January 7, 2015
by Jonathan Diener

“I only like their first record.”  

“They sold out.” 

“They’re trying too hard.”

As a music lover and a jaded musician, I’ve been on both sides of this situation. I’ve simultaneously received ridicule and praise for The Swellers changing our sound over time. It’s confusing to read the comments online and have labels or friends whispering in your ear, then seeing what kind of music comes from it all. I wanted to explore what I think some of the major contributing factors are to bands changing stylistically throughout the years.

“Commercial Failure”

Major labels, like anything else in corporate America, will temporarily reward success and then set the bar even higher for your next endeavor. Your new goals and the label’s expectations add an extra pressure if you’re in the spotlight. To them a failure can be your debut selling 500,000 copies, then the sophomore release only selling 300,000. To the average person, that’s a success either way, but when you’re looking at it on paper, it’s a different story. 

The best example of a band changing their sound after a “commercial failure” is Weezer. If you listen to their first three albums in order you will notice some major differences. The Blue Album was a massive hit. Pinkerton was the departure and an experimental period, then a few years later The Green Album was released as a polished, formulaic rock record. Now a cult classic, Pinkerton was not the instant success they were hoping for. Its gritty recording quality and extremely personal lyrics connected to their core fan base, but not the Average Joe watching the, “Buddy Holly” video on MTV. Mixed with a few other variables, I believe that the mixed reviews, album sales and overall feedback got to Rivers and the band. I have a theory that musicians do not willingly change their sound, but a switch goes off in their brain that changes the way they approach songwriting. The Green Album was the safe response and ended up doing very well, getting Weezer back on the map, but leaving some of their fans missing that deeper, darker side of the band that seemed to be absent from most of their following albums.

Young Age / Early Success

Panic! At The Disco are the first band that comes to mind when it comes to early success being the major factor in changing a band’s sound. Here’s a group of teenagers who never played a show signing to Pete Wentz’s monster label and being thrown into instant mainstream success. These guys had no history with touring, never wrote more than an album’s worth of songs, but seemed to be handling everything well from the bystander’s point of view. It seems that they established their sound early enough and like other bands in the genre would continue to do similar albums. Fans were shocked when their next release, Pretty. Odd., came out and sounded like some serious Beatles worship, with catchy, straightforward songs and a nice throwback feel that serious music fans and musicians alike could at least appreciate. 

In my mind, the band was continuing to expand and blossom into something really cool. To the average fan, they were abandoning their old sound and committing a mass betrayal. When I was in my teens, our band had songs called “Losing My Girl” and “Zombie Pirates From Outer Space” and now it’s finally more funny than embarrassing to look back at them. Over time we grew into something that we believed in and wrote what felt like were more mature songs. Panic! lost all of their members, leaving only their frontman to carry the torch. Another symptom of early success. Regardless of the lineup changes, artists should have the freedom to create in whatever ways they desire. Stifling that not only hurts the artist, but the fans over time. It’s exhausting hearing the same thing over and over, but when something weird and new comes to light it could change everything.

Old Age / Families

I saw the band Rise Against open for ska/punk band Mad Caddies about 10 years ago with around 150 people in attendance. Fast forward to the year 2014, I hear them on the radio and see their tour dates in arenas all over. When I first heard them they were a lightning fast, emotional punk band. Now they’re a straight forward rock band. The members were seasoned touring veterans in the punk world and when they had enough hype to get major label attention, they went for it. When they wrote a more accessible album it did incredibly well and the guys decided to stick to the formula. They didn’t turn their back on punk rock, they just grew up, had families and knew they could make a living. Their old punk fans still criticize them and call them sellouts, but when you’re in a band that’s bigger than ever, able to play music for a living and still have the same political and social message, I just call that a success. Sure they’ve moved away from the style that got me into them originally and they are a related artist with Nickelback on Spotify, but that just means they’re one of the biggest rock bands out today.

Boredom / Musical Discovery

My favorite of these categories involves bands who got tired of the same old thing, found new inspiration and went for a change. There was no major element pushing them to do it other than musical discovery. RX Bandits went from being a ska band to a proggy Mars Volta style band just because they were too talented to hold themselves back. I think they wrote some of their best material on their last few albums. Their band got bigger from taking a risk and doing the opposite of simple songwriting. Spending some time in the UK, I’ll hear the average watered-down rock bands on the radio followed by some absolutely crazy music (like my friends in a band called Pulled Apart By Horses) that was given a chance and succeeded in the mainstream. I wish it was like that in our country. I wish the standard for success in music was to just be good at what you do. 

OK… They Clearly Just Want Money

In my quest for open-mindedness over the last few years, I’ve refrained from putting artists into this category. The music industry machine still puts bands together, writes songs and pumps money into them until it becomes a success. In the pop world this is already a given, considering the idea of a pop star is created to be larger than life (pun intended) and has to be as accessible as possible. You don’t look at Katy Perry and think about her past, you just consume it for what it is. Mindless, easy to swallow pop music with someone who resembles a cartoon character singing it. I saw her in Detroit and was actually amazed at the spectacle. In the rock world, bands forcefully incorporating dubstep and electronic elements into their new albums are usually a sign of cashing in. Writing your own songs then having someone else do it for you, adding DJ scratches and becoming that watered-down mindless product is an example. The other less publicized version is bands suddenly reuniting and still hating each other just to crap out a new album. Some bands realize they are on the way out and try to recreate their earlier material at too old of an age, which just comes off as sad. You’re not in high school anymore, you’re forty years old, man.

Jonathan Diener plays drums in BRAIDEDVEINS and The Swellers. He’s on twitter: @jonodiener