Music is one of the most difficult art forms to attempt transmedia storytelling with. Without a literal narrative or story world, musicians must work harder to convey their messages in other ways. However, a history of fictional bands and fictionalized versions of real bands have easily found their way into other media.
I am going to define fictional bands as music groups consisting of invented characters. One can easily create narrative around them to weave across other platforms, and tell stories that are not effective in a music format. There are two main categories: ones that started on another platform and subsequently released music, and ones that first began releasing music and then extended into other media.
Other Platforms to Music
Television: Many Americans and some international audiences are already familiar with fictional bands. They have most prominently debuted in the form of animated television series, and issued records later on. It is perhaps the easiest format to craft transmedia storytelling out of, as there are no real constraints on the world, chronology, characters, or themes, beyond the animation budget.
The first big success was The Archies, which featured the well known characters Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica. Originally a comic book, the TV series The Archie Show was created to feature the friends in a rock band. While the show only lasted one season, the songs subsequently produced went on to notable success, with their single, “Sugar, Sugar” becoming the number one song of 1969 on the Billboard charts. Other shows attempted to mimic the success, such as Josie and the Pussycats, but to no avail.
As cartoons have become more acceptable for adult audiences, it was only a matter of time before music and animation met again. The Adult Swim program Metalocalypse revolves around a metal band called Dethklok. Due to the success of the show, an album The Dethalbum was released, supposedly written and performed by the band but actually by the creator Brendon Small. It debuted at #21 on the Billboard charts. A second album, Dethalbum II, was released two years later. The “band” has since gone on to tour with real bands such as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Mastodon.
Live action television has also produced a number of fictional bands. One of the earliest was The Partridge Family, a sitcom that followed a musical family touring the country. Although only two of the cast members performed on the albums, the songs mimicked the happy-go-lucky feel of the show to great success. With the single “I Think I Love You” hitting number 1 on the charts, they were the third fictional artists to top the Billboard, after The Chipmunks and The Archies.
Film: While less fictional bands have come out of film, one of the most famous originated in a mockumentary: Spinal Tap.
1984’s This is Spinal Tap followed a British heavy metal band on their U.S. concert tour. Due to its cult success, the “band” has released three studio albums over the course of 15 years, each debuting higher than the last, performed numerous live tours, and continues to appear on late night talk shows and in TV commercials.
Toys: Perhaps the most interesting toy line to create a fictional band has been Mistula, a Filipino heavy metal group aesthetically inspired by Catholic iconography.
The four dolls/characters write an online blog, release professionally recorded music, and even collaborated with a charity for less fortunate children. With completely fictional characters such as dolls, it is very easy to create back stories, personalities, and individual story lines, with little to no constraints.
Music to Other Platforms
This can be a slightly more difficult route. A fictional band must already be musically established and have enough of a following to justify additional extensions. However, that fanbase will easily move to other platforms if they are attached to the characters and world, narrative elements that will become more real and explorable in media more appropriate for literal storytelling. By hinting at story elements and a larger world, listeners will already be prepped for diving in.
A couple groups have been able to do this, in very different ways. The first group to accomplish this was Alvin and the Chipmunks.
After the unexpected success from the “Witch Doctor” song, Ross Bagdasarian recorded the first Chipmunks song in 1958, called, “The Chipmunks Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” It spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard chart, earned three Grammys, and Bagdasarian even performed with three hand puppets on The Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to create a comic book line, multiple television series, and theatrical films.
However, the most successful band to have emerged from this route is the Gorillaz. The four-piece animated band was created by former Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett. Albarn is the only permanent member, the voice of frontman 2D, and each album rotates out guest musicians. They have sold tens of millions of albums, and currently hold the Guinness Record for Most Successful Virtual Band. Though there were some narrative hints in the lyrics, the band has managed to expand out onto other platforms to further develop their characters with books, quest-based browser games, figurines, DVDs, and social network accounts.
While the tours have consisted of a live band, a few performances have even brought the characters to life with 3D animations and projections.
Real world bands have used a version of this storytelling as well. Some musicians may want to use exaggerated versions of their personalities to tell stories. Others may just feel uncomfortable being in the spotlight and find comfort in hiding in a character. A way to broaden the reach of your message without necessarily involving “you” is by playing a fictionalized form of yourself.
The Beatles successfully played up parts of their personalities to form a quartet of archetypes. Originally only accessible through interviews and TV performances, these were more fully explored in their feature films. A Hard Day’s Night is a mockumentary that followed the band for a few days while they comically dealt with their new found fame. Help! cast them in a more fictional light, with the band running from a cult seeking a ring that Ringo had discovered.
Yellow Submarine is the film where they truly became characters. The animated feature followed The Beatles traveling to Pepperland to save it from the anti-music Blue Meanies. The four musicians were hesitant to participate, and although other voice actors were cast, the characters still very much embodied The Beatles’ individual personalities and team roles. The film also reinforced many of the band’s messages in a new way.
The music-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords have also incorporated exaggerated versions of themselves into their presentation. They perform under their real names, Jemaine and Bret, but affect slightly awkward, foolish, and ignorant personalities that match up with the songs they write and their comedic banter from live shows. As their music and performances were well received, they branched out, creating a radio series with their fictional manager, and a few years later, a successful HBO series. The TV series featured them living together in a decrepit apartment in New York City, struggling to become a successful band. Their ability to portray fictionalized versions of themselves opened up new platforms for different context for their music.
Musicians don’t have to do massive extensions to incorporate this approach. Since the creation of YouTube and other video-hosting sites, numerous bands have created one-offs or short series to explore fictional aspects of themselves. For instance, a musician known for their work’s serious tone may have a great sense of humor that does not feel appropriate on their albums. Instead, they can explore this in other outlets, presenting a fuller picture of themselves for fans without compromising their prevailing artistic message.
An example of this is the band WHY?, who collaborated with performer Blond Chili to create a 10-part video series in promotion of their new album Eskimo Snow. The band decides to hire a new manager to capitalize on their recent success, and quickly learn what a mistake they have made. The album is quite somber, but the video’s storyline allowed them to showcase aspects of themselves not found on the record.
Either approach—fictional or fictionalized—has resulted in great success. Damon Albarn has arguably found wider acclaim as a cartoon character in Gorillaz than as himself in Blur. If musicians are willing to take a backseat to their own creations and let the stories speak for themselves, this can be a very fruitful venture artistically and financially.