Friday, November 24, 2017

Farewell Tours - Can You Repeat Them?

Recently in an interview on Blabbermouth, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder weighed in on a topic that raises some interesting ethical dimensions.  Do bands that go on a farewell tour incur an obligation to make it exactly that - their last tour as a band?  Or is it legitimate for them to take as many of these tours as they like?  Maybe we should just let them have one do-over?

As classic metal acts from the 1970s and 1980s get older and older, this will become more and more of an issue.  But as Snyder points out, it already presents significant problems for fans.  When a band says that their current tour is the last they'll do, are they really committed to that or not?

Snyder frames it more as an aesthetic issue - it's a matter of an "insult to the fan" - and the bands that go back on their word that this tour really, really is their last. . .  what they're doing is "not cool".  But it strikes me that, when you get down to it, it is also an ethical issue. There's something morally wrong about labeling a tour as a "farewell" tour, when in fact it is not the last tour for that group.  So, what is wrong about it?  Several things. Let's take a look.

What Snyder Himself Said

A good place to start is with the case Snyder himself made in the interview:
I'm one of those people who express great frustration at these bands who retire and then come back. I think it's an insult to the fan, especially when you pay a premium for those shows, a premium for the 'No More Tours' shirt by Ozzy [Osbourne]. How many years ago was that? C'mon, seriously? The KISS farewell tour — farewell to Ace [Frehley] and Peter [Criss], I guess? I think it's insulting. SCORPIONS did a three-year farewell tour and changed their minds.  
I don't want them to leave, but if you're going to announce that you are and tell us that, then you're supposed to leave. Feel free to stay forever — we love you, SCORPIONS — but don't do a three-year farewell tour and then change your mind the next day. Not cool. Not cool, SCORPIONS.  
Me and the TWISTED guys, we are of the mind, just like MÖTLEY CRÜE, that this really is it, and we're done. I have no intention of going back. I don't want to be one of those people who go back on their word, and I hope if I do, the audience tars and feathers me, and says, 'You know what? You're worse than the people who faked it. You made a big deal, made a stink, pointing fingers at everybody, and then you came back!' I don't want to be that guy that people ever look up there and go, 'God, he used to be so good.' I never want people to feel that way.
There's a good bit going on there.  He's calling out three major metal acts for essentially fake farewell tours - Ozzy Osborne, KISS, and the Scorpions.  In some cases, these are going back quite a way.  "No More Tours" was back in 1992.  KISS's farewell tour was back in 2000.

They're not the only ones.  I've seen Judas Priest on what I could have sworn was supposed to be a farewell tour (and we're going to see them again here in MKE this April).  Ozzy is actually involved in two farewell tours, apparently - his own, and one with Black Sabbath. . .

By contrast, Motley Crue did their farewell tour - which we got to see in 2014 - and stayed retired.  Same for Twisted Sister.  Wolf Hoffmann of Accept weighed in some time ago, stating "we won't do like a farewell thing, a fake one, anytime soon, like everybody else is doing. You won't see like 'the last tour, maybe, sort of, probably not' kind of thing." Clearly it's possible for a band to stick with it.

The Dilemma For Fans

One of the main ethical problems involved in this entire "fake farewell" issue is a dilemma in which it places genuine fans of the bands.

If it really is a farewell tour - barring some lucky one-off (or reunion) performance - it is literally the last chance for a fan to see that band in concert.  If that is the case, then the diehard fan will drive to the closest location, find the time to make that event, and shell out the cash for the tickets.  Depending on where the band is actually stopping, and how much they charge, those can be some significant costs - time, opportunity, money - for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But if a band is going to tour again, as much as one would love to see them - ideally every time they come around - it might not be worth the tradeoff for any given fan on any particular tour.  You can see them when they come to a closer venue, when the timing works better for one's own busy life, perhaps even without paying quite so much.

So, when a band announces that this is it - either see them this time around or you'll have missed that chance to ever see them again (in some cases, for the first time) - the fan is stuck in the dilemma.  The safer bet - in terms of the experiences one wants to have going to metal concerts - is to buy the tickets and go to the show.  And then, you might as well buy that "farewell tour" merch while you're there. . .

But if the band wasn't really going to call it quits. . .  if they decide to go back on the road "just one more time". . .  then the bet turned out to be the wrong one.  The fan could indeed have waited until the next tour for that act.  The band in effect played them for suckers, in terms of the resources those fans devoted - time, travel, opportunities, and money - to participating in that concert experience.

So, from a moral perspective, this really is problematic.  It's shifting an economic burden that the band should bear themselves onto their fans, precisely by depriving them of the inside knowledge they would need to make a sell-informed decision.  Putting it in another way, they're doing a bait-and-switch, selling the tour as the last real opportunity to participate in that particular live experience, while knowing - or at least suspecting (or holding out the option) - that's the case.

A Deeper Ethical Problem

That way of talking about it looks at the matter more or less like an economic transaction, and while that does make sense - nobody rides for free, after all - in my view, there's another, deeper issue involved.  This is one that is more at the heart of what motivates us as classic metalheads, whether aging or otherwise.  It has to do with trust, solidarity, and integrity.  It is a matter of ethos.

A band - at least this is the case for metal - cannot be what it is without its audience.  There is no apex to the pyramid without the base that the legions of devoted fans provide.  I'm not just talking about the purchases of tickets, CDs, merch, MP3s, or the like.  I'm talking about the investment and exchange - and in many cases, the gift - of affectivity, excitement, interest, imagery, all shared through the media of music.

Lyrical performance, showmanship, blistering solos, riff after riff, the heavy end of drum and bass - the very meaning and message of the words and movements - all of that gets its sounding board in the appreciative audience of metal fans, the people who show up in their concert shirts, nurse their overpriced beers, sit in the uncomfortable seats until the band makes its way to the stage.  The roar of the crowd, the response of the audience, singing or shouting along, dancing, headbanging, playing air guitar. . . The band brings its own energy, but so do the fans, and when things go right, they augment each other in an hours-long positive feedback loop.

Looked at in this perspective, a deeper - no longer just financial - betrayal occurs when a band bills its current tour as a farewell tour, and doesn't plan to actually retire from the concert circuit.  Fans - especially fans of classic metal acts - have demonstrated a loyalty that spans decades.  They have one some level - often on multiple ones - connected with the band, their music, the work on a deep affective level.  When a band is on a farewell tour, and they are on stage playing to their fans, they tap into that deep reserve of emotional energy that has been building, ripening, circulating for years.

So when that retirement is not for real, the musicians have taken without giving back - or giving less than they should.  What this displays is not just a failure of reciprocity, but a fundamental lack of respect, on the part of the band.  (To be sure, this might be primarily because of of the insistence of certain members of the band, with the other band members going along with it - but that raises some other questions that I'll perhaps reserve for a later discussion).

It could be the case, of course, that the ongoing relationship between the musicians and the fans - which certainly has some purely imaginary dimensions in every case (though you can say this about nearly any relationship, to be fair) - was never what the fans had thought and felt it to be.  Maybe it was always just showmanship, using throwaway tropes like "we're so glad to be here in [substitute show location], because you fans rock the hardest", pretending that what the music means to fans really does matter to the band.  That's quite likely fairly rare - it's tough to sustain that sort of side0-show charlatanry for long.

More often, though it didn't start in that way, after decades of touring, making albums, interacting with people in the business, musicians become jaded, burnt-out, money-hungry.  They come to take the fans for granted as a kind of ever-renewable resource.  They stop looking at them as people with whom they share something important, an ethos that they all inhabit together, and that gets remade each time the songs are played.

When Solo Turns Into Reunion

One could raise a cogent objection to the analysis and arguments I've made here.  What about cases in which a band has a "final tour" - really intending to break up and go their separate ways after that - but then does find themselves getting back together in spite of themselves?  What about what we might call "good faith" final tours, retirements, and breakups?  If the band does eventually get back together, and the motivation isn't simply making more money, or needing applause and opportunities afforded to a band only as a unit - if the motivation is a better one - does this count as an exception to what we might call the "you go on a farewell tour, you stay retired" rule?

Yes, I'd say it does.  Consider how a scenario like this might play out.  A band announces their farewell tour, which more or less sells out worldwide.  They decided upon their retirement as a band for several reasons.  Each of the members has made and saved enough money.  They're getting older, and staying on extended tours in not only taking a toll on their family life but also their bones and flesh.  It's wonderful that the longstanding fans still get so excited about their catalogue at concerts, and it's cool to see a generation of younger fans showing up as well, but as musicians, the band feel like they're tapped out.

They make a prudent decision to go out on a high note, to put together a tour that will really close things out.  There's a sadness involved in any decision like this, but also a joy and a wisdom.  They devote themselves to making this tour something really special for their fans.  And in city after city, after a kick-ass show, they say their final goodbyes as a band.

After the last stop on the tour, the different musicians go off their separate ways.  Of course, they continue to make music - that's not something one can just turn off - and this might take different forms.  Some continue to play, either with a new band or as a solo artist. Perhaps they lay down tracks and eventually put out a new record.  Others perhaps just play around in local venues.

Now imagine that - brought together in one way or another - two important factors coincide.  The musicians, renewed from their time out of the band - and perhaps getting a second wind after health problems have been sorted out - find that they do have something new, something creative, something metal to collectively say when they jam or practice with their old bandmates.  There's chemistry there still or again.  That's factor number 1.

Factor number 2 is that the fans - who have remained loyal this whole time - desire to see the band back together again.  Perhaps they are lucky enough to be present for a once-in-a-lifetime reunion of the band - that sort of thing sometimes happens at Wacken, or when a former bandmate shows up as a guest at another bandmate's concert - and those fans respond enthusiastically.  The video and blog posts about the impromptu reunion build more and more buzz among the fan base.  And pretty soon -nobody is really quite sure who said it first - the idea gets floated: maybe we should get the band back together.

I think a situation like that quite plausibly constitutes an exception to the rule, and escapes both the legitimate criticisms that Snyder raises in his interview and the arguments I have made here.  It is the sort of complex matter, though, that it makes sense to hash out in detail, and on a case by case basis.  I suspect that in addition to that proviso, we'd want to add one more qualification.  The band would want to - and make sure that they do - address the issue with their fans, explaining why, after what they billed as a farewell tour, and splitting up, they decided to reassemble and go back out on the road together.