The attraction of becoming a rock star has sparked international drama, especially since the advent of MySpace and YouTube. Anyone, it seems, can record solo or with a few friends and surface on the internet inside of twenty-four hours. This is both a blessing and a curse; true talent doesn’t necessarily need the help of a manager or public relations agent to be published in an impactful way, but because of the sheer numbers of mp3s and videos worldwide, it is difficult to be noticed among the throngs. This article is intended for any entrepreneur whose goals are to bring his music out of the garage and out into the world.
Managing a Band
Sometimes bands have an obvious leader/manager—this is star, who often has the most creative talent, and the rest of the musicians will step into the background. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz are among the examples from pop-music history—early on, the sidemen accepted their roles as supporting players. In these situations, the star gets top billing on club marquees, while the band develops into a loyal coalition of players who take orders from the leader. These kinds of bands are open to the lead’s vision for the band, including even small things, like which musicians play solos, and when? What instruments sound good together? Can you hear the keyboardist all the time? A great way to learn broad band concepts like tempo and dynamics is to pay attention to how the professionals do it.
A strong leader helps direct the group in a specific musical or business direction. If this person has true leadership skills, he or she will consult the group for its input and make decisions, easy or hard, that make everybody feel valued and important. A weak leader may create resentment and disharmony—and if such behavior continues, you may have to start the difficult process of choosing a new leader.
The leader will most likely be the hardest-working member of the band. Among the leader`s duties are negotiating with neighbors over where and when to hold rehearsals, researching songs and lyrics and presenting them to the band, casting the tie-breaking vote for rehearsal time if members` schedules conflict, halting rehearsal to ensure that everybody`s input is heard, and arriving early to a gig to determine where and when to set up the equipment.
Or, at the early stages, your best opportunity to form a band might be to form a self-contained group of musicians, who all work together to pick a style, rehearse, and perform. Some situations, especially, will demand a group vote:
• Whether you`ll play a gig at a certain time and place (and for a certain amount of money)
• Certain financial decisions that affect everybody, such as opening a band bank account
• Whether to make a large group purchase, such as a PA system
• Choosing a band name
• How to disperse money from gigs, recordings, and so on
• Set-list disputes
• Choosing common goals
You`ll do all the fundamental band work yourselves without hiring outside people. (Once you get bigger and need help, the hiring will begin.) A self-contained group can be incredibly rewarding (or incredibly painful, if you fall in with the wrong combination of people). Whether you stay together for three weeks or an entire career, band members make emotional connections with each other and can stay friends forever. If they`re really lucky, they`ll wind up like U2, a group of Irish schoolmates who managed to stay together as a profitable and rewarding band for two decades and counting. If you find that a self-contained band works for you, consider making an Intraband
Contract or "band agreement". This contract will offer some protection for what a member can do with the name, payment, ownership of songs, equipment, etc. if/when he/she leaves the band. Solving this now will help to avoid disputes in the future. Keep in mind, though, it`s common that these kinds of issues will turn off potential band mates. So, make sure they are in agreement and vested before forcing a contract on them.
Whether you choose to play in a band led by someone else or whether you choose a self-contained band, either configuration is equally respectable—and fun.
These days, there are more kinds of bands playing more styles of music in more configurations than anyone could possibly count. Some are party bands, playing upbeat versions of familiar rock `n` roll songs to get people dancing. Some are wedding bands, playing a specific roster of standards predetermined by the bride and groom. Some will play original music, written and performed by the band members, in an attempt to fill clubs and sell compact discs. Some even combine amazingly opposite styles, such as classical with metal (such as Apocalyptica playing Metallica), techno with classical (Vanessa Mae), or folky bluegrass with rock (Robert Plant with Alison Kraus). Just use the instruments and voices your band brings to the table. No immediate expenditures need to be made. Experiment. Don’t be afraid to try a violin against steel drums or a didgeridoo in tandem with harpsichord. Don’t be afraid to change your musical vision if the music seems to be headed an unexpected direction. It`s not important, at this early stage, to know exactly which of these configurations, if any, you`d like to be. Try to let your style evolve, rather than defining it so rigidly that there`s no room for experimentation or dissent. The Rolling Stones started out as a blues band, performing Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry songs, but have evolved over the decades into perhaps the most successful rock `n` roll band in the world.
One of the first questions you`ll need to tackle is, "How many musicians should be in the band?" Often the answer will be obvious, as you`ll have three or four people who show up to practice prepared to sing or play certain instruments. But you may have to make the membership decision based on your collective musical vision—duos sound drastically different from quartets, and it`s worth knowing the pros and cons of each configuration. Perhaps the ultimate rock-and-pop lineup is a quartet, usually with drums, bass, guitar, vocals and, if the singer plays an instrument, perhaps a keyboard or second guitar. It may not seem like much, but when all four band members play together, they can create a powerful sound (or a horrible racket, depending on how good they are). Classic quartets include The Beatles, The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, X, The Replacements, Jane`s Addiction, and the Foo Fighters. You can have as many musicians as you want, of course, as long as the lineup doesn`t start to mess up internal communication or divide your earnings into unacceptably small portions. If you’re looking for additional musicians, look to the internet at such places as MySpace Music or even Craigslist. Over time, this is becoming a tremendous resource for finding (and auditioning) prospective members.
Come up with a good name. Make it something easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and one that will associate what you play with who you are. It should be something everyone is proud of and will look nice on a business card. If you can think of an appropriate logo to tie to it, new listeners will find you even easier remember.
Practice covers and standards until you get a feel for exactly what your new sound is. This is important even if you want to compose your own music because you can get a feel for how everyone’s instruments and voices blend together. “Tweaking” now for the sound you want might save a lot of hurt feelings in the future. Perhaps one vocalist comes up with better harmonies, or perhaps another does not have the wide range needed for solos. Or maybe you’ll find that the guitar work on a certain song muddies up what the mandolin is trying to do. You can work with what you already know to fine tune for the genre of music you want to play.
You will need to compare notes and choose the most commonly available practice times for as many of your band members as possible. Be ready to take into consideration various work schedules, family duties, and religious commitments. There is bound to be at least one time everyone can meet, even if it’s just for a couple hours each week on a Sunday afternoon. The more you can practice, though, the better. It is these times that you will work through complex passages and create your personalized arrangements. These are also the times for you to bond with your band mates and knit together your unique sound. You can get acquainted with their styles so that you’ll know what comes naturally for them and what they have difficulty with. This helps you anticipate how to “roll with the punches” on stage later, should they forget to play a verse or a musical break, for example.
Before you start rehearsal, take time to tune up. And if you play piano or drums, be patient and avoid the distracting urge to fiddle around while the guitarists tune up. It sounds so simple: Decide on a musical key and have everybody play in that key. But…what if the guitarist prefers E and the pianist can only play in C and F? What if everybody enjoys B-flat, but you insist on playing Roy Orbison`s "Oh, Pretty Woman," which, according to your sheet music, is written in A? The basic rule is to let the singer pick the key. Otherwise, he or she will have to strain and the song will sound terrible. Guitarists and pianists can always learn new chords, but inexperienced singers comfortable in C will have a hard time switching to D-flat on short notice.
Another great boon to the rehearsal regimen is to practice while a recorder is going. Often, some magical passages will surface during a practice session only to be forgotten by the song’s end. Having even a simple recorder handy can save you from having to re-invent the wheel. In addition to catching a good passage, recording is a very useful (though sometimes unkind) means of feedback.
Practice with a metronome. This will help to prevent bad habits, such as speeding up or slowing down on passages between verses. Even drummers don’t have a perfect sense of rhythm all the time. Bands that have been playing for a great deal of time together often develop what is called “muscle memory,” meaning their fingers fall into place faster than the tempo is allowing for. This causes fluctuations in the tempo and instability among the various voices of the tune. A metronome, though aggravating, is a good way to get back to the correct tempo.
And last but not least, show up for practices on time! Nothing will drive a wedge between band mates like lax attendance and absences. If the time or day isn’t working out, find another. Every member is integral to the overall chemistry of your band, and it’s okay to make that known.
Most of your finances should be pretty easy to handle for the first year or so. Since your goal will be promotion, a lot of gigs will be performed with band recognition in mind, i.e., open mics, benefits, coffeehouses, jam nights, etc. Much of your initial compensation may be paid in coffee, meals, or beer. But once you’re able to provide a venue with a contract and are reimbursed monetarily, it is time to set up a bank account for cashing checks. This is usually the time the band needs to choose someone to manage their funds. The band can either be established as a business entity or the manager can register the band’s name as a sole proprietorship. Either way, the goal should be to make the band’s income IRS-traceable and fair. The manager is responsible for cashing checks and getting payment to band members within a reasonable time frame. The manager will also be the one to handle doing the taxes if the band is established as a business.
The manager is usually the one to compose the band’s contract. A contract is necessary for summarizing the parties involved, how much will be paid to whom and when, where the venue is and at what time, and also the length of the gig. Though the hiring party can always ask you to play longer for more money, it is essential that a stopping time be specified in the contract. Defining the duration of the performance is key to keeping both your band and the hiring party in a professional relationship.
Growing a Fan Base
As mentioned earlier, acquiring a good fan base is slow work. But don’t spend all your time on your own work. Take interest in other live music, especially in bands that are playing the type of music that is compatible with your own. These are the bands you are choosing to be your unspoken “mentor” for helping you to get involved in the music scene of your choice. At some point, they may become familiar enough with what you do that you can ask (or be asked!) to partner with them in a venue. Even if it’s just one time, your band’s name will be associated with an already-recognized band that has made its mark on the local scene.
And don`t forget to invite all your friends and relatives to your early gigs. They may well be the supportive core of all your early concerts, and they`re likely to stick with the band as it gets bigger and bigger. Don`t take these "early groupies" for granted—they may be the difference between a crowd of 5 strangers and an energetic crowd of 50 or 75 fans.
After a gig or two, you may have a little bit of leverage to negotiate for a higher salary. What salary should this be? Have a number in mind when you deal with potential clients. Figure out how much it`ll cost to play your gig—regular expenses include gas, guitar strings, drumsticks, gaffer tape, and possibly, renting sound and lighting systems. In a perfect world, your gig salary will cover these costs and leave the band with spending money.
Nonetheless, until you`re a big star, it`s generally better to make a little less money and get the gig. Stubborn negotiating has its place, but don`t shut yourself out of an opportunity, especially if you know the club booker or wedding planner doesn`t have much of a budget to play with.
The First Gig
Practice, practice, practice. And then practice some more. Things that go wrong with performances will be things you never dreamed possible, so it’s best to be prepared for the worst. Have set lists ready to cover every minute of your performance times (give or take a minute or two for introductions and banter). Have your stage diagram with you, detailing who will stand where, the locations of the speakers, monitors and mixing board, and whose input goes where into the board. In some cases it is best to visit your venue beforehand to get an idea of how the stage is set up. And if a sound person will be handling your sound, send ahead your stage diagram so he can have everything ready to go beforehand. Few things bother venue management more than bands that arrive late or take too long in setting up and tuning.
Make sure you know the answer to the following questions:
• Where are the power outlets, and how many does the club have?
• Where can you park while loading your equipment?
• Where can you park during the show?
• How big is the stage, and will it fit all your musicians and respective gear?
• Is the club or venue generous about sound-check time?
• Do you need to bring your own PA system?
• What nights have the rowdiest crowds?
• Are there certain influential "regulars" you might need to win over? If so, what songs do they like?
• Are the venue managers prompt about payment?
As a rule of thumb, plan to arrive two hours before your show at a familiar venue. If the club is out of town, or you`ve never been there, give yourself three hours. We also recommend compiling a "gig sheet," including the club manager`s name and contact information, numbers for other bands on the bill and so on. This will help if you arrive early to find the door locked.
Also, ask in advance when the venue`s doors are open to the public. If you arrive two hours early, and the club is already filled with people, it`ll be hard to walk through the club, let alone conduct your business.
Finally, unless you`re meticulously organized (most musicians aren`t), prepare a checklist before every gig. Include preshow packing details on the list: Do you have transportation? Gas money? Does the equipment fit? And don`t forget to account for the equipment: Include check boxes for guitars, amps, gaffer tape, set list, props, and a clean T-shirt.
Multiple guitars, amps, drums, and microphones—not to mention the musicians themselves—probably won`t fit into the bassist`s Yugo. Generally speaking, each band member will need a total of one car for himself and his equipment.
Consider borrowing a truck or van from a friend, or finding a cheap one-day rate. Have everybody meet at the rehearsal space, several hours before show time, to load up and caravan to the concert. Allow extra time for crises and van breakdowns. And be especially kind to the drummer, who has the most stuff.
Once you walk through the door of a club, whether it`s for an audition, rehearsal, or gig, everybody is important. Bring your own door-stopper so the ID-checking bouncer doesn`t have to hold open the door for every patron. Tip waitresses and bartenders. It goes without saying that you should be courteous and professional toward the people who will be working with you. You want everybody in the club to think you`re the best band they`ve ever heard and, equally important to landing a future gig, the easiest one to work with.
When it comes to equipment, start small and simple. Even most acoustic guitars come with a jack for plugging in, and certain instruments, i.e., trap sets need no amplification. Many venues keep their own sound systems on site so that when musicians roll through, they can simply hook up. But if you are going to have to provide your own sound, you will probably not need more than twelve- to fifteen-inch speakers, an 8-channel mixer, and perhaps a monitor up front to help you hear over a noisy crowd. If your band is playing acoustic instruments that need microphones to be heard, condenser mics or Shure SM57s usually work best. For handling vocals, the Shure SM58 mic usually works just fine. You will need microphone stands and cabling, of course. Use the equipment for a practice or two to get an idea of what your settings will be on the mixer. But remember, acoustics change as a room fills up with people. Expect to be tweaking your sound (or having someone on hand to help) once you’re on stage. The main point is that you shouldn’t have to overextend everyone’s budgets just to get onto a stage the first dozen times. If you find that something is not working, it is then that you and your band mates can discuss budgeting, fine tuning, and expanding your sound system.
Hitting the Road
Getting big in your hometown is a wonderful thing. But it has its drawbacks. If you play too often at local clubs, "familiarity breeds contempt" syndrome may creep in and promoters, bookers, and even fans may decide they have other things to do than hear your band once or twice a week. That`s when it`s time to travel.
Taking it on the road is perhaps the best investment you can make. It can be grueling, and costly, but if you do it right you`ll immediately see growth—perhaps the kind of growth that attracts managers, booking agents, radio stations, and even prominent record labels. Once you`ve established a home base, it can never hurt to develop several satellite bases.
Before setting up a trip, consider the realities of taking the band on the road. Yes, travel can be a blast—rock history is filled with outrageous road stories—from dramatic accounts of The Who wrecking hotel rooms during all night bashes to those guys from the movie Almost Famous singing along happily to Elton John`s "Tiny Dancer." What all such descriptions leave out are the countless hours of driving and waiting--hours and hours of each.
So make sure you`re ready. Is this the right time? Are all the band members emotionally—and physically—prepared for a grueling trip? Countless bands fall apart upon embarking the open road because of the close quarters they must share for unbearably long periods of time. Even the smallest irritations can lead to all out warfare. Many aspiring bands buy the classic touring bus only to find that it becomes a gas-guzzling liability, draining hefty amounts of their income in refueling and insurance costs. In addition, sharing the responsibilities of driving the bus long hours becomes a drag, especially at night. Are you sure you`ve exhausted your local options? And perhaps most important, will the trip be a boost, from a financial or emotional perspective, for the band? If the answer is yes, or if you can find a quick out-of-town gig perfect for a short, nothing-to-lose road trip, it`s time to deal with transportation.
Marketing and Merchandising
Everyone looks forward to the day when the band’s first CD is released or when they have a table full of logo’d t-shirts, stickers, and buttons to sell. But keep in mind that all these things take space, so include their transport details in your gig packing plan, along with your equipment! Start out by ordering CDs and t-shirts in small numbers to make sure the items will sell. Then, (even though it may cost somewhat more this way), order more when you’ve sold them. Between sets, put those items on stage where people’s eyes will already be focused. If your items are squirreled away behind stage or in another room, you may miss out on extra sales.
Have an internet presence. These days it couldn’t be easier! Set up a website and keep your band’s bios and a constantly updated calendar there. Include links to favorable reviews and comments that your fans have left you online. Hint: provide links to places where you’ve performed and also to locations where your CD is being sold. Set up a Facebook page. Facebook makes it very easy to share fresh mp3’s and alert your fans to new events on your calendar. ReverbNation has a similar system. Use YouTube to install videos that you or others have recorded of your band. Post comments about your band’s activities on your blog. Ask your friends to post your band announcements on their blogs and websites. Have a mailing list so you can send e-mails directly to fans’ inboxes and cell phones. Try Facebook and Twitter. And beyond that, you can employ some of the more conventional means of marketing, such as flyers, posters, and media announcements. Post your announcements at coffee shops, music stores, the venues themselves, neighboring establishments, in your car window, on your instrument case.
When all is said and done, your active life as a musician could be brilliant. And if you’re lucky enough, a stadium full of inspired fans will agree.