Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Managing Bandmate Expectations

Most new bands (and just about all first bands) are the Marxist Three (or Four, or whatever) Musketeers:  all for one, one for all, from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.  This tends to create a crisis down the road, because human nature being what it is, that is not a sustainable model.  You can potentially avoid that crisis by taking steps when forming or joining any musical project to make sure that expectations are realistic.

In any band, especially a new band, there will be an unequal distribution of work.  This can manifest in a number of ways.  Sometimes it's a single person who handles all the administrative stuff, doing all the booking and publicity and running the band's social media.  Or maybe it's a single person who takes care of technical support, providing/running the PA, maybe lights, and perhaps even providing instruments/amps for other musicians.  Someone may provide a rehearsal space, or a vehicle to haul the big stuff.  Then there's disproportionate actual work: loading in and out; setting up; tearing down.  During the initial wave of enthusiasm for a new project, often the people taking on the disproportionate amount of the work load just do it, in the interest of getting it done, and because, in the haze of new-band euphoria, it doesn't feel like work.

But fast-forward a year, and it probably IS starting to feel like work, especially if the band is playing a lot and making money.  Whoever has been providing various free services starts to feel that an even split of the gig proceeds is not fair since they are doing more work.  Or maybe they just tired of doing so much.  For whatever reason, there comes a point at which someone who has been doing something for free no longer wants to do so.

This can present an existential problem for a band.  Despite the fact that, logically, the other band members have no reason to expect bandmate A to do something for free, if a pattern has been set under which bandmate A had been doing thing X, and then says that henceforth he either needs to be paid to do thing X, or he is no longer going to do thing X which means the band has to pay somebody else to do it, experience and anecdotal information suggest that the other bandmates will resent that.  It can generate bad feeling that can tear a band apart.

So, it is VITAL to manage expectations from the beginning.  It can be helpful in that context to sit everyone down and make a list of all the ancillary jobs that come along with running a band and all the technical stuff that will be required, and either (a) assign tasks and responsibilities so that everyone is carrying an approximately equal load, or, (b) assign values to various tasks and come up with a formula for how proceeds will be split up based on who does what.

Note that if you go purely on market value of services, it it quite easy for that to eat up all proceeds of many low-level gigs---renting a PA, a van, and a rehearsal space could result in zero income for anybody but the people providing those things.  Particularly if it's something that you have anyway, and there is minimal marginal cost to you for the band to use it, you should not expect people to be willing to let you take all the gig money.  But that also doesn't mean that you should be expected to provide stuff for free in perpetuity.

There are all sorts of concerns and formulas that could be applied when you start getting into the specifics.  My point with this blog post is to raise the issue and hopefully get people thinking about it.  I'm happy to discuss specific issues if people would like that.

Expand the Scope of Your Pride in Your Gear

It's only natural that many musicians take pride in having good gear.  For better or worse, a musician's instrument is usually part of his/her identity as a performer, and aside from any image/perception concerns, who doesn't feel better knowing they're playing a really good (guitar, etc.)?

But unfortunately that pride rarely extends beyond each individual player's little corner of the stage.  That's a shame because by far the most important gear when it comes to a band's relationship to its audience is the PA, but many, many bands barely get by with an absolute minimum amount of lower-tier PA gear, although the players individually may have really top-shelf instruments and amps.

The thing is, even if you're getting a great guitar tone, you're coming to the plate with two strikes against you if the overall sound of the band is muffled or distorted, or vocals are unintelligible, or the band can't hear themselves on stage.  Almost nobody will leave the show thinking, "Well, I couldn't really hear the vocals or the kick drum, but the lead guitarist had great tone!"  And you know who the few people who will think that are, don't you?  Other musicians, and it is pretty much impossible to become successful as a band if that's all you appeal to.

So I highly recommend---indeed, I challenge everyone to try to do this---expanding that feeling of "pride in your gear" to include your PA.  Make THAT a part of your identity as a musician.  Assuming you've got an at least adequate instrument/rig, before you spend that next thousand dollars getting a new (or another) guitar, drop some money into a pair of decent powered speakers---there are lots of nice ones that will work either as mains or can be tilted back or laid on their sides and used as monitor wedges.  You will always be able to find a use for them!  And don't get something cheap.  Go with mid-level or higher from a good brand.

Or, before you get a new amp or cymbals, invest in some decent microphones.  There are plenty of good mics that are (relatively) cheap, including Shure SM57s and SM58s, which are industry standard instrument and vocal mics respectively.

I think one reason many people don't think of the PA as part of their identity, as something to take pride in, is the free rider problem---if bandmate A invests in a really good PA, then bandmates B, C, and D will potentially get the benefits of the good PA without sharing the costs.  Well, yes, that may be true, although hopefully PA enthusiasm will infect the whole band.  (It could happen.)   And, if you have bandmates who refuse to invest in making the band better, that may be indicative of a bigger issue that you might want to keep an eye on.  But even in a worst-case scenario, consider that, whatever satisfaction you may get out of being a tough guy who nobody takes advantage of, NOTHING good comes from following that path.  You're a tough guy whose band sounds bad playing through a shitty PA.  Whereas if you embrace the idea of taking pride in your PA, yes, maybe it costs more out of pocket, but, (a) your band sounds good, and (b) you have a great PA!  Which you can take with you if (when) your current band of freeloaders implodes.

There are other ways to deal with the freeloader issue, but that's part of a bigger issue, so it will be the subject of a separate post shortly.  In the mean time, take a look at your current PA.  Are you proud of it?  Can you say honestly that it's presenting your band in the best light?  If not, try making that your gear focus for a while.  I assure you, it will pay greater dividends than getting that third guitar!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seeing Beyond the Set-Up

I was reading Guitar Player magazine recently and noticed again something I have noticed there before that bothers me.  Every issue contains reviews of gear, including guitars.  The reviewers talk about the distinctive points of various instruments, their pros and cons and good and bad qualities.  And often, in the course of the review, will be a comment on how well the guitar played out of the box, or a note that it needed thing X adjusted.

This is at best unnecessary information, and at worst downright misleading, and here's why:

On any guitar, especially electric guitars, there are a number of parameters that can be adjusted to make the guitar play its best.  Dialing in these variables is known as "setting up" a guitar, and the resultant condition is called the "set-up" of the guitar.  Generally when a guitar is set up well it will play easily all the way up and down the neck, without buzzing frets or choked notes.  Among the factors that go into a set-up are string height (adjusted by raising or lowering the bridge, and also sometimes by the depth of the slots in the nut), neck relief (how much the neck bends under string pressure, which can be adjusted in most guitars by loosening or tightening a "truss rod" in the neck), intonation (adjustable on many guitars by how the bridge saddles are positioned), and, on electrics, pickup height.  There are other adjustments that can be made on a guitar with a vibrato bridge.  Not all guitars have all of these adjustments available, but most electrics do.

Most guitars don't arrive from the factory with the perfect set-up, for a couple reasons.  First, set-ups are subjective, so many manufacturers error on the side of high action because it's easier and more forgiving of heavy-handed play.  And, a set-up can change due to things like heat and humidity, or just getting bumped around a lot, so the set-up when a guitar arrives at its final destination may well be different than what it had when it left the factory.  This is also another reason that the factory may not want to dial things in too closely before shipment.

There was a time when (in theory) the retailer would tweak the set-up of new instruments when they arrived, before putting them out on the sales floor, and some still do.  But "big box" retailers tend to do less of that, and with so many instruments being sold on-line now, it is quite possible that nobody will have touched a new guitar between the factory and the ultimate owner, although it can get shipped back and forth across the country (or the world) a few times in the interim.

So, nobody should EXPECT a new guitar to play that great when they pick it up.  Of course, some do, and it's always great when you find one.  But it's important to be able to look beyond the set-up when evaluating a guitar.  So when Guitar Player (and they are not the only culprit; just the one I saw most recently) suggests in a review that it matters that a guitar played great out of the box, or that it's a bad thing that it needed a truss rod adjustment when it arrived, they are doing their readers a disservice.

To be a really savvy guitar shopper, it's important to learn to see beyond the set-up of a guitar you're trying out.  Think about:  how does it feel ergonomically?  (Not the actual action; the other stuff like how does it hang on your shoulder, how does the carve of the neck feel under your hand, etc.)  How does it sound?  Assuming it CAN be adjusted, how it plays can be dialed in later, if everything else is good.  I suspect most reputable dealers would either set it up for you as part of the purchase or allow a purchase contingent on it being set-up-able.

There are plenty of red flags to look for with a new guitar, and some may not reveal themselves until the guitar is set up, such as low or high frets.  But if you assume any new guitar is going to need a set-up, and look beyond those issues in initial evaluation, you are less likely to lose out on a great guitar that just needed a truss-rod adjustment.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

I am the AUDIENCE.

If you hang around on music forums for very long, you will eventually see an exchange like the following:

Poster A: Performer X is all washed up. His new album sucks; he hasn't done anything noteworthy since 1969; [etc. etc.].  

Poster B: Oh yeah? He wrote [big old hit song]. How's about you post some of your songs so we can see if you're better than him? Let's hear some recordings of your guitar playing. Thousands of people go to his shows. How many people came to your last gig? [Grrr grrr.]

Now, it's pretty clear that Poster B above is just butt-hurt because Poster A has, as he sees it, dissed an artist he likes. But rather than just responding with "You're a cretin," and letting it go at that (mainly because such a statement probably violates terms of many internet forums), he brings the "you're not qualified" argument. I'm sure there is a name for the logical fallacy here, but it's common as dirt, and I rarely see a pithy response to it. The important thing to keep in mind if you find yourself involved in an argument like this is that it confuses the roles of the parties involved. Here's how I would respond to that:

I am the audience. That means that somebody (or -bodies) out there want me to give them my money in exchange for watching them play/sing or to get a copy of their record. And that means that I am supremely qualified to judge whether they are doing anything worthwhile or not.

Now, if I play in a cover band (which I do), actually I am probably making that determination with more knowledge and a higher level of sophistication than the great unwashed, but, that has nothing to do with my qualification to make it, because that comes from me being the AUDIENCE. It doesn't matter if they are better than me, because they're not getting paid to be better than me---they're getting paid to be entertaining. And as far as I'm concerned, I can judge that better than anybody. Humans being humans and the internet being the internet, at some point I may well share that judgment with the rest of the world. You can disagree with that judgment, but not my qualification to make it. (Well, not logically, anyway.) Ultimately the music marketplace is very democratic: people vote with their dollars, but even if I am outvoted (and I often am) that doesn't mean I don't get the same vote as everybody else.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pay to Play

"Pay to play" (P2P) is a very controversial topic that seems to come up regularly on band forums, and generates strong opinions among musicians.

Many musicians seeking opportunities to perform will, at some point, come across one or more arrangements that involve a financial outlay or obligation on the part of the band to get a booking. Usually, this comes in the form of tickets the band is obligated to sell, i.e., the band has to sell X number of tickets, which are provided by the club, and must either pay up front for them or is expected to turn over the money for them on the day of the show. It's usually presented as a theoretical money-making opportunity: you get the tickets for $X, you sell them for $X+Y, and you keep $Y.

The obvious justification for these deals is, clubs offer them as a form of anti-bullshit insurance. Every band on earth will tell a club owner that they can draw huge throngs of fans to their shows, which is often not actually true. Requiring an unproven band to put its money where its mouth is ensures that if they don't fill the club, at least the club has a few bucks from them as consolation. It's probably enough to pay a bartender and a sound man.

Often, probably most of the time (some people will tell you always), this is not a good deal for the bands involved. Usually of these arrangements are designed to prey on the ignorance or delusion of bands that don't have much business savvy.

The main reason that P2P deals are usually bad is this: any band that could sell enough tickets under one of these arrangements to see any reasonable return, has enough of a draw to get a more favorable deal for themselves---almost certainly, a deal that does not involve that sort of up-front expenditure. So, bands that take these deals are almost by definition bands that don't have the draw to make money from them. Usually the band ends up buying the tickets itself and giving them away, and rationalizing the expense as "exposure" or something like that.

In almost all cases, what's really going on is what I like to call Rock Star Fantasy Camp. A group of people who for one reason or another cannot get themselves a real, paying gig take a P2P gig, knowing or at least suspecting they will lose money, because it lets them feel like they are a real band playing a real show in a real club. It has all the trappings of a real rock gig, with the possible exceptions of an audience, and pay. If the clubs just said, "Give us $X and you can play on the stage for 45 minutes", that would be less attractive because the participants could not suspend disbelief. But couch it in terms where they can theoretically make money if they get a lot of people to buy tickets, and even if it ends up costing them more than $X to do the show, they can maintain the illusion that they've been "hired" to play a "gig" at a club. "Hey, we're real musicians now---we've got a gig!"

I should note that there are a few places where access to a public stage is precious enough that even "real" bands will engage in P2P arrangements. I hear that a number of major rock clubs in Los Angeles, for instance, require ticket sales, and bands with a draw can and do make good money at some of those shows. And at even higher levels, anecdotal evidence suggests that P2P deals are common for support slots on big tours and at festivals. But it seems that in most places, the P2P model is as I've described it above.

Now, I have heard an argument that P2P is killing live music, that once this model gets established, all the clubs go to it and real, good gigs dry up. I don't believe that really happens. The P2P model I've described is a last-ditch, bottom-feeder approach. It's pretty much guaranteed to cap the income from the show for the club at a pretty low level, since often the shows are characterized by (a) bad bands, (b) mismatched bills (incompatible genres on the same show), and (c) minimal audiences consisting of a few personal friends and relatives of the band members, who usually arrive for just one band and leave as soon as it's done playing (due often to factors (a) and (b)). So, if a club could make money running more traditional shows, don't you think they would? But sadly, there are either not enough good bands, not enough of an audience, or both, to keep all the stages in some markets busy with good, profitable shows every night of the week, so some venues and/or some nights go to the P2P model. (Note: this assumes some sort of rational and reasonable businessman running the venue, which may be a bit of a stretch, but there's no accounting for the idiots out there who decide to run their businesses into the ground.)

So I don't think P2P shows are stealing "real" gigs, or that "real" bands are in competition with bands playing P2P shows. That's because they are not "real" shows, they are Rock Band Fantasy Camp. And since Rock Band Fantasy Camp is clearly less profitable for a club that a good "real" show, it only arises because there are not enough good "real" shows to go around. So while I don't advocate most people doing it in most situations, don't get mad at it: it may be keeping a venue for live music going in your area, which may be available in the future, or on certain nights, for real shows.

As far as whether to participate in one of those shows: it's pretty easy to run the numbers and figure out how much if anything you can make. Almost always, it will not be much, probably not enough to justify the effort of coming out and the expense of buying the tickets. But for some bands, it may be as easy a way as anything else if you don't have an established draw and just want to get up on stage and play for friends etc.---if you look at it as stage rental, and figure out how much it would cost to rent a venue and get a sound system to do it elsewhere yourself, it might make economic sense. Just don't tell yourselves you've "gotten a gig".

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reports of My Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

Wow, I got busy for a while, and looked up to find that six weeks had passed! I'm hoping to get back on track with this blog (and other things) in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean time, I'll identify a few sources of inspiration for me in writing this blog:

First, two forums on Harmony Central: the "Music Biz" forum and the "Backstage With the Band" forum. These are forums where people post their questions, comments and rants about issues that come up being in a band and trying to achieve some measure of success (or, figure out what "success" means) in the world of music. The same issues come up often enough that I figured writing out longer essays on them here in this blog would be worthwhile.

Another similar forum that provides lots of food for thought is the Band Management forum on TalkBass. Similar stuff.

Anyway, hopefully I will be back on track with regular posts in the future! I've got some in the works.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Eternal Conflict

You don't have to spend more than a couple minutes on any band-related web forum to notice the (more or less) yin/yang dividing line that seems to run down the middle of the music community, and any band will have to decide which side of that line it will fall on, or whether it wants to try to straddle the line. But the dichotomy cannot be ignored. I'm talking, of course, about the eternal debate: COVERS vs. ORIGINALS.

A cover band is a band that plays songs by other people. An originals band plays songs written by the band members, or one or some subset of them. Yes, I know there are some bands that mix it up (remember the No Consistency Rule) but in general, for the most part, bands are either cover bands or originals bands. A big reason for the dichotomy is that they operate in two entirely different markets. Some audiences want covers, and have little patience for originals, and other audiences want originals, and have little patience for covers. (There is a hybrid that can sort of cheat the categories, which I'll discuss below.)

What sort of band any given group of people form will depend, as discussed in my earlier post, on motivations. The two feed different needs. Let's think about how the various motivations discussed in that post come into play regarding the covers/originals question:

Creative Art: a musician motivated by a desire to create art and share art with the world, to get his/her message across through his/her art, will do that through original music.

Interpretive Art: Interpretive art has a role in both kinds of bands. Interpretive art encompasses multiple sub-categories, which may or may not come into play in different kinds of bands. It is sometimes said that everybody except the songwriter in an original band is really playing in a cover band, because they are playing somebody else's songs. But in many original bands, the other players contribute to arrangements (usually, by coming up with their own parts within the context of the song). Arrangement is an interpretive art and is not, technically, songwriting, but many people get satisfaction from contributing to the creation of new original music even if they don't write the songs themselves. So an original band can provide what motivates them. Another form of interpretive art, however, is performance. Of course performance should play a part in any original band, but performance is the artistic raison d'etre of a cover band. For people who are primarily interested in performance for their artistic outlet, cover bands provide a number of advantages, such as not needing to find a creative artist to work with, being able to draw from the works of the greatest songwriters of all time, ease in finding a receptive audience, and...

Money: Cover bands win this one, hands down. Unless and until you reach the high levels of the industry, cover bands have a much much easier time finding paying gigs and those gigs also tend to pay relatively more. At the highest levels, original artists make more money. But getting to that point is like winning the lottery---you can't plan on it (although, you should prepare for it if that's a direction you want to go, just in case). Suffice to say, nobody in their right mind forms an originals band and plans to make good money at it.

Ego and Libido: Cover bands have an easier time finding a larger audience than originals bands, so (again, unless and until you reach a high level in the industry) you will have more people clapping and cheering for you (and, potentially, lusting after you) playing in a cover band. However, if what you want is to be appreciated for your artistic genius, that will come from being in an originals band. And, playing in an originals band can still provide adulation and help you out with whoever you're trying to attract; it's just that audiences and the pool of candidates will be smaller. It's not an either/or; it's a matter of degree.

Cover bands tend to do better at low- to mid-levels. It is much easier to get paying gigs and find audiences as a cover band, and a good cover band can become a regional phenomenon and make a pretty good income, but there is a limit to how far that can go. The most successful cover bands tend to hit a plateau at regional success, and there's only so much they can charge.

Note that it was not always like that: in the early days of rock, people who were essentially cover artists became big stars, including most prominently the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley. Early on, the charts were full of artists who were mainly performers, who sang other people's songs---often, when one person would have a hit, within a year or two a bunch of other people would put out the same song as a single, and sometimes do better than the original artist. But all that changed in the 60s, as the Beatles set a new pattern, and from then on for many years artists (at least, rock bands) were expected to write their own music. There's no law of the universe that says that a great songwriter will also be a great arranger will also be a great performer, but fans wanted artists who did their own material, so that's what they got, and to a big extent still get.

Of course, singers who did songs by professional songwriters never went away, and in recent years that model seems to be making a bit of a comeback---it's fashionable to deride pretty-boy or -girl singing groups that are created by management companies to sing pop songs, but they are part of a long and well-established tradition that predated rock and will probably still be around when it's gone. But the bands that are formed to support those kinds of singers are a whole different paradigm compared to bands formed cooperatively by groups of like-minded musicians. And they are mainly formed of proven pros---if you're in the running to get those kinds of gigs, you're probably not reading this.

An originals band is usually a gamble. At the lower levels, playing originals is a pretty much thankless endeavor, requiring lots of work for little or no money. There always exists the possibility, however, albeit very remote, that one's original music will catch on: that the industry will get behind it and turn on the star-making machinery; that the public will hear and love it; and that the artist will ultimately be rewarded with, as Queen says, "fame and fortune and everything that goes with it". But it is, indeed, "no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise." What an originals band does offer at levels below stardom is an artistic outlet---the chance to reach people with one's art. It is just important to realize that that may be the ONLY benefit one gets from an originals band, for a long time if not ever. There are plenty of originals bands enjoying only small scale success but as long as expectations are realistic and the members artistic motivations are being allowed sufficient scope, it is entirely possible for such a band to be stable and happy indefinitely.

And it is of course possible for a cover band to NOT partake of the advantages available to cover bands: it is entirely possible to play covers that nobody wants to hear. But assuming a reasonable business plan and marketing effort, a cover band has a potential to get money-making gigs for bigger audiences than an originals band, all other things being equal.

So, there you have some of the main factors differentiating cover bands and originals bands. I mentioned earlier a hybrid that straddles the line, and that is the cover band that does its own different arrangements of songs, sometimes referred to as "doing it our own way" or "making the song our own". There's a continuum of artistic expression that goes something like this: performance = cover band; performance + arrangement = hybrid cover band; performance + arrangement + songwriting = originals band. (You could take this to amusing but ridiculous extremes: performance + songwriting = singer/songwriter; arrangement + songwriting (without performance) = nihilist shoegazer band (just kidding, nihilist shoegazer bands!).) A hybrid cover band uses familiar songs to tap into the cover band market but is really selling a performance more than the traditional cover band experience. They also face the same ultimate limitations as cover bands.

There are also of course bands that start out playing covers or play mainly covers but also throw in the occasional original. Unless and until originals constitute a substantial portion of the show, such bands are still cover bands, since that's how they're marketing themselves, and to have that luxury the bands have to establish themselves as cover bands first. Like hybrid bands, they may be able to transition into predominantly selling their performance rather than the specific songs they play, and ultimately they may be able to morph into originals bands. That's an interesting phenomenon, but probably for a different post.

So, that's all well and good. Unfortunately, out there in the cruel world of the interwebs, there is a lot of sniping back and forth between originals band people and cover band people. I think it is mainly due to neither group understanding, or at least not appreciating, the different motivations of the other group. Original players seem to take great pride in not compromising their artistic integrity for filthy lucre, and cover band players smirk all the way to the bank. Similarly, original players seem to often resent the ease with which cover bands (coincidentally, cover bands playing music they don't like) are able to get gigs, especially paying gigs, when the universe fails to recognize their own genius. But it's vital to recognize that for the most part, the markets for cover band music and original band music are completely separate. A gig that a cover band gets is almost certainly not a gig that an original band lost. Neither is in the running for the other's gigs. It's like a truck manufacturer resenting sales of sports cars.

Something else that goes on, and this is absolutely not everybody or even most people, but it does go on: "Art" is used as an excuse for a lack of mastery of craft. There are bands out there that play really bad versions of songs and justify it with "We do our own version." Sometimes, that just means that the band doesn't have the skill or talent to play the original arrangement. For your own sake and the happiness of everyone around you, don't kid yourself on this. Coming up with a good arrangement for a song takes skill and it takes a LOT of skill to come up with an all-new arrangement of a song that's already popular, and have it be good enough that people want to hear it instead of the arrangement they know. If you can do it, great, but I see lots of people on music forums give as general advice, "Do your own version!" and I think that a lot of bands are not really qualified to do that. That is not good advice for everybody. Working with limits in instrumentation is one thing---if a song has a prominent keyboard part and your band doesn't have a keyboard player, well, that's something you need to deal with. But I think that changing arrangements is often an attempt at short-cutting, and as such it rarely works. If you can't play a proven popular arrangement of a song, unless you know with a high degree of confidence that you can put together an alternate arrangement that is going to have wide appeal, the answer is not, I think, to plow ahead with your own inferior arrangement; the answer is to work harder on your playing, and in the mean time pick songs you can play. Which is not to say not to work on arrangements, but never let arrangements be a crutch to support a lack of technical ability.

Often the people giving the "Do your own version!" advice are original band musicians who are not even really among the target market for cover bands---they place a high value on artistic content and want to see other people put more of it into their shows, but they are not likely to buy tickets or pay cover to come see those shows. It's only natural that musicians interact a lot with other musicians, but that can give you a very skewed view of the world, since nobody can succeed playing only for other musicians, and the "civilian" audience has very different ideas about what it likes. So take advice from other musicians (besides me :-P) with a grain or two of salt, and make sure the person giving the advice is approaching the issue from a perspective that is helpful for your own situation.