Band on the Run

Full Moon Fever – Great band and lovely people, but we had fundamental compatibility issues that eventually caught up with us. It was a good run though!

Bands are a Bitch

Most bands fail. And most of them fail quickly. Why is this?

Well, assembling, launching, and maintaining a band usually takes a hell of a lot of time, effort, and perseverance. Unless you're very well connected, you typically go through a parade of misfits before you finally find the right musicians. Many would-be bandleaders just don't have the grit to see it through. It's a tall order to find people who are aligned with respect to:
  • The music they want to play
  • The level of musicianship
  • Experience
  • Long- and short-term goals
  • Personalities
  • Expected money
  • When, where, and how often to rehearse
  • When, where, and how often to gig
  • The level of preparedness expected
  • How to dress
  • How to perform
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Where music rates in life's priorities
  • A million other things
As an analogy, let's look at the fine institution of marriage. Statistically, half of all marriages end in divorce. My theory is that the origins for failure in a lot of marriages are the little irritants that exist from the beginning of the relationship. I'll call them "incompatibilities". Just little things that don't sit well with you but you ignore them for the sake of the relationship. Like maybe you think he spends money a bit too frivolously, or maybe her family is more involved in her personal life than you'd like. These kinds of incompatibilities often grow and fester until they become insurmountable obstacles in the relationship. Unless you both work really hard to keep that from happening. And that's difficult to do. Hence, half of marriages fail.

With respect to bands, imagine trying to do that with 3-6 other people instead of just one. When you consider all the combinations of band members, the mathematical result is way more incompatibilities to deal with, and way more people who must work hard to keep things functioning well. Yeah, marriage and bands aren't the same thing. But in the end, they're both personal relationships and they have a lot of similarities. You enter both with passionate feelings about what you're doing. They both begin with an enthusiasm and optimism about the future. In both, you work cooperatively to achieve something bigger than what is possible on your own. And over time, little incompatibilities can become insurmountable hurdles and will destroy bands like they destroy marriages.

I can honestly say that in 35 years of playing in bands, I've only had all band members on the same page maybe 2 or 3 times. The rest of the time, we've made do with incompatible parts until the band exploded, imploded, or faded away. Even in the cases where everybody was on the same page, that was a temporary situation. Eventually people drifted off that page.

Collaboration vs. Self-Sufficiency

Unfortunately for me, I've spent most of my musical life being an "ensemble player" meaning I rely on others to complete a musical statement. When I play guitar for example, the part I'm playing assumes there's a band accompanying it. This, coupled with how difficult it is to form, develop, and sustain a band, makes it really challenging for me to fully enjoy music making.

Working alone in the studio
That's actually why I started recording. I've learned to play a lot of different instruments. With a home studio, I can record songs and make complete musical statements all on my own. Everybody's on the same page because "everybody" is one person.

But it's a slow, tedious way to work, tracking things by yourself. And it's a very insular process that I think affects the final product adversely. Band members bring their experiences, perspectives, and personality to the music and it makes a huge difference. Collaboration can send the music off in directions that a single person working alone would never consider. In my experience, band recordings usually sound better than one person working alone. That's the price of self-sufficiency.

I should also say that recording and playing in a band are very different experiences, and for me doing one doesn't really scratch the itch to do the other. With recording, I like the ability to do it on my own. I also love having an "artifact" – a long-lasting record of my art. But playing live in front of an audience that is responding to my music is a special thing that can't be replicated by Facebook "likes" for my recording. When the band is in the zone – well, that's true magic and it's the thing I enjoy the very most about music.

My Personal Evolution

As a person who's been doing this since a very young age, I've seen my musical needs and objectives evolve. Often in ways I couldn't relate to when I was younger.

Anywhere, any time –  let's just gig!
In high school and college, I would play any gig, with anyone, at any time. I'd cart gear across the state, up stairs, and onto a postage stamp size stage to play for a half hour. For no money. I would do about anything legal (and maybe some things that weren't) in order to have the opportunity to play. I was addicted to the rush of playing in front of an audience and I had the time and energy to do about anything to indulge it.

In my 20s
Ambitious, aggressive, arrogant
In my 20s, I added ambition to that abundant time and energy. I wanted to be a rock star. I would still go to any lengths for a crappy gig but I directed my efforts towards building a following, and eventually getting signed. I only wanted to play original music. Nobody makes it to the big league doing covers. I only wanted to work with strong musicians who were also willing to put in extraordinary levels of effort in terms of practice, rehearsal, and gigging schedule. I was also picky about how old they were and what they looked like. I knew a band was a lot less likely to get signed if it was made up of people who didn't look the part. That's just the way it was, and I was unapologetic about it

Growing up and
 rediscovering covers
My 30s were a transition period. I got married and my musical ambitions were tempered. I started doing covers again. In fact, I got into them in a way that I never could as a younger player. In a way, I started building my roots – about 15 years after I should have. I still wanted to play with good musicians, but I wasn't such a Nazi about it. I allowed some slack. On the other hand, I started getting a little more selective about gigs. I didn't necessarily have to get paid. But I didn't want to expend excessive time and effort in order to play a free gig either. It was okay to turn down a gig because it sounded like it wasn't worth the effort or money.

What image? Let's just gig!
In my middle age, as my face has gotten more lines, my hair has grayed, and my waistline has expanded, I don't much care how old people are or what they look like. I just want to gig, sort of like I did when I was a teenager but with a lot less desperation. I'm empathetic though when young musicians are focused on age and looks (which you can tell by their Craigslist ads). I get it. They have goals and aspirations in the entertainment industry. And as unfair, unsavory, and unmusical as it might be, reaching those goals requires meeting expectations about looks and age. It's always been that way, and it always will. More power to 'em. But I'm past that.

Where I'm at Today

Today my ideal band is a lot more reasonable, but I still have needs that I have to attend to:
  • I still want to play with good, solid musicians. Ideally, they'd challenge me musically, but at the very least I don't want to gig with the fear of an imminent train wreck. I hate that. They need to be solid enough to play the material really well.
  • I need to play with people that try to get along. I don't need to be great pals with them. But I'm not willing to spend a lot of time with people who can't be considerate, respectful, and mostly agreeable. Life's too short for that.
  • I want to play with people who don't need to earn money from music. Relying on a steady income from music places demands on a band that I'm just not up to anymore.
  • I want to play with professionals. No wait, this is not a contradiction to my previous point. By "professional" I don't mean people who make money playing music. I mean people who behave in a professional manner: They practice on their own and show up to rehearsal already knowing the material. If they say they're going to do something, it gets done. They show up on-time, every time. They have reliable transportation. They're sober. They have the equipment required and it's all in good, working order.
  • I want to rehearse about once a week, reliably. Maybe a bit more in the beginning when we're trying to jump-start our set list. If the band is made up of the type of "professionals" I described, you actually don't need much more rehearsal than that. But those rehearsals ought to be fairly sacred. It should take pretty extraordinary circumstances to cancel a scheduled rehearsal.
  • I want to gig about 2-5 times a month after ramp-up. The more gigs, the less rehearsals. In my experience, one gig is worth about 5 rehearsals in terms of tightening existing material. (Of course, when you're learning new material, you have to rehearse. A gig is generally not the place to play a song for the first time.)
  • I don't really care about money, except that the more difficult a gig is in terms of travel distance, time, load-in, people, or venue, the more I'd like to be paid. And while I don't care much about the money, I do care that the pay is equitable across the band. I don't mind giving extra to the person who books gigs or is responsible for the PA system. But setting up a system where some people get paid more than others based on "need" creates issues in the long run. It's best not to go there.
Notice I didn't have anything in there about musical style. I actually don't care that much about style. I have strong opinions about "good" and "bad" music, but those opinions don't align much with particular styles. I like and dislike songs from almost any genre I can think of. What I don't like: tired, over-played covers; jam-based songs that go on way too long; out-of-tune vocals; dumb lyrics, unless they're deliberately being ironic; or music that takes itself too seriously. Beyond that, I'm pretty open.

Being a marketing person, ideally I like bands that have a clear musical identity or brand. In other words, while I don't really care what musical style, I do like to pick a type of music and stick to it. For example, an 80s band, or a progressive rock band, or a 60's soul band. It's much easier and more effective to market and book a band with a focused identity than one that does a little bit of everything. But that's a nice-to-have. If I met a group of people who had everything except that, I would gladly play with them. And I'd feel blessed because the other qualities are so hard to find.

Maybe I'll be going it alone from now on
Even with my relatively modest needs, it's hard to find a crew of compatible people. Music doesn't attract "professionals". And as you get older, it's really tough to find people who still prioritize music high enough to put in the requisite time and effort to be a really good band.

So, I may never play in a really great band again. But that's where I'm at in my musical journey.