How to Start, Maintain and Progress a Band in the Best Way: an Idiot’s Guide

Everyone loves to say that they’re in a band. It’s a hypothetical pedestal to present ourselves, yet there is so much more to it than people realise. We must escape the Hollywood-painted notion of musicianship and submerge ourselves with the unfortunate gross reality that comes with singing and songwriting as a profession, and how for the most part, long-lasting bands are continuing to break up more often. What’s more, younger, less experienced ones are either never given their first proper chance or give up trying before they have had a chance to begin.

I have been involved in music for over 6 years, and while many would not consider me a professional and still not aware of the full picture, the fact remains I have seen how the music industry operates, how musicians operate and how, in the great scheme of things, a once thriving industry is now falling apart. The future lies with the young and the talented, much akin to the younger sports stars of our generation. Here are 10 do’s and don’t’s of what should be done if you play an instrument (or sing) and how to initially get off on the right foot in what will appear as a morally vicarious industry.


1.      Don’t rush

The biggest mistake any band can make is throwing any old mishmash of riffs and vocals together and call it music. Take your time. Lesson learned as a musician: rushing into gigs, studios and just about everything else will only worsen the ride you eventually undergo. Promoters, agents and labels will recognise material they know to be well-rehearsed and thoroughly planned out, and will easily be able to tell such material apart from a repeated sequence of long drawn out riffs that were obviously the first thing you threw together in your head. Over the years of being involved in music I have seen more bands come and then go than turkeys at Christmas. We are naturally impatient beings and it’s hard. But spend as much time as you can not only writing something good but rehearsing it to a recordable standard – i.e. playing it in your sleep. Useful tips include practicing it to a click-track or metronome…or with background noise so you can train yourself not to be distracted. Learn to be your own worst critic when it comes to your playing – there’s never a perfect song. Change and adapt.


2.      Do prepare yourself to spend money

This is the hardest pill to swallow unfortunately; but if you don’t have a steady job or at least some form of cash regularly at your disposal, then you will not go very far in your first endeavour. You will need to fund all of your own gear, your upkeep of said gear, your travel, your studio time, your food (unless you’re lucky enough to get it provided to you by a promoter; NB: don’t hold your breath) and about a hundred other things. If you’ve played an instrument from a young age, don’t throw away your old 50watt rusty combo amp or that cheap 6-string that sits in the corner of your room just yet. Practise with them in whatever spare time you can afford and use any hard-earned cash to gradually buy new, good-quality gear. There’s nothing worse than going onstage with a poor-sounding combo amp and a worn set of strings. You have to spend money to make money – granted, making money in music nowadays is laughable to most but it’s been said before; spend both dollar and time wisely and good things will inevitably come your way.


3.      Don’t conform to the same genre

A hard gripe with many up starting bands is finding their sound. It can take a few weeks, sometimes it can take years. But you don’t want to write music exactly the same as that band that everybody knows about and listens to. What sets you apart from them? Why should they care what you do if you sound exactly like [Successful band X]? Take influences from a multitude of different genres and craft a unique, interesting sound that nobody has heard before. Undoubtedly, this is challenging and will often result in disagreement because everybody has their favourite bands who they want to replicate. Start by agreeing on three or four cover songs to practise and play together and see what works best. If by the end of it you still haven’t found a comfortable style to adapt to, keep trying and challenge yourself. Basically the moral of this is; don’t become a Nickelback and write the same sequence over and over again every album. Find something new.


 4.      Do make the trip to gigs regularly

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where local venues put on gigs on a regular basis, take every opportunity to go down. If you have nothing better to do on a Saturday then go and check out the gig listings for venues which you know about. They’ll all have listings online and probably flyers or posters in certain shops in town. Make a good night of it and check out what local bands are like. Undoubtedly these bands are going to become your competition someday but make a friendly gesture and talk to those who play the same instrument as you. Even if their music isn’t your thing, have a chat with them. They will always appreciate new fans and the fact that you have made an effort to go and see them speaks volumes. As a bonus, you’ll begin to see how local gigs operate and are managed. Speak to the promoter if you can find him (that brings up another point which I will get to shortly).


5.      Don’t rely on social media too much

As much as I hate to admit it, live shows and maintaining a band’s reputation is primarily done via Facebook and Twitter now. If you want to know about a local show, there will 99% of the time be a Facebook event advertising it. Bands’ primary source of music/news/interaction is also through said website. There’s nothing we can do about that, so the best thing is to roll with it but with a slightly different approach. Set up a Facebook band profile and upload your music (if by this point you have recorded something) and do update it on a regular basis; i.e. somewhere in between 1 post a month and 10 posts a day. But also, going back to the point of spending money, you can buy a website domain for approximately £20 per year or even per two years. If you think this is worth the risk, go for it. Professional websites are, in my opinion, more impressive than Facebook pages. If one of your friends is good at website coding and design, get him/her on board. You can integrate your social media profiles into the site and you will have a bit more freedom. If you have more than one platform to promote your music, it looks better than just via a social media page.


6.      Do be professional both onstage and offstage

By the time you start writing music more regularly and begin to play your first couple of shows (once getting over your initial stage fright) you’ll hopefully have attracted a handful of keen listeners and your friends will like what you do. However, there is no avoiding of the haters. It simply cannot be done. So if one person speaks out on his/her opinion of one of your shows or songs, let him/her keep that and don’t resort to biting back. There are always going to people who don’t like your music, but the thing is to roll with it and not get offended. Responding by attacking a non-fan is seen as more immature than the hater him/herself. Conduct yourselves in a mature way and you will avoid any real problems. Also, as far as being onstage, if you are only playing to a couple of people in a near-empty room (and by the way, expect A LOT of that image in your time as a musician) don’t sulk and get upset because you haven’t attracted that many viewers on this night. They all have their reasons as to why they can’t go and see your band every night you play, so take it on the chin and use it as another gig under your belt and another experience.


7.      Don’t play the same venues over and over

One thing I have always noticed is that many inexperienced bands will turn to their nearest local venue where their friends and fans are most likely to attend. While this is the right thing to do to start with, there is such a thing as oversaturating both the venue and yourselves. I am not saying don’t play at your local bar more than once, but keep on the lookout for other venues nearby or a few miles out in a different town. Gradually expanding into a new place will bring new followers at every turn, whether it’s one person or twenty people, consider your first time playing a new town as a good experience. If it doesn’t go so well, don’t burn any bridges when you’re at a town you’ve never played before because word will spread that you’d rather be somewhere else. As said before, talk to regular gig-goers there, the promoter and other bands playing and be professional. If you play your cards right, you could be offered another slot there soon.


8.      Do position yourself in the real world

Being in a band can prove hilarious, exciting and all fun and games in the first instance, but the truth that it is more often than not a recipe for failure will hit you before you know it. There will be times when you sit at home practising and wonder “is this really worth it?” and you will think that even more if you see some BS being posted on your page by a hater or when nobody turns up to your shows. I have spoken to hundreds of people who think like this, but also hundreds of others who eat, live and breathe their music. An equally problematic situation involves the latter category of people (which could end up being your bandmates) who really over think being in a band and really believe that they are the next big thing. The fact is, you probably won’t be for the foreseeable future, if at all, and there is nothing more embarrassing than watching people brag about them being in a band in the hopes that an already-suffering industry will take them seriously enough to warrant a fully paid 5-album deal from Sony BMG. Do us all a favour and take a bite out of reality. You COULD be very popular in your endeavours, undoubtedly. It is not impossible. The fact is that if you commit your full, undivided attention into being in a 6-month old band who haven’t released an EP or played more than 20 shows, which seems to upset one of you because you haven’t made it to the main stage of Reading Festival yet, it will soon wear you down mentally if you haven’t got other interests or aspirations. If it’s not the band that’s wearing you out, it’d be something that goes hand in hand with it. Find yourself something else to focus on when you aren’t practising to give yourself a break from the harsh reality that you will inevitably be faced with.


9.      Don’t get lazy

Upon having played shows regularly and promoted shows at different times of the calendar year, I have come to notice that there is a structural system of show booking that often determines a potential success or a potential failure. For example, and to be blunt, late spring and most of the summer are very dry time periods for shows. So if you aren’t offered any slots or can’t so much as get a single one yourselves, don’t be disheartened because that is probably a good thing. The reasons why they are normally (not always) uneventful months for local shows is that summer is festival season, so a vast majority of local music goers will have spent a hefty chunk of their pay to go sit in a field for five days and drink themselves into a coma. If you’re faced with exams, that can also be a real pain. Also holidays are on the horizon for most of us and we would most likely persuade ourselves to sit in the sun and relax as opposed to practising. So my bit of advice as it pertains to this is to use the summer period as a time to brush up on your skills, write new stuff and perhaps grab a few days’ recording with a decent studio – a field of work that is being pursued by more and more people these days. But it’s like when you take holiday time off your job; if you come back not having prepared yourself, it’ll hit you harder. As a musician you’ll waste time doing what you should have already been doing in your months off. By the point of completion, a lot of shows will already have been announced, booked up and you’ll be left hanging in limbo. Always come back with something new and fresh. Keep your inspiration flowing and don’t rely on the same idea/song/anecdote as you did the last time you played.


10.  Do your research

This is probably the most crucial piece of advice you could take from being in a band. There are two scenarios which I will play out for you in as accurate detail as I can, and you, if you remember this point of advice when faced with these situations (and you will be), disaster will be averted. I learned the hard way with BOTH of these endeavours.

–          Remember when I said talk to the promoter at a show if he’s there? Right. Picture yourself as having been offered a slot for a show in a new area that you don’t know very well and are being told by someone that he has worked with hundreds of satisfied bands, has all top of the range equipment and an awesome venue. All sounds fantastic to you and you say Yes immediately. Wrong thing to do. Before you even so much as think of a response, research the venue he is holding the gig in – check if it has been confirmed on its website. Message the other bands that are playing the same night – if they are the same genre as you etc. (that becomes important later on). Most importantly though, run a full background check on the promoter and find out if he has a good reputation or a bad reputation. Has he hosted any other gigs in the past? Have they been successful/popular? Does he operate by himself or with a full team? Has he given you a contact number? You could find out that all the venue has to offer is a dusty, half-tuned drum kit, one speaker, no monitors, a karaoke PA and only one knock-off microphone. Embarrassing situations like this could be avoided if you spend a good amount of time finding out any information you can before you say Yes or No. One bit of advice, if he has offered your metal band a slot in between an acoustic female solo artist and a ska-punk band, then saying Yes probably would not be wise because not only would you be playing to a different audience spectrum but also for no benefit whatsoever. If the show is promoted catering to your style of music and your fans, then you have a bit more grounds to believe the promoter is legitimate. I can’t tell you how many times I have been morally disappointed with not only the lack of promotion a promoter has done for a gig, but also how little research I did in the run up before jumping on the opportunity and saying Yes. There are SO many rogue/incompetent promoters out there, who sometimes will not even turn up to the venue or even give you the £20 he promised you for petrol money. BUT, for every handful of band ones, there are some very good ones out there. You’ll soon begin to recognise the good from the bad, and the bad from the ugly eventually. When the bad see inexperienced bands they will prey upon them. Be wary, but if you are careful you will avoid inevitable disappointment.


–          Perhaps worse however is this. If you manage to record an EP that sounds good for a first recording, and send it off to various labels in the hopes that they will listen to it, or even a magazine for a slim chance of review; more power to you. Your hard work will at least paid off to some extent. But be warned folks, there have been dangerous repercussions.

One such label specialised in taking young, inexperienced, anxious bands who are guided more by their unfathomable pipe dreams of somehow making it in such a volatile industry rather than their progression as competent musicians. Sadly, my band fell victim to that evil creature. For all I know, there are many more ‘labels’ out there that will email several young, passionate bands offering them some form of record deal, which undoubtedly leads these youngsters to leap up in the air with bliss and become so infatuated with the notion of a record deal that they call up all of their family and friends and think it is the greatest thing to happen to them in the world. The reality of the situation is, once again, that they have not done their research and eventually forked out money they don’t have to somebody who fills up these young musicians’ hopes up with dreams of stardom and mass exposure.

Let me take you on a reflective trip back to 2010; when me (as a 17-year-old kid) and my band were offered this deal. We were ecstatic and upon our ‘professional’ meeting with the owner of said label, we were presented with a contract that detailed what would be expected of us as a band, with the most emphasis on what sum we would need to pay towards the production of our first full-length album. Needless to say, had we done our research, we would not have forked out an extortionate amount of money for a shoddy product, lack of attention, rude interaction from our producer and certainly my passion to professionally record once again gone.

The silver lining to this harsh reality is that said label is now defunct and authorities are attempting to find this rogue producer, who was revealed to not actually own the studio he claimed to (in fact it was a rented property), and who is now roaming the streets in a different country with all of the sums that were handed to him by guys who just wanted to get their music and name heard. But there undoubtedly will be more we do not know about. Please, if you are ever propositioned by ANY label, spend days researching your offer and clarifying everything. Nothing more need be said. Hire a music lawyer if you have to. Have a contract or deal proofread and do not, under any circumstances, sign away anything you are not 100% sure about. A valuable lesson taught.


So if you read all of my ramblings and suddenly think that being in a band will never cross your mind again, then so be it. But that was not my intention. My intention was to bring awareness and provoke thought about situations that so many people have been faced with, myself included. As a matter of fact, at least once I or friends of mine have experienced all of the above. For the record, another ‘do’ on this list would be to have a laugh with it. If you’re happy playing in a band and that the thought of success or attention does not cross your mind whatsoever, then hats off to you. It is better to think of success in music as having come from hard work and having fun rather than being handed something on a silver platter. It’s a dangerous industry, folks. Learn it before you try it.

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