On May 8 at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET, Yahoo Live will live stream Mumford & Sons' iHeartRadio record release concert from the iHeartRadio Theater in New York City. Tune in HERE to watch!
The music press is all in a folk frenzy about Mumford & Sons going electric. Their new album Wilder Mind (out this week) is stirring conversation and a bit of controversy by its absence of banjos and presence of synthesizers. Marcus Mumford told Rolling Stone,”We felt that doing the same thing, or the same instrumentation again, just wasn’t for us. We’ve got a broader taste in music than just that.”
Musicians by definition are restless. Rare is the artist who is content to stick with one sound from cradle to grave. There are always new sonic landscapes to conquer, new curiosities explore. I have yet to meet a musician who doesn’t want to learn a new lick, scale, or sound. We are explorers.
At the same time, the music business is a business (or what’s left of one). Artists who are lucky enough to make a career playing music must face the realities — and occasional indignities — of holding onto an audience. And unlike musicians, audiences aren’t so crazy about change. They generally like their bands to stay frozen in time. As a result, tampering with a winning formula is a dangerous proposition, and some of the most privately curious players remain publicly pigeonholed in order to keep their paychecks.
Artistic temperament aside, one could group working musicians into two categories: those who make a career of change (the lucky few) and those who change to keep a career (everyone else). You can count Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Madonna, and Beck among the lucky few — musicians who have trained their audiences to expect something new with each release and not complain. For the most part. Their eclectic-ness is deemed a virtue and their restlessness an essential part of their identity.
For nearly every other recording artist, musical change comes at significant risk and necessity. Attempts to reinvigorate a graying audience, jump from a dying genre, reclaim the pop culture conversation, or step into a bigger fanbase are some of the noble — and businesslike — reasons for changing things up.
Mumford & Sons are more than seven years into a career built squarely on a folk music tradition culminating with their 2012 release, Babel. The album sold a gazillion copies, won a Grammy, and made folk music cool for a generation of coffeehouse kids. One could forgive Mumford & Sons for being a bit burned out with banjos. Still, their “going electric” moment is a dangerous move. If they are successful, they get to have it both ways: playing stadiums as young rock gods while they have their hair and spend their balding years as respectable folk gentlemen. If they fail, they risk being a band without a country — having alienated the coffeehouse kids and not impressing the Foo Fighters crowd (Mumford & Sons will be playing with the Foos at their “Gentlemen of the Road” dates; this, of course, gives them a home court advantage).
Look, Mumford & Sons are talented, huge, built to last, and have many powerful people in their corner. This move may grow their base and extend their musical life. Plus, the roadmap has already been drawn by someone Mumford & Sons has undoubtedly watched closely: Bob Dylan. Dylan famously “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, driving folk purists crazy and inventing a new genre of music in one mammoth moment.
Dylan’s bravery and prescience cannot be overstated — nor understood without fully appreciating the times of the late ’60s. There are few other artists who can start a riot by ditching their acoustic guitars and going electric but all face career risks by embracing musical change.
Godspeed, Mumford & Sons, on your gentlemen’s electric journey. May you find success with the synths and keep the steel guitars close at hand.