"Is there something wrong with these songs?/Maybe there's something wrong with the audience."
-Against Me!, "Don't Lose Touch"
Thinking more about the recent announcement about Lifetime signing to Decaydance, along with guitarist Dan Yemin's statement on the matter, I'm starting to see a big overall picture here. Just as the Against Me! lyric wonders, maybe there is something wrong with how an audience perceives a band signing with whomever. By "wrong," I don't mean it as bad over good, but just a big misunderstanding.
In the simplest of forms, labels are vehicles for bands. Whether your band wants to put out records on an independent label, a major label or something in between, labels of all shapes and sizes exist to put out music. Not every label operates the same way, yet they are still vehicles at the end of the day. However, judging by the artists/bands and records that a label puts out is often a dividing line. In Lifetime's case, judging strictly by Lifetime's association with a label known for not jumping on trendy bandwagons and signing with a new label that has ties to mall punk bands, of course there's going to be uproar. But even as I posted my concerns on this issue last week, I wonder why this is such a big deal for fans, including myself.
In my case, I've read a number of stories that sound very similar: a label, seeming to be the perfect place for a band initially, turns into a major headache for the band in time. Most of these stories involve bands signing with major labels, but it's happened on plenty of indie labels too. Major labels still get a bum rap, but more and more independent labels are getting the same as the lines between indie and major continue to blur. In Lifetime's case, here's a band that has signed with a new imprint with ties to a long-running independent label. However, it just so happens that this label is owned by emo's current pin-up pop star and they have a hit record on their hands for the time being. Having a long-running and respected band like Lifetime on a label tied directly to mall punk seems like strange bedfellows. However, there are plenty of reasons why this situation occurred and why it's not really any of audience's place to tell a band what they can and can't do.
Something I've noticed with how a band is represented in the press is that a lot of things get condensed, leaving out certain key factors that should may or may not be brought up at the time of the writing. While that's a way of summarizing something like a label signing, wherever there are holes in issues that are not directly addressed, people will fill them with their own ideas. Some think that Lifetime will cater solely to the young, mall punk crowd. Some think that Lifetime's next record will be god-awful. I can understand how people would think that, but for myself, I'm going to wait and hear Lifetime's next record, regardless of which label it's on. If I like it, then I like it. If I don't like it, then I don't like it. Assumptions may very well come into my head when I hear this record, but as I've always stood by the main priority with listening to music, it's about how the music makes me feel deep down. That's something no label, A&R rep, producer or even the band itself can predict.
Like almost every single band's story, there's what goes on and there's what gets printed. How can us fans really truly understand a band's predicament when all the information we have consists of press releases, interviews, album artwork, liner notes, and whatever information is available on the Internet? How can we as fans know exactly know who our favorite bands are made of, even if we've interviewed them or hung out with them? As someone who's interviewed a number of bands for a book, I want to greatly emphasize that my chapters on them are merely peeks into what these guys have experienced. There's only so much that I can gather from being a fan and doing research, so of course a number of things will be lost in the translation.
I think it's great that audiences speak their minds, but I think it would be interesting if they reversed the spotlight on themselves. For example, say you were really close to somebody in high school (whether as a friend and/or a significant other). For whatever reasons you and the other person have, the relationship now is not what the relationship was back in high school. The relationship may have ended and you two have moved on in life. However, somebody else, who wasn't involved directly in the relationship, urges you and the other person to get back together. This somebody else doesn't understand why you and the other person are apart and there is a desire to just move on without having to give many reasons. I think you can draw a lot of parallels to how bands grow over time and whether or not their audience sticks with them.
To put it another way, it's like telling somebody to be like he/she was back when he/she was 18-years-old because that's when you thought this person was the best. Well, we're only 18 once and nothing can change that. Behaviors from yesterday may change or not change through one's life, but everyone grows up and matures in their own ways. Yet when dealing with the documentation of a band's life at a certain period of time on a record, it's really easy to become attached to that time in the band's life. You don't want it to change for the worse, so it makes sense that people are guarded about a band that may change for the worse. But just because we buy a band's CD, wear their t-shirt and/or see them play live does not mean we are stockholders in the band's interests. We're talking about bands made of humans, not machines that can be programmed or jobs that can be cut. We're not a band's supervisor that yells at them when they do the "wrong" thing. At the base, we're an audience of observers.