Conflicts. Egos. Creative differences. Egos. Personality quirks. Egos. Dormant substance-abuse problems. And did we mention egos? That’s quite a lot to manage – and no one has even plugged anything in yet.
The art of the band reunion is almost a holy grail for music managers, but one that more and more of them seem to be locating in whatever Arthurian plane of existence it currently inhabits. Although Reading and Leeds festival boss Melvin Benn said this week that if The Smiths reformed it would destroy their legacy, the trend of classic bands giving it another go shows no sign of abating in 2012. Blur received their lifetime achievement from the Brits a few weeks ago, and the main musical event of the summer – the return of Mancunian legends The Stone Roses – looms ever closer.
The likes of Pulp, The Verve, Rage Against The Machine, The Pixies, Soundgarden and many others have all hung up their hang ups over the past 10 years in attempts to conjure up their old magic, with varying degrees of success and failure. Meanwhile, some bands – such as Benn’s beloved The Smiths – refuse to join the trend… at least, for the time being. Different reunions have been handled in different ways – but is there a quality-assured ‘best practice’ for managing a comeback for maximum effect?
Take That writing credit
Reforming can happen in a variety of guises: a short hop through the hits, then back into retirement; a live return with no new studio recordings; or a full-blown comeback. A key component of success appears to be the ability of ‘management’ (often the promoter who entices the band to return, such as SJM’s Simon Moran) to correctly ascertain what level of interaction the band members will be able to cope with.
A band in its first incarnation does everything together – writing, recording and touring – and clearly there came a point at which personal or artistic relationships broke down, otherwise the band would never have split up in the first place. A returning band who perhaps had an acrimonious split has the option of avoiding the writing and recording part of this to avoid history repeating itself, resulting in less time spent together and more chance of harmony remaining within the camp. Rage Against The Machine, The Pixies, and Pulp have all benefitted from this type of reunion and all have been successful.
The ultimate reunion has, of course, been Take That, who originally reformed simply for gigs, but ended up writing and touring a further three new albums of studio material. This, however, was a reunion with significantly altered personalities and egos in the cast. Gary Barlow, the de facto leader of the band, was meticulous about establishing a more democratic version of the band than existed in its original phase, with lead vocals – and, importantly, songwriting credits – split equally between members, despite Barlow contributing the lion’s share. This proved to be an incredibly shrewd move on Barlow’s part, as a quarter each of a huge amount of money almost certainly dwarfed what would have been 100% of much less – and with harmony maintained throughout – even when the potentially divisive figure of Robbie Williams returned.
Welcome back to the jungle
The success of Take That Mk II has inspired others to try and cash in with studio albums, but this has often pushed the dynamic too far. The Verve’s reunion took in a brand new album alongside touring, but resulted in the band splitting up again. Clearly, this was not smart management – but perhaps that’s no surprise considering Richard Ashcroft’s ego was allowed to run as free as it did during the band’s heyday.
Guns ‘n’ Roses’ comeback has turned into a car-crash – again no surprise, since Axl Rose’s whims have been so heavily indulged: as the band’s sole remaining founder member, with ownership of the G‘n’R trademark, he has chewed through a cast list of revolving-door sidemen and has therefore lost the creative spark of the old gang – as the disappointing Chinese Democracy album amply proved. The “original” new members, who created a hugely powerful live force when the band first returned, all left when Rose’s stubbornness ballooned.
The smart bands, though, have realised that, with record sales so low – and appetite for nostalgia so high – there is simply no need to risk making any new music, which may not compare with the old material. The main money is in playing the hits that everyone knows to an audience that is happy to pay a relatively high ticket price, with seemingly no risk that people will get bored of hearing the same songs. The Pixies managed to play the same set around the world for seven solid years. Rage, meanwhile, have managed four.
The inherent problem with comebacks is that success appears to depend on the self-awareness of the personalities involved – an attribute not normally associated with rock stars – as bands tend to eschew traditional management, who may warn them not to kill the golden goose by doing too much. Most comebacks are done for money, so bands are not keen to give up their 20%. However, a smart band with a sensible promoter who doesn’t push too hard can spawn riches for all concerned. The Stone Roses plan to embark on a world tour – but will also a new album at the ready when they return this summer. It will be very interesting to see how long it will be – in the words of Ian Brown – “until the wheels fall off”.
Image of Take That courtesy of Andrew Hurley