Our Band Could (Not) Be Your Life

Does being in a band make any financial, cultural, or artistic sense anymore?

Across the last decade, I’ve noticed how less and less bands have been driving music culture. Instead, solo artists have become the norm. At KUTX, the vast majority of music we receive comes from solo artists. Mike Sniper, head of Brooklyn indie label Captured Tracks, laments this fact in a recent interview with Aquarium Drunkard. For him, solo-produced music doesn’t have the same frictional, propulsive power as a rock band. “We just have Brian Wilsons now,” he says. “We don’t have Rolling Stones anymore.”

Sniper suggests that this band-less present is a function of taste and fashion and maybe people not wanting to deal with internal criticism within a band structure (i.e., the bassist telling you your songs are shit). I think that’s a lazy, “the kids are too sensitive” argument. The lack of bands is a deeper reflection of economic and cultural trends. Having a band is expensive, from practicing to recording to touring, and the costs all go up the more band members there are. Let’s start with the most basic infrastructure needed as a band: a practice space. Once upon a time, every mid-sized city in America featured all sorts of cheap practice spaces to rent or squat, from dingy warehouses in industrial parts of town to the drummer’s mom’s basement. But these days that kind of urban real estate is either nonexistent, turned into Air BnBs, or prohibitively expensive (as Ian Svenonius puts it, “there aren’t garage bands anymore because who can afford a place with a garage?”). In Austin, it was recently announced that Music Lab—a gigantic rehearsal space that I used pretty regularly with various bands during the 2010s—will now be “developed” into a Tesla showroom. This is the most Austin-in-2021 thing I’ve heard in awhile.

Does having a band even make sense to a younger generation anymore? Let’s set aside the fact that you can’t possibly have a band if you’re only able to practice in an apartment bedroom (unless it’s a really, really quiet rock band…which might be the most punk rock thing you could make right now). I just think the rigid structure of a rock band doesn’t have the same appeal. First of all, the guitar/bass/drums setup is now 70 years old! Imagine music fans in the 1970s pining for the good old days of oompah bands and turn-of-the-century vaudevillians. Also, the ubiquity of easy-to-learn technology means that a kid’s first instrument is probably not a guitar or drum kit. Music making might start through a computerized interface: a sampler, a synthesizer, or editing software. These are instruments that do not lend themselves well to a band format.

Electronic pop, rap, and R&B are much more individual-focused than rock music, and as these genres have risen in popularity, I think the band as a unit has worked against it because it is inherently inflexible. Yes, there’s a risk of solo musicians retreating into boring comfort zones because of a lack of outside input, as Sniper suggests. But as a solo musician, I think there’s a bigger opportunity and ease to collaborate with more people than in a band. In the rap world, every song can feature a different producer and guest MC. As a solo artist of any genre, you can quickly change your sound and explore further and deeper than you could in a band setting. Complaining that there aren’t enough rock bands now is like complaining there aren’t enough bebop bands now. It doesn’t make sense from a cultural perspective anymore, because the band format (and rock as a genre) isn’t the leading edge it once was.

Our individualized music-making is not as individualized as it seems at first glance, but it does broadly reflect a hyper-individualized society. Maybe the pandemic will lead to a thirst for more collective art-making, but I don’t think it will be in the form of the old band model. It will be something new and hybridized, because that’s the only direction that art inevitably heads towards.