Lesson #9 How to be in a great band…………..


[THIS IS A LONG POST, BE PREPARED]

So you’re in a band. Ask yourself is it a great band? Is it just OK? Is it a band that you’re just in for the moment? Is it your band? These are all important questions. If you are a musician and just want to play, make some music, and have some fun then this blog may teach you some things but it may not interest you as much as a blog about classic soul bands or a blog about the secret hair-band post shower hair tricks. I’ll assume that you have ambition. That you want your band to make it to the top. I started this blog to help out musicians and managers that wanted to make a big splash, to be, someday, maybe, rock gods.

                                             (Beatles “Wait”) (Randy Newman “Underneath the Harlem Moon”)

One of the most common mistakes musicians make is joining the wrong band. The band you join is often decided by the world you live in. Is it a small town in the middle of Cowfuckville? If it is, you may very well have few choices other than to play with the guys you have been playing with since you were 13. If you’re in one of these bands I will get to some strategies later in this posting. If you live in a bigger town or better yet some excuse for a city you probably have some options when choosing the band to join. Which one should you pick. That’s easy. Pick the band that is led by the best songwriter you can find. This is the most important talent in rock and if you find someone that can write hits then tie yourself to him/her in as many ways as possible. If possible marry him and marry his father, uncle and piano teacher. If you are a great writer I will get to tips for you later in the blog as well. I am concentrating on good players that aren’t visionary writers for the moment since by far they are the largest pool of band members out there.               (Tito Puente “Cua Cua”)  (Pixies “Gigantic”)

If you have any question about being the greatest songwriter that ever lived then, I assure you, you are not a great songwriter. When it comes to songwriting there are two classifications, the great writers and everyone else. Great writers seem to know it. I am not sure why this is true but I’ve known quite a few great songwriters and there is some gene that allows them to know from birth that they are gonna write songs. Like I said if you have any doubts about your greatness, then you’re not great, so face up to it and depend on your other strengths. Do you have the killingest rhythm style in the world? Can you play a bass groove that makes the girls shake their butts? Take a count of your strengths and then look around for the best damn writer in your scene. Then go and get in his band. If you have to change from guitar to bass that’s fine. If you have to learn to play mandolin that’s fine. The only  bands in your local scene that are going to make it somewhere have one thing in common – they are piloted by a great songwriter.

                                                (Traffic “Light up or leave me alone”)(Buzzcocks “Whatever happened to?”)

So you believe that you’re in a band with the next Bob Dylan? Ok then get the fuck out of his way. Stop trying to force the band to do your three songs. Don’t fight him when he decides that clown shoes are the next experiment the band will try. I’ve seen more bands break up over stupid control issues than anything else. It was actually refreshing when as a manager I had a bona fide drug problem in one of my bands or an arrest or standard run of the mill manic depression. It was refreshing because I spent endless hours trying to mediate battles over little control crap like who gets to drive the van or why the drummer’s one song wasn’t on the set list for the past three gigs. (if that particular fight comes up you can show the drummer this blog ’cause I’m gonna explain it to him right here. Mr. Drummer the reason you are in the band is to play the fucking drums. The fact that you write songs is charming and if the band becomes mega-successful then you will use that song on your solo record. Until then shut the fuck up or the band will find a drummer that hasn’t written a song!)

Most really talented people are narcissists. That means they are self-centered to the point of being manipulative and destructive to the people around them. There is a word for this kind of behaviour in a band it is “normal”. The only question is to what degree is this deeply talented person destructive. Is it mainly to himself? That’s ok. Is it to other band members? That can be tolerated? Is it to the band’s career? If so you’ve got a problem.

I managed a band for ten years called Miracle Legion. You haven’t heard of them. The reason you haven’t heard of them is the lead singer/writer did everything in his power to be a controlling prick to all the promoters, producers, label people, managers (me) and writers he could. For example he would never give me a cut of his publishing money. I asked about three million times each time he said no and then demanded I get him a publishing deal. Is it surprising that I never found him a publishing deal even though I found one for many other, less talented artists. His lack of publishing deal translated into piles and piles of money he didn’t collect and scores of juicy deals he never got. Oh well. I could write a whole blog about the crazy things he did.. oh yeah that’s exactly what I’m doing.
                                                                                                                           (Gang of Four “I found that essence rare”)

Here’s a brief anecdote about this singer that ties in to some advice I gave a reader in a another blog posting. Miracle Legion toured extensively. I mean they toured all the time. Lots. Everywhere. They did very well often selling out the venues at whatever level they were working. The band had a booking agent Frank Riley. Frank is now one of the biggest agents in the country. Of course the singer didn’t trust him. When we decided to set up a tour he would call me and spend THREE OR FOUR DAYS on the phone explaining in detail, excruciating detail, obsessive, useless, detail exactly what he wanted. He would pick venues, hotels, outline deals, issue orders about the routing of the van etc. I would humor him and listen. Then I would visit the agent. We would have a two or three hour meeting to discuss the tour. Most of the singers orders and directions became humorous stories we would discuss. The agent knew what he was doing. I knew what I was doing. If the singer’s crazy commands pertained to musical or artistic things we both made sure he got what he wanted. He was, after all, a genius. The agent would then go off and book the tour. It would take him a day or two. Then he would fax me the itinerary. (that’s the list of clubs, theaters, etc and a list of the deals he had worked out)….

 (David Bowie “Panic in Detroit”)

Every time that I receive the fax of the itinerary I would stop and take a deep breath. I dreaded sending the fax to the singer and the rest of the band. Looking back I can now see that his craziness caused everyone around him to avoid contact, to duck calling him, to change tour itineraries to avoid finding yourself in the same town as him.

So I would send him the fax and call the agent and tell him that it had been sent to him. We had a running bet on how long it would take for the inevitable result to come roaring down the turnpike at us. I believe the record was fifteen minutes.  It always started the same way, an incoming call, usually from a promoter.

“I wanna kill this fucker!!” would be the usual greeting when I picked up the phone. It would be a promoter from St Louis or Chicago or Portland. ” Do you realize that this guy is trying to renegotiate a deal that I signed  8 days ago?”

The singer would view the tour itinerary as a good starting point. He would then begin calling promoters with additional demands and lists of obscure useless questions. Someone would offer him $4500 versus 80% of the door with a ticket price of $4,00. He would try to get 90% or a door price of $3.00 or $5000 upfront. On top of this he would always start issuing insane demands like “I want you to ship me a crate of fresh pineapple today and they better be fresh!” or “You better call the hotel listed here and make sure the towels weight at least 24oz., are at least 36″ long and 24 inches wide and that the hotel will provide sixteen of them each day.” He was, of course, stealing them and reselling them.  Within a day the tour would start to come apart at the seams. This was with a band that was selling out shows. His general attitude was that if he could get them to do it then there was no downside. Venue by venue, label by label, writer by writer he pissed them off and destroyed a brilliant career.  He once asked me to try and get MTV taken off the air in St. Louis on the night they played.

                                                                                                                                                                  (Big Star “Daisy Glaze”)

His main ambition was to get signed to a major label, in particular he wanted to be on Columbia Records. So after  ten years of managing his band I arranged a meeting with all the big wigs at Columbia. During the meeting they signed a deal memo which is a document saying that they intended to do a deal with you. On the way out of the building after this quite successful and momentous meeting he forced the band’s guitarist to explain to me that I was fired. “We don’t need you anymore.” was his cheerful explanation. I made a call and Columbia pulled the deal the next day.

               (Television “See No Evil”)

So the point here is that if someone is too nutty, too destructive then it is better to steer clear. Well, maybe I should say be cautious and always watch your back. The guys that were in Miracle Legion all used his talent as a springboard to bigger and better things.

You have to be honest with yourself. Where do you fit in in the band? Are you good at doing business? Then you should cover the management and booking duties when you first start out. If you do this job expect nothing but abuse as a thank  you. That’s ok, put up with it and use the experience to fill up your phone book.  If you’re a great drummer than be a great drummer. In the end everyone gets some say in the show you put on and if you do it right there is plenty of pie to go around. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd learned to write a great song. It took him years. For years as he was learning, he played amazing leads and solid backing guitar. If you are trying to learn how to write keep at it. Be patient. You’ll never be Dylan or Paul McCartney but there is a craft to songwriting that can be learned and if you master it you may write really good songs and the occasional great song.

                                                                                                                     (Led Zeppelin “I can’t quit you”)

( I just put my I pod on shuffle with the Traffic catalog. Great band.I’ve been listening to them quite often lately. I’m gettin’ old)

Now to go back to musicians that I’ve left out so far. I’ll start with the deeply talented amazing writers/performers. There is a contract on a link to this blog please print it out, sign it and mail it to the address listed on page three.  I will be taking 15%.  I am, of course, kidding. I stopped doing that exact thing five years ago.  Here’s some real advice.

You’re in a band. Let me straighten something out at the beginning. It is YOUR BAND. Any bullshit about it being a democracy will only serve to cause heartache for everyone involved. It will hurt the other guys the most because in the end you will have to throw them out because it’s your band. If they argue over this point please show them this blog. Have them post a comment and I will explain it to them in painful detail. If by chance (it’s a real longshot) you are in a band with someone that can write great songs as well good luck. Try not to kill each other. Tape every note your play. And remember that hell is other people and life in hell is kinda like life on earth. The main difference is that on earth there is only one great writer in each band.

So now that I’ve straightened that out — it’s your band. Start to act like it’s your band. Step up and lead the band. This means you need to work out a show. You’ve got to provide the new material on a regular basis. You’ve got to explain to everyone what they need to do in order to make it work. It is your vision and although the voices in your noggin may tell you differently we can not see this vision. You have to tell us about it.

Here’s some further points. Are you an asshole? Think about it. You may be one and not realize it for a long, long time. (it took me years)If you are then you need, at times, to understand this and adjust some of your actions. You do not do business for the band when you are an asshole. You deal with someone else,, either in the band or a manager. This person understands your quirks.(that’s pronounced monstrous behaviour) This person waters down your personality so the real world can deal with it.

Since you are an asshole you have to give the non genius members of your band some slack. They can be valuable members with great talents and still, strangely, not be you. Give em some slack. Allow them the room to perform, and create in ways that fit with their slots in the band. Look at it this way –Did you scheme and lie to get the greatest drummer in town to join your band so you could tell him every note to play? (by the way the answer to that question is “no”. Just trust me on this one)

Don’t trust the business people around you but YOU MUST DO BUSINESS WITH THEM. If you don’t you will die unfamous, obscure, penniless and no one will sing your songs on the acoustic guitar while busking in the London Underground. If you cleverly work out a deal where your manager makes no money he will cleverly do nothing for you.  The people around you will put up with your charming personality (oh you can be charming when you need to be) in return for money and some of the fame.  Do not cut the other members of the band out of every dime. If you do you will end up playing with a bunch of hacks that smile at everything you say. Ask John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival. Oh wait, he’s done all of these things and still doesn’t realize it.

When you hit your stride and the band clicks and you see some success, don’t change it because you are miserable. You will still be miserable. Torture your lovers, hassle your manager, say inflammatory things to the press, threaten to emigrate to Poland but keep the band gigging and keep recording tracks in that vein. Eventually your genius will get the better of you and you’ll destroy it all but later, when you want to go back you won’t be able to. I will discuss how to manage money within the band in a later blog. I will also address things like record deals, publishing etc. Stay tuned.

Look at some of the examples out there. Neil Young, treated Crazy Horse (his band) with respect. He kept them around. He made albums without them and then brought them back. He made sure they made out well. They are a well oiled tool and he has used them effectively for forty years.(!)

Bob Dylan mistreated The Band, one of the greatest backing groups to ever walk the earth. He treated them like shit. He cut them out of everything. They recorded his greatest material and went on to make amazing albums on their own. If they called him tonight he wouldn’t take the call. Instead he plays with HACKS like GE Smith.  Yeah he has survived and, at times, done some great things but imagine what he could have done on another half dozen albums with Levon Helm singing backgrounds.

The point here is that with great talent a form of blindness sets in and the only way to see the light and find your way forward is to remember that there is Karma and if something clicks and you have a hit be very careful about fucking with it.

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Sorry this is a long post but it’s a big subject. Maybe I shoulda split it up but I am gonna press on …

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Ok last section of this post. What about bands that live in nowhereville and try to rise up with a limited talent pool to choose from.

I think the key in that situation is to play to your strengths., What I mean by that is for the band to strike out on its own. Invent a new style, tear up the rule book, try to reinvent what a rock band sounds like. REM are a great example. They came from Athens and their sound was so odd at first that they stood out. They invented the sound of what tons of underground bands would become. Build your band up. Become really tight on a personal level. Get your own house. Do it 24/7, practice, practice, practice. Take lots of risks. You’ll know it when you finally turn a corner. When you do, pull up stakes and look for a place to move. The place you move should have these things: a large college, cheap rents, a club scene, a good,active college radio station. Some places like this – Amherst, MA – Minneapolis,MN-Austin TX-Spokane, WA – Chapel Hill, NC. Avoid New York and LA. Both of these cities are death to bands. (I guess Chicago as well). If you plan the move and the bassist decides to stay home because of his girl then he wasn’t the correct bassist anyway. There is a good reason that bands seem to come out of towns like these. These cities have all the things a band needs to thrive on a local level and are small enough that when the band starts to sell out clubs people notice.

Ok I’ll close tonight’s overlong post with a story. I will not be posting tomorrow night but I will try to do another post over the weekend.

New York State in the late 80’s had a few active music scenes. Albany and Buffalo spring to mind. ( New York City is on another astral plane) Potsdam, a little city in the middle of nowhere wasn’t on the list. It was three hundred miles from anything. A band started out in that town called the Gigolo Aunts. The band had two brothers on bass and guitar and a guy named Dave on lead vox and guitar.  The band worked their ass off in Potsdam and soon realized that Potsdam was going to take them nowhere. They pulled up stakes and moved to Boston. They were a talented power pop guitar band. In Boston they moved up a few notches and people started to notice that they had talent writing and, in particular Dave had that “star” thing.

I talked to them when they were still in Potsdam. I listened to their demos and decided they weren’t ready to make records. After they moved to Boston I decided that they were likely to turn out something good. I started discussions about them signing to my record label. Out of the blue a band from Rhode Island called the Velvet Crush contacted Dave and asked him to join the band as second guitar /background vox. This band had a deal with some big label, perhaps Mute, if it interests you look it up, but they had a deal and were doing major tours.

The band were really upset because Dave was thinking of doing it. They asked me what to do. I stood to lose since they wouldn’t be worth signing without Dave, at least at this time. I told them “Dave should join Velvet Crush. You guys should quit griping and be happy for him. Start rewriting the set for one guitar. Start writing ask quick as you can and see what comes out of it all.”  I think they must have felt a little betrayed by my reaction.  What I knew and they didn’t is that Dave was a star but Phil, the other vocalist and guitarist had it in him as well. He was just overshadowed by Dave. They fought for a week or so. Everybody stopped talking to each other and Dave left to tour with Velvet Crush in England. When the band started to work up the new set they relaxed. New things were happening and the new material sounded great. Dave stayed in touch.  A couple of weeks later they get a call from Dave. Velvet Crush had fired their opening band. Could the Gigolo Aunts do it? They flew to England and joined the tour as it went to France. Dave was doing double duty singing and playing in both bands. Now Phil was stepping up on stage and trying to outshing Dave. Everyone was winning.


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Copyright BradMorrison/Billiken Media 2010

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