It’s the old story. You’ve been mastering the guitar in your bedroom for a solid few months now. The chord changes are getting quicker, the fret buzzes are becoming more infrequent, and you’ve even got the hang of a solo or two. You’re ready for the next step.
You talk to your friends about this. It turns out a couple of them are also ready to take things to the next level; one of them even has a friend, usually a Dave, who has their own drum kit set up in their parent’s garage. And then, like a lightning bolt hurled down from Zeus, your whole world is illuminated with a single, all-encompassing thought:
LET’S START A BAND.
The idea of being in a band has captured the imagination of disenfranchised teens for over half a century. Life on the open road, sticking it to the man every night, playing by your own rules – what could be a more perfect reaction to the grey drudgery of adult life? This is your ticket outta here, your raison d’etre, your destiny.
Could anything ever really be that simple?
Here are a few common pitfalls you’re bound to encounter when starting up your band. Hopefully you’ll find some solutions – or, at the very least, some solace in the fact that these are tribulations and trials every fledgling band must endure.
Say My Name!
Your band name is your flag to fly, your badge of honour to wear on your puffed-out-with-pride chest. Settling on a name you’re all on board with early on is a great way of strengthening the unity between you – it also makes the whole project seem a bit more real. But this is easier said than done – not only has your moniker got to sound good chanted by legions of fans, it also has to tell them what you’re all about. A few things to bear in mind:
Check your band name isn’t already in use.
A quick internet search should confirm this for your, and, if carried out swiftly, should help you avert the awful sinking feeling Blink must’ve experienced when an Irish band of the same name made them add the 182. It’s one thing to cause confusion as to which band people are trying to book or go to see; it’s a whole ‘nother when you find yourself in a trademark-infringement lawsuit.
Stay away from inside jokes.
Don’t choose a name you think is funny at the time but other people don’t get — you don’t want to wince each time you have to explain your in-joke to death. Similarly, using a reference that’s either too oblique or too overused will soon lose its appeal. And avoid names that are too long for legions of fans to call out and scrawl onto banners (though you could always abbreviate if it still sounds catchy – see CCR).
In the Garage
It’s entirely possible that Dave’s parents’ garage is soundproofed, but unfortunately such treatment isn’t standard issue. You really don’t want the neighbours to kill your buzz by asking you if you wouldn’t mind turning those amps down ‘just a little’ – you really want to be able to practice at the volume you intend to perform at.
If you’re very lucky, one of you will know someone who can grant you access to a soundproofed or isolated space either free of charge or at a reduced rate. If you’re less lucky, pool your resources and see how often you can afford to use the nearest community centre, scout hut, or, better still, rehearsal studio. Shop around online and you’ll most likely find various places being advertised where you can let loose.
Communicate about your sound…
If you want to write a fantastic new chapter in music’s hefty tome, you’re all going to have to start on the same page. Regular and effective communication is the key here – make sure you’re all at the same place at the same time expecting to do the same thing. It’s going to be tricky to fuse you punk-rock down picking with slap bass, jazzy drums and rap – and if you don’t mention this early on, you could find yourself becoming resentful. Talk about what your influences are, couple them with your own abilities and limitations, and you’ll figure our what you can make sound decent.
… about your arrangements…
You’ll need to communicate carefully when you’re learning songs – even more so when writing. Bands like to put their own spin on covers, and you really need to talk about what you all expect from this spin, rather than just playing it over and over again at practice in a way you’re not all happy with. Be mindful of each other’s parts, as well as your own. And do pipe up if you think the guitar solo needs to be longer, or if there definitely was supposed to be another chorus in there somewhere.
… about your commitment and conflicts…
If you want to get good, you’re going to need to practice together as often as possible. Sure, you might all have jobs and family commitments, but so does everybody. Just let each other know in good time. If Dave’s parents want to spring clean the garage, make sure you give yourselves time to find another place to play. Also, even though you might think you already know your part inside out, it’s not just about what you know – it’s about how you gel as a unit. Hang out, make each other feel at ease, and the songs will become second nature. That really comes across onstage – it’ll be like you’re reading each other’s minds.
… and iron out your disagreements OFF STAGE!
Woe betide the band who airs their dirty laundry in public. Don’t allow disagreements to fester, only to erupt in an embarrassing spotlit argument. It’ll look like it’s come out of nowhere if it happens during a gig, which will either incite jeers or fears. Nip the negativity in the bud behind closed doors – most people come to gigs to have a good time.
Let’s Stick Together.
Organizing yourselves effectively is vital when it comes to booking and promoting your own gigs. Once you’ve got your set together and are ready to take it out on the road, you’ve got to be pretty on the ball. Along with practicing, make sure the other preparations are delegated evenly among you. Contacting the venue, creating a social media stir and giving out flyers are not all one person’s job.
You also need to be super organized on the day of the show. Make sure you all have transport for yourselves and your equipment, and plan your route if you’re heading out of town. There’s no point showing up an hour early only to waste it circling the venue looking for the entrance. Strike up a friendly conversation with whoever you’re in contact with at the venue, and they’ll tell you what to look out for.
Accountability is everything – you’ve all got to be responsible for your own gear, and you’ve also got to be as supportive and understanding of your other members as you can manage. If you forget your second lead, there may be a benevolent sound technician or a friendly member of another band who’ll lend you one; otherwise, take the hit and go without one of your effects pedals. If you forget your pedal, that’s on you. After all, Dave wouldn’t expect you to bring his sticks for him. Try not to point the finger of blame, but also don’t let it get to the stage where management of the band’s equipment falls on one member’s shoulders. Many bands use checklists – a simple solution for a worryingly prevalent problem that still only works some of the time.
Their Egos Again.
There’s no room for egos in a democracy.
While you deserve to be confident in your own abilities, it’s also your duty as bandmates to celebrate each others’ talents. It’s a sorry state of affairs if a calm, logical discussion can’t resolve any inter-band conflict (i.e. the song selection, the band name, the radical outfits). Every brain is capable of new ideas, and each one deserves respect. The loudest voice is often wrong. And in love with itself.
Talk everything out, be fair and give reasons for your opinions.
And remember – it’s never a bad time for a compliment. Remind yourselves you all came from the same humble beginnings, and success is more due to luck than talent. You should never feel you can’t voice something that’s bothering you just because you expect to be shut down. And, looking down the other end of the telescope, if you sense an issue, feel free to ask what’s up. Just try not to make your tone too accusatory.
Hey Money Money
It’s a crime. But, as it’s one everybody commits, it’s to be considered a necessary evil. Artists aren’t in it for the money, but we all need a dollar. In the early days, it can seem like a tall order to generate so much as a penny from your band: you need a demo to get shows, you need shows to earn money, you need money to record your demo, and so on and so forth. So you need an opportunity to break this absurd circle. The simplest solution is to earn money via other means, which will most likely mean keeping up your day job, which by proxy eats into your music making time. But it’s not impossible – far from it, in fact. Many bands were still working 9-5 even as they were becoming known; there’s no shame in it whatsoever. If anything, it’s testament to your devotion and determination.
Another financial consideration is the acquisition of money from promoters, and the division of your spoils between band members. Don’t expect to make millions right away – it’s probable that you’ll only make petrol money before you start drawing larger audiences. But in lowering your expectations in this regard, every little handout you receive will seem all the sweeter. The only reason you’re receiving any of this money at all is that you’ve actually put a band together, learned a bunch of songs and performed them to the best of your ability, so give yourselves a pat on the back. And do not shy away from asking the promoter or venue owner directly for your money – they knew this was coming. Some of these people can be upfront and approachable, others like to sidle off and hope you forget. Knock down the office door if you have to, because you’re no pushovers.
Don’t fall into the ‘all gear and no idea’ stereotype either. By all means treat yourself to better sounding and better made equipment as you progress, but at this stage you’re not going to win as much respect if you show up with an all-guns-blazing ’59 American Strat that you can barely play than if you wreak auditory havoc with your £200 Squier surging through a Roland cube. Don’t squander your fortune on lavish gifts – purchase only what’s needed for the continuation of your band. This doesn’t include strippers and champagne.
Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll
This hackneyed threesome is the downfall of many a serious artist. Many view the two former proclivities as a reward or even a right earned by their proficiency in the latter; others abuse them by way of a coping mechanism, numbing themselves to the stresses of a highly demanding schedule. Dipping your toes into these murkiest of waters rarely end up improving your chances of success. Ego boosts are fine, but excessive quantities tend to result in egomania. And mania of any kind is generally bad.
The ‘no boyfriends/girlfriends’ rule may seem a trifle unnecessary, but outside involvement does often spell trouble for a band. Just look at Spinal Tap or Courtney Love. What this rule is really trying to achieve is the preservation of a set of values that the band’s survival depends on. Prior commitments must be honoured, and if this leads to conflict or even ultimatums, you’re going to have to talk it out. There’s no reason why, with careful communication and compromise, you can’t all achieve you goals. The most logical and sustainable approach is to reach a balance and keep it up.
Motivation, Such an Aggravation.
Perhaps the most difficult problem of all is keeping yourself (and each other) going. When you find yourself penniless at the end of a string of dates and have no petrol money, when you’ve been practicing a new song you’ve been trying to learn for what seems like forever and it just won’t come out right and you can tell you’re all starting to hate it, when you’ve seen that one negative comment that just bugs you all day, you’re really going to need each other. Sure, support can come in the form of fans, of friends and of family, but the truth only comes from within the band itself. Because it’s a truth you’ve written together.
What you’ve got to realize is that life in a band is all about taking the rough with the smooth. You can’t expect to headline Wembley Stadium after only a few months – even a few years. You must absolutely be prepared to play to countless empty rooms for a pittance, and you must absolutely not allow this to faze you. Keep reminding each other why you started out; if your reasons are sincere, then you’ll be able to look beyond the immediate strife, and take from these less gratifying experiences the knowledge that you’ve found something you’re prepared to go through anything for. This is your art, and this is how you will suffer for it.
With any luck, you’ll flirt with disaster in each of these areas and learn firsthand how to come out on top. Sometimes being in a band can be like wading through treacle infested with lying sharks; sometimes, it’s more like learning to fly, and having the whole world cheer as they watch you soar overhead. Some people can take the criticism better than others; some people are quite happy to take a band to a certain level then throw in the towel and call it a day; some people literally care about nothing else. Maybe it’s not important to decide what sort of person you are yet. Maybe heed a few of these warnings, maybe dive in at the deep end. But most people would agree these are all risks worth taking – those moment when everything falls into place are worth any number of petty arguments and personal struggles.