Overthinking The Music Industry Of The 'Star Wars' Universe

16 December 2015 | 2:56 pm | Mitch Knox

As the world steels itself for the arrival of 'Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens', we shine a spotlight on the struggling artists of the interplanetary creative community

The universe of Star Wars is a magnificent, multi-faceted place. Alien races of all shapes, sizes and beliefs converge and coexist across a vast interplanetary network of societies, at different times governed by at least two republics and the infamous Empire that we know and love today. Traders, scientists, mercenaries, farmers, pod racers, space monks and racist stereotypes abound across all manner of climate — both environmental and socio-economic — to thrive and propel themselves ever forward into the great unknown.

Yes, even musicians. And, as excited as we all are to find out what's been up with Han Solo, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker and the British cyber-butler, I can't help but wonder about all the poor song-slingers out there in the galaxy, trying to make a buck in a post-Empire world.

In fact, the original Star Wars trilogy even provided us a little insight to the major players of its far-off galactic music industry. In 1977's Episode IV: A New Hope, we're introduced to seven-piece dive-bar superstars Figrin D'an & The Modal Nodes, a group of seemingly identical aliens known as Bith, just hanging out in the shittiest bar in Mos Eisley, the worst town on the most awful planet ever, busting out their now-iconic intergalactic hit, Cantina Band (or Mad About Me, to get technical).

According to mostly now-retconned canon, The Modal Nodes were a pretty successful outfit throughout the galaxy during the Clone Wars (between episodes two and three), enjoying a sweet circuit of gigs for Republic (pre-Empire) troops before it all went to shit and they were forced to sustain themselves off pity gigs at fringe bars. Why the Empire wouldn't have just kept them on-board to keep the Stormtroopers happy — especially since one would think the individual Stormtroopers would be more prone to restlessness and need for distraction than the militantly designed and bred Clonetroopers — is a question best answered by the government itself, but either way, by the time we're introduced to the peppy compositions of Figrin D'an and his backing players in the musical equivalent of Multiplicity, make no mistake — they're playing in that cantina because they have to, not because they want to.

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Then, in Return Of The Jedi, we meet the Max Rebo Band, featuring frontman-slash-elephant-thing Max Rebo on... circular keys (nalargon, or Red Ball Jett keyboard). They were the resident band at Jabba's Palace, with two in-canon hits to their name: the original film's Lapti Nek (Work It Out), and the 1997 special edition's far more-on-the-nose Jedi Rocks. It was also in this version that the band gained a fistful of new members to add to their original three — including Barquin D'an, the brother of The Modal Nodes' Figrin D'an, resentful of his sibling's success — to fill out the screen, while founding member Sy Snootles was "upgraded" from puppet to CGI member so she could deliver this unbelievably depressing monstrosity of a scene, which even features Boba Fett flirting for some reason:

Jesus, I hate Sy Snootles.

Anyway, the Max Rebo Band was actually the subject of a few Expanded Universe tales, which have tragically been scrubbed from the canon in the wake of Disney's acquisition of the Star Wars franchise; for example, it was in these stories that we found out that the band — originally presented in the film as a three-piece — had begun as a quartet called, I shit you not, Evar Orbus & His Galactic Jizz-wailers, "jizz-wailers" being the Star Wars universe's term for musicians who play "a fast, contemporary and upbeat style of music". 

Armed with the greatest name in history, Orbus, Rebo, Snootles and final founder Droopy McCool (!!!!) head to Tatooine about three years after the Battle Of Yavin (the conclusion of A New Hope), where they audition for a gig at the Mos Eisley cantina, only for The Modal Nodes to get all territorial about their residency and straight-up murder Evar Orbus in a brawl. 

Eventually, they wind up at Jabba's palace before Return Of The Jedi, being used as spies by and against the corpulent crime lord, as well as his in-house entertainers. After Jabba's death at the hands of Leia, and the destruction of his sand barge, the band largely fade into the great annals of history; notably, Barquin D'an gives the industry the arse altogether and launches his own import/export business. Not a word of this is made up. Well, it's all made up, but in the context of the universe, this is all stuff that actually happened as official canon at one point. 

Do you want to fly all the way to Tatooine to play a gig where there's a real possibility that a paying customer — or worse, one of your musicians — might actually have their arm cut off by a belligerent old man with a laser sword?

All of which — murder-fight included — makes me think that being a musician in the Star Wars universe must be a really shitty gig. Our own national — much less global — music industry is already a pretty competitive place; imagine its operations at an interplanetary scale. As if we'd even be surprised that musos were murdering each other for gigs, to say nothing of the sheer logistical nightmare that must be organising a touring or album-release schedule involving not just multiple cities, states or countries but entirely different planets.

Even if you figure out the nitty-gritty and manage a promotional budget that stretches the distance between planets, how can you possibly be sure that your brand of post-jizz-wail twi'lek-blues is going to remotely land with the discerning tastes of the Wookie punters living on Kashyyyk? Star Wars has all kinds of amazing technology, but I've never once seen a SoundCloud account. Where would you even file the kind of sounds coming from, say, the forest moon of Endor? "Off-world Music"? 

Hell, I don't even think Han or Chewie put anything on the radio at any stage that they were spending hours travelling through space. Not a single X-wing pilot is seen blasting black metal from Hoth to amp themselves up for battle. In a galaxy that so clearly undervalues the creative contributions of its musical community, really, do you want to fly all the way to Tatooine to play a gig where there's a real possibility that a paying customer — or worse, one of your musicians — might actually have their arm cut off by a belligerent old man with a laser sword? No. Fuck that.

In some ways, it might be a blessing in disguise that the Expanded Universe was scrapped, as things didn't really end up all that brightly for the band's line-up when they finally leave Jabba's employ; Droopy McCool literally wanders off into the desert to die, while Sy and Max decide to continue as the Max Rebo Duo, with Sy eventually splitting with her long-time collaborator to pursue a solo career, which — according to various Star Wars encyclopedias — flopped so hard she was relegated to touring the sticks of the galactic Outer Rim before fading into obscurity, which, believe me, I have absolutely no complaints about.

The exception to the rule, it seems, is Max Rebo himself, who, like so many Jaggers and McCartneys before him, actually ends up living in the lap of luxury on the mega city-planet of Coruscant after a stint in the Rebel Alliance as an entertainer and second life as the founder of a successful restaurant chain across the galaxy. Hey, at least somebody who played a tune over the duration of the Star War(s) found a happy ending (at least until Disney came along).

It couldn't have happened to a more deserving elephant monster.

Now, we'll have to wait just a little longer to find out what's happened to the hard-working creative heroes of the galaxy's crappiest venues in the decades since the Empire's fall — or who's taken their place at the top of the slum-pub pops — if we find out at all.