Something that is nigh unavoidable as a metal fan is a once-beloved band falling off at some point in their career. As fans, we tend to gravitate to bands with great track records. Sometimes, we luck out and being following artists whose careers spanning span decades and churn out a half dozen or more great albums. Buying records from one of your favorite bands is like clockwork; every three to five years, you get a new opportunity to support that band that has been killing it your entire adult life. Seldom, however, is a vision so acute yet so genius in its foundation that any fresh coat of paint or reimagining is welcomed, unanimously, by its fanbase. A divergence between your needs as a listener and the band’s creative vision is an inevitability. We as humans are flawed, and the works of those we come to admire are no exception to that. Part of the equation that helps a metal band stay relevant in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success is hanging in the balance of innovation AND scratching that itch that your fanbase has come to expect after all these years.
This dilemma ultimately begs the question: are bands beholden to their fans? There are no wrong answers or correct viewpoints to this discussion, as the question is incredibly complex. We can break down this question into smaller ones by tackling definitions of artistic integrity, fandom and consumerism. Here we will take this opportunity to inform the complex relationships we have with the bands we love (or hate), and ourselves as fans or customers. We should do this not as a conclusive baseline, but we should ask ourselves these questions when consuming or producing music, particularly when it comes to bands whose work is a staple of our communities.
As a music creator, you’re within your rights to do (almost) anything you want. Nobody is going to stop you from making the music you want to make, and regardless of how people end up consuming it, if you choose to release it, it has value as a personal effect and a cultural artifact. Making a product is important to the world, as it’s an entangled reflection of you and the world you live in. This is artistic integrity; a sacred right of people to create as they see fit. There are exceptions to this, as propaganda, hate speech and inciting violence are vehicles we try and prevent art from piloting. However, these cases are extreme, and there are legal systems around the world to prevent a blatant misuse of the artistic license. This is the official opinion of the blog and we only curate as to make the process of navigating the plethora of music at our fingertips easier, as a consumer. When creating music, and releasing it, that process can only be impeded by the free market. A fan or customer can never use scare tactics or violence to force an artist into submission so long as the art in question adheres to its own legal obligations. This is also an artist’s artistic license.
That said, a consumer has no other obligations. In short, we don’t have to consume an artist’s music – we don’t have to listen to it or purchase it; we can be upset if we don’t like it; we can rally against your distributors to stop selling it. We are with our rights as consumers to assign a value to your art, as it already has inherent value as a cultural artifact. Why is this the case? Well, artistic license is a precedence set by free-market capitalism. This means that the art has a right to exist and be protected privately in any capacity that the creator sees fit. But it also means that the public can consume it as they see fit. A consensus among consumers is that art is so plentiful in the modern age that spending time on things of critically received poor quality simply isn’t worth the time. There will be more content produced to our liking, as the human condition tends to seek outlets for their passions, emotions and creativity.
This is the baseline for being an artist and a fan. It’s a social contract that neither binds the artist or the fan to a piece of work. So what changes this equation? What warrants an article of this capacity exploring this relationship? Precedence. The investment of oneself into the music in an economic capacity. When the branding of a band becomes a product beyond the music itself and exists as a static indication of quality. An overarching sound and collection of work that becomes consumed as a product of that brand rather than an individualistic piece of music created in a vacuum. Suddenly, a band’s work is also attributed to its own success. Let us call this, the Opeth dilemma, in the context of this article.
The work of Opeth is unanimously lauded as successful in every way an extreme metal band could be celebrated. Every single album is critically acclaimed, from their debut Orchid to their ambitious foray into a clean-only sound on Damnation to Watershed, the latter of which is the last album to be held to the mark of quality that is the Opeth brand. Mikael Akerfeldt and his bandmates had made an impressive career with their distinct take on progressive death metal. They have sustained themselves in their personal lives not only through their artistic endeavors, but their commitment to their fans and the Opeth brand.
The precedent was set very high. Opeth years ago – even a decade before Heritage, Pale Communion and Sorceress – had ceased to be a band about playing to their influences. They were the influence. When you saw the Opeth logo on an album, it carried a weight that this was the best progressive death metal on the market. So where did that leave the band when they wanted to diverge from their sound? Does the brand of Opeth have a lesser creative license than the band members themselves?
With the release of Heritage, this became an important question for Opeth and their fans. Longtime fans were angered by this shift, as Opeth’s foray into a false sense of maturity and rehashing the sounds of 70’s prog acts was argued in our community to be misplaced. Some people argued that the band could do whatever it wants and that fans have no right to tell them otherwise. But as we’ve discussed, that’s not entirely true. Heritage and the albums that proceed it aren’t beholden to the fans in the same way we aren’t beholden to those albums. Nobody is putting guns to our heads saying we have to like them and buy them. The anger and frustration that stemmed at the time were from the perceived artistic integrity of the Opeth brand, which is much more limiting. Opeth is a specific blend of Swedish folk and progressive death metal with a bit of room to flex some creative indulgences. The album art is typically ethereal and the music pertaining to a specific atmosphere. In order for an Opeth album to be “Opeth”, at a certain point in their career, it has to check boxes. Their late career displays them taking that checklist and the precedence they had set over decades and just throwing it in the garbage. The Opeth brand’s precedence had changed because the members’ precedence had changed. Should they have hung up the brand then? Maybe. Maybe Opeth should have divulged more with their tendencies to pay homage to classic 70’s prog rock over the course of their career and rationed their desire to create this music so the Opeth brand had more boxes it could have checked off in their late career. Regardless though, the divergence brought new light to how we view the extreme metal staple.
Join us next week for Part 2 where Noyan and Cody take a look at the pitfalls of sticking to your brand identity in metal!