The Good Listener: Should Fans Fear Side Projects? : All Songs Considered Popular bands like The National, The Black Keys, Wilco and Bon Iver have spawned spin-offs in recent years. Should their fans be nervous, or should they embrace the change of pace?
NPR logo The Good Listener: Should Fans Fear Side Projects?

The Good Listener: Should Fans Fear Side Projects?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the T-shirt we bought to express our love of goats is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on side projects.

Ann in County Cork writes via Facebook: "I am a super-fan of The National and have seen the band six times in three different countries. When EL VY (Matt Berninger's new band) was announced, my first reaction was something close to a disappointed meltdown, because a side project with a tour seems to suggest that the main project is at best on the shelf for a long while.

"Eventually, I listened to EL VY's single and was utterly charmed by it, pre-ordered the album, and purchased tickets to their Dublin show. But it got me thinking: Should fans fear or embrace their favorite musicians' side projects? Are side projects generally a help or a hindrance to the main band? I guess I fear that side projects are a gateway drug to breaking up or going on a super-long hiatus."

The National's Matt Berninger (left) has a new band called EL VY. Should fans of his old project fear the new one? Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

The National's Matt Berninger (left) has a new band called EL VY. Should fans of his old project fear the new one?

Courtesy of the artist

[Before we get started, a quick note: If you have any questions you'd love to see answered in The Good Listener, email Stephen Thompson at goodlistener@npr.org! We're always looking for column ideas.]

Side projects have become so commonplace, I rarely even think about their repercussions these days. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy formed Tweedy with his son Spencer; The National's Matt Berninger formed the aforementioned EL VY, whose first single is indeed terrific; The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach formed The Arcs, whose fine debut album is streaming here; and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon has churned out more albums by side projects (Volcano Choir, The Shouting Matches, et al) than albums by the band for which he's best known.

For any number of reasons, we're in a world of talented freelancers, many of whom have earned enough clout to feel comfortable doing what they wish in their downtime. The simple economics of music can't be overlooked, either: Making money requires hustle and productivity, and side projects often allow prominent musicians ways to cut deals differently, share the pie with fewer stakeholders, and simply produce more revenue streams with which to cobble together a comfortable living.

But I do hear your frustration with the delay side projects tend to bring about, though there's a chicken-and-egg issue at hand: Sometimes side projects are ways for performers to stay limber and relevant as they endure delays beyond their control. But I don't at all think of them as inherent gateways to breakups or hiatuses. I suppose they can hint at creative tension within a band — they might be songs the usual collaborators rejected, or a way to test the waters for life after a parting of ways — but I really think the best way to view them is as a gateway to yet more creativity.

If you're a creatively restless person who finds success in a band, you're bound to bump up against limitations. Among other things, success breeds an incredible amount of pressure: You're responsible for the livelihood of an entire ecosystem built up around your continued popularity, and continued popularity generally necessitates at least some degree of replication — or, at worst, stagnation. Playing the same 10, 15, 20 songs a night for a year and a half is going to feel stifling, especially on off nights, so it's bound to feel tempting to break as far away from that as possible once promotional obligations have been lifted.

Musicians are like anyone; they need breaks and vacations and time with their families and other palate-cleansers to freshen their perspective. Looking at your example, I can't speak for Matt Berninger, but there's a lot to be said for getting together with an old friend and starting over from scratch with minimal expectations and smaller rooms. At worst, it's a fun, low-stakes change of pace. At best, it'll fill his head with new inspiration and energy. I encourage you to embrace the change of pace right along with him.

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