Treading the fine line between making your new material enough like your old songs to keep existing fans interested whilst still making it different enough to ensnare some new ones is one of the most difficult balancing acts that bands have to perform. There must be countless bands who see AC/DC and Status Quo having had careers lasting decades and think ‘aha! Familiarity is the key to long-term success, so let’s keep on releasing the same album over and over again!’ only to watch in despair as their audience slowly trickles away, whilst there are surely others who, having watched confounded as their latest effort, a jazz-metal opus with the nose flute as the lead instrument, fails to make an impact on either the critics or record buyers complain ‘but Radiohead’s latest album has been critically acclaimed and it’s just Thom Yorke wailing over a load of electronic beeps and clicks!’
Yet for all the bands whose popularity slowly wanes as their audience grows tired of them, there are a surprising number of artists who seemingly throw away their chances of long-term success by making inexplicable decisions that lead to them swiftly haemorrhaging their once-faithful followers. Here are some of the most spectacular examples of bands misjudging just how dedicated their fanbase was and whose appeal subsequently became, in the word of Spinal Tap’s manager, ‘more selective’…
Hard-Fi – Once Upon a Time in the West
The tale of Hard-Fi is a cautionary one; their first album not only made them favourites of the NME but was sufficiently dull to secure them endless airplay on Virgin radio and get them on the cover of Q magazine. Indeed, they succeeding admirably in their aim of capturing the mundaneness of suburban life, as their songs were every bit as dull as the things they described, with their lyrical matter covering all sorts of gritty topics like having a job, taking money from an ATM and then going to the pub. Their unchallenging sound proved catnip to record buyers and their record hung around the top ten for months.
For their second album, however, they made a fatal error of judgement and, for some inexplicably reason, decided that rather than being provincial dullards their fans were actually edgy and intelligent types who craved post-modern critiques of capitalism and modern culture, in the style of the Pop Group or Public Image Ltd. Rather than a picture, the words ‘EXPENSIVE BLACK & WHITE PHOTO OF BAND NOT AVAILABLE’ appeared on the first single, and the album artwork was substituted with the stark words ‘NO COVER ART’. What rebels they were, refusing to play the corporate game! Well, if their aim was to not make any money for their major label corporate overlords then they succeeded admirably as, whilst it topped the charts, it sold less than a fifth of what its predecessor had. Still, it made them big in Peru.
Travis – 12 Memories
The first Travis album hadn’t been a huge smash but their brand of meat-and-potatoes indie rock was boring enough to make Noel Gallagher a fan and win them a support slot on an Oasis tour. They then became huge when people started to buy ‘Why Does It Always Rain on Me?’ seemingly for little other reason than because it reminded them of hearing it at a festival when it was raining, and for the next couple of years you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing one of Travis’ mid-tempo, vaguely melancholic, jangly songs that were so pedestrian they made the average Coldplay album sound like something Throbbing Gristle had decided to can in case their audience found it a bit too challenging.
After two albums of mum-friendly MOR, however, Travis made a bizarre decision. For their 2003 album, 12 Memories, they inexplicably failed to take into account the fact that their audience was largely the housewives of middle England and released an album whose subject matter included domestic abuse and, in ‘The Beautiful Occupation’, criticism of the war in Iraq. A double whammy of disappointment was to follow: their audience deserted them en masse for Coldplay and, despite their presumed hope that once Tony Blair and George Bush heard the song they’d be so concerned that they’d order an immediate withdrawal from the Middle East, the song failed to have any significant effect on US foreign policy either. Who’d have thought it?!
The Kooks – Konk
If you were deliberately looking for reasons to hate the Kooks you were in luck as they weren’t backward in supplying them. A stage school band from Surrey, they’d presumably been put together by record company execs who wanted to market a kind of ‘Tomy My First Indie Band’ to 15 year old girls who’d outgrown McFly but were still scared of grown up indie music. They seemingly were trying to pass themselves off as some sort of gritty Scouse indie band and the NME and Xfm fell for them hook line and sinker yet they were so woefully unoriginal that no less an authority than Johnny Borrell (someone who we should recall built his career on ripping off bits of songs by the Jam and Bob Dylan) accused them of stealing his sound. Oh, and lest we forget, the tuneless dirges they called their songs were utterly piss poor
Kasabian’s Serge pretty much got it right when he described them as ‘rock and roll for girls’ and their whole indie boy band schtick was to prove their downfall. For the greatest lesson that record companies never seem to learn is that the most fickle music buyers in the world are teenage girls and indie fans; both of them rave over the latest big thing for a few months and then forget all about them, but when your artist is aimed at both these groups you’re just asking for trouble. After a debut album that sold over a million, the follow up managed barely a hundred thousand; two years may not seem like a long time to be away, but it’s certainly long enough for all your fans to go through puberty and suddenly realise how godawful you really are.
The Ting Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville
To be fair to the Ting Tings they did pretty well to have the success they did when you consider that their best known song is little more than a cover of Hey Mickey and that their name is almost identical to the Thai ladyboy character played by Matt Lucas in Little Britain. One of those touchingly naive bands who boast about how they’ve ‘made it on their own terms’ whilst ignoring the fact that their record company must have almost bankrupted themselves paying for their promotional campaign, they nonetheless were unavoidable back in 2008 and felt secure in the knowledge that no matter how long they took producing the follow up, their faithful fans would be waiting to purchase it in droves.
Sadly, that was not the case at all. They eventually released their second album almost four years after the first, and whilst their debut sold over six hundred thousand copies in the UK, the second could manage to sell barely six thousand in its first week, meaning that a whopping 99% of their 'fanbase' decided they had no great need for another Ting Tings album in their record collections. And you have to wonder how many of those sales came about from people who’d pre-ordered it on Amazon several years earlier but simply forgotten to cancel it.