Being in a Band – Politics & Teamwork

This post is filled with advice for people getting started in bands. There’s a lot to cover, but I like to start these longer posts with a high-level summary:

DO NOT

  • Try to get famous with a viral song
  • Quit your day job
  • Start a rivalry with other bands or individuals

DO

  • Discuss goals and expectations
  • Practice/write/rehearse frequently
  • Work on solo projects or collaborate outside the band

I’ve been working in bands for most of my life.

2002-2004: When I was 12 years old and my classmate taught me to read guitar tabs, he and I started a band with another classmate, later changing our guitarist. We learned covers and wrote originals for about 2 years, getting a majority of stuff done after school. We recorded mostly on mp3 players that could record voice memos. We edited the recordings and produced covers and originals in Audacity. We even produced some mash-ups since they were so trendy at the time. We were classmates for seventh and eighth grade, and then we went to different high schools. Commuting home from our different high schools made us feel bad, making our parents drive us to weekly rehearsals for any local open mic. We eventually stopped performing because we stopped rehearsing the summer before high school.

2006-2011: About 2 years later, at age 16, I joined a band that lasted for about 5 years. This band frequently changed members, but we learned a few covers and recorded many originals. Having many more originals, this band hosted a bunch of open mic events, providing the live sound equipment and filling in when performers weren’t signing up. This band recorded and produced in Logic and Pro Tools using professional level microphones. We had cars and would jam almost every day for years. This band stopped rehearsing when band members started working jobs, I started my first retail job at 21 years old. Our college schedules would fluctuate and working would further reduce our practice time.

2011: Not long before I stopped working with the last band, I joined my cousin’s jazz collective for a handful of gigs at cafes and one house party. I scrounged up enough bits of hand-me-down drums and played either drums or bass… I had just started working a retail job, so I would meet my cousin and rehearse after my night classes. Something pretty cool about the San Francisco jazz scene is that people will sometimes use their weekly gig (ie Wednesdays at Mama’s) to rehearse for their weekend gigs. Everyone was expected to read “lead sheets” that basically showed the song’s main melody and chords. If you couldn’t sight-read, it was expected that you show up to rehearsal with your part memorized. I could only keep up with this band for a few months. I was way too tired driving in and out of the city for school and gigs. At the best gigs, I was barely making enough money to pay for my bridge toll going to the show. Feeling burnt out, I just stopped showing up to rehearsals/gigs, and really stopped playing music at all.

It was around this point in my career that I started to wonder which instrument I cared about the most. I had always wanted to be a studio or session musician and I knew I would need to learn how to memorize songs quickly. I felt overwhelmed thinking I would need to practice for hours each day just to feel comfortable on every instrument. Every now and then, I would play some piano or guitar just to make sure I still enjoyed playing music, but I would constantly beat myself up for never practicing enough. I deeply misunderstood what I wanted from a career in music and I was really hard on myself for not committing more time toward my goals. Most importantly, this period between bands really taught me to cherish any time I could spend doing anything musical.

2015-Present: After 4 years without a band or a gig, I met up with David, the guitarist of my current band. After about 30 seconds of discussing it, we decided to work together and really quickly made four songs over 2 months. First we would jam out all of the riffs that David had been saving up, then David would use Guitar Pro 5 to compose the sheet music. A couple jam sessions later, I bought my own brand new drum set, we would jam some more, and I would eventually rewrite all of the bass and drum parts when we figured out the rhythms and tempos of the songs. After sending the demos we made in Guitar Pro to the engineer at Louder Now Studios, we went and recorded these songs over 1.5 days. 

We’ve played one show; we’re tweaking our songs; we’re working on new ones; and even though I now practice less than in any other band, I still feel very involved in writing and learning music. Looking at sheet music and alternating between guitar (and other guitar-family instruments like bass) and drums allows me to develop the skills that overlap among instruments. I might spend less than an hour each week with an instrument in my hands, but otherwise I’m studying songwriting, producing, and engineering.

Here’s where we really dig in. It’s easier to work on new music and practice for shows when you can dedicate time to perfecting your art. Time is a really high priority for bands because it’s very easy for other obligations to take up art time. No matter what the band’s goals may be, band mates need to set aside time for rehearsals, writing, or recording.

Firstly, I very strongly recommend that you DO NOT try to make your band famous by writing a viral/hit song. As an artist, it’ll be a better use of your time to write continuously and build a loyal fan base. Why? As a music fan myself, any time I hear a good song, my first instinct is to look up everything else that artist made. I’ve never met someone who exclusively listens to viral songs. (Maybe Tom from Parks & Recreation, who “only listens to bangers” is based off a real person?) On the other hand, if an artist won a grammy for their album, I think people will be interested in looking up the album that won the award. To be completely honest, it isn’t impossible to get famous from one song. However, I discourage trying to “break the internet” or to “corner the market.” The tried-and-true method for musical success is to build a fanbase, and having more songs will make it easier to increase your fans. Devoted fans have more material to share with their friends as they try to convert new followers. You’ll never have a single song that’s popular with everyone, but you can have enough songs to keep your most loyal fans invested.

DO NOT quit your day job for an inconsistent music career. It’s simple! A consistent music career comes with a steady stream of income. This could mean performing on a regular basis at the same venue, performing the same job at multiple venues, or producing and selling multiple beats on a weekly basis. (There are other music careers, too.) Did you just get started working with a band? Does your weekly gig only pay you in free meals (and no tips)? Do you have no intention of making a living from music? Work a job so you can pay your bills and support your hobby to play music with your friends. You definitely shouldn’t quit your hobby if it’s your only source of joy or catharsis. Now, if your band is really taking off, making tons of money from touring, then it MIGHT be the time to consider quitting your day job. I instead recommend finding income outside of the band’s duties because it’s nice being in a band where members can pitch in money for recording, for food after rehearsals, and other bonding activities that cost money.

Finally, I DO NOT recommend forming rivalry against other bands or individuals. If your band had to kick someone out for “creative differences,” DO NOT bully or abuse the ex. To put it frankly, you’ll never know if you’ll encounter that band or musician in some other situation in the future that could jeopardize your (or your band’s) chance at being considered. Bands often suggest other bands when they put together shows, so it’s best to meet everyone and maintain a professional relationship. Don’t jeopardize your music career!

Ok, let’s regroup! DO NOT try to get famous from a viral song; DO NOT quit your day job for an inconsistent music career; DO NOT start rivalries between bands or former members of your band. I’ve met many people that have done these things and ended up quitting music completely.

I very highly recommend joining a band if you’re learning to play an instrument and if the music you enjoy listening to most is played by bands. If you’re into learning or writing pop music, EDM, hip hop, or any other genre where you find many solo artists, you might benefit from working alone. However, you should know that many solo artists still collaborate with other individuals (and bands/groups) in all levels of the music industry. Artists collaborate with songwriters, producers, and engineers. When artists book shows, they usually invite their friend’s bands or have their managers find other artists to perform with so there’s very little room for a solo artist who doesn’t know anyone else in the industry. Basically, if you’re still looking to be a solo artist, you will eventually have to work with someone else in order to get your music heard.

I DO recommend that band members discuss goals and expectations. Is the band’s goal to tour the world? play weddings? record a full-length album every year? play local shows? That should be discussed immediately!

Are band members expected to rehearse monthly? weekly? nightly? Are band members expected to bring only their own instruments to shows? Are members expected to pitch in for renting a van for the equipment? Are they expected to post to social media daily? I think every band should be clear about these things from the get-go.

If a member can’t contribute to band goals or meet expectations, it’s pretty easy to replace that musician. Bands are teams that need to work together to meet their goals. Many of us musicians will never be famous, but as long as we’re all trying to be heard, every second counts. No one wants to waste time working with a flaky musician who isn’t putting in their fair share.

I DO recommend practicing regularly on your own whenever you’re not practicing with your band. It’s normally tough to schedule rehearsals for a bunch of individuals so it’s beneficial if every member shows up to rehearsal prepared and ready to rehearse. But Josh! How are we supposed to practice the songs if we’re by ourselves? Come on, now, if you’re reading this, you probably have a smartphone and internet access. Are you writing music without writing it down? Use your phone or camera to record your next writing session. As a musician, you will likely forget how exactly you did that thing you just did (I’ve been asked by a band member, “Do you remember that thing you did last month?”), so record yourself practicing so you can recreate any happy accidents or reuse some old ideas. (If you record and store footage of your playing, you could also track your progress and see how you’ve improved.) I think that if you can show up to rehearsal knowing how to play at least 80% of the material at the right speed, you won’t have to worry about losing your seat in your band.

Lastly, I DO recommend working on other music projects outside of the band. Think of it like adding work experience to your resumé. If you simultaneously played guitar in 3 bands over the past year, you actually have 3 years worth of work experience.  Your musical contributions are unique to your particular experience. It’s often useful to think of your musicianship as your “brand” or your “product.” Playing different styles or different roles will usually improve your musicianship so you shouldn’t feel guilty about juggling different music projects. Just make sure you’re meeting the expectations and fulfilling the obligations of your various projects.

Whether you work solo or in a group in the music industry, it’s beneficial to learn as much as you can about meeting your musical goals. It’s a good idea to work with a band because musical projects are very often collaborative. Since so many things will be collaborative, it’s helpful to avoid “burning bridges.”

The final thing I want to stress about bands is that getting famous takes a lot of work. Some bands play local shows and record their own music for years before getting recognition from a record label or a famous musical act. Alone or in a group, you’ll only get the recognition you deserve so keep writing songs, recording your music, playing live shows, and most importantly, stay focused on your goals!

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