You need go no further than the artists themselves when seeking to find out how screwed up the music business has become. Among the plethora of the problems an emerging artist or band has to face in today’s music scene is how to market themselves successfully. Yes, Virginia, it’s not about how good your songs are anymore. Writing and playing the songs is only the beginning, unless the apex of your dream is being King Shit of your own basement and having the packed house (read: your disappointed parents) hold their cigarette lighters aloft for your grand finale and having your slightly inebriated uncle interviewing you about when you’ll be back playing your next gig or whether you’ll get your closet/dressing room cleaned out in time for the Salvation Army pick-up.
Sound bleak? It very well could be. Most major labels (and even the minor ones – those still in business, that is) these days won’t take a chance on a band that doesn’t have it’s own fanbase built over several years of gigging, self-releasing albums and working their email lists and MySpace pages. It used to be a band could get a record company’s attention by having a popular local single, maybe a decent gig opening for a semi-famous band. That’s not enough anymore. The majors don’t have the time, money, or, most importantly, the interest to gamble on an act at this stage of the game. Gone are the days of label’s sticking with you as long as the newest release sold more than the last. Now it’s sure things only, million-sellers or hit-the-bricks. And some jaded hippies who were on the scene in the ’60’s may say it’s always been this way, but let me tell you, it’s a whole new level of crazy compared to what it was then. A band’s gotta press the flesh, work the room and gather fans and sales just to prove to the majors that they don’t need a major label, all in hopes the label wants them enough to sign them. Then, of course, the band caves in because everyone knows that’s what they wanted all along anyway. And the game rolls on.
But, the most important thing a band should have is a musical focus. Sure, you can get a leg up on your competition for the major label bucks and attention by having a website and a MySpace page. Another good thing to have is a collection of email addresses to send email blasts when playing in town, the more names the better. And, yeah, selling that homemade album recorded in some local studio works too. But, more important than anything else is focus. Your music must have a focus. If it doesn’t, you are consigning yourself to the cutout bin. You may have that website page or MYSpace account, but you won’t have enough fans to have an email list or enough sales to warrant attention if you are unsure of your focus.
Let me provide an example of how a lask of focus can ruin one of the best bands in the world.
In the early ’70’s Creedence Clearwater Revival was at the top of the charts, having more success with their singles and albums than any other band at the time and seemingly ready to pick up from the Beatles the title of “best-selling band”.
Then egos got in the way anbd the other bandmembers (yeah, I don’t remember their names either – nobody does) decided they all wanted to direct the band, switch of the style of music a little and sing lead on some of the songs. Leader John Fogerty knew no band could survive without a musical focus but he decided to play along to prove a point. The band released Mardi Gras – a stinker of an album that yielded no hits and didn’t sell remotely close to their previous efforts. Soon the group was busted up, as the rest of the band couldn’t deal with the fact that Fogerty’s vision and talent had gotten them there, not theirs and when they lost their focus and wanted to explore different avenues, their fans became confused and abandoned them.
Why did I relate this story? Because I feel the band Ecotone Refugees is either going through the same thing or in some way has an identity crises brewing as far as what musical path they want to follow. On their new album, the band jumps from one style to music to another without stopping, as if this was an audition tape or something a survey company could play for a group of people so they could vote on what genre they liked the band playing best. In other words, it seems as if it is music by committee at best and maybe musical schizophrenia at worst. While listening to this CD my mind boggled to the many musical personalities they put forth in one song, not to mention the whole album, though the first two songs are killer and are beyond reproach.
The first song, Marathon, begins with a brash metallic onslaught, the band sounding like a blitzkreig of power rock and getting wilder as the song continues. The band shifts into prog rock territory for “Wake Up” slipping in some killer keyboard parts reminding me of Yes or ELP. So far so good for the band. Starting with the next song, Losing Your Faith, everything starts to change of musical twists and turns. The song combines the best elements of punk and speed metal into a hurricane power blitz and then devolves into slower, plodding metal more reminiscent of Black Sabbath at their prime. Echoes of bands such as Deep Purple and other keyboard-heavy rock bands are also present. The song then takes another detour, this time into an acoustic vein with some Latin touches. Musical split-personality much? The next song “Lost In You” has more Sabbath touches, with the vocalists trading lines until the chorus speeds up into a thrashing punk spin, then goes into some prog/space rock passages. Time to bring up the lyrics of the band’s songs, which this song made me notice more than the first few. Though the lyrics are somewhat simplistic, the band seems to gear their music towards the time-honored subject matter of fighting and fucking anyways so I am not sure that is a bad thing. The next song “Baghdad Hell” shows off the band’s fiery prog style then heads into some metal-style stuff with some searing guitar tones, making for one of the better songs on this set. The band then takes a right turn (radical even for this CD) on the next song, “Cyclone”, which is basically an amped up surf track with plenty of Farfisa organ and driven with a Dick Dale-like guitar riff and plenty of twang. As if to say “gotcha”, the song then morphs into a slow, swirling, psychedelic blues. Next up is “B-Squad Brothers” which sounds like 60’s fuzz-laden garage rock with a tinge of metal just for fun. Lyrically the song is an ode to band togetherness and could possibly be the Ecotone Refugees theme song. The song goes all prog and space rock for an extended period of time. Finally, the band busts into the final song of this set, a proggy/space rock epic entitled “Water is Rising” which is basically a jam for the band to show their musical chops.
Though I have been critical I hear a lot to like in this band’s music, but I believe there are several forces within the band directing the music. In other words, I fear there is no clear leader and no true direction to the band. Many songs jump from one style to another for no obvious reason and for little gain. Often while listening I’d become excited about a certain tone or groove only to see it disappear into the ether or morph into something else which sounded decent, but not as good as what came before. While I am not saying a band has to follow certain rules or strive to fit into some narrow niche, there are many reasons to establish a clear identity, at least in the beginning stages of a band’s career. In order to get fans, they have to be able to identify with you and your music. I would think that people listening to this CD that don’t know the band well would only like a few songs on the album due to the various styles. Even though you could say, “well, there’s something for everybody” in these new days of the IPOD and other devices the song has become the thing and getting a couple songs for the price of a CD is not the best buy for someone interested in a band. What’s promising is the band is very accomplished on their instruments and musically very eclectic, and though those qualities are positives, you don’t have put everything you’re capable of or interested in on one album as your album turns more into an audition tape striving to fill every niche. A band should be able to pick their own sound, be confident in it and stick with it.
While I can appreciate this band’s skill and potential, this CD has an indecisive “let’s show them what we can do” vibe to it than a real album with a true focus, which is unfortunate. The other side of the coin is the band’s upside: which is talent, skill and the ability to draw from various influences. Hopefully on the band’s next release there will be more of a solid concept and true focus to their music which will allow them to build a loyal fanbase who can find in their music something to hold on to and allow the band the chance to get the success their abilities deserve.