What to expect in a rock band

If as I used to be, you are involved in a rock band then congratulations because your life is about to get worse. Ahead of you are many months of misunderstandings, frustrations and arguments. But let’s start from the beginning.

Being in a rock band is usually a verbal arrangement between friends, and occasionally between people who didn’t know each other. Before playing any music we talk about our aspirations, our influences and then we set up a meeting to jam. We talk some more and the jams turn into rehearsals and there we are in a rock band!

One of the most common misunderstandings and reasons for later frustrations can be traced back to these very first meetings. We all talk about a similar thing, leave the meeting believing that we are on the same page when in actual fact no one meant the same thing as the other. Six months down the line, arguments erupt because the results do not mirror the promises. But in actual fact, the promises were kept. It’s just we who misunderstood them.

The first mistake is the assumption that all members consider themselves “in a band” and that they owe their involvement to the other members. You would be surprised that even when a band name is chosen and rehearsals are planned, there is always a member who doesn’t place this band on his/her timeline. Whereas you might already be thinking 2 years down the line, they might not be seeing past their next Summer holidays. The band is a secondary thought to them that belongs to the present moment only.

Another problem is the definition of what it means to be in a band. A more experienced player might not feel it necessary to explain that they expect everyone to know the songs for the next rehearsal. Other members will pick up their instrument in the rehearsal room without having thought about the band since last time. “But I sent you the recording of the new riff“, you might say. “Didn’t you look for ideas? Didn’t you memorize the parts?” Quite casually, they’ll answer: “Oh yes, I saw your email. I listened to it. Pretty cool. Do you want to work on it? What’s the first note?” You will look at them flabbergasted as you realize that they consider having given it their very best by listening to your riff once.

Education and level of formal studies also play a great role in the structure that each member can bring to the band. Musicians tend to be overly tolerant and innocently believe that we all become One in the rock ‘n roll rehearsal room. The fact is that we process information differently according to our background and profession. A Phd student doesn’t organize their thoughts in the same way as shelf stocker at the local sex shop. It has nothing to do with “intelligence” but rather in the way they focus and organize priorities. The more educated musician might not understand why their band mates can’t meet deadlines or constantly jump from one bunnyhoppin’ idea to the next.

The work that is necessary to put in the band and the distribution of roles should be examined. Some members naturally take on the role of finding shows and sending out demos. Two years down the line you might notice that one member has done nothing whatsoever and falls into the role of “showing up”. Worse still if they declare that they wish to play less shows because of some family vacation or the “need for a rest”. Their vote will gradually count for less for lack of involvement and the leading members will start to think of replacing them.

Similarly to the above point, there is a common misunderstanding of what being in a band entails. Some will understand this as participating in a rehearsal. Others will know that it is the bare minimum. Making T-shirts, finding a logo, sending out emails, renting vans, speaking to record labels, social media, booking tours all have to be done by someone. And don’t be fooled by the term “pro” that some musicians apply to their “musician wanted” ads either. In their mind, being pro might refer to the time they jammed with Jame Brown’s guitar tech at some obscure jazz festival. Or it might mean having a collector’s guitar and an ability to play Fleetwood Mac.

The ambition of the band and the artistic direction should be spoken about sooner than later. At that oh-so-important festival slot, you might turn round to see your bandmate casually dressed in a Quicksilver T-shirt that screams out “we are amateurs!” Word to the wise, wait until you are established before not caring about your look. A few rough guidelines such as “no shorts/ no logos” can go a long way.

The level of quality of the gear should be addressed at one point, though not absolutely essential at first. An issue might arise if one of the musicians stays playing with a 150$ instrument while the others are around the 1000-3000$ mark. The musician with the poor-quality instrument will start to sound (and look) a bit out of place. This is of course dependent on the style of music we play. At a minimum, they should maintain their instument and have all the spare parts: drum sticks, skins, guitar strings, etc.

It might come as a surprise that the reasons for being in a band can have meaningful impacts on the future. Some members might find in music an essential creative outlet regardless of popularity, others might just do it for fun on a Sunday and others still might fall addicted to the local fame and not give hoot for their skill on the instrument. This can lead to a “mad scientist” guitar player with 40 effects pedals incapable of playing relatable music, one happy-go-lucky musician who just shows up, and the third who now feels so ultimately cool that he sees no point in working on his craft as a musician.

Egos are not often addressed, though playing music and accessing that “larger than life” feeling can indeed transform people. As much as you might think that you are god’s gift to bass playing, so might the saxophone player think the same thing of themself. If they so decide that they deserve a better bass player than the one they currently have, they will slowly put the wheels in motion to replace you. In the words of Eli Wallach in Godfather 3. “Treachery is everywhere”.

And finally, drugs and alcohol. What starts out as an innocent little “extra” can sometimes escalate into much worse issues. That concert you worked so hard to find could be sabotaged by a member of the band too high or too intoxicated to play sharp enough. They will justify this by saying that it is Saturday evening or that they play better with a little buzz to “feel” the music or some similar nonsense. Be mindful that if they are on drugs they are most likely not in a frame of mind to produce anything towards the success of the band in between rehearsals.

Finding the right band members and knowing how to cope with all the potential issues necessitates a double Phd in Human Resources and Psychology. The Catch 22 is that without trying you’ll never know and you won’t know if you don’t try. It might be that all band members are great to work with, and it might also be that the usual problems arise. There are only so many bands a person can do, so the extra caution is well worth it.

The odds of finding bad dance partners is spectacularly high, as shown by the number of famous bands that played all their careers with their childhood friends: the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Beastie Boys, Rolling Stones, Queen, Green Day, U2, Coldplay… a musician doesn’t simply enroll “unknowns” and start composing successful music. It’s that hard that even famous people don’t do it.

Whatever happens in your rock band, don’t be too harsh on your band mates and certainly don’t blame yourself. Everyone contributes with the tools that Mother Nature gave them and you can’t ever make a cat bark. When all is said and done, it’s not that important and if we’re honest no one needs another rock band anyway.

Perhaps there is comfort in the knowledge that if the musicians are such frequent underperformers, it may be an accurate reflection of a music style well past its expiration date.

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