FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

Why Is It Fine for Rock Bands to Replace Their Lead Singers?

It seems like everyone could leave a band these days and it would somehow keep touring.
Hannah Ewens
London, United Kingdom
January 28, 2015, 1:01pm

Bands tend to cite “creative differences” when someone leaves, but that's just press release speak for a group collectively realising that one of their number is actually a massive cock. Sometimes it's better to cut out the cancer then let them tour with you for another nine months, farting in a bunk bed above your head. Most bands can soldier on without their second saxophonist or even lead guitarist - but surely no band can survive losing their lead singer?

The past couple of weeks have been a big one for this issue. Last week frontman Danny Worsnop left metalcore group Asking Alexandria. “Over the last eight years together we’ve done some amazing things and created something truly special,” Worsnop said in a statement. “I now, same as then, want what’s best for the band and at this point in time, that isn’t me.” And with that, he’s off into the sunset with his other band We Are Harlot to a life of classic rock and arbitrary scarves. Not only are Asking Alexandria choosing to carry on, they’re writing another record and touring this summer.

Then this week we’ve seen Tom DeLonge’s exit. He might not be the singular face of the band, but just like Danny, he’s a key component in what makes blink-182: blink-182. Who are they without Tom: the guy who started the band; the absurd manchild who may or may not still want to fuck a dog in the ass? Does it really matter? We have Matt Skiba standing in for him at Musink Festival.

Both bands should be hollowed shells. But they’re not. They’ll probably continue to be extremely successful with their respective replacement members. It’s a bizarre phenomenon – but it's something that happens a lot in rock. Carrying on with a new front person is seen as such a viable option for bands that it’s as obvious as splitting up or making a new band altogether. If Luke whateverhisname left The Kooks, I’m sure they’d just go, “Oh, well. We’ve had a good run. Made a few songs about the seaside and whatnot" and fuck off into obscurity. But not in rock, where singers come and go more frequently than banh-mi pop-ups in Shoreditch.

The reason it’s so mystifying is because it’s contradictory to the way the music industry works. The vocalist is almost always the USP; the “sellable” face of the band, whether that be indie, rock, pop - whatever. The frontperson’s mug is on the cover, they’re called up for quotes, the mouthpiece when collecting awards, the focus of features. They’re the ones music fans feel they know.

So why is changing frontpeople so accepted by the industry and fans alike? It’s such a routine, in fact, that days after news of Danny’s departure was broken, Asking Alexandria was announced as Warped Tour headliners.

Now, the obvious answer would be to say: these members are replaceable because they’re dispensable modern characters. Admittedly, replace your average metalcore vocalist with another and most of us probably wouldn’t even notice.

But it’s not just that. Perhaps rock isn’t producing the cultural forces it once was, but Danny was always this swaggering, interesting character. He’d sway from booze-fuelled crudity to a promise of sobriety and then decide it was a load of boring old bollocks and jump off the wagon once more. Whoever they get to replace Danny will still have to be boorish and brimming with character or the whole act will seem empty without him. He’s not a void waiting to be filled.

And as James McMahon, editor of rock magazine Kerrang! responded when I asked him about this issue, this hasn’t come out of nowhere. It’s something that started decades ago. “This is a tradition within the genre, from the top down,” he said. “I mean, Black Sabbath, who only went and invented heavy bloody metal, have had four singers. Iron Maiden, the biggest metal band in the world, have had three. And there's at least two eras within both of the aforementioned acts that are genuinely brilliant.”

But rock fans’ acceptance of this interchangeability had to start somewhere. James believes the answer comes down to the authenticity that fans (rightly or wrongly) associate with rock. “Traditionally, rock singers are viewed as people with a skill, before being viewed as stars, which isn't the case with, say, pop),” he says. “Therefore, the idea of carrying on with a new face at the front isn't the kiss of death it would be in other, more frivolously viewed genres of music. There's some snobbery here, I'll admit!”

A perfect example to demonstrate this is Gallows. Frank Turner was anything but “replaceable” – but, against all odds, that happened. Of course for some the idea of Gallows continuing or taking on a new singer without changing their name was sacrilege. However, the majority of those that could - that should - have cared the most (i.e. the dedicated fans) rolled with the punches.

I hounded some Gallows fans and asked them why they didn’t care that Frank was so easily replaced. Superfan Roy Jones told me: “Frank was a notoriously good frontman but for me the image of Gallows wasn’t the way the music press loved Frank as an icon. I always thought the band and the instrumentation was more important.” Jess Bridgeman said it was because “no one wants to see their favourite band fall apart and that’s the only way Gallows would’ve gone without moving on and progressing the way that they have.” More than just presenting a willingness to give the band the benefit of the doubt, they’re highlighting a belief in a larger, greater sense of Gallows.

And that’s really what it comes down to. When you buy into a band, you’re buying into an idea; a brand. Once a band becomes a brand, it transcends the members within it and is essentially a concept. Take Slipknot, for instance. When talking about their band in a recent interview with Kerrang!, Shawn said: “Fifteen years of killing it. Like it or not, Slipknot is a culture and its own brand.” And fans of a brand are widely loyal, whether that be through a line-up change or the passing of fifteen years. It explains the strength of a band like Black Flag. Can you name all the Black Flag singers (no extra points for Henry Rollins)? No. But you know the brand. You recognise those four staggard black bars. You grasp their essence.

All this aside, there’s no denying the period following the departure of a front person is contentious for those involved. There are an infinite number of factors to consider in a short, pressurised space of time. Josh Smith of Northlane (another metalcore outfit that lost their vocalist last year only to swiftly replace him) has first hand experience of this. “You have to be so careful with who you choose and you have to do it quickly so you don’t lose momentum,” he says. A good point. Leave it too long, particularly as a mid-level band, and no one will give a shit about your return, however victorious.

Despite our strange acceptance of change and our trust in bands as brands, we’re more fickle than ever. We have choice. We want quality and we don’t hang around long enough for bullshit. It’s important you pick the right replacement. So here’s the best idea yet. Just ask the people that buy into your brand. Instead of just picking one of their mates or stealing a vocalist from another band, Northlane asked the internet to send videos of them doing covers of their songs on YouTube. “We had over 2,000 applications and it let us see what people who like our band thought of the new people trying out,” says Josh. That’s how they found Marcus, their new vocalist. “This allowed fans to mentally ease into the idea of a new singer and feel like their opinion mattered. We didn’t want to come out of nowhere and go, “Here’s your new singer.””

Could this be the method of the future? It definitely sounds like a better idea than just replacing a singer and hoping your fans will like them. It’s real life Rock Band; it’s what we’ve become accustomed to. Maybe after Matt Skiba’s done filling in, blink should crowdsource. Maybe Asking Alexandria could do the same. Whatever the latter do, I just pray they don’t listen to the people asking for RiFF RAFF. Seriously, there’s a limit to our good nature.

You can follow Hannah on Twitter.