Guest Spots: Ancestors explains the fundamental choice that all bands make

Ancestors: Invisible WhiteAncestorsInvisible White EP (Tee Pee, 6/28/11)

Ancestors: “Dust”

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With its latest record, a three-track EP entitled Invisible White, LA-based quintet Ancestors shifted its focus from stoner metal to more experimental psych/classic-rock territory. The band didn’t miss a step in the transition, garnering a This Week’s Best Albums nod from us (read here).

It’s a move that many bands contemplate after establishing a signature sound with which its fans become familiar. Do you play it safe and make the record everyone expects and will undoubtedly enjoy? Do you shoot for a hit record in hopes of gaining wealth and fame? Or do you push yourself to explore new territory without worrying about the response? Below, lead vocalist / guitarist Justin Maranga explains Ancestors’ internal debate.

The Three Ways to Make Music
by Justin Maranga

There comes a time in the career of every band or musician when they have to make a choice. It is a choice that will heavily affect the future of their career. At this point, you may ask yourself what that choice is or find yourself trying to guess the possible options. Or perhaps you’re thinking, “Just get to the point already.” Well, as musicians, that’s precisely what we have to figure out. What is the point? What we as musicians must do is decide why we’re doing this and for whom we’re doing it.

So the way I see it, there are three ways we can go. The first option is that we’re doing it for ourselves; the second is that we’re doing it for the fans; and the third is that we’re doing it to attract as broad an audience as possible and hopefully will make enough money to survive (or more). Unfortunately, there is no right answer to these questions, and no matter what we choose, there are things to be lost and things to be gained. So let’s look at that, shall we?

It’s important to note that as artists, we stand to face criticism for our choice, no matter which way we go. So should we choose option number one, which is to make music for ourselves, the criticism is obvious. We may very well become the target of one of the music critic’s favorite phrases: “self-indulgent.” Dun dun dun! The hardest part of any form of art is trying to please yourself while simultaneously pleasing your audience. Of course, if you can weather the storm of criticism from fans, critics, and casual listeners who occasionally (or frequently) don’t understand what you’re trying to do, this choice undoubtedly promises to be the most personally fulfilling. And perhaps if you’re lucky, what resonates with you will resonate with listeners and it will prove to be financially fulfilling as well.

In my experience, as much as you want to do it for yourself, this can be a difficult choice to make. We (Ancestors) have chosen this route for ourselves, but not without some serious introspective discussion.  How do you forsake what you know to be the desires of your fans in favor of your own desire to grow as a musician? In our case, we just decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it in the form of an EP entitled Invisible White, for which we eliminated any sense of the word “heavy” from our music and completely changed our approach to songwriting and song construction. But regardless of the response, I find it hard to be disappointed with a product that we’re so proud of. In the end, no matter what the outcome, I think it’s worth it.

Moving on, the second choice is a fan favorite, for obvious reasons.  Fans like to think that it’s all about them — and rightly so.  As a music fan, I know that I’ve felt that way.  However, as a musician, how far must you go to placate your audience? And how can you do right by your audience without enduring the wrath of the music critic? The fans usually want the same album over and over again, because they’ve settled into that album. They want to hear more songs that sound similar without being exactly the same, and they want the production to sound the same because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to. If you make any changes, they have to get used to those changes, and let’s face it: fans fear change. Unfortunately, critics tend to look down on a band that can’t (at the very least) improve upon their sound or (at the most) reinvent the wheel with every successive release.

The problem with choice number two is that being in a band is like being president (stay with me here). You’ve got thousands of fans and each one has found something in your music that they like and want to hear more of. But there is no one united voice. How do you please thousands of people at the same time? In my opinion, all you can do is keep trying to better your music and hope that your fans will come with you. In my experience, you will likely lose some fans along the way. But these fair-weather fans are simply casualties of a war that cannot be won. And where you lose one fan, you’ll hopefully gain two more.

The third choice is the one that the old fans dread, but the masses rely on: the mass appeal and/or money choice. Don’t the fans understand that we need to eat? After all, we can’t go on tour if we have jobs and we can’t afford to eat if we have no jobs and no money! Woe is me: the familiar cry of the starving musician. So perhaps we have to sacrifice some of our integrity for a paycheck. It is not wrong; it’s a choice. Every musician fears the fans’ favorite rallying cry when they’re upset about the new direction that their favorite band has taken. I can hear it now: “They’ve sold out!” cries the angry fan as he puts on the new album that he just spent his hard-earned time downloading for free.

I’ll be the first to admit that when I was still playing in the DIY music scene, I had no understanding of the role that money played in the business of running a band. I was just as guilty of shunning bands that had shifted gears in the interest of financial gain. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of this industry (and any other industry, really) is that it costs money to keep a band going. While I’ve never lived the life of a musician whose music pays the bills, I have friends (and bandmates, for that matter) who do live that life, and I’ve certainly gained enough insight into that life to say that I can’t blame those people for placing themselves in the position to play music for profit, regardless of what that music is. The same goes for a band that sees an opportunity to profit from their music and seizes that opportunity while it’s there. It’s simply a choice that the idealist fan / music lover might not approve of, but that the realist musician might reluctantly accept for lack of a reasonable alternative and a desire to be able to play music for a living.

As you can see, there’s no right or wrong answer here.  So why have I bothered to write about this, you ask?  Well, I think that it’s important for the discerning music fan to understand the musician’s side of things. Stick by that band you like when they make a move that you’re uncomfortable with. They did it for a reason, and perhaps if you press through your initial hesitance and join them for the ride, you’ll actually be pleased with their decision in the end. Oh yeah, and buy the record. It sounds better than the MP3 and it comes with artwork. I promise, you won’t regret it.

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