How to Start a Band A Step-by-Step Approach
So, you want to know how to start a band? This is important – you must pay equal attention to both playing music and the business of showcasing your talent. Most bands devote too much time to playing music and too little time to business to achieve success. The problem is, musicians aren’t usually good at business and business types aren’t usually great musicians. You’ll probably find that the members in your group will either be strong musically or have good business sense. The business minded members of your group should be prepared to organize a plan to successfully reach your group’s mutual goals. They also must be able to convince the other band members to follow their lead.
Just to make myself clear, I’m not saying that you can’t be a talented musician and talented businessperson. What I’m saying is that typically the scale leans in one direction or the other. We all have a combination of different talents and it’s important to understand the proper contribution that each member can make to the group.
To Start a Band good business sense is essential. I’ve always been good at the business of playing music. When I was in my first band, we were the least skilled group in town. Even though we were at “the bottom of the heap” as musicians, we were the most popular band in town. One of the reasons for our success was our business approach. We set goals and attained them using a step-by-step method.
I progressed as a musician and moved on to the “cover band” circuit for a couple of years. It was a similar story. We weren’t the best but we took care of business and grew to become one of the top bands on the circuit.
Then there were my Hollywood days with Hawk. The second time we played The Roxie it was a sold-out performance. Members of Hawk went on to play with Judas Priest, King Cobra, The Bullet Boys, and other successful bands of the 80’s. Matt Sorum of Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver recorded with Hawk. So, I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to be successful in the music business. The following is a five-part article that was originally written for my “Metal Message” newsletter in 1984. This is the third time that the article has been published and the third revision of the article. The methods I describe here can be adapted to achieve success at any level of the music business.
How to Start a Band – Getting Started
Once you have learned the fundamentals of how to play guitar you should consider starting a band. Sure it’s fun playing songs for your own enjoyment, but it’s more fun to share your music with others. Playing in a band keeps you motivated. What is the motivation? You’ll either improve or get kicked out! For example, when you’re practicing by yourself and set a goal to learn a song by next Wednesday, if you don’t reach the goal it’s no big deal. If the band agrees to learn a song by next Wednesday and you’re the only one that failed to do so, it’s a big deal. That’s motivation.
The primary excuse I hear for not starting a band is “I’m not good enough.” That’s actually an advantage; the less experience you have, the more musicians there are to choose from. Face it; it’s a lot easier finding inexperienced players than top-notch professionals. Start a band of equals and grow in experience together. The sooner you get started the faster you’ll achieve your dream.
Creating a Rehearsal Space
To start a band it will be necessary to hold auditions. So, finding a rehearsal space is the first step. I’ve rehearsed in basements, garages, storage spaces, apartment clubhouses, church recreation centers, and professional rehearsal studios. It’s not difficult to find a rehearsal space; what’s difficult is keeping it. About the third time a neighbor calls the police because you’re playing too loud, you’re out. To keep this from happening you need to soundproof the room. Real soundproofing is expensive, so improvise; used carpet works well, is cheap, and can be found at a local carpet outlet. You may even be able to get carpet that’s been removed from a previous installation free of charge. If not, purchase inexpensive carpet remnants. It ain’t pretty but it’s cheap.
To soundproof a room it’s necessary to create a room within a room. The air space between rooms is effective for deadening sound. Use this same technique with carpet – try to separate layers of carpet with air spaces. The carpet will also act to deaden reverberation so you’ll be able to clearly hear what everyone is playing. If you practice in a large empty room where sound reverberates, musicians can even hit wrong chords and you’ll never hear it.
After the room is soundproof it may be necessary to install a burglar alarm. It will help you sleep easier at night knowing that your equipment is safe. Inexpensive alarms can be found at Radio Shack.
Once the rehearsal space is secure it’s time to find the right musicians. This is the most important aspect of the entire process. It’s important to find musicians that are on your level of playing experience. For example, a great bass player who is more skilled than the rest of the group won’t stick around for long. Other important considerations are to find people with similar goals, who are in your age group, who are dedicated, with the same musical taste, and who are available for rehearsal.
Advertise for Band Members
How do you find these people? Advertise! Advertising works, that’s probably how I found you. Most people are aware of my guitar lessons from guitar magazine ads and Internet advertising. Your band ad must speak directly to prospective band members. They must feel that this ad “has their name on it.”
You probably already have a good idea of where to advertise for musicians. If not, check out the classified section of local papers to see where musicians advertise. You should post flyers in music stores, clubs, and schools. Also, take advantage of the Internet to connect with like-minded musicians.
Creating an Ad
The most common mistake people make when writing an ad is to misrepresent their level of experience. An inexperienced musician often tries to appear experienced to attract better players. The problem is, those better players won’t be interested in playing with a less experienced musician for long. Believe me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve auditioned people that were way beneath the level I was seeking, and I’ve been auditioned by more experienced musicians. So, begin with an honest evaluation of your skills and your level of commitment to include in the ad.
You must create an ad that clearly expresses who you are and the type of musicians that you’re seeking. The ad should state your musical taste, level of experience, dedication, and goals. If there’s anything else that distinguishes you from other musicians mention that too. This might include your recording equipment, contacts, and rehearsal space.
I prefer to advertise for one musician at a time so it appears as if I already have a group. It’s much easier to find musicians who want to join a group than to attract people interested in forming a new band. Get started by looking for another guitar player, bass player, or drummer. After that position is filled, find the next musician. Don’t look for a lead vocalist until last. More on that later.
Be prepared for the calls that you’ll receive responding to your ad. Make a list of questions beforehand and keep track of how each musician responds. If a person seems interesting, set up an audition. Give them a couple of songs to learn so you’ll have music that both of you are capable of performing. Take command of the situation by selecting songs that will showcase your ability. Even so, don’t choose music that is so difficult that it makes you nervous to perform. I like to choose pieces that allow me to improvise during the more difficult sections so I can perform with confidence. If I’m too nervous, I lighten up on the sixty-fourth note triplets.
Don’t wait until the entire band is formed to rehearse. Remember, the tighter you and the other musician play together, the better musicians you’ll attract to complete the band. It’s necessary to build confidence; everyone involved must realize if you stick together this actually will become a band. A positive attitude is essential.
How do you rehearse with a band that doesn’t have a bass player or drummer? Play along with a drum machine or pre-recorded tracks. For example, if you don’t have a bass player but you do have a drummer record the bass parts yourself. If you don’t own a bass borrow one or maybe talk a local musician into recording the parts even if they’re not interested in joining your band. Be sure to record a click-track (for timing) along with the bass. The click-track can come from a metronome or drum machine and should be a single sound like a hi-hat or wood block. Start off with a four-count so you and the other musicians will know when the song begins. It will probably be difficult for the drummer to hear the track so they should listen to it through headphones. Consider purchasing a headphone amplifier that will distribute the sound to several sets of headphones. A Behringer HA400 4-channel stereo headphone amplifier sells for $19.95. Record the rehearsal tracks as MP3 files and hook your MP3 player up to the amplifier.
It’s a good idea to create a multi-track recording of every song that you learn. That way, if someone can’t make it to a rehearsal you can mute all of the tracks but their performance and the click-track and play along with the recording. This recording is also useful for learning new songs. Give each member of the group a recording minus their instrument for them to use as a practice tool.
Before long your group will be ready to find a lead vocalist (unless group members already handle the vocals). The singer is the main link between the band and the audience. A great vocalist is essential for success. That’s why I saved the vocalist for last. Rehearse the group until you’re able to play several songs perfectly without vocals, otherwise it will be difficult to audition singers. I know this sounds difficult, but the band will be much tighter if you learn songs without listening to vocals. There are two other advantages to rehearsing without a singer. One, if you learn to depend on the vocalist for the arrangement, when the vocalist makes a mistake the band will follow which can end in disaster. Two, if the band needs the singer to sing every song at rehearsal, the singer’s voice will be shot when it’s time to play gigs. Plus, vocalists are notorious for being difficult to manage. So, when they throw a temper tantrum and storm out of the room you can continue to rehearse without them.
Once the group is formed, various duties must be divided among band members. Be sure everyone in the group has certain responsibilities, but no one should handle too much of the load. One person must be the bandleader. The leader oversees the whole operation. They must be sure that each member is doing their job and that the “band effort” is organized. Booking agents and club owners only want to deal with one individual, not the entire group. So, the leader must act as the group representative. The leader is also responsible for hiring and firing. Although the group usually decides who is to be hired or fired, the leader often has the responsibility to carry out the band’s wishes.
The next job is rehearsal director. The group leader may also handle this responsibility. The rehearsal director organizes practice sessions to be as efficient as possible. They keep everyone informed about what songs will be learned in the future and see to it that rehearsal plans and goals are accomplished. If the band wants to learn a new song every day, and practice previously learned material, the director organizes a schedule so this is accomplished. This person also makes notes on song arrangements and may be in charge of harmony practice. Before moving on, I’d like to mention a couple of things about choosing material. Take turns choosing songs. If anybody in the band doesn’t like a song, drop it. There is enough good material available that you should be able to find songs that are acceptable to everyone. Also, choose material that fits the venue that you intend to play. Check out these places and see what songs are getting good crowd reaction. Keep your material current; don’t learn too many oldies, because your song list will become dated. If you have a good song list of current material you can start learning original material without feeling the need to constantly learn new cover tunes.
The group’s image
The next job pertains to creating the group’s image. Usually the lead vocalist is the most image conscious person in the group. If so, let them be in charge of the group’s stage appearance because a single person should coordinate this. If everyone dresses and looks as they please, chances are the band won’t look like they belong in the same group.
Each song you learn should have some organized stage movement. It’s necessary to arrange some of the movement on stage to add impact to the show. That way, even when the band is having an “off night,” you can still expect the two guitarists to meet at a certain place on stage and at the very least acknowledge each other’s existence. Often, just by looking like you’re having a good time you’ll start having a good time. Without a certain amount of organized stage movement the band will be too inconsistent – some nights will be great (lots of movement) while other nights will be boring (the band will appear uninterested and listless). I just noticed that I wrote twice as much about the person in charge of image as I did about the bandleader. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
The next job is bookkeeper. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. The band should open a checking account to keep accurate financial records for income tax purposes. All income should be deposited to the band’s account, and all expenses should be paid by check. The bookkeeper should keep receipts and records of income and expenses. This can be accomplished by simply keeping records in the check ledger. This person should also establish a good relationship with the bank because you may need to borrow money for equipment. While I’m talking about borrowing money, let me make a point – good credit is extremely important when you’re in a band. Establish your credit and guard it like you do your axe. When the band’s truck breaks down and you need seven hundred dollars for engine repairs before the next gig, you’ll realize the importance of good credit. Once you start touring it’s almost impossible to establish credit so keep your record clean. Banks are reluctant to loan money to transients (people who move from place to place), the self-employed, and musicians (yes, bankers have found me amusing). If you become a successful musician working on the club circuit you’ll fall into all three categories of credit risk. If you can show the bank that you have a good credit history they might stand behind you through difficult times. Before you “hit the road” make it a point to establish your credit by securing a credit card and pay the outstanding balance in full every month.
Someone must be in charge of public relations. This person should be sure that the band’s photos and bio are up to date. Public relations work also entails promoting individual gigs – make your audience aware of each performance. This person should work closely with an artist on t-shirts, flyers, ads, and business cards. It is also important to organize newspaper clippings into a press kit and accumulate an e-mailing list of fans.
Rehearsals are a job, not a party. That means no drugs, drinking, or friends at rehearsals. If your “significant other” has a job, you probably don’t hang around where they work. Your partner needs to understand that anyone at a rehearsal other than band members is a distraction. When you have an audience there’s too much of a tendency to perform all of your best material instead of learning new material. Too many people hanging around your rehearsal space causes problems with neighbors and police. Also, some people that start “hanging around” may eventually decide to rip you off or he may spread the word about where you’re rehearsing and someone else will do the job. Still, it’s okay to occasionally have a “dress” rehearsal for close friends. This is a performance of your set from beginning to end without disruption.
Everyone should know their parts before they arrive at rehearsal. That’s to be done at home instead of wasting everyone else’s time at a group rehearsal. The rehearsal director should see to it that everyone has a copy of new material. Rehearsals should be recorded and the director should see to it that all members have copies of the recordings. The best way to rehearse new material is to first practice songs as a group at very low volume then let the bass player and drummer go over their parts together a few times. After that, add rhythm guitar, then lead guitar, lead vocal, and last harmonies. Harmonies should be rehearsed at low volume over rhythm guitar or keyboards.
Learning material at low volume is important for two reasons. One, it’s much easier to hear each part distinctly at low volume. Two, once you’re on the road it’s a great advantage to be able to learn tunes in your motel room because many clubs won’t allow rehearsals. You can even learn new material by rehearsing through headphones. The one problem with rehearsing at low volume is, the drummer will need to improvise a drum set, play pads, or an electronic kit.
During each step of the rehearsal, record and listen to playbacks. Usually, if someone’s playing a part incorrectly, the musician will hear the mistake on the recording before the mistake needs to be corrected by another band member.
Keep recordings of the band playing the entire repertoire. As you learn new tunes, add them to the collection. Keep an accurate record of the date of each recording and where the sound file can be found. It’s best to keep this record as a word document and the recordings as a collection of audio files on your computer. As you learn cover material keep copies of the original versions. One reason for this is, when a band member quits or must be replaced, new members will be able to learn the band’s material from these recordings. Nothing discourages a band quite so much as having to teach a new member old material. A band must always move forward and two or three weeks of going over the old stuff can drive everyone crazy. New members can learn the material from recordings while the rest of the band continues learning new stuff.
Showcase the band
After your group has learned about ten songs you should begin showcasing the band. This can mean playing at friend’s private parties or setting up a gig somewhere featuring two or three other bands. It is important to remember that you must be as professional at these showcase events as when you’re playing on the club circuit. First impressions are important; these opinions are difficult to change. If people get the wrong impression of your band, they probably won’t give the group a second chance. When they hear your band’s name in the future, they’ll still say negative things about the group. For this reason, it may be a good idea to play these first few gigs before finalizing the band’s name.
How to choose a band name
I’m not going to spend much time on how to name a band because I don’t believe that a band’s name is critical. After a band becomes successful, regardless of what you call the group, it will sound like a good name. Until then, it’s just a name. I mean, are these really good names: Pink Floyd, The Goo Goo Dolls, Alice in Chains, or The Beatles?
My first band’s name was Buck Run. Yes, pretty bad. I had nothing to do with choosing the name and went along with the selection only because it was way better than the second choice – Abe Lincoln’s Cabin. Buck Run sounds ridiculous partly because we weren’t successful… and partly because we weren’t a country band.
Before you name the band Turbulent Overload, for example, look around the Internet to see how many other Turbulent Overload bands there are. You must find a name that doesn’t seem to be in use. The next step is to file a legal document to DBA (do business as) a fictitious name. You can learn about this process at your local city hall. If you later find that someone else is using the name Turbulent Overload the DBA document will be proof that you were using it first. Plus establishing a DBA is the first step in creating a business entity – you can do things like open a checking account in the name of the band. That might not seem important until you receive a check made out to Turbulent Overload and wonder how you’re going to cash the thing.
How to choose a booking agent
When you begin getting positive response from showcase appearances, it’s time to invite booking agents to take a look at your band. Although you may book your first few gigs independently, eventually all of your work will be secured through a booking agency. They’ll take from ten to twenty percent of the gross receipts from each performance. When choosing a booking agent it’s normally better to be with a small agency that loves you than a large agency that doesn’t give you adequate attention. All agencies have favorite bands that get the “lion’s share” of work. If you sincerely believe that you’re capable of becoming a large agency’s best band, it will probably be in your best interest to sign with the agency. On the other hand, if you opt to sign with a small agency, be sure that they’re aggressively finding work for clients. Since small independent agencies often work without an exclusive employment agreement this might be the best place to get started.
When you sign with an agency it is usually a multi-year deal. A mistake here has the potential to not only ruin your band but may also damage your music career because you sign as both a group and as individuals. This means that the agency has an exclusive employment contract with you as an individual even if you no longer play with the group. When it’s time to sign an employment agreement with the agency, have an attorney approve the contract before signing.
A band-agent relationship is a strange one. Technically the agent works for you but it’s almost as if you’re paying the agent to be your boss. If an agent offers criticism, you should seriously consider the message. If the agent constantly makes suggestions that you aren’t willing to follow, you’re with the wrong agent.
Making it work
- Mutual goals: Everyone in the band must agree on the outcome that you’re expecting from this collaboration.
- Personal relationships: (lovers, spouses, family, etc.) These relationships can be such a high priority for some members that it becomes difficult to find enough time to accomplish the band’s mutual goals.
- Interpersonal relationships: Do band members get along? Make it a point to regularly spend social time with each member alone. It will give you both an opportunity to discuss mutual concerns and ideas.
- Drug abuse and alcohol abuse: Negatively affects performance, reliability, mood, and motivation.
- Musical satisfaction: Members must enjoy the same type of music and appreciate each other’s musical contribution.
- Level of musical accomplishment: Members should progress at a somewhat equal pace. Otherwise, someone’s not going to continue with the program.
- Financial Reward: The group must make enough money to support the needs of all members. If everyone has a full-time job and is performing with the group as a hobby, members don’t need to make a cent. On the other hand, if some members are trying to support a family on the band’s income, money is extremely important. Everyone must be on the same page.
- For professional groups, a good agent: You can’t survive without work.
The keys to success
Here are a few things that can keep your band happy. Have organized group meetings every couple of weeks. Take notes and run each meeting in a professional manner. Constantly learn new material, even when it doesn’t seem necessary; this will keep the group fresh and keep your performances from turning into boring routines. Most of all have fun. That’s why you started the band in the first place.