I spent an hour or so yesterday checking out Dream Theater’s official Facebook page, in the wake of the announcement that we would be learning more today about the band’s auditions for a new drummer. It made for slightly depressing reading. There was no doubting the passion on display, but it was dispiriting to see how few of those commenting had the best interests of the band at heart. Never mind that Portnoy had repeatedly said that he wanted a break from the band (so why would he genuinely want to return to it?), or that he wished his bandmates well – for some fans (I suppose we ought to call them ‘ex-fans’ now, since so many of them pointed out that without Portnoy’s involvement, they simply were not interested in anything the band had to offer), having Portnoy back in the band is the only solution, and the remaining band members were painted as the villains of the piece, simply because they’d had the temerity to decide they didn’t want to give up the band they’ve spent over 20 years pouring their hearts and soul into, just because one of their number wanted a sabbatical.
Some of the comments reminded me of the constant calls (from an ever-shrinking minority, it must be said, but it still happens) for Fish to rejoin Marillion, and bearing in mind that Fish left Marillion some 22/23 years ago, I rather think that no matter how good a job the new recruit does, he will forever be the “new boy”, the “guy who replaced Portnoy”. Talk about a poisoned chalice: in the eyes of Portnoy’s devotees, the new guy (whoever he may be) has been damned before anyone’s heard so much as a rimshot.
In the face of such unthinking and unfair reactions, it’s hard for me not to take the band’s situation to heart. I’ll admit it: I’ve always been hugely impressed with Portnoy, whose larger-than-life persona, fondness for the fans and immense ability as a drummer endeared him to me and to a great many other fans. There’s no faulting his playing, or most especially the amazing degree of love and care he put into everything he did on the band’s behalf, from the intricate way he helped construct the material, to the effort he put into drawing up set lists specifically to please fans of a particular area or country, to the immense periods of time he invested in maintaining an archive of material important to the fans, or to making the ‘official bootlegs’ sold via Ytsejam records. The amount of time and energy he dedicated to all these things is staggering – and appreciated.
However, Portnoy was happy to admit to being a control freak (as bluntly as that), and there’s no question that his larger-than-life, almost ADHD, persona probably annoyed as many people as it appealed to. With some of the band (notably legendarily quiet bassist John Myung) markedly more reserved, Portnoy’s boisterous personality was always going to cause ructions. Portnoy’s relationships with ex-keyboardist Kevin Moore, and with vocalist James LaBrie, were self-admittedly full of ups and downs, and whilst detente had been achieved, there’s little doubt that Portnoy’s control freakery and outspoken nature is something that wasn’t necessarily mourned when he announced his departure, much to his bandmates astonishment.
It’s tempting to compare and contrast Portnoy’s character – and role within the band – with ex-Floyd member Roger Waters: both are legendarily prickly, and both exerted strong control over their respective bands’ activities. However, Waters was principally responsible for much of Floyd’s writing, particularly during their ‘golden years’, and whilst Portnoy’s key role in the writing process should not be understated, it wouldn’t be fair to say that he was the most prolific or crucial writer for Dream Theater. Guitarist John Petrucci has long fulfilled that role for the band, and whilst the writing process for Dream Theater will clearly be different from hereon in, I don’t feel it is a stretch to believe that the man who co-founded the band and who continues to contribute much of its signature sound and style will still be in place to do what he has always done so well.
Even Portnoy himself has been moved to say that he feels the band’s music is in safe hands (which makes the complaints from the “No Portnoy, No Dream Theater” mob all the more ridiculous: if Portnoy feels the band is in good hands musically, no-one should have any cause to be truly concerned) – what he appears to doubt is the ability of the remaining band members to deal with all the non-musical activities that he had stewardship of whilst he was in the band: the interviews, the set lists, the official bootlegs… all the things that provided fans with all the bells and whistles that enhanced the experience of being a fan. To which I would say, once the dust has settled somewhat and the new line-up ease into the routine of dealing with the band’s day-to-day business, who’s to say that they might not divide up all the things that Portnoy took upon himself to do, and surprise everyone (including possibly themselves!) by dealing with it all perfectly well? Or, they may choose to offload it onto people outside the band who have the fans’ best interests at heart? There is no shortage of dedicated fans who could be relied upon to do a great job with the ‘anoraky’ stuff.
But there is another option – an option which prompted me to write this blog entry in the first place. What if they scale it all down or even give much of it up? Does it really matter? During his tenure with the band, Portnoy wrote lyrics to a song called Never Enough, which was about the lack of appreciation that fans sometimes had for all the extra time and effort that he put into making them happy. In retrospect, it was one of the first signs that Portnoy wasn’t always blissfully happy in his role as the band’s archiver and public face. I remember at the time the song was released that it made some fans unhappy – probably the very same ones who Portnoy was writing about. The thing is, they more than likely deserved it.
This is something that I keep coming back to again and again – I touched on it when I wrote about forums a while back, and it’s come up numerous times when I’ve spoken to musicians (and fans, for that matter) about the double-edged nature of the internet. It has unquestionably brought artists closer to their fanbases – mostly for the good of everyone concerned, as musicians market more directly to their fans, and fans have greater access to the musicians whose material inspires them. There is an increasing dark side, though: this sense of “ownership” fans have when it comes to the musicians who have allowed them greater access. This feeling that fans sometimes have that musicians owe their fans the Earth, as without their fandom they wouldn’t be able to make music (or indeed put food on the table). Truthfully, this is utterly inaccurate, since in my experience, musicians tend to make music even if no-one is listening, even if they have to take on a “day job” (or jobs – yes, some musicians have one, two, or even more employers!) to enable them to do so. They are driven to create. Sure, they’d all love to be able to do it full-time, but untold hundreds/thousands can’t.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: all bands owe their fans is what those fans have actually paid for. Anything else is just vanity on the behalf of the fans, whose closer relationship with the musicians seems to have blinded them to the fact that they are not the band’s employers. They are consumers. They buy music (or merchandise, or concert tickets, etc) from the band for a fee. They do not pay the musicians to create music: they consume the music once it is made. This is just as true for album pre-orders, even if the material hasn’t yet been written. Ultimately, they are paying for the finished product, not the band’s creative endeavours. This would seem to be self-evident, and yet so many fans seem to forget this basic equation. The tired old lament goes up time after time: “You owe us everything because we buy your records! Without us, you couldn’t exist!” Actually, yes, the band in question could very well exist without your help. No-one would have heard of them, perhaps, and they wouldn’t be able to make a living from their music, but they might very well exist, especially if they’re particularly passionate about what they do. Just once, I’d love to see a band respond to this sort of presumption with a blunt, “No, actually, we don’t owe you anything. You like our records, you buy ’em. You don’t like ’em, you can ignore ’em.” Sadly, that sort of thing doesn’t tend to go down well with the sort of fans I’ve been talking about, so bands tend to avoid saying it… 😉
Music is an emotionally-charged topic for anyone who takes it remotely seriously, I understand this. But this “ownership” some fans feel is disturbing: it breeds trolls (who make the internet a thoroughly delightful place to be!), and is ultimately self-destructive, since if there’s one thing I’ve learnt to rely on where music is concerned, it’s that the more expectations you hold, the more likely they are to be dashed – and there’s nothing more toxic than a disgruntled ex-fan with an internet connection…