The sound of change

It has become a common theory amongst music fans nowadays: “their older stuff is better”. The tracks on the first album have been carefully crafted for years and played to death at various pubs and clubs around the country, until the perfect sound is discovered.

Then the band gets signed. The demand for material is much higher and much quicker and things start to sound different. But is it because they have less time to hone their skills and alter their original sound to be more creative? Or is it just the pursuit of making more money?


The Treehouse think it is "a shame" for bands to change their sound. Photo: Courtesy of Treehouse

Craig Hamilton, owner of Birmingham based record label Commercially Inviable Records, says: “Some of the best groups in history were shape-shifters and some of the dullest plodded down the same safe paths.”

Sometimes the change comes naturally and bands evolve after being influenced by new music or listening to new bands, however, some artists are at the mercy of record labels and are forced to make the music which will sell more records by following trends.

Hamilton adds: “I’d suggest that the desire for fame and adulation, or the need to evolve as a group, or even to just survive, would be bigger and more pressing driving forces than that of money, even in the most cynical cases of bandwagon-jumping.”

The term bandwagon-jumping has been thrown around a lot in relation to a number of artists, but none more so than that of the East Bay punks Green Day. Their biggest selling album “American Idiot” split their fans across the board.

Some embraced the new stadium rock feel and enjoyed the big sounding noise that Billy Joe and the gang were now making, where others preferred the punkier rawer sound of “Dookie”. Branded as selling out, the band didn’t help themselves in the accusation of only doing it for the money by releasing five singles and recently turning the album into a rock opera.

It can be argued that Green Day only made it big after their “American Idiot” album but established bands also change their style. Red Hot Chilli Peppers were once one of the biggest things in funk rock with such fantastic LPs as “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, but have since opted for the stadium rock genre with their latest “Stadium Arcadium” – again splitting fans into two groups.

Kevin Ashworth, bassist in Lincoln band The Treehouse says: “It’s up to [bands] to decide if they value the music or fame/money more. It’d be a great thing to make a living from playing music, just a bit of a shame if you need to alter what you really want to do in order to do that.”

The reason for the change in sound could be related to other factors. For instance, Metallica’s “St. Anger” album is widely regarded as their worst album to date as it deviates completely from their thrash background into over-produced generic metal.

Many fans blamed producer Bob Rock, claiming he had too much input in the album. A petition was posted online by Metallica fans for the band to cut ties with Rock and was signed by more than 20,000 people. As such the band chose Rick Rubin to produce the follow-up album “Death Magnetic”.

Despite this backlash from fans toward Metallica, not all music aficionados abandon their favourite artists due to a change in style or sound. Beth Palumbo, keyboardist for The Treehouse, says: “Many musicians have changed their style lots of times. Music is an evolutionary process.” Whilst guitarist Markus Coulson adds: “If music doesn’t evolve it would stagnate.”

Some bands who opted to change their style have been welcomed by the masses and has been widely regarded as a good move. Radiohead’s “Kid A” album brought about a massive change in style and methodology, focusing on a more minimalist nature.

Despite the 1997 release “OK Computer” being arguably their finest hour, “Kid A” didn’t lose Radiohead any fans and still reached number one in the UK and USA. It was also voted number one in the 100 Best Albums of the Decade by Rolling Stone in 2009.

Craig Hamilton on Commercially Inviable Records has this advice for bands pandering to the public and changing their sound. “Unless you have a crystal ball you are simply reacting to what’s already out there and in which case you are at least two years too late. With regard to a popular song on the radio, the chances are that the label concerned will have had that tune for some considerable time already.”

“Not only that, but the rest of the industry will be fully aware of what their competitor has and, if the original looks like being a success, will already be developing a similar sounding band, so you’re still too late. When you hit the third cycle of imitation, you get Eliza Doolittle.”

Selling out, however, is different. Some of the greatest bands of all time have all been accused of selling out. Perhaps the best folk artist in history Bob Dylan split his fans in 1965 by going electric with the release of “Bringing It All Back Home”.

The release alienated parts of the folk community and he was often booed at his shows for the following tour. However, some 45 years later Dylan still includes his electric material in his live shows and his audience lap it up.

“You can’t please everyone, so it’s probably best to make music that you are passionate about at that moment in time, and hopefully that passion will come across to the listener,” Kevin Ashworth from The Treehouse said.

Sometimes the change in sound is simply progressive and fans should allow music to evolve, rather than trying to clutch on to their favourite band without letting them grow up. Conversely some bands are always after more money and more fans, regardless of losing original fans along the way.

Bands need to think twice about the direction they’re going to take, this is why so many artists now have side-projects – to make some new music, but not lose their original fans.

However, music fans must not forget that their tastes change too and should allow their favourite artists to change with them.

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