The Hazards of an expanding fanbase for indie bands

By by Justin Jacobs

As I type this column, I’m downloading the iTunes advanced release of The Decemberists’ new… As I type this column, I’m downloading the iTunes advanced release of The Decemberists’ new record, The Hazards of Love. And I’m extremely nervous. It’s not that I fear the album will be bad, though ‘mdash; the band could release an entire record of power chords and Buddhist chants and I’d likely find something to appreciate. Rather, my apprehension comes from the notion that The Decemberists, a band that I’ve loved for almost six years, is no longer my own. With each album, The Decemberists have seen a steady increase in both fans and critical attention ‘mdash; a pattern that would suggest that The Hazards of Love will be the band’s biggest record. And if the huge media push (Rolling Stone called it ‘the Decemberists’ full-on classic-rock move’) is any indication, it’s looking like the band once beloved only by nerds and classics majors may soon be embraced by the people who used to beat up nerds and classics majors. The Decemberists are primed for the big time, a place filled with bands that suck and the people who love them. What a sad day. But shouldn’t I, a diehard Decemberists fan (Colin Meloy’s pre-Decemberists band was Tarkio. Who knew that one?) be happy for my band’s growing success? Well, no. Not exactly. And herein lies the problem so many fans face as their favorite bands make it big. The logic goes like this: You discover a band you think no one else knows at a time in your life when the band’s music gives you hope. The band becomes ‘yours,’ and you introduce your friends to the music. Your friends begin to love the band as well. The band becomes ‘theirs’ as well as ‘yours.’ This you can deal with ‘mdash; you like your friends, you like your band. The two can co-exist. But then everyone else catches on, usually because of brain vacuums like MTV. ‘Your’ band begins to be the band of everyone, from the girls with braces and black hoodies in Hot Topic to the quarterback of the football team, whose previous favorite band was Bon Jovi. Your faith in ‘your’ band begins to falter. How can someone like Bon Jovi and ‘your’ band? Still, if you love ‘your’ band, you should want the best for it, and it’s hard to deny that making millions of dollars is worse than not making enough money to buy gas or underwear. You’re stuck. There must be a way to reconcile a band’s success and a fan’s personal connection to the band ‘mdash; they can’t be absolute inverses. Or can they? Often, a band’s initial output is rough. It’s difficult to absorb, and the band gains a devoted but small following of fans who are willing to put in the time to appreciate the music. As the band gains experience, it’s music becomes easier to digest and the band gains more fans simply because it takes less effort to appreciate the music. To the economist, this is a good strategy. To the diehard fan, this means the band is getting worse. Every band follows this pattern, from Taking Back Sunday (if you say you didn’t love the first album during high school, you’re a liar) to the Foo Fighters (The Colour and the Shape is a classic, the later stuff is tired ‘mdash; but loved by everyone). For the diehard fan, decreasing personal connection is actually caused by a decrease in the quality of the music, not merely the accumulation of more fans. But The Decemberists, much like My Morning Jacket or Death Cab for Cutie, for example, bucked that trend ‘mdash; popularity has grown seemingly because more people have finally heard the band, not because the music’s been dumbed down. Like The Hazards of Love itself, a 17-part opus about a character named Margaret being ravaged by a shape-shifting dude named William, the situation is complex, and though I could wax philosophical about the price of fame on artistic integrity, the bottom line is that we fans may just have to be alright that ‘our’ bands often become the bands of countless others, whether those countless others appreciate the music as much as we do. It’s a difficult task, I know, but a necessary one. I’ll always have my Decemberists moments, when I felt like the band and I, in a rather Lifetime Channel way, were truly meant to be together forever. And nothing can take that away from me. Not even the Bon Jovi-loving quarterback.