Published on May 9th, 2019 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Band vs. Brand
The documentary Band vs Brand looks at the idea of bands, brands, and everything in between — the industry and the branding of artists.
The premise of this film is simple, and is explained on the box: “When does a band become a brand?” This refers to when the band name becomes a synergy of its own, until sometimes even the band members themselves have no control. The focus of this documentary is in the metal genre, starting with the post-1992 media ecological age of the Internet with some rearview mirror thinking, and it’s overarching effect on how music is purchased, downloaded, and how media streaming companies are bypassing the record companies.
Much of the story here is broken up into chapters, separated by titled cards, the first being ‘Logos and Merchandise,’ or as Minutemen’s bassist Mike Watt famously coined it, “Merch.” in the1960s and ‘70s, independent tee-shirt sellers at arenas would flash their wares. Now, the bands themselves sell their own merch with their logos. In fact, many make more money of their paraphernalia (stickers, lighters, CDs, bandanas, etc.) than they do on the concert tickets. The brand became as – if not more – important than the band.
Right after Guns N’ Roses appeared on some award show, with bassist Duff McKagan wearing a CBGB tee-shirt, suddenly people were buying the tees. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal made a small fortune with his logo. This is irony as my first Blank Generation crowd would go out of their way not to wear brands, and then CBGB was the brand.
One of the interesting aspects of sections like ‘Classic Rock’ is listening to the seasoned musicians such as one of Nik Turner’s Hawkwind, discussing how, for example, (and I’m paraphrasing) that The Who would be less legitimate with Daltry and not Townshend than with Townshend and not Daltry. It’s true that bands have a history of being taken over by its singer, such as Diana Ross and The Supremes, or Buddy Holly and The Crickets. When the musicians themselves start talking about the distaste of that, I find that thought-provoking.
I also find it interesting that the bands that are interviewed tend towards the older side, so when they discuss ‘Technology and the Internet,’ for example, it’s mostly doom and gloom about quality and the anyone can do it attitude, but DIY is solid punk rock mentality because it was put out by the fans and musicians themselves. Certainly I am not arguing with the fact that most of the music now is overproduced, but arguably, so was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the products of Yes, ELP, and many of the late ’60 and early ‘70s rock (what we think of now as classic rock) that needed a whole crew of technicians to set up and play in arenas, as opposed to the plug and play of rock’n’roll.
This rightfully leads to “The Changing Industry,” which, again, is nothing new, but still fascinating. Much of this chapter looks at how the fans approach music differently than they used to, which drive the bands to approach their music in dissimilar ways, which also affects the way products (both bands and their music) reach their market.
Not everyone can have the touring power of The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney, so when discussing “Live Performances,” this documentary correctly posits that bands have had to change the way they tour, be it package tours with other bands (though I do remember seeing a Foghat / Montrose / Black Oak Arkansas show in the mid-1970s), or play in casinos, on cruise ships, private corporate shows, or more and smaller venues on a single tour (for example, I saw Johnny Winter play at Louie’s, a college bar in Saskatoon, in 2011).
While not in this order, the chapter “Hologram” could easily have followed the “Live Performance” one, perhaps called either the “Dead Performance” or “the Lazy Performance.” This is where a hologram of the artist – dead or alive – is used in the act. The idea of this drives me crazy. ABBA is currently in the process of being digitized as their younger selves and going “on tour.” I’m not paying $100+ a seat to essentially watch HDTV.
There is no getting around this is a negative topic so it’s hard not to be cynical either watching it as a viewer, or from the musicians’ standpoint onscreen, but director Bob Nalbanian keeps it interesting and flowing. Considering the musicians involved here – and this is just a small touch – from bands such as Dio, Angel (who really do have the coolest logo ever, and the story is included in the documentary), Plasmatics, Megadeth, Slayer, Keel, and Saxon, along with some I’ve mentioned previously; this is obviously geared to an older demographic who are probably less comfortable with the modern tone of the music biz.
While it’s sad it’s come down to mere merchandising sometimes more than the music, it’s also been part of the legacy of rock’n’roll from the beginning. It has, however, picked up momentum along the way. Fans of my generation remember ticket prices to big shows being under $10, and no distracting glare from cell phones recording the concerts. That it is different now is the point of this documentary, and Nalbanian presents some of the top veteran musicians in the field to successfully prove his point. Worth the view.
Band vs Brand
Directed by Bob Nalbanian
84 minutes; 2018 / 2019