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Why do Rock Bands Break up?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are a number of reasons why many rock bands of old fail to become old rock bands, ranging from simple logistics to the ever-popular music industry euphemism creative differences. Some young rock bands break up before playing their first paying gig, while some veteran rock bands break up after decades spent on the road performing in sold-out stadiums. The music industry is notoriously difficult to break into, and that's assuming that a fledgling rock band has the talent and ambition to establish itself at a professional level.

One reason many beginning rock bands break up is a combination of logistics and the pressures of real life. Being in a garage rock band requires a certain level of self-sacrifice, including hours of unpaid rehearsal and a willingness to travel great distances for very little financial gain. It doesn't help when the drummer is also the night manager of a video store, the guitarist is a full-time college student and the lead singer has a wife and two small children to consider. Many rock bands cannot survive these early days of transition from individuals with obligations to a unified group with making music as a top priority.

Provided that the members of a young rock band can overcome the challenges presented by real life, the next challenge is to develop a strong repertoire of songs, both originals and covers. This is another tricky situation for a fledgling rock band, since individual members may have their own personal tastes in music, and frustration may set in if certain members feel forced to perform in other members' styles but little interest is shown in their own. Songwriters may want to learn more original music, while those who want to work steadily as a bar band may want to learn cover versions of established hits. The tension between the two camps may be enough to cause the band to break up.

Once a rock band begins to mature and tighten, the question of pursuing commercial success or remaining big fish in a small pond often causes concern among band members. The grunge rock group Nirvana, for example, wrestled with this very problem throughout their entire career. Commercial success means more exposure to the band's music and fewer financial concerns, but it can also mean creating a sound that pleases the public and the record companies, not the eclectic or artistic material which defined the band's original sound. Some rock bands break up at this stage because certain members want to pursue a commercial career while others want to remain true to their original, if non-commercial, audience base and artistic vision.

Some rock bands enjoy commercial success in a musical genre that has a definite beginning and a definite decline in popularity. When the folk rock sound became popular in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of groups like the Byrds, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield which enjoyed several years of popularity among the young record buying public. By the late 1960s, however, many of these groups had disbanded or reformed as more progressive entities. Sometimes rock bands break up because their style of music, whether it be folk, glam rock, punk, disco, New Wave or grunge, has fallen out of favor or becomes "dated."

As with any other group of collaborating artists, internal strife can also cause promising rock bands to break up. The legendary Beatles began as nothing more than an amateur skiffle group comprised of four working-class boys from the industrial Liverpool area of England. The eruption of Beatlemania helped forge them into one of the tightest rock bands in history, but even within a group this strong, real life jealousies, insecurities and violent disagreements could still break out.

Rock bands who have been together for a number of years often begin to mirror the dynamics of married couples. When one member is upset with another, the entire group can sense the tension and their productivity and cohesiveness often suffers. One or two members of a rock band may be considered dominant within the group, which often causes the more submissive members to feel under-appreciated for their skills. The lead singers and the songwriters may begin to treat others as subordinates or glorified session musicians, as was the case with the Beatles.

Sometimes a successful rock band can continue to perform even if individual members have serious personal or professional issues, but quite often a band will reach a boiling point as pent-up hostilities and jealousies explode onstage or during private rehearsals. The pressure to meet record company deadlines during times of internal strife or a creative dry spell can also cause some bands to break up. The 1970s country rock band The Eagles experienced this while working on their album The Long Run. As the weeks turned into months in the studio, individual band members crumbled creatively under the strain of personal disagreements and contractual obligations.

Closely related to the internal strife situation is the notorious band-killer known as "creative differences." A rock band is rarely a democracy, and some members may be exceptionally blessed with talent but painfully challenged in the band diplomacy department. Some musicians don't mind playing a more subservient role in a band which features a Paul McCartney or a Mick Jagger, but others have their own career goals and aspirations which cannot be fully realized in their current band's choice of material or style. An exceptionally talented member may be courted by other producers or record companies to become a solo act, which would make it extremely challenging for the rest of the band to continue.

Even if individual members of a rock band are given the opportunity to pursue solo projects, absence may not make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes rock bands break up whenever the idea of maintaining the band's image or popularity comes at too high a cost. Many legendary rock bands like Led Zepplin, The Who, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac originally broke up because of creative differences or internal strife, but they reform periodically to maintain a good relationship with their die-hard fans and to introduce themselves to a new generation. Some rock bands break up at the height of their careers in order to avoid the inevitably decline in popularity and performance standards.

Forming a rock band is not an easy thing to do, and many would-be rock stars soon discover that the reality is nothing like the demo. Sometimes the right players come together and a certain amount of musical alchemy takes over, but many times a fledgling rock band playing in a member's garage or a rented storage unit realizes that their potential to become the next U2 or Metallica is not worth sacrificing their day jobs or neglecting their other real world obligations to friends and family.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon972433 — On Oct 03, 2014

@anon927284- I think what the author of this article was trying to say is that some bands like Led Zeppelin get to a point where some members want to do something different, while others want to keep putting out more "Led Zeppelin" albums. They could have found a replacement for John Bonham, but they still would have had the same differences over where the band was headed. Some bands want to keep playing their back catalog and risk becoming an oldies group, while others try to come out with something new every few years.

By anon927284 — On Jan 23, 2014

Excuse me! Led Zeppelin broke up because John Bonham passed away, *not* because of internal band problems!

By anon89402 — On Jun 10, 2010

Unless you live in lancaster pa, where all there is do to is play music and pray. just saying.

By anon21031 — On Nov 09, 2008

Okay but you forget another big problem with many rock bands-- excessive drug and alcohol use. This warps peoples judgment and makes any other of the conflicts you mentioned seem more serious. People on drugs and alcohol like many of the musicians you discuss, aren't known for their good judgment.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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