One of the most challenging aspects of being a musician is dealing with other musicians. Musicians are people, and as such, they have temperaments, they have issues, they have personal and professional lives outside of your band. Musicians are also artists, which means they can be moody, jealous, sensitive, and they can sleep with your girlfriend.
Being in a band is a different dynamic than working with someone at a 9-to-5 job. In working with my own bands, and in talking with other musicians about their experiences, I have noticed one concept come up over and over: being in a band is like being in a marriage.
That's a decent metaphor, but it's not perfect. If you have more than 2 people in your band, it's really more like a polygamous marriage, and is therefore that much harder on everyone involved. Also, it's a lot easier to break up a band than a marriage, so it's really more like an open polyamorous relationship. But, for the purposes of this article, we'll stick with "marriage."
This is a big topic, so I'm going to break it up into two parts. Part I has to do with the beginning of the relationship (the honeymoon phase), and how to be prepared for when the honeymoon has ended. Part II will deal with ending the relationship.
Someone has to be head of the household. I know it sounds kind of corny, and many of you will think that a band should be a democracy. Go ahead and try it if you like, but I'm telling you from experience, it doesn't work. Writing, rehearsals, shows, accounting, and all the behind-the-scenes work that needs to happen has to be spearheaded by someone, otherwise, like a group homework assignment, nothing gets done, or it all gets done by one person, which leads to burn out.
Being the head of the "household" does not mean you do everything. It means you make sure everything is done. Don't get me wrong, many issues can be decided democratically, and the leader should step back when that's the case, but when there's a tie, someone needs to be able to break it.
This person will usually make themselves known as the leader without the need for an election, but in cases where you have multiple type-A personalities, the band may need to agree on who this should be in advance. Being the leader of a band is a wholly separate topic, so for the moment, let's just assume that someone in the band has already accepted this role.
When you're putting a band together, or when you're auditioning a new band member, you want to constantly remind yourself that you are going to spend an uncomfortable amount of time with this person in potentially uncomfortable situations. During auditions, we tend to focus on the person's performance: can they play, can they sing, do they have presence? That stuff is important, certainly, but there's other softer skills to consider.
You may end up spending long hours in an un-air-conditioned rehearsal space or vehicle together. You could end up arguing over credits or royalties with this person. You could be sharing a skanky motel room with them, and going on tour with them for months at a time. How does he react when stressed? How do they deal with conflict? There's lots of talented musicians in the world who I would love to share a stage with, but that doesn't mean I want to share a room with them at a Super 8.
Ask them about their personal life. Does he talk about how everyone around him is a dick, or how every other band he's been in has screwed him over? Those are giant red flags. I don't care how well he plays, this person is trouble. Does she get real sketchy or quiet when you ask about her other musical experiences? "I don't know, I just didn't like playing with those guys anymore." That's a yellow flag. Probe deeper.
I had a bass player show up to one audition, and he could play pretty well. But, after we played a couple songs, the band got to talking, and this guy sat in a corner and kept noodling on his bass. He never joined the conversation. In fact, he actually played right over our conversation. We stepped outside. He stayed inside. He didn't call back after the audition, and I'm glad.
I would love to share a stage with many musicians. But, that doesn't mean I want to share a Super 8 motel room with them.
I've worked with many people who were very talented, but they couldn't show up on time, if they showed up at all. I've worked with others who could play well on their own, but couldn't find a fit with the band. It's got to work on most if not all levels. Musicianship alone is not enough. Ask them questions. Have they ever had to bail on a practice or a show? How did they handle it? What else do they have going on in their lives? How often do they practice? What other skills can they bring to the band?
In the early stages of a band relationship, there's a honeymoon phase just like when you meet a potential mate. The person may wow you with their impressive chops. They may be all sunshine and smiles, they can't wait to work with you, they love your sound. You think, "oh wow, he's such a great guy!" even though you don't really know him at all. That's brain chemicals screwing with your thoughts my friend.
Your brain likes new experiences, so it may cause you to gloss over the fact that this person casually mentioned that they really aren't into any of the same musical influences as you, but they "really want to play," or that they haven't picked up their drumsticks in 3 months, or that they "occasionally" smoke "a little" weed even though they're wearing a 10-year-old ratty Phish t-shirt, they stink like Pepe Le Peu, and their eyes are beet red. That may work for you, that may not, but either way just try your best to slow down and keep your eyes open.
I would recommend never making a decision about bringing someone in the band upon first meeting. Have at least two rehearsals with them before you make any calls about whether they fit. Talk to the other band members at length about their perceptions of this person's talents and their attitude. Do this AWAY from the potential band member. You can't be objective about someone's flaws with the person sitting in the room staring at you. Ask your bandmates for any red flags that they may have noticed. Maybe this potential mate will work for you, but they rubbed the guitarist the wrong way. Everyone has to be able to sync with this person.
After the honeymoon has ended, there's some serious work to be done. You need to develop practical skills to help you negotiate conflicts, communicate clearly, and maintain forward momentum. You do that through awareness, which means getting to know your mates, and getting to know yourself.
I highly recommend taking a personality assessment like MBTI. Get to know yourself really, REALLY well. Watch videos on personal growth and self-awareness. Read "How to Win Friends & Influence People." Learn what kind of things piss you off, and what kind of things you need to get from a relationship or experience.
See if your band members will complete one of those personality assessments. There's lots of articles and videos on how two different personality types best work together. I work as a manager in my day job, and my company requires these things. It's very useful to know the differences in people's personalities, what gives them energy, what drains it, whether they're introverted or extroverted, etc. There were a lot of insights for me in completing that assessment and reading those that my team completed.
See what your bandmates are like when they put down their instruments.
A few years ago, I took my band to a team-building session with therapists who used horses as part of their trainings. It was a weird thing to ask of my bandmates, but we learned some very interesting things about our band dynamic that helped us out down the road. The point is to get out of the rehearsal space and get to know your band as individuals, and how they work as a group. Go rock climbing together, go kayaking, go out to dinner with everyone's significant others. See what people are like when they put down their instruments.
You have to be intentional about this work. It takes time and energy. It's easy to be lazy and let it go, and just hope the band gels. But, in order for a band to really work, everyone needs to invest themselves. If someone isn't clicking, you need to determine if you can find a new working dynamic, or if it's time to part ways. We'll talk about that in the next post.
Disagreements in the band need to stay in the band. I've had a couple instances where my band got into arguments in public, with our girlfriends and wives standing around, or (and I can't believe I'm typing this), on stage. That should never EVER happen. It's unprofessional and childish. We had to have long talks afterward to work out the actual issues, but also to establish ground rules about when, where, and how arguments happen. There is a proper way to argue, believe it or not. Here's some things I've learned:
One of the most important skills, if not the MOST important skill in marriage and band-ing, is apologizing, and the flip side of it: forgiving when someone else apologizes. This is hard for many people, and impossible for others. For some reason, we are wired to believe that we are right about everything, all the time. As part of your journey toward self-awareness, you need to realize that you are a dumbass sometimes. You will be the reason that a song or a performance bombed. You will accidentally erase the band's website. You will get so drunk you fall off of your drum throne in the middle of a chorus. But don't worry, you're not alone. Everyone gets their turn to do something stupid, perhaps colossally stupid, at some point.
When you screw up, admit it quickly and take your hits.
When this happens, address it as quickly as possible, and take your hits. Hits hurt worse when there is time to anticipate them. Don't give them any time to breathe... just get the confession over with, so you don't lose sleep or hair. Try to help everyone reach a point of genuine understanding about the situation. (Have I used that word enough? It's critical to a good relationship.) Admit the problem to everyone who needs to know, come up with a way to make it right, and apologize. If you're honest and sincere, you're more likely to be able to fix it, and your mates will be more likely to respect you for your transparency.
When someone else screws up, remind yourself that it's just that person's turn. You've had your turn, and if you haven't yet, you most certainly will sometime in the future. How do you want to be dealt with when your turn comes?
Look for Part II next week, when I will stretch this metaphor even further by talking about abusive relationships, divorce, and remarriage.
If you would like to contribute to this conversation, shoot me an email. I would also appreciate it if you could share with others.