Friday, August 10, 2012

Surviving A Band

And I do mean, "survive." Bands are awesome, and you should play in some*. Just know what you're getting into, and have a strategy for keeping your career and long-term goals intact while serving the needs of the band at the same time.

One the most critical keys is determining what the band ultimately wants, and what path it will follow to get there. As an individual musician, you need to have your own goals and path, as well, and you need to determine as early as possible whether your plans and the band's plans can work together.

If they can't, then it will probably blow things apart sooner rather than later.

A friend of mine tells a story about how his band broke up after a big contest over what they would have done with the money if they had won. They didn't win. There was no money over which to fight. They still broke up.

Personally, I've been a member of three different bands that negotiated record deals. Not one was signed, primarily because we couldn't and didn't agree on what we wanted and where we were headed. In this type of situation, the end result is that the band either breaks up or makes drastic changes to survive, most often the former.

It goes without saying, but a critical key is how the money will be handled. In the beginning stages, it may be how much each band member will be expected to kick in for equipment, recording, touring, merch and the like. Once the money starts rolling in, though, the real fun begins. Decide up front whether you will share the money equally, or whether you will divvy it up by role and workload. Whatever you decide, everybody has to feel comfortable. The only acceptable vote is a unanimous one.

Once band members either feel like they're working harder or contributing more than others, or that they're not being compensated fairly, the end is probably near. Money changes all, and if not handled carefully, it can cause real problems both on and off stage.

In the "real" music world, one of my favorite bad - but common - examples is a story told by a friend of mine, a former programming director for a group of pop/alternative radio stations in the Salt Lake City area. She had been to an after-concert party of an extremely famous band and ended up on a flight with them the next morning. The lead singer was flying first class, but the rest of the band was in coach. Why? The singer was also the songwriter, and was thus getting paid royalties from radio play and publishing as well as money from album sales, touring, merch, etc.

A couple of good - also very uncommon - examples of how to keep a band alive and healthy are Coldplay and U2, far and away two of the most successful bands in the history of modern music. Both of those bands share all of the income and credit equally. It's no stretch to think that one of the band members contributes more to the actual songwriting than the others, but they have (wisely and accurately) predicted that if one of them starts making a lot more money than the others, the band likely will not survive for long.

Both of these bands have had long careers and show no signs of slowing up. Both bands also realize that if they aren't successful, it doesn't matter who makes the money because there will be little or no money to be made. Likewise, they have realized that if they are very successful, there will be plenty of money to go around, and there is no place for greed in a great band.

It's not all about the money, though. While the financial side of things is absolutely critical, the most important thing is to make sure that you're taking care of you. Not that you're slighting the band or distracted from what the band needs, but that you're continuing to develop yourself as a player and musician, and that your eyes are on the bigger, longer term picture. In short, you should work like the band will be successful forever, but have a backup plan in case it goes bad.

Above all, don't let anything stand in the way of you becoming the best, most successful version of yourself that you can be, and that involves keeping your options open and continuing to broaden your abilities and exposure.

It's okay to be in a country band and play jazz on the side. It's okay to play in a metal band and really love pop rock. In my world, there's nothing wrong with loving Justin Bieber (platonically, of course) and Diana Krall at the same time.

*If you're a drummer, what else ya gonna do? Unless you're Evelyn Glennie or Terry Bozzio, you're playing with other people - all the time!

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