Why are you in a band?
This is a question which comes to mind every year after the hectic binge-gigging sessions which go with the rounds of industry showcases in Groningen, Austin and Brighton. While there are many bands who forego these international shindigs for various …
This is a question which comes to mind every year after the hectic binge-gigging sessions which go with the rounds of industry showcases in Groningen, Austin and Brighton. While there are many bands who forego these international shindigs for various reasons (they value their sanity, for the good of their credit union accounts, they’ve been burned before or are just not good enough to make the cut), I often wonder what the acts who do the Eurosonic, SXSW, Great Escape, Camden Crawl or Sound City shuffles think of the experience when the dust settles. It’s a long way from where they started out, that’s for sure.
It’s one thing to go to these things as a delegate or read about it afterwards and wish you were there, but it’s quite another thing to be one of those acts flogging your guts out for a couple of days. It may seem glamorous, but there’s nothing remotely glamorous about schlepping from venue to venue, having 10 minutes to soundcheck if you’re lucky, playing to audiences who often don’t know who you are (and moreover don’t particularly care), seeing numpties make their mind up about you after three songs (three songs!) and doing it all over again an hour later in a venue which just happens to be, oh yes, an hour away. And yet, thousands of bands jostle with oneanother for the right to play these showcase festivals every year, perform to people they think will influence their careers in some strange way and not even get paid for their efforts (unless you count a few cans of beer and bottles of water as payment).
Is this something which goes on the to-do list when a band gathers for the first time in a garage or rehearsal studio? Is the privilege of playing three sweaty gigs in one day using substandard PA systems and relying on a soundman with a bad hangover really why you started playing music? Was this really why you gave up playing football and started writing songs instead? Probably not, but this is sadly part and parcel of a routine for many acts.
Musicians and bands can do amazing things which I and many thousands – probably millions, maybe billions – of other people can’t do. They can play instruments, they can sing and they can write songs which occasionally millions of people will sing or hum or whistle along with. This ability to play an instrument and make music is something which will give them much joy and pleasure for their entire life. Once you know how to play that guitar, it’s a talent which doesn’t go away. You have it for life. They don’t invent a new way of playing guitar every decade.
But everything changes once the musician or band engages with the music industry on even the most basic level. Once you’re in the game – and you’re in the game these days once you stick a piece of music online – all that enthusiasm and excitement and exhilaration becomes tainted in a way. Whether you like it or not, engagement with the music industry changes absolutely everything and brings a new set of expectations and compromises.
You might only be putting your songs online to let your mates hear them or you may book a gig in a local pub back-room to see what they sound like in front of a live audience (it won’t be the only time you’ll just play to your family and friends, you reckon), but now, everyone, including people you don’t know, has an opinion on what you and your bandmates have been doing (musically, at any rate) in that little shed or filty room three or four times a week. To quote Omar Little, it’s all in the game.
You may continue to insist that you’re still only doing this for yourselves and everything else is a bonus (and some will argue that you’re wrong on this count from the get-go). You couldn’t care less who listens to your tunes. You don’t really give a toss what that blogger or this journalist thinks about your music. You’re just making the music for yourself and the music industry can go to hell. But that’s not how it goes. Once you’re in, you’re in.
There’s a certain percentage of acts who buy into the game in a very big way and a tiny percentage of that number hit the jackpot. Their aim from the very first day is to become a band who are a household name, to play those big stages and to make out like Zuck from their music. A few succeed every year and it’s enough to encourage (or mislead) another few thousand acts who think they can do the same.
Then, there’s another percentage of acts who are a lot more realistic about things. They simply want to make their music and make a sustainable living from their music through gigging, record sales and everything else an act must do to make a few bucks. They’re the acts who are mainstays on every festival bill (usually third or fourth from the top on the main stage) and who get a certain amount of attention when they release a new album or go on tour.
The vast majority of acts, though, are the ones who may harbour ambitions to be one or other of the above, but who never get to those rungs on the ladder for various reasons. They’re the ones at the very bottom of the pile, at the very start of the game.
In the music industry’s caste system, the bottom is not a nice place to be. When you are at the bottom, you are constantly hustling and looking for a break. You’re the acts who pester everyone you think can help you get to the next rung on the ladder. You’re the the ones venue bookers and media folks know only too well. These acts are the ones you end up feeling a little sorry for because they’re in the game but have absolutely no way of getting any further because they don’t have the songs, the naked ambition, the gumption or the contacts to do so.
And they get so irritated, annoyed, vexed and cynical when they see other acts get the breaks they never got or will never will. They’ll spend so much time typing furiously on online forums giving out yards about the other acts who’re getting ahead, the music industry which is ignoring them and the critics who are, well, criticising them because they’re just not as good as they could or should be. All that time which could be spent on something else.
Because these acts and musicians have something which they often completely forget about when the red mist and envy descends. The ability to play an instrument, the ability to make music and the ability to write a decent or half-decent song are things which should never be forgotten. These are talents which matter when you’re not in the game or have given up on the game. These are also the talents and attributes which may drag you back into the game at some future juncture when you least expect it. The reason why you’re in a band? Because you can play an instrument, make music, write tunes and have a whale of a time when you’re doing this with your mates. In the long run, nothing else matters. Not the game, not the industry, nothing else.