I often wonder what sort of mentality it takes for an artist (solo and band alike) to make it in this industry. I'm not just speaking in terms of how good your PR person is or if your manager has an "in" with the biggest festivals or if a "golden" award means anything beyond the 15 minutes it really holds weight. I'm speaking more of the thousands of bands that start out with the mentality of "Fuck yes, let's do it!" and then one day decide that what they started must be put down. There's a lot of variables in hanging up your guitar on the wall and entering the "real world" of shifting your part time job - when not on the road - into a full time job of the American dream, whatever that may be these days. That sort of mentality doesn't always have to be negative though. There are "family" elements and "career" choices well past living on the road and never becoming the larger element (or even stable one at that) you eventually want to become - that subconscious mindset since the beginning. Many have tried, but few have been able to live that dream while (a) keeping a stable and lengthy bout of integrity and (b) not becoming a shell of their former self or a nostalgic joke.
Two horses need to be beaten before I continue though. One, for each band's case, longevity doesn't have to mean that a band has to last a decade, in some cases it could be anywhere from a couple of months to a handful of years with less than three releases under their belt - which brings us to two, the subjectivity and impact of a band lies in the numbers of listeners they impact. The footprint left by any artist is decided on by a variable no one really has any control over and is constantly changing with each release as artists everywhere grit their teeth when an album leaks (because let's face it, who makes it to that big Tuesday nowadays?) I've had numerous discussions with friends about how some of our favorite bands today are only known by a small group of followers or other bands - not the mainstream or any sort of large majority. On paper, it looks as if they're failing, but in the cult minority, they could be gods among those listeners and will continue to resonate years later to future generations. Look no further than eBay auctions for a particular vinyl from a band that were mocked at the time by many a casual listener or self-absorbed critic.
In watching The Felix Culpa's documentary last night, all these thoughts just sort of overwhelmed me. While To We, The Nearly Departed is a short chronicle featuring a pacing of live footage from the band's final show at The Metro in Chicago and interludes of interviews and stock footage from the band's past, to me, it was more a quick retrospective of how a great band can come and go with a snap of a finger or changing musical landscape. I would certainly put The Felix Culpa in that category of a band people either got or didn't grasp fully. For those that didn't, maybe the songs were "too long" or there wasn't a "hook" that got stuck in your head for days. For those that did get it, there was a reason behind it: it was a band outside someone's normal taste, it had sentimental value in the lyrics, it helped someone pick up a guitar or drumstick or maybe the band made a perfect record for someone at the perfect time said listener needed it.
Maybe given the relationship I have with the band, my opinion is biased in itself. Last South by Southwest, I got to spend a couple of days with the guys - family men, newlyweds, video game nerds and we all came together to talk about our love of Engine Down while attending a festival that plays out like more of a lavish show-off of who's-who instead of a week of just hanging out with your friends while more friends play music. I constantly think that bastardization of the art form and the lifestyle is where the chord gets ripped from the amplifier one last time. Music should always be about getting in the van and playing first and foremost. It's about a person's first open mic or a big local opening for one of their favorite acts. The rest will follow. If you're honest and attempt something that you believe in, I think that's what will resonate the most over time. That's where some sort of longevity on either a minor or major level will occur eventually.
The beginning and end of The Felix Culpa isn't a new story, but it's the first one that made me think long about all the bands that meant something to me like the guys have: The Snake the Cross the Crown, Engine Down, Blueprint Car Crash and a slew of others. Each band has their own story, it goes back to the variables mentioned and those I forgot. Maybe Jack Black said it best in High Fidelity, "Is it better to burn out or to fade away?" There are arguments for both and enough bands that have experienced one or the other. The music industry is an unforgiving career for many, but with the adamant of "archiving" (whether legal or illegal as certain people see it), at least we live in an age where we have the ability to pass on the music that made an impact to us in some way, and when we pick those records up months or even years later, here's hoping it will be as gripping as the first experiences we had with them.