Band breakups are no simple thing

“Sometimes a journey must end for a new one to begin,” the Panic! at the Disco lead singer Brendon Urie wrote in an Instagram post last month announcing the band’s separation after 19 years. Urie, the band’s only remaining original member, said that he and his wife were expecting their first child (who has since been born), and that, going forward, his focus would be on family.

Bands break up all the time, of course, and for the artists involved, that can mean pursuing a solo career or side passions, or retiring altogether. But big bands aren’t just artists, especially not in 2023; they are sometimes full-out companies, complete with operations and social-media managers. And in the age of big festivals, reunions seem a part of life.

So what’s the difference between a band calling it quits and just taking a few years off to spend time with family before suiting up for a splashy Coachella reunion? What goes into a breakup? I called up Nabil Ayers, a drummer turned record-label executive, to ask. Ayers is the president of Beggars Group, a collection of record labels, and the author of the memoir My Life in the Sunshine.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: When you hear that a band is breaking up, what do you think is happening on the back end business-wise?

Nabil Ayers: A band is like a company, and often is a company. Once a band reaches a certain level, they incorporate or they make a partnership agreement.

It’s hard to totally know, because there is no real standard boilerplate for what that looks like. There are bands where there are four equal members and they’re all partners and that’s that. And there are other bands where the primary singer or songwriter is the company and the other people are all hired members who can come and go. And there’s a separate agreement with them. And there’s everything in between.

Nyce: It’s not like a regular job, where you give your two weeks’ notice.

Ayers: But in some bands it is. It’s like, “You’re the hired bass player, and we don’t want you to play with us anymore. You’re out tomorrow.” Or if you want to quit, you can quit.

Take a band like Journey, for instance. Steve Perry, the singer—who actually also isn’t the original singer but is definitely known as the singer from the band’s biggest years—leaves the band and goes on to a great solo career. Journey still exists with somebody else singing. I always wonder in cases like that: Is that person an equal member? My guess is that he’s not. But there’s no way to know what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s entirely possible that Steve Perry is still making money from Journey’s touring business, if he is a partner in Journey.

Nyce: I imagine that no matter what—even if the band never does anything else ever again—the company has to continue on in some form to distribute royalties.

Ayers: That side of it—the records, the publishing, the songwriting ownership—is fairly straightforward because records are a document of something that happened. You recorded this. It came out. We sell it. The people who worked on it and played on it are paid according to whatever the splits are that were agreed upon during that time. Journey gets a new singer; that doesn’t change who recorded “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

What’s harder and more complicated is the live stuff, the touring stuff. If Journey plays a show tonight, does Steve Perry get a piece of that? I have no idea. If they’re selling T-shirts with artwork of the album he was on, what does that mean? I don’t know that there’s a standard thing. I think it really depends on what was agreed upon.

Nyce: What do you make of the concept of a breakup versus just not recording another album?

Ayers: That’s funny. I’m in at least two bands that never broke up, which I guess means I’m still in them, but we haven’t played for 15 or 20 years. We just kind of stopped playing, which is the best way to break up. It’s great.

The official breakup is a funny thing. It can be seen as a marketing thing, of course, because the official reunion, as we all know, is an incredible marketing moment. Everyone looks at LCD Soundsystem—a great band, but the period between breakup and reunion was pretty fast. It has obviously worked really well for them and their fans, so it’s hard to criticize. But it was almost a short-enough cycle that they certainly could have not done it, and no one would have necessarily thought anything had happened.

Nyce: What do you think the role of fans is here, particularly with the internet?

Ayers: It’s so huge. It’s never been more tangible. Before social media, it was harder to know what the demand was. Now if you’re a band that breaks up and you feel like it, you can just scroll through whatever social-media platform you feel like and see how many people wish you would play again. It’s right there in front of you. This is not just for huge bands. There are small bands that do all these things—reunite and do small club tours or a one-off gig.

Nyce: With festival culture as big as it is, reunions feel inevitable. What do you think the practical function of a band breakup in 2023 is?

Ayers: It’s hard to be in a band. It’s hard to live in a van or a bus or a hotel or whatever with the same people for years. There’s something to a clean break, saying, “We don’t want to do this anymore. Let’s stop. Let’s announce that. Let’s let the world know, and we can all be free to do whatever we want.”

That’s a very altruistic version of it, but I think there are people who actually feel this way. People that say, “We have to stop doing this. It’s not healthy; we don’t like each other. Let’s stop.” Doing that can sometimes allow people space to try their other things and realize, Oh, wow, that was actually really fun. And wow, look at all the fans that love us. Look at that incredibly lucrative festival offer. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Sometimes that cycle is real—not calculated. Couples get divorced and remarried. It’s the same reason relationships break up.

Nyce: You don’t think they’re being cynical? You don’t think on the Panic! back end, they’re eyeing Coachella 2030?

Ayers: Well, you didn’t ask me about Panic! You asked me about bands. (Laughs.)

I’m not going to speculate on them specifically. I want to think the best. I’ve been there. I don’t think breakups are always that calculated. Of course, there are people who are more calculating and have a 10-year plan, like, “Okay, if we break up now, we’ll chill for a couple of years, then reunite.” But I don’t think most people go that far. I think for a lot of people, it’s really hard and really emotional and happens for a real reason. It’s so much harder to be in a band than most people realize.

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