[Hype Hype Hooray] The Strange Evolution of a Band

Every [two weeks?] Jamie Hale takes a long, hard look at the music industry and the blog scene that feeds it. Here, he releases those findings and makes snarky, sarcastic remarks. Admittedly, both Jamie and Knox Road are a part of this scene. So sue us.

Here in Pocatello, an Idaho mountain town of 50,000, there is a blink-and-you’ll-still-see-it kind of music scene. That is to say, there aren’t many people who actually play music here. In that scene, it’s easy to notice guys like Shawn Barnby.

As I understand it, Shawn Barnby stared as a solo artist, playing open mic nights with his acoustic guitar and iconic rap-rock voice. With his talents he sings a sort of smooth blues pop (think a tougher Jason Mraz).

At some point, the solo artist decided to craft a band, called Shawn and the Marauders, with a drummer and bassist. The bass was later upgraded to Cello (how very classy!), which boosted their popularity, largely thanks to a handsomely-mustachioed cellist. After a few popular years they suddenly brought back the bass and added a female vocalist – a move that just might dub them: “The band that flew too close to the sun.”

They are Example #1 in The Strange Evolution of a Band.

The problem with Shawn and the Marauders is that they jumped just a little too high. They’re known to have that kind of cool vibe that mixes well with craft beer and a Thursday night, and to their current fans, that’s what they’ll always be. The addition of another instrument and a second vocalist is sure to change that image – for better or worse.

Some people will love their new setup, and that’s great! But with a move so drastic, some will simply shake their heads and walk away. That’s no jibe at Shawn and the Marauders. It’s practically a fact of life for nearly every band ever.

It’s no secret that critics love musical evolution and fans – whether they admit it or not – love it too. But how do you evolve? What are you doing and how much are you doing and will the gamble pay off or should you play it safe? The right move can make a career, but the wrong move can ruin everything.

How do bands sail the rough seas of popularity, like marauders themselves, and not float into oblivion? The only only way to know is through observation, and for that I bring you Example #2: Rilo Kiley.

Rilo Kiley began as a moody indie group known for their members’ stints as child TV stars, but quickly gained recognition for their excellent songwriting (“the talking leads to touching / and the touching leads to sex / and then there is no mystery left,” try to tell me you didn’t love that one).

But when the catchy songwriting gained them more popularity than the moody songwriting, they decided to run with it. The band signed to a major label and as a result, their next album, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, was decidedly more pop–even earning them comparisons to Fleetwood Mac. But the move was lost on many of their older fans, who left in droves.

I used to date a girl who was one of those disenfranchised fans. If I remember correctly, she referred to Under the Blacklight as something like “bullshit,” a cop-out move for a band to which she had been so fervently dedicated for years.

The Rilo Kiley situation only underlines the age-old debate between the dedicated fans of the early days or the potential new fans, who could come in high numbers. (I should stop here for a moment to note that I won’t be getting into the whole “selling out” angle of this. I’ve had my say on the issue already).

But how do you have the best of both worlds? How do you evolve tactfully enough to keep older fans while attracting a new audience? For this difficult task, let’s look at Example #3: Radiohead.

Radiohead started off amazingly well with 1993’s Pablo Honey. “Creep,” one of the biggest songs of the decade, earned them heavy rotations around the world. They could have continued to make the same brand of grungy-alternative schlock, but instead they decided to evolve.

Two years later they released The Bends, a rich record, heavily layered both musically and thematically. Their fans seemed to like the move – and so did critics. Their next albums, OK Computer and Kid A built upon their rapidly growing reputation, all while Radiohead tweaked and toyed with their ever-changing sound.

In 2007, more than a decade after their debut, they had reached something of an apex with the incredibly well-received In Rainbows. Their followup, 2011’s King of Limbs was just a little underwhelming, but it didn’t matter. Radiohead had already cemented their place in history as one of the most successful and influential bands maybe ever.

Obviously, not everybody can do what Radiohead did. That kind of evolution takes painstaking attention to detail and back-breaking dedication to the craft. It takes a perfectly-placed gamble – set somewhere between integrity and success – and a willingness to say “sorry, but no” to either the studio or the fan.

It’s a gamble that, in my opinion, Shawn Barnby has not placed well. But in quiet Pocatello, where people don’t have much choice, he’ll probably win out in the end, no matter what he does.

His risks only mirror those shared by all his fellow musicians. It’s that troubling moment when a band comes to the crossroads of success. Their eyes on some kind of prize, they must timidly place their bets before the fans they already have and the fans they could have – with everything on the line.

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