In this blog entry, I will try to summarize my own personal experience on bands. You will find the key points of starting and running a successful band.
Starting a Band
First of all, the band needs a head. A leader, who has been in the music industry for a long time and knows the musical genre, the clubs, etc very well. If all players are good and experienced, this is nice. Still, every body has one head, so should a band be. The band leader must be prepared to put the most effort though: Organizing rehearsals, choosing & suggesting songs, decisions on firing & hiring band members, etc…
Here are the important questions to be answered when starting a new band.
“What is our main goal?” Having fun in the garage? Casual cover gigs? Composing own songs towards a demo/album? Try a new genre or mix genres? Making money out of gigs? The main goals should be realistic.
“What is our genre?” Answering this question might not be very easy because today, mixed genres are as popular as pure genres; but still, the differences between rap, rock, pop, jazz, etc. are still distinguishable.
“Who is our audience?” The answers of the former questions should automatically answer this question. Rock band for casual gigs? Your audience is bar/club customers. Jazz band for making money? Your audience is hotel / wedding / jazz club people. Blues band for weekend fun? Your audience is yourself.
Picking a band name will be the hardest part, so good luck with that. Just make sure to google it so you don’t end up with a trademark name or a name which means “Dog Poop” in a language you didn’t know.
My experience tells me that there are a few types of successful bands. Your band should probably fall under one of those categories.
“Generic genre bands” are widely found cover bands, who try their best on playing cover songs of a specific genre; such as rock, jazz, pop, etc. If they play good and bring their own crowd, they will have their place in good clubs. You better play and sound damn good, expect high competition and a rough startup with minimum income.
“Special genre bands” play an alternative / less known musical genre in its country or city. Start a reggae band in Turkey, or a samba band in Russia, and you have yourself one! Such bands would typically perform in special clubs, or world music festivals. Don’t expect regular weekly gigs unless you bring your own crowd.
“Virtuoso bands” have one (or more) very good players. They typically perform in clubs, and the audience comes to watch the guy under the spotlight – thats how money is made. The virtuoso is typically also the brand, heart and soul of the band. There will always be drooling fans of guitar heroes, so don’t worry about finding gigs on that one.
“Fusion bands” mix two well known genres to create a new one; typically a local and a foreign genre. This usually draws curiosity from the locals, and such bands will have their place in appropriate clubs. Hope that you have good players which know both of the genres; its very easy to fail on that one. And don’t expect regular gigs, you should aim for ad-hoc club performances or festivals.
“Album bands” will write their own songs. Most will have online demos, and some will have albums. Such bands will have fans and haters at the same time; but nevertheless, the album would open many doors to them beyond clubs; such as big outdoor festivals.
Defining the Repertoire
In album bands, you will build your own repertoire. In cover bands, the repertoire will be your favorite songs in the given genre.
Nevertheless, the repertoire should match the band purpose, genre and audience. If you are planning to play in small cafes, you should probably look four acoustic songs matching a guitar-bass-percussion-vocal formation; not big band Blues Brothers songs. If your audience is 50+ aged people in the local pub, look for Beatles songs and not Linkin Park. You get the idea.
The songs in the repertoire should also have an acceptable consistency. Boring loop-type songs can be made more fun with breaks and syncopes, but evaluate them like spice in the food: Too much of it will ruin everything.
Pro tip: Please don’t play Ghost Busters. Many amateur bands play it (badly), and contrary to common belief, no one is enjoying it.
After the core members have agreed on basic terms, it is time to find other members. You can call people you know, or use the Internet. The genre and repertoire should define the required instruments, but thats only the beginning. Here is a list of things I personally look for in (new) band members.
Synergy among members is very important. Band mates should be people you would hang out with if you were in the same school or neighborhood. You will go through good and bad times together – just like a relationship.
Musical levels should also be identical. Pro players will eventually get frustrated of amateur players and move away. So, pick people who are about your own level.
One thing I personally can’t stand is the “distortion-and-random-notes-in-pentatonic-scale” type of guitarists. They will not even really make music with the band; rather, they will be strumming chords while waiting for the opportunity to turn on the distortion and start masturbating with random notes on the pentatonic scale; imagining that they are super guitar heroes and everyone is enjoying their mess. Please, make everyone a favor and don’t accept them to your bands. Help them wake up, realize that random pentatonic notes don’t make a guitar Spiderman out of them, and help them grow beyond that.
Anyway… Main band purpose should be communicated to all members, and they should agree on that. Estimated rehearsal times and investment in the studio should also be agreed on. Pro players tend to be very busy and they might not like intensive rehearsals unless they will be making some serious money later on. So, talking and agreeing on such terms in advance will help prevent future conflicts.
One typical mistake is to assume that if the band doesn’t sound all right, more players should be added. Unfortunately, this is usually wrong. There are very successful bands with only 3-4 members; it all depends on the players. Prevent the assumption of increasing musicality by inviting more and more mediocre players. I would rather have 4 lions instead of 10 sheep. So, if you are not satisfied, you might consider changing the core members; or accept the fact that you are part of that problem. Besides; coordinating a larger number of players is harder, both logistically and musically. But when coordinated well, large bands will sound much fuller of course.
Show respect to your bandmates and show up in time. The time during rehearsal is the precious private time & money of all band members, so don’t waste it by having your daily conversations with other members or on your cellphone. Actually, better keep your cellphone turned off. You can go drink something *after* the rehearsal to socialize with the members who have spare time.
Rehearsal is not the place to learn new songs. You should show up in a manner where you have already learned and studied the song at home including the default traffic. In rehearsal, you are only practicing how to play it together. Otherwise, you are wasting everyones time.
One typical misbehavior (especially seen on “distortion-and-random-notes-in-pentatonic-scale” type of guitarists) is to never stop playing the instrument. The band has stopped and something musical is being discussed, but that guy suddenly decides to start playing. What happens next? Another player joins him and people have to yell to communicate. Please… Don’t do that. Be silent on rehearsal breaks. If you have the urge to practice something regarding the song you are working on, either turn your volume down, or wait until the discussion is over and ask for a minute or two to practice.
If you aren’t recording or making notes, 50% of the rehearsal is in vain. Someone should be responsible of taking notes of decisions on traffic, and distribute them. Recording rehearsals is also a good idea to hear later on what was happening and if it sounds right. Even the cheapest hand camera or one single mic in the middle of the room will do the trick. You are not making a demo, so it doesn’t have to be perfect (and expensive).
Players should be open to communicate and receive negative feedback. Listening to them will help you grow. Your band member probably doesn’t want to make you look bad – he just wants you to sound better.
Special sub-teams; such as the horn section or 3 vocals, can rehearse their coordination privately so they don’t waste other peoples time.
One common illusion is the belief that playing a song over and over again will make it sound better. No, it will not sound better. Repeating a song will help you memorize the traffic, but if it *sounds* bad, it will not get better. You probably have to change something in the song, and then again, maybe even a few members. Remember that if you don’t enjoy playing it, the audience will definitely not enjoy listening to it.
Record some good quality demos and put them to MySpace, Facebook, etc. Two strategies are: a) To record a few full songs b) To make a collage out of many songs. The former should definitely be there, the latter is optional. A video-clip involving band members and concerts will also help.
Next, prepare your EPK (electronic press kit) and start applying. Depending on your purpose, you might want to contact clubs, organization companies, record companies, etc. Your band leader or other members should ideally already have some contacts; or you might ask for help from someone who does. Personal reference is golden.
Well, it is easy. Don’t be late to the soundcheck. Don’t enter the stage until the technicians tell you that you may. Beware of the “distortion-and-random-notes-in-pentatonic-scale” type of guitarists who will be dying to climb the stage at once and impress the technicians and the poor waiters who just started to clean around.
Soundcheck is not a time to practice, make noise, show off, or anything else. It is the time to check your sound (doh!). Typically, each member will hear his/her own voice, and then the band will play together to check the general sound balance and monitors. Don’t disappear in between! And keep your damn cellphones off, it is disrespectful to other players if they are waiting for you to finish being romantic to your girlfriend.
Trust the technicians suggestions who probably know the acoustic tendencies of the club better than you. If you are unhappy with something, soundcheck is the right time for that. Everyone should communicate their complaints in an order, not all at the same time, and did I mention that soundcheck is the right time for that? Musicians waving to the mixer cabinet during the performance like their rear ends are on fire is not a pretty sight.
Well… The gig is not only about music. It is a “performance”, so it involves music, act, body language and sex. You need to be competent at your instrument but also play the character the musical genre is asking for – you cant wear a sweater and smile politely on an heavy metal concert! Are you playing latin? Prepare to wear a shirt which will make you look like a parrot!
Body language is also a huge part of it; if you haven’t already, start practicing your moves and facial expressions in front of the mirror. You might even join a few workshops with a pro for tips. And you have to look confident and sexy however you may. No one wants to watch Teletubbies playing instruments.
Therefore, reading music from sheets automatically breaks your character and is not recommended unless you are playing classical music or its an absolute must. Sit your rear end down and memorize. If you can’t, there are hardware available to attach your iPhone or iPad to your guitar or mic stand; read your sheet music from there. At least you will look curious and cool.
Whatever the situation is calling for, you have to do it. Sit, stand, jump, yell, move; but most of it all, you yourself must be enjoying it and having a good time! If you have a high energy, good groove and really enjoying yourself, the crowd will sense it and reflect it back to you, making you perform (not only play) even better; and the loop will continue. Everyone will be happy, but it starts with you. Communicate with your crowd using body language, eye contact, gestures and announcements through the mic.
Your outfit is also part of your character. The general band outfit should be communicated in advance and every single member should obey the decision. One member in jeans will look the rest in kilts look like girls.
Some players (yes you know who) tend to keep their volumes down during soundcheck, and suddenly turn it loud during the performance because they think that their superior music is getting lost in the mix. They will also extend their solos indefinitely and will play the same random pentatonic notes, torturing you and your customers. It is your fault, I told you not to accept him/her to your band!
But in any case, mistakes will happen to the best of us. Don’t panic. The crowd notices if you panic. Keep your confidence, and make the mistake part of the song – just slide the wrong note to a right one, and do the same in the next bar again.
If the mistake is band-wide and uncorrectable, the whole band should laugh about it. Imagine two people; one is very serious about himself and strives for perfection, while the other one can laugh about his own mistakes. The band should act like the second guy. If you start looking very serious and make zombie faces to each other, you break your character and also cut the energy flow; the crowd will sense it and not like it. If you accept and laugh about the bad mistake, even share it with the crowd saying that it is a live performance and anything can happen, the crowd will also laugh and forget about it on the next song.
But prevention is better than recovery. Don’t risk playing not-so-well-rehearsed riffs. Stage is where you should perform your best – but only what you can do consistently.
Remember that stage is a place of “performance”, not pure music. Well rehearsed dance choreographies will ignite the audience. Well rehearsed bridge tricks and unisons will do the same. Combine them, and everyone will cheer and start screaming. Make the audience part of it – make them clap, sing and dance with you. But if they don’t, simply move on and don’t insist.
This entry is merely my own experience on bands. Not all of it must be right, and it is far from being a complete guide on being the best band ever.
My conclusion is to have fun! Music is great, and be proud that you are part of it.