February 11, 2019 Band Vs Brand (Documentary Review)
One of the big issues in art, be it music or otherwise, is trying to maintain that balance between sincerity and making a living; if the medium matters more than the money, then that is fine and dandy, but it will not pay the bills. Then again, if it is all about getting the cash, then the work feels as empty and disposable as a hotel room painting or a commercial jingle. Some people abuse this and try to get free commissions from musicians and artists, saying they are not true if they want payment for their services, while others have more meticulous ways of taking what someone has made and using it against them.
In Band Vs Brand, Director Bob Nalbandian (Inside Metal series) talks to the likes of David Ellefson (Megadeth), Dave Lombardo (Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer), Nik Turner (Nik Turner’s Hawkwind), and Adam Parsons (manager of Uriah Heep, Thin Lizzy, etc.) and more. They discuss the current state of the music business, and how a Rock group’s ‘brand’ can hold more power than the band members themselves – the latter just become cogs in a money-making machine and can be replaced on a whim if they do not cooperate. So, how can a band get by when their bosses just want a logo to shill at Hot Topics nationwide?
The film made its screening premiere before the Hall of Heavy Metal History Gala on January 23rd, but it will be available on DVD and VOD from Tuesday, February 12th onward through Cleopatra Entertainment. Does it say anything new though?
Kind of. Medium Vs Money is likely a conflict as old as the concepts of art and cash themselves. But it sets the stage with a quote from L.E Kalikow’s Sex, No Drugs & Rock N’ Roll memoir, about how the start of the millennium saw record companies suing media sharing platforms, before adapting to use them to sell their products. In the past, aspiring stars had to hawk their mixtapes around. Today, they can stick it all up on SoundCloud and see what sticks.
The film takes a while to get to that new battleground, though: if anything, it talks more generally about capitalism’s effect on music. It splits its topics into chapters, with narration setting the scene. For example, ‘Logos and Merchandise’ has an opening blurb about how bands have come up with logos and stuck them on all sorts of items from coffins to condoms. Then the interviewees talk about how bands try to maneuver around the heights and pitfalls this kind of branding produces. In ‘Longevity’, they talk about how long a band can last, either without certain members (Queen without Freddie Mercury) or after certain career shifts (KISS without the face paint).
This is not to say that the first half is any less fascinating or lacks interesting bits of info. However, it may feel like well-trodden ground to keener music fans. The power of legalese, bands kept alive by new members, and ambigram logos are almost evergreen in their familiarity. Least it can be said, the film is making sure everyone is up to speed before talking about the rise of the Internet. Things get a little techier here, though it does raise some pertinent issues about quality control- either of the aspiring artists or of the music itself as it gets squashed to fit on iTunes or the like. The film even touches upon the ethics of holograms- whether they are exploiting a star’s legacy or giving new fans the chance to see late artists live.
The production is quite cheap. The flame-tinged title cards look like a Geocities webpage from 1999. The interviews are mostly shot fine, though some look more dated than others. The best look like they came from the past few years, while the worst look like the 1980s/early ’90s stock footage the film uses as scene-setters. The sound quality is fair enough, despite being better for the interviewees than the narrator, who does not sound very enthused. One would think it was a fan-produced rockumentary from 2001 if it was not for modern references like Spotify.
Still, it manages to pass on the pertinent information. While it does not dig as deep as other efforts, Band Vs Brand provides a fair overview of the issues of the modern music business. Serious music fans might not learn anything they did not already know or have some familiarity with, however, it could help music newbies get the gist behind the corporate side of things; it is Capitalism in Music 101. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Band Vs Brand 3 out of 5 stars.