Written by Paul Harvey from Splitrock Media Productions.
It has often been said that the most unlikely of musical treasures has been created from some of the most diametrically opposed characters. History is littered with the rise and fall of bands with one hit wonders. They have had that one shining moment when it has all come together and the magic has happened and they have created something beautiful then all of that energy and passion and months of work has been blown away by ego’s, money, lifestyle choices and just plain lack of talent.
I guess the topic of band dynamics has not been an aspect of the industry that has eluded most musicians. I think I could safely say that we have all suffered the destructive forces and ignominy of a band’s dysfunction had they but adhered to a few tried and trusted rules. Having been involved in the music scene for a couple of decades, and been in more bands than I care to think about I have learnt some both painful lessons and some profound truths about my industry. As I write this, we have recently watched the passing of “Prince” another celebrated and honoured musician who has passed away at the relatively early age of 57. His passing marks the departure of another entertainment celebrity who has made his indelible marks on the industry, but suffered the result of poor personal choices. This highlights for me the topic of band dynamics and the manner in which so much has been lost and destroyed by poor life choices, bad information and some people operating well and truly out of their capabilities.
Firstly let me say that there is no tried and true formula for musical perfection but rather there are some guidelines that I want to share which give good shape and direction to the decision making process. By this I mean that for both the musicians and the managers, promoters, recording studios and the music companies that make so much money out of our blood seat and tears, there is a road map to success.
Secondly despite one’s best intentions and focus, if you are working with those who are not equal to you in abilities and talent, then you are always going to suffer their inadequacies. It is not my intention to be unkind or to deliberately be hurtful here, however for those of you who are involved in this business, and mark my words it is a business. You need to understand the scope and limitations of what it means to being in a band that you don’t fit or an industry that is not gentle with the meek and mild.
Let me lift the lid on some hard facts about this business and some of the realities of being in a band. Not all musicians in a band get along, just because they are musicians, or just because they are in a band doesn’t mean they are bosom buddies. There are more than enough sad stories about bands with an amazing sound and an on stage persona, that have some of the most dysfunctional personal lives and interactions with other band members. I think the movie, The Commitments, has captured the essence of what I am saying here. It’s worth a watch just for the insight it brings to the industry irrespective of the music genre you make like.
Musical taste is as varied and as individual as the person listening to it and so too are the personalities that come to the industry with their dreams and inspirations. Therefore if you’re not prepared to accept that not all folk who pick up an instrument are going to agree or appreciate what you do or even pretend to be your friend, then maybe you should seek another hobby or career.
So, with these lovely thoughts in mind, how do you go about creating an environment that protects both the egos, creativity and emotions of those who are desperately trying to make a song come together without killing each other or the music, in the process.
Here are a few general rules that sum up the basics of making informed choices about the people and the music you are going to play with.
Respect the boundaries that each person puts around themselves so that they can keep themselves and each other safe, both emotionally and mentally. This also applies to other members of the bands instruments and equipment. It might sound a bit strange in saying this, but many a band member arrives as a replacement for a recently departed member. Or they are trying out for the first time in a newly formed band and so they don’t know you any more than you know them. So be kind. There here for the dame reason you are. Don’t treat people as idiots unless they prove it beyond doubt, then act accordingly. I’ll leave that to your own interpretation, and don’t assume you know their journey just because they tell you a little about themselves. They are a work in progress just like you. After all you are all there for roughly the same reason.
This can be a tricky one because honesty is not an ego’s best friend in this business and sadly we have far too many egos that enter the industry and far too few musicians who work for the good of the music. In my experience when debating the differences of opinion over a song a good rule of thumb has been “ Does this serve the intention and the integrity of the song”. If it doesn’t, then it might be time to be honest about the problem facing the people in question. It is always better discussing the problem and resolving the discussion before it becomes an argument.
3. Know your instrument
Although this may sound a little oxymoronic, in fact far too many musicians turn up to a band rehearsal to practice their instrument. Practicing your songs and instrument is what you do in your own time, not the bands. A band rehearsal is just that, a rehearsal, when all the players are assembled to play the pieces of music that you have hopefully all been practicing. This also links in to the Respect aspect of the band rules as the expectation of other band members is that they have done their homework so you should too. Again this is a journey and selecting the kind of people who are equal in talent and skill can become problematic as you first need to play with them, before you can decide if they can actually play with you or visa versa.
Yes now that does seem like a strange way to describe a bands code of conduct, but that is precisely what it is. A code of conduct, I know there are some wild characters out there and when they go stomping on your feelings and when being a brutal ape-man is part of their persona, then it does takes some discipline to work with the like, but it goes both ways. They might not like your anally attentive adherence to every nuance of a song in its original form either, and feel they need to be given the licence to breath a bit with their individual contributions to the music. So discussing how to respect each other’s personalities and the contributions that they make and still get along in a workman like manner is the key here.
5. Know your Musical Genre
Look, let’s not kid ourselves here, if you are a country and western fan, trying out for a hard rock band or Jazz Band is never going to work and despite how well intentioned and skilled you are with whatever instrument you are playing, if it’s not working for you where it counts, then it’s probably never going to. Being honest with yourself about your musical choices is as beneficial as being honest with your band members and can avoid a lot of heart ache down the track as things progress. If you want more of the music that suits your taste in the mix and it’s not in the general description of the kind of music that the band does, then it’s only going annoy the others and then maybe you need to make a choice about your own ability to deliver your part of the music.
6. Picking the venues
Although this topic is always subject also to the venue picking you, it goes a long way to having a successful evening or afternoon if the clientele who turn up to that venue are going to be into your kind of music. There’s not much hope of a successful outcome for both parties if you are going as a hard rock band to a country and western venue unless that venue has the reputation of putting on hard rock bands, then obviously its not a country and western venue, but you get my drift. Do your research and think about the places you want to play as much as the places who may want you to play at their venue or event. It is pointless selling yourself as an easy listening soft rock band when most of your set list has nothing but thrash metal as its primary source of music. Being desperate to get the gig is one thing but being an outright liar is another, and your reputation and ability to find further work is seriously going to be hampered if you adopt this attitude. You are only ever as good as your last gig.
7. Dress the part
Now I know that there are many theatrical interpretations of being dressed for success, but the music industry has more than its fair share of characters whose dress or costume choice is part of their personal signature and unless you happen to be one of those characters such as Lady Gaga or the recently departed Prince, then think about how you present yourselves, because the impression you make on your audience will not only be because of your music.
The music you play will have a culture expectation attached to it that will end up dictating some of the choices that you make in presenting yourself. Don’t turn up to a corporate gig in your bathers and a towel even if you are playing at the beach. I have always found that being comfortable and looking professional goes a long way to inspiring the audience.
8. Never play for free
I know that there are many folk out there who almost find it offensive to think that they should be paid for doing something that they love and which brings so much pleasure to others. Well, my advice to you is to get over it, because the places you are playing at is making money out of you and the people who turned up to work who are serving the drinks and waiting the tables or any other function involved in running the event that you are the entertainment for, are getting paid to be there. Let’s face it, the only reason why most people are there anyway is because of you, the band, who are putting on the entertainment and therefore you deserve to be financially compensated for your time and for your skill just like the others. That’s just being fair if nothing else.
I guess it would be fair to say that a certain level of compromise is always going to be required when dealing with both the actual music and the people making the music. If you can keep that foremost in your mind as you join a band or are seeking to form a band then you are half way there towards creating an entertaining, dynamic and rewarding music venture.
Band dynamics, irrespective of the genre, the age and skill level or experience will always be a component of the live music industry. Understanding the afore mentioned fundamentals and respecting the protocols that have been developed over the years is essential to a well-balanced band. There is not a band in the world that has not got elements of friction and discontent, as this is part of human nature, but it can be made to work a lot more efficiently and effectively if good choices are made following those guidelines. I hope that this has helped to outline some of the basics that every musician should know before they pursue their dream of being in a band and rocking out the venue.