Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: Band vs Brand

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Band vs Brand
Written and directed by Bob Nalbanian
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Video
84 minutes; 2018 / 2019

The premise of this film is simple, and explained on the box: “When does a band become a brand?” This refers to when the band name becomes a synergy of its own, until sometimes even the band members themselves have no control. Of course, this is nothing new: for example, there have been groups like the Shangri-Las and the Marvellettes that have been touring for decades with no original members, and it’s a compilation of a pool of “who’s available for this gig?” singers.

But the focus of this documentary is in the metal genre, starting with the post-1992 media ecological age of the Internet with some rear-view mirror thinking, and it’s overarching effect on how music is purchased, downloaded, and how media streaming companies are bypassing the record companies.

Much of the story here is broken up into chapters, separated by titled cards, the first being “Logos and Merchandise,” or as Minutemen’s bassist Mike Watt famously coined it, “Merch.” Usta be in the1960s and ‘70s, independent tee-shirt sellers at venues like Madison Square Garden would flash their wares. Now, that’s pretty much a thing of the past, and the bands themselves sell their own merch with their logos inside the arenas or even clubs. In fact, many make more money of their paraphernalia (stickers, lighters, CDs, bandanas, etc.) than they do on the concert tickets. That’s why you see people with Ramones shirts who never knew they were a band, or were unfamiliar with their music. The brand became as – if not more – important than the band.

I remember right after Guns N’ Roses appeared on some award show, with bassist Duff McKagan wearing a CBGB tee-shirt, and suddenly people were buying them. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal made a small fortune with his logo. This is irony as my first Blank Generation crowd would go out of their way not to wear brands, and then CBGB was the brand.

With “Standing the Test of Time,” the film – and musicians – attests that no one with longevity has the merch power of KISS, with over 10,000 products that they sell. It’s rare for bands to last past a few years, and it almost seems like if they can pass a certain point, they can gather enough attention just from their endurance to become a brand through cultural osmosis.

One of the interesting aspects of sections like “Classic Rock” is listening to the seasoned musicians such as one of Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, discussing how, for example, (and I’m paraphrasing) that the Who would be less legitimate with Daltry and not Towshend than with Townshend and not Daltry. It’s true that bands have a history of being taken over by its singer, such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, or Buddy Holly and the Crickets. It’s not a new situation, but when the musicians themselves start talking about the distaste of that, I find that interesting. There is a moment where Ross the Boss talks about the post-Dictators’ outfit, Dictators NYC, that is close to my heart of the 1970s New York era.

I also find it interesting that the bands that are interviewed tend towards the older side, so when they discuss “Technology & the Internet,” for example, it’s mostly doom and gloom about quality and the anyone can do it attitude, but DIY is solid punk rock mentality because it was put out by the fans and musicians themselves. Certainly I am not arguing with the fact that most of the music now is overproduced, but so was arguable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the products of Yes, ELP, and many of the late ’60 and early ‘70s rock (now called Classic Rock) that needed a whole sea of technicians to set up and play in arenas, as opposed to the plug and play of rock’n’roll.

This rightfully leads to “The Changing Industry,” which, again, is nothing new, but still fascinating. There’s a great book called The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman in 1998, that discusses how the music industry went from being sold by music lovers to corporate entities who cared for nothing but the bottom line. Much of this chapter looks at how the fans approach music differently than they used to, which drive the bands to approach their music in dissimilar ways, which also affects the way products (both bands and their music) reach their market.

Not everyone can have the touring power of Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, so when discussing “Live Performances” this documentary correctly posits that bands have had to change the way they tour, be it package tours with other bands (though I do remember seeing a Foghat / Montrose / Black Oak Arkansas show at the Beacon Theater in NYC in the mid-1970s), or play in casinos, on cruise ships, private corporate shows, or more and smaller venues on a single tour (for example, I saw Johnny Winter play at a college bar in Saskatoon in 2011).

While not in this order, the chapter “Hologram” could easily have followed the “Live Performance” one, perhaps called either the “Dead Performance” or “the Lazy Performance.” This is where a hologram of the artist – dead or alive – is used in the act. The idea of this drives me crazy. ABBA is currently in the process of being digitized as their younger selves and going “on tour.” For me, I’m not paying $100+ a seat to essentially watch HDTV; hell, I’m probably not going to pay that much for an actual live one. To see the two surviving members of the Who for $350 (pre-fees for the ticket processing)? Not going to happen; got to see the full band in the day for $8.50. I’m a fan, but I’m not rich. This has seriously affected my going to live shows, which I used to do quite often. I’ll just watch it on YouTube now, which refers more to the “Branding & the Fans” chapter.

There is no getting around this is a negative topic so it’s hard not to be cynical either watching it as a viewer, or from the musicians’ standpoint onscreen, but director Bob Nalbanian keeps it interesting and flowing. Considering the musicians involved here – and this is just a small touch – from bands such as Dio, Angel (who really do have the coolest logo ever, and the story is included in the documentary), Plasmatics, Megadeth, Slayer, Keel, and Saxon, along with some I’ve mentioned previously (and you can see a bunch in the trailer, below), this is obviously geared to an older demographic who are probably less comfortable with the modern tone of the music biz.

The extra are two of this film’s trailers, and for three other music documentaries, including the Damned.

While it’s sad it’s come down to mere merchandising sometimes more than the music, it’s also been part of the legacy of rock’n’roll from the beginning. It has, however, picked up momentum along the way. Fans of my generation remember ticket prices to big shows being under $10, no glare from cell phones recording the concerts and being distracting (I used to sneak in cassette recorders sometimes), and an excitement level that led to dancing rather than egocentric moshing.

I’m not trying to say this is either good or bad; it’s just the way it was. That it is different now is the point of this documentary, sand Nalbanian presents some of the top veteran musicians in the field to successfully prove his point. Worth the view.


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