On music fandom and the nature of trust

We live in a disposable world. Our attitudes towards physical products have rewarded us with landfill mountains and polluted oceans, and that’s just the items we’re told are being recycled.

This throwaway mindset permeates art and culture, too, and it’s just as poisonous. The vast majority of music fans are grazers; most never actually buy anything at all.

The songs they hear, even the songs they actively stream, they’re all temporary. They demand no commitment and they offer no permanence in return.

In. Out. Gone.

It might take minutes or months but the truth is that the only way to make a song stick now is to be one of the mass-market playlist chameleons whose artistically absent wallpaper music normal people listen to on a loop because they’re told that’s what good sounds like.

Being in a rock band today is difficult. In the underground especially it’s a life of slog and poverty, by now decades removed from private jets and million-dollar video shoots.

More bands than we realise — bigger bands than we realise — can’t afford to make music. They do it in the name of creativity. They do it because they have something to say, some need to express themselves.

Releasing that music into today’s grazing market is like voting. People do it, and thank fuck they do, but it’s an exercise in futility for all but a few.

All that’s left is art. It’s high time we as heavy music fans understood that.

The bands we love are out there, night after night, working their arses off for no other reward than the music itself. It follows, then, that the music itself must be rewarding, for them and for us.

Being a fan is more than just passively absorbing an incoherent eighteen-song album through an ever more mainstream succession of mood-based Spotify playlists. Our job is to construct and maintain a sustainable platform that allows bands to not stand still creatively, to give them the room to express their art, their way.

Bands and fans in all but the unreachable echelons of rock music are in this together. If bands succumb to disposable art or fans treat their songs like last night’s chip paper then everybody suffers.

Flaky fandom isn’t new in the rock scene. People have always felt entitled to dictate the creative direction taken by the bands they claim to like. Metallica have lost fans over almost every creative decision they’ve taken since Lars Ulrich posted an ad in The Recycler.

Suicide Silence’s self-titled album was reviled by a section of the band’s fans before it even saw the light of day. That particular album turned off plenty of fans but the band won’t miss the ones who didn’t at least respect their creative choices. Perhaps some of them returned when Suicide Silence went back to just being Suicide Silence.

Neither the band nor the deathcore puritan wing of their fanbase have gained much from the compromise.

No fan can be told whether or not they like an album but there should at least be an understanding of the integrity behind these creative choices.

A great many bands are wholly devoid of integrity and their music betrays that fact time and again. The good ones take risks. They follow their artistic instincts. They evolve because they need to.

Accusations of selling out are as old as commercial music itself and with good reason. Every Friday the new albums list and Spotify Release Radar are full of witless posers who deserve only contempt.

But not all bands that make one album different from the last are sell-outs, not even if they become more accessible or successful as a result. Not every evolution is positive. Then again, not every evolution is negative; nobody deserves acclaim for standing still. It’s a matter of judging the intent, not the outcome.

Trusting a band’s judgement is an important function of music fandom. It engenders an atmosphere in which true creativity can thrive.

Metallica wouldn’t be Metallica if they bent to the desires of their most entitled fans. In the 1990s they made album after album of fantastic music for which nobody asked. For every battle jacket thrown in the dirt in protest there was a fan who simply trusted Metallica to be trustworthy.

Trust isn’t really a word that should appear in the same postcode as Brand New nowadays but their musical evolution and connection with their fans was entirely based on it.

The band and their fans grew up together. From the spiteful, emotional, adolescent outburst that launched their career to the agreeably pretentious and thoroughly adult record that should have been their curtain call, Brand New never made the same album twice.

Their fans stuck with them through the darkness, combustibility and contrariness of albums two, three and four, and the result is that they can enjoy — should they wish — a varied discography of extraordinary quality.

Consider Palm Reader as a more current example; at the time of writing they’re stomping towards the release of their highly anticipated fourth album. The song they’ve been playing live, we’re told, is the heaviest on the new record. If that’s true then we already know that the band has continued to evolve.

Their third record, Braille, was a critically acclaimed work of excellence that might very well have saved the band from a premature banishment to pasture. It was as expansive as it was accessible, a clear deviation from the two cult albums that preceded it. Palm Reader rolled the dice and won, learning in the process to trust their creative instincts.

On album number four their musicianship and curiosity of mind have continued to take priority. As fans, we trust in that process and the men behind it. We don’t know what the new album sounds like but we’re invested enough in the band as a creative entity to know already that it will be of the highest quality.

Without that trust, Palm Reader’s journey since Braille and into the future would look very different. If their fans demanded Bad Weather over and over the band would have either no fans or no music. Neither would be sustainable.

In that regard it’s also necessary to have trust in the other direction. With any creative evolution a band takes a risk. Where Brand New and Palm Reader have gambled successfully, they’ve been empowered by their fans in a way Suicide Silence were not. The respective outcomes couldn’t be clearer.

Employed To Serve, another vital British band with longstanding connections to Palm Reader, have developed their sound superbly over the years.

Their debut album, Greyer Than You Remember, yielded some terrific reviews and established a foothold. But Employed To Serve are not modest of ambition. They want to be as big as they can possibly be, taking their attitude to an ever-growing tribe. Quite rightly, they feel no shame about pursuing growth in popularity as well as creatively. It’s not about commercial success. It’s about notoriety.

That’s the crucial balance. The Warmth Of A Dying Sun and Eternal Forward Motion are both brilliant albums and Employed To Serve just keep getting bigger. The developments in their sound are helping them along the way but they are not a compromise by definition. The creative growth is there too.

The latest album is arguably their most straightforward yet but it’s still heavy as balls. It’s meaty and lairy and it sounds fucking great both on wax and in the flesh. There are probably a few fans who were on board with the band in the early days who hear Eternal Forward Motion and don’t approve. That’s their loss.

But Employed To Serve have a hardcore of fans who are open-minded and supportive of the band’s creative process, not protective of their own limiting bubble. They trust the band and the band trusts them. They’re on the same path, marching together. The resulting freedom has been the making of them and it’s wonderful to see. Like Palm Reader, they deserve every success.

Mutual trust is the key to artistic progress. Fans trust their favourite bands to stay true to themselves as artists. Bands return the favour by doing just that and knowing they’re safe to do so.

In those circumstances the meaningless optical or commercial risk is absorbed so the artistic risks can be attacked head-on. The results speak for themselves.

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Chris Nee