’s in front of them, don’t they?” he told the Guardian’s Jude Rogers recently when she asked about Murphy’s declaration last winter that LCD Soundsystem would probably be hanging up their synthesizers after this year’s tour. “It’s more fun to just go for it knowing that we’re done. And then nothing matters. Then we have nothing to lose.”
And then there are folks who take the opposite route—bands like Supergrass, who, after 17 long years and six records, finally announced this spring that they would be calling it quits. Some bands (Guided By Voices, Oasis, Blur) seemed like they’d never break up—and finally did. And others (Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, the inimitable Rolling Stones) seem like they never will.
So what’s the right way to pull the plug? Be like the Stones and let the meter run as long as you can? Or be like London punks Ikara Colt who, from the very beginning, promised to break up after five years and in 2005, after just two records and an EP, promptly did, all to avoid becoming some “some old, tired and jaded outfit”? Or is it something in between?
Though Rogers talked to everyone from Frank Black to the EMI executive who worked with Crowded House (a band that broke up at the peak of their success in 1995) for her Guardian article, she doesn’t seem to have arrived at much of an answer. That’s not particularly surprising—a group’s decision rarely comes down to something as straightforward as whether it’s better to burn out or fade away. These choices are a result of many factors, from the simple desire to play with other people to shifting public taste. Plenty of bands don’t even make a choice—they just slowly drift apart.
Beyond the obvious fact that there’ll be no more new music released under the group’s name (at least for the foreseeable future), what fans fear the most when their favorite band breaks up is the loss of intimacy, the loss of a friendship they’ve cultivated for many years. But, as with so many other things, the Web has changed this dynamic.
Imagine, for example, if Radiohead broke up. (No, I know of no rumors to suggest that such a terrible thing might come to pass—quite the contrary, actually). Even if Thom Yorke and his former band-mates had no new musical projects on the horizon, you’d have multiple opportunities—through official and unofficial fan sites, blogs, tweets and the like—to find out what nearly everyone in the band was doing. Even if Thom or his handlers weren’t talking with you directly, there’d be a vast online community with which you could trade rumors and speculation. The band’s presence online (and elsewhere) would likely increase after such an announcement—all of which would ensure that your relationship with their music, and their story, remained nearly as vibrant as it was before.
But this being Radiohead, there would undoubtedly be many musical schemes afoot. Thom would have another solo record in the works, likely featuring multi-instrumentalist/musical genius Jonny Greenwood and the band’s longtime producer Nigel Godrich. Jonny would have his film scoring to keep him busy, and probably much more. Drummer Phil Selway already has a solo record due out on Aug. 31, and there’s every reason to believe he’d only start recording more without his main gig to keep him busy. And it’s hard to imagine guitarist Ed O’Brien and bassist Colin Greenwood not doing something with their free time.
Granted, Radiohead may be a unique case—both in terms of popularity and talent—but it’s hard to imagine any band with a dedicated fan base, whatever its size, without the kind of Web presence that could sustain its fans in the event of a breakup, at least until the lead-singer’s new project.
With just MTV, FM radio and a handful of magazines to turn to, a breakup really felt like a breakup 25 years—even for a band whose members continued to record and perform. But today, anyone can go online and find out who’s recording new stuff with whom and what beers they drank in the studio. The Web’s promise of ubiquitous connectivity has greatly diminished a breakup’s finality, and, as a result, our sense of loss. (Just look at Oasis. Only a month after Liam Gallagher confirmed the band’s dissolution, we already knew that he’d formed a new band with the remaining members of Oasis—minus Noel, of course.)
The other major reason breakups are less important than ever before is the increasing likelihood that any band—given enough space or enough weeks in rehab—will eventually get back together and hit the road. Just think of the number of high-profile acts (some critically beloved, some not) that have done so in the last few years: Pavement, The Pixies, The Police, The Jesus Lizard, Stone Temple Pilots, Slint, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and Blur, just to name a few. And now there’s Soundgarden and (amazingly) Guided By Voices.
Now that touring has become the music industry’s primary moneymaker, reunion tours have become a little industry unto themselves—and that’s served as a buffer against the disappointment we feel after a band’s demise. Unless they’re The Smiths, we’ll probably get at least one more shot to see them again in a few years—or a few months.
Of course, none of this—not the Web’s 24/7 music-news cycle or the reliability of reunion tours—changes the fact that your favorite band may never release another album under their own name, or that if they do, it may feature only one of the founding members (see Smashing Pumpkins).
Breaking up is still hard to do—but at least now you can still be friends.
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