Published on September 20th, 2013 | by Brian Donohoe
Surviving as a Creative Musician: Leading a Band
As I’ve said before, the reason I decided to pursue music with my life is because I write. Composing new music and having it performed and recorded on a high level is massively rewarding. Having audiences respond positively and genuinely to my music completes the package, and has led to some of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. Put succinctly, I’m trying to create something I think is cool and then use that creation to connect with like-minded people. That’s an irreplaceable feeling.
However, facilitating this beautiful process involves numerous responsibilities that can be daunting, tedious, or even unpleasant. In order to get my music out there in the world, I have to be a band leader, and being a band leader is challenging.
In today’s tumultuous and ever-changing music industry environment, the perceived value of live performance seems to be gradually climbing in the public eye. While there’s a plethora of artists self-producing music in their bedrooms while seldom performing live (and some of these artists are truly brilliant), anyone who is going to be truly successful in the new music industry is going to have to get out and play live shows. Even more importantly, they’re going to have to enjoy that process. A band leader is, essentially, the chief executive agent that makes live performances happen, and it very naturally, although not always, falls on the primary composer or songwriter to fill that role.
The first important duty of a band leader is to rehearse effectively. This is a topic worthy of its own article, but, to be brief, rehearsing involves a careful balance of focused direction and democratic input. I get to play with great musicians, and they often make my music better than it was before. It’s important that we stay on task and learn new material, but it’s also necessary to let the creative process happen naturally so that the music becomes more than the sum of its parts, and this happens via input from bandmates. Furthermore, the players I use are endlessly patient with these processes and thoroughly enjoy rehearsing, which not everyone does. Those traits are generally outside a leader’s control, but he or she can at least try to provide a strong example by bringing a positive, patient attitude to the shed. A good rehearsal can be nearly as fun and rewarding as a great live performance, when all the right things are in place.
Writing good content and then rehearsing it into performance shape may be the most important part of the process, because without great material there isn’t much point to a band’s existence. Booking shows to get that music played, however, is an inescapable, necessary, and often tedious aspect of leading a band. Getting started with the booking cycle is extremely challenging. There are more than enough bands out there trying to get booked at the best venues, so it’s important that a band leader keeps in mind several guidelines. First, he or she should try to find an appropriate venue to the band’s style and crowd size. A room’s vibe is important, but a band should try not to play a room that’s too big for its draw, since a mostly-empty floor is seldom conducive to a good show. When a leader finds an appropriate venue, he or she must find good contact information for whomever books the room. That person needs to be contacted politely, professionally, and persistently through telephone or email. Good venues receive massive amounts of email and countless phone calls, so it’s important that an introduction be brief and that the leader sells his or her band as efficiently and effectively as possible. It’s generally safe to send one email a week until receiving a response. Throughout this tough process, a band leader needs to maintain an attitude of focused, positive, happy determination. A polite, competent person with a good attitude will always fare better than the alternative, and developing good professional relationships with venue management is as gratifying as it is beneficial.
Finally, there’s the matter of actually executing gigs. It’s important to remember that, in the music business, a band leader will frequently be working with people who are disorganized, chronically late, and bad at communicating details clearly. Again, the importance of a patient, professional, confident, and positive attitude can’t be overstated. Whether playing a show at home or on the road, a band needs to be making friends with all the promoters, venue managers, and audio engineers involved. If managers or promoters seem to be dropping the ball, it becomes even more important for the band leader to be the most responsible, organized, reliable, and positive person on the team. Even when communications are at their most blurry and frustrating, overcoming those obstacles and powering through to a great performance will be hugely satisfying and will make future gigs much easier to book, promote, and play.
Each of these issues is worthy of much deeper discussion, but there are basic principles that carry through every aspect of being a band leader. As long as the leader keeps the long-term goal of his or her art in mind, it will be much easier to work through tedious, confusing, frustrating, and logistically difficult situations with a positive, patient, and professional attitude. This will translate to the rest of the band, and will also have a productive effect on booking agents, venue managers, and sound crew. At the end of a deeply satisfying concert or tour, the difficulties encountered throughout the processes of rehearsing, booking, and managing a band will seem negligible compared to the rewards yielded from a job well done.