How To Have A Long Career In Music

The Rolling Stones. Image found at clashmusic.com

Look, Jerry Garcia famously said that if you stick around for long enough, you become respectable. Well, this is what I reckon: I reckon that it's possible to identify seven different models for long musical careers. I've attempted to fit existing bands into these molds whilst, simultaneously, I've speculated as to where the careers of "relatively new" bands might go. Of course, it's not exhaustive. This isn't "the ultimate" list. Of course it's not definitive. What do I look like to you? A Pitchfork journalist? Jesus...

As is usually the case with this blog, there are a number of disclaimers to get out of the way first. Primarily, I feel the need to once more point out that my view is somewhat limited to Western musicians who dabble in that which can loosely be categorised as "rock and pop". Look, I'll be the first to decry my blinkered view of the world, but excuse me for only listening to that which I enjoy. Secondly, it must be noted that all perspectives are from today - the right here, right now. I look at the career of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with the benefit of hindsight, whereas careers such as those of Muse and Coldplay are still subject to change. To put it bluntly - all of this is purely speculative and in no way academic. OK? OK.

Allow me, then, to share my musings. Ladies and gentlemen, a loose selection of long term musical career models:

1. The Steady Formation of an Intimidating Back Catalogue of Almost Unwavering Quality - The CRITICAL DARLING MODEL.
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The ultimate example of this model would, I think, be Dylan. Frankly, it's incredible that an artist can still produce a startling trilogy of albums (Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times) after fifty years or so of restless creativity. This model, though, is identifiable by virtue of the fact that even ignoring greatest hits collections, it remains easy for a newcomer to the artist's music to start listening. Out of Dylan's thirty four (thirty four!) studio albums, for instance, it's obvious that you'll start with Highway 61, Blood On The Tracks or Bringing It All Back Home and just take it from there.

More contemporary examples of this career model are everywhere. I'm not, you understand, proclaiming for any of the following to be "the new Dylan". Rather, I just feel that their ratios of length of career vs. quality of output are comparable. Also, it's still possible for newcomers to make that all important "headway". I speak of Sonic Youth (starting with Daydream Nation, Goo, Dirty), The Flaming Lips (Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi etc), Yo La Tengo (I Can Hear The Heart..., I Am Not Afraid of You... or even last year's Popular Songs) and Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Ketchup or any of the Switched On compilations).

The Super Furry Animals and The Animal Collective seem well on their way to fitting within this model and, having heard the marvellous Congratulations, I am hoping against hope that it's here where we will one day be able to place MGMT. I know it's only their second album, buy my GOD is it good.

2. The Rapid Formation of an Intimidating, Uncompromising Body Of Work in which Newcomers are Left to Flounder - The MARK E SMITH MODEL
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This one can be summed up pretty succintly with a simple question: Where in God's name are you supposed to begin with The Fall?! Producing, as they do, about an album a year; and with live shows which seem to disregard anything more than five years old, it's almost as if they're adverse to the idea of "the casual fan".

Similar things can be said of the work of Frank Zappa. Although one could, in theory, start with Hot Rats or a Mothers of Invention album, in practice anything from his canon is but the tip of an almighty iceberg of satirical music-hall burlesque and seemingly hundreds of exploratory live albums.

Put simply, these are artists whose very productivity is at once their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It endears them to a few but alienates them from many, many more. In this category I'm afraid we'll one day be able to slot Ryan Adams, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and, should he ever get over his current crises of confidence, Sufjan Stevens.

3. The Mystery, the Seldom Releasing of Albums, the Legions of Followers, the Complete Creative Control - The TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE MODEL
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These are bands and musicians who seem to exist in their own little world - only sporadically releasing albums, yet still managing to retain always their status as one of the biggest bands on the planet. The reigns are long, the respect unwavering. People don't seem to lose interest in them whilst they're gone. Rather, they pine - they pine for their return, and tell themselves that there's a very good reason for their not being here - they're at work on their next masterpiece!

It might be a controversial move to place Radiohead in this category, but I honestly can never see their reign coming to an end. The same can be said of Tool, in many ways their metallic counterparts. Years in the wilderness and albums on which, you get the impression, they're allowed to do whatever they want with little to no major label interference. It may have taken them a while to get to where they are now - and it might be the case that they had to crawl through several rivers of shit to get there - but, once arrived, there's no leaving.

And it's in this model that I really hope that we'll be able to one day fit, with confidence, Elbow. Think about it. With all four of their albums the acclaim has been almost universal. With 2008's Leader's of the Free World, the acclaim seemed finally to translate into mass adoration with some gargantuan live shows and, of course, the winning of the Mercury Prize. Unless, for whatever reason, they just disappear, where can they go next but here?

4. The Repeated Failure to Recapture the Glory Days and Loss of Artistic Integrity Coupled with Being the Biggest Band in the World - the POISONED CHALICE MODEL
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From here, it looks as though the only escape from The Rolling Stones is death. Their glory days are long, long, long behind them. And yet, they continue to record, release and tour. Over and over and over - each subsequent record, release and tour a further tarnishing of the legacy.

The same can be said of U2. Who'd want to be in U2? They'll probably never stop being the biggest band in the world, but still, the pressure's on - each tour must be bigger than the last. Meanwhile, in attempting to capture exactly that which made people love them in the first place, each successive album becomes blander, less exciting, than that which it follows.

These are bands who will probably never be "cool" again, but will always be huge. Curiously, though, the bigger they get, the less serious it seems they are taken by their peers. But of course, if that many people like them, they can't be any good, right? Who'd be in U2...

This is exactly the path down which Oasis had been heading since about 1995 before they did the sensible thing and split up. I fear, though, that my beloved Coldplay and Muse will one day descend down this slippery slope.

5. The Sad Disbanding of Everybody's Favourites Out Of Whose Ashes Emerge Such Fruit, Such Joy - the EVERY CLOUD MODEL
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How did the world react when The Beatles decided to call it a day? If young girls everywhere burst into inconsolable tears at the initial disbanding of Take That, are we to infer that mass suicides occured when the original Fab Four parted ways? I hope not. Surely the prospect of fruitful careers from 3/4 of the band's lineup would, ultimately, have served to ease the pain.

Yes, these are beloved bands whose disbandment sparks no end of joyous side-projects and solo careers. For contemporary examples, look to At The Drive-In; who, upon disbanding, became Sparta and The Mars Volta and also paved the way for the impossibly prolific output of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (whose repertoire is now sliding into Category 2). Similarly, I was most distraught when The Beta Band split in 2004. However, I'd've been considerably less so had I known that this would lead to the resurgence of Lone Pigeon, two excellent albums by The Aliens and the ever-exciting solo work of Steve Mason.

See also, The Smiths, out of which came Morrissey's intriguing solo career and a number of interesting Johnny Marr colloborations. You could also, I suppose, lump in Uncle Tupelo, from whom we get Son Volt, Wilco and every other Jeff Tweedy project. Finally, we have Spacemen 3 to thank for Spectrum, Sonic Boom and the almighty Spiritualized.

As far as this model's concerned, though, there always exists the possibility of reformation. In such circumstances, there's the danger of...

6. Post Solo-Work and Side-Projects, the Reformation of Initial Band for Nostalgia, Money etc. - the CASH COW MODEL.

What happened to The Pixies? They used to be cool. When they reformed circa 2004, I, like everyone, was so excited. And they were electric when I saw them. But, recently, Frank Black went on record in saying that they were now only in it for the money. Well, fair enough, a man's got to eat, and you could in some way justify this in saying that the more money they make, the more we get to hear from his solo output and from Kim Deal's The Breeders - in these two pursuits their hearts seem truly to lie. But, c'mon, how is anybody supposed to connect with their live shows now that we know that they're treating it as a day in the office?

Still, could be worse. At least they're not John Lydon.

In this slot I was afraid that the reunions of The Verve and Blur would represent moves into pasteurs greener. However, with The Verve having disappeared again (and with an incoming Richard Ashcroft solo album), I suppose they're safe. As for Blur, their performance of Tender at Glastonbury last year quenches any cynical notions I might ever have harboured. Concurrently, Graham Coxon has his solo career, Damon Albarn just headlined Coachella with Gorillaz, Alex has his cheese, Dave his constituency and clients... 

The Velvet Underground briefly flitted with this model in 1993. Now, however, John Cale appears to loathe Lou Reed once more. All, therefore, is right in the universe again.

As for future entries into this model, well - we'll all have to keep our eyes on Suede, won't we? Personally, I'll reserve all criticism until after I've had my spellbound live experience.

7. The Cult Fanbase, the Steady Production of New Material, the Fevrent Live Shows, the Notion that You'll Never Transcend This - the CRUSTY MODEL
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There exists a large number of bands who just don't give up, ever. They might once have been cool, they might once have been huge, but those days are gone - long gone. Nevertheless, they plough on. Either this is because they're those restless creative types and they're simply incapable of doing anything else, or because they feel they owe a debt to whomever still "dares" call themselves a fan.

These bands are demonised by such fickle sources such as NME and Pitchfork, and a lot of them can be found on the Glastonbury line-up year after year. For me, it represents an ideal, of sorts. Imagine being in a state whereby you're readily able to recognise that people really do appreciate your work whilst retaining your right to privacy, your ability to walk down the street unmolested! Also, not featuring in any "tastemaker" publications, you'll be able to safely say that anybody who calls themselves a fan does so out of genuine love for your music rather than out of a fickle notion of "indie cool". In many ways, not being cool is a blessing.

Bands of this ilk seem to exist on three scales: Small, Medium and Large. On the small scale you can find such heroes as British Sea Power, Oceansize, I Am Kloot and The Electric Soft Parade. In the middle you'll find such luminaries as The Waterboys, The Coral, Doves and The Levellers. Finally, in the big league are your Stereophonics, your Snow Patrols, your Simple Minds...

Bands like Athlete, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Starsailor - I really hope that they recognise their fan-bases and their apparent love for making music and plough on. I really, really hope that they do. The notion of still being able to count on them in ten years or so is genuinely endearing.


  1. Can't really argue with any of this. Though I thought Ryan Adams had quite music. Then I looked him up and discovered he's releasing a new album. That was quite a pleasant suprise.