How to Make a Band Work

I have been playing in bands for almost 20 years, and though I haven’t had much success in the music business with these bands, I’d consider that most of my bands have been successful. Sure, we haven’t made much money (at least all of the original bands I have been in), but the quality of music and the camaraderie that has come out of some of these bands has been absolutely amazing. I have also had the chance to mentor bands made up of kids, teaching them what it takes to be successful and to produce a quality sound. I mean I’m no expert and the amount of experience I’ve had pales in comparison to a lot of people I know. Still, my experiences with bands, both participating in and observing, make me feel that I can at least comment on what it truly means to be in a real band.

In my eyes, the most important part of being in a band is enjoying playing music with the other members. The point of making music, for most people, is to have fun. Yes, it can be a job, but in my mind if you are not enjoying yourself doing something you (should) love, then you need to get the hell out. I remember auditioning for a band, and as we were jamming on some of their songs, I realized I wasn’t really enjoying myself. It had less to do with the personalities of the people and almost everything to do with what they were playing. On the flip side, I was in a wedding band for almost two years and most of the people in the band I had no interest in hanging out with, but had a great time playing with them.

Another important aspect is that you should enjoy the other members of the band. If you are in an original band, writing music and making almost no money, being able to stand each other is huge. It’s really awkward when band members fight constantly during rehearsals, or there is such ambivalence that no one really gives a crap about what’s going on. These types of situations can really hurt the development of a band, especially if these situations are not resolved. On the other hand, being able to hang out with each other outside of scheduled band practice/gig times allows members to get to know each other on a personal level. Not only does this usually lead to friendship, but also more importantly it allows band members trust each other. When there is a solid level of trust things go much smoother in all aspects of the band. I have been in bands where everyone loves being around each other and others where people want nothing to do with each other are really just there to play music, but barely. There is a world of difference between the two, and I don’t understand how some bands last so long, even if they are making money.

A third vital thing that all bands must have is a high level of communication. Making sure everyone is on the same page with what is going on, musically and logistically, is crucial to the success of the band. Musically, being able to talk to each other, particularly non-verbally, allows everyone to make changes or transitions at the same time. This is especially important if the band has a tendency to jam on songs, or has lots of crazy transitions. Many times all that is needed are hand signals to indicate what is happening, but once a band really gets to know each other, even just looking at each other can signal a change is coming. As far as non-musical communication, there are several aspects that must be considered. The first is that there is open, consistent stream of communication among band members. This used to mean calling each other or setting up band meetings, but now with email and group texts, it’s easier than ever to have conversations about what’s going or when the next practice can be. The crucial part is that everyone participates in the conversation so that everyone knows everyone else understands what’s going on. A few bands I’ve been in have had major communication breakdowns leading to cancelled practices and cancelling of gigs. Not a fun situation. Just like any relationship, communication is key.

Last, it is important to understand what the hierarchy of the band is, if there is one. Is the band a backing band or a true collective? Is there a manager or is it one person’s job to coordinate all of the gigs and practices? In several of the bands I have been in (none of them having managers), once one person starts taking the lead in one area for the band, that becomes their defacto job in the band. While that may seem like nothing, it can grate on a person, especially if they don’t really enjoy doing that job all the time, leading to frustration and possible friction in the band. Also, when a person starts taking on this much responsibility, it is likely that they are looked as being in charge of the band, which again can create friction within the band. The best possible thing to do is make sure that the band acts as a democracy, with lots of open, honest communication (as mentioned above). It does wonders for a band, and makes everyone feel that they have real ownership.

Of course there are a ton of musical aspects that go into a band sounding good and being successful in that respect, but the kind of rehearsing techniques that each band chooses to use should be based on what actually works for them. In general, however, it’s always a good idea to have focused practices, especially before a gig or a recording session. Still practices are great ways for new ideas to come about, and sometimes having too structured of a rehearsal can be detrimental to the band, especially if members are not enjoying themselves. But really, whatever works for each band is what should be done.

The most successful band that I’ve been apart of is Zanzibar Scuf. Though the band is not currently active, we still get together and jam at least once a year, and could easily play a show, original or cover, if asked. To me what’s made this band successful is the fact that we still consider ourselves a band. Usually when things end or bands breakup they stop talking about themselves as being this band, but for Scuf, it’s become more of a fraternity than just a band. When the four of us get together, even if it’s after a year of not doing so, we just get back into our old routine. Musically, we know each other so well, and know our songs just as well that we can sit down and play songs we haven’t played in years almost as good as we did the last time.

Did we follow those guidelines exactly as I laid them out? No, but we learned about what makes a band works over the 10+ years we’ve been playing music together, and we’ve grown up musically together. I have used the guidelines in other bands as well, and have seen similar success. I have also seen how when they are not followed things can get a little messy. In the end, what’s really the most important thing is that everyone is having fun and enjoying themselves. Again, I’m no expert, but sometimes experts don’t know everything.

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