(Originally appeared in The Magazine issue 6.)
Browse through the curriculum of any good business school for which you spend the equivalent of Kurdistan’s gross domestic product and you’ll find courses in analytical thinking, financial accounting, leadership, managerial skills, and organizational behavior. At the end of your two-year hitch you’ll have the theoretical foundation to join the ranks of a first-world nation’s industrial titans.
But theory is hardly practice.
Were I in a position to make such decisions, I might tack on an additional year to your generic MBA program. Your mission: Form and lead a gigging band and keep it together for that year. Lose a member to self-indulgence or internal strife and kiss your degree goodbye. Have the band revoke your leadership role and toss you straight to a solo career and you’ll be barred from managing more than the arrangement of the local Piggly Wiggly’s peanut butter shelf.
And just how can a job as seemingly simple as making music in a musty bar prepare you for a “real” business career? A working band presents many of the same challenges as other businesses. The difference is that in the small company that is your band, those challenges are magnified and, in the case of performances, distilled in a few short hours.
Creating your business plan
Picking up a guitar and proclaiming “I’m starting a band!” is little easier than stripping off Saturday’s cap and gown, donning Monday’s power tie, and hanging a Now In Business sign around your neck.
Consider: What sort of band will this be? Blues? Rock? Rap? Swing? Jam? Covers? Originals? Where and how often you perform will help shape some of your decisions, but you must also consider your passion. You can certainly do What’s Popular if your only goals are to survive and possibly make money. But playing music you hate (and just as hated by your fellow band members) does nothing for the soul, which, over time, will drive you from the business. Plus, it’s reflected in your playing. Your customers (the audience) can tell the difference between real enthusiasm and a bunch of guys going through the motions. Do something that matters to you, execute well, and there’s a good chance you’ll attract more customers (and keep the customers you’ve earned).
Selecting a core group of individuals to work with is, in a band, as crucial as choosing the first couple of employees you’ll hire for your startup. And the general requirements are much the same. Does the person have the technical skills to hold down their part? Do they share your musical goals and taste? Are their skills so advanced that you risk taking on someone who will become bored with the band and eventually disrupt it to pursue their musical dreams? Do they show up on time? Do they prepare properly? Do they understand their place in the organization? Do they take direction? Are they willing to contribute more than just showing up and playing? Are they keen to play in bars for all the wrong reasons? Are they your best buddy who you’re hiring because it’s easier that way and you suspect it’s going to later bite you in the ass when they presume too much based on your friendship?
As with any business, you look at those you’ll work with as fulfilling both short- and long-term needs.
Before defining the roles of others in the band you must think carefully about your role. As leader you should examine your weaknesses as well as strengths, take on those jobs you’re good at, and delegate the rest.
Key to defining this role is understanding that the band (the company) is of primary importance. Your job is to feed and grow it. Therefore, taped to the body of your guitar, just above the set list, should be these words:
It’s Not About Me
As leader you’ll have some obvious jobs. As it’s your band, you’ll spearhead the auditions for other members. You may also wish to handle the business side of things and pursue bookings. And you’ll likely be the person to schedule rehearsals. So, in the early days, you’re the manager as well as the leader.
Beyond that, consider the good of the band, which ultimately, is for the good of your customers. If you’re not the strongest vocalist in the group, hand that job to the member who is. If you’re not the main vocalist or lead guitar player, you’ll configure your stage plan so that you’re not the focus. Don’t be a solo hog—playing long and loud because you feel you have the right.
Except in the case where a band was created specifically to showcase your talents—you’re Uncle Bob in Uncle Bob and the Weasel Brothers—insisting on roles that don’t best suit you engenders company discord. You’re taking on tasks because you can rather than because you should and everyone in the band will know it.
Once you have a handle on what you do well and best benefits the band, think about other members’ roles. Is the bass player particularly good at running rehearsals? Make it his job. Is the guitar player more exacting about the nuances of chord voicings? Let her be your guide. Are your set lists lumpy? Create them as a group or find those individuals who have a knack for it. Giving jobs to others not only puts those jobs under the direction of those best suited to perform them, but it invests your colleagues in the business, which pays off in a more enthusiastic team.
At the same time, bands, like businesses, are rarely entirely democratic. There will be times when a group decision is best for the sake of band cohesion and other occasions where the leader must make the call. Don’t make those calls arbitrary simply to show you’re in charge. Do so with the full knowledge of the group and explain your reasoning.
Specing the job
You’ve worked hard to get enough material for a gig and you play that material well. It’s time to bring your product to market.
Like new software it’s a good idea to beta test your product and, in a band, that often means playing for free when you first start out. This gives you the opportunity to expose your product to an audience as well as work out performance kinks. You may play wonderfully in the garage, but with a room full of people before you, kinks will arise as the band succumbs to pressure.
Many musicians prefer that their first couple of audiences are sympathetic. And who could be more sympathetic than friends and family members? While playing to such a crowd is a good way to get comfortable performing, the feedback you receive will be tainted by good will. Release your product to strangers and you’ll quickly learn if you cut it or not.
Free is ultimately a path to nowhere. Exposure is largely an empty currency unless you’ve specifically worked a deal to play one free gig with the guarantee of getting a paid foot in the door in the future. You deserve to be compensated for your work and you must resist the temptation to work for free or next-to-nothing. Those hiring you know you have a passion for your job and will take advantage of that passion to lowball you.
Evaluating your market requires some leg work. Visit the venue and check out the clientele and the vibe. Is your music going to be a good fit? Are the people who work there respectful of their customers and the band? Does the club have a set policy for how the band gets paid? Will you be working with their sound man? What gear do they provide? Do they have strict volume and time limits? Is load-in so difficult that you’ll need to arrive earlier than normal?
Some of that legwork may mean talking to other bands who play there. While some may resist sharing their company data with you because they view you as competition, others who’ve been in the business for awhile (and are therefore more secure) will understand your need and give you an outline of how the gig works.
Unlike some other professions, musicians are generally thought to be not very bright or trustworthy. You must dispel this notion immediately. That means dealing with the booking professionally, learning the requirements of the job, and accommodating the club’s requests. Wandering in late to load in or playing long past last call when the owner wants to clear the room and go home is not good business.
As leader, your focus now shifts from what’s good for the band to what’s good for your customers. In this case you have two—the club and its audience. And it’s sometimes difficult to balance the two. If you please the club to the point where the music’s no fun, you lose the audience. If you please the audience by blowing out the walls but deafen the club staff, you won’t be asked back.
In such cases, lean toward the audience. If they’re happy by showing enthusiasm and buying one or two extra drinks, ultimately the club is pleased because they’re selling more of their product and you’ve given their customers some incentive for revisiting.
Pleasing that audience requires paying attention. And here again, it’s a matter of understanding that they’re more important than the band. If you’re Big Name Band Charging $250 A Ticket you can play what and how you like—you’ve earned it and your audience will follow. But when you’re Johnny Nobody and the Inconsequentials, you must give the crowd what it wants. And that means concentrating less on your O Face and moves and more on what’s happening in the room.
If you’re killing the crowd with volume you’ll know it by hands over ears. If you can’t keep the dance floor full after one song and your intention is a dance frenzy, your set list is no good and it’s time to go to audible calls. Sticking to a poorly designed set list is no better than adhering to a poorly conceived business plan. The difference is that you have seconds to make adjustments rather than weeks.
Also understand the rhythm of a night’s worth of music. It’s very much like a product release. It’s not a bad idea for the first song, which introduces you to your customers, to demonstrate your competence—particularly if much of the crowd has never heard you before. You’ve shown that you deserve their attention. Then offer something familiar to show that you care about them. By the middle of the first set the audience should have a solid idea of what to expect for the rest of the night.
Once you’ve established your work you can kick off subsequent sets much more aggressively. The crowd knows and trusts what you do and you can bring on a little swagger that expresses your confidence.
This doesn’t, however, relieve you of the job of keeping an eye out. It’s possible to abuse an audience’s good will and once you’ve lost them, they’re hard to woo back. You’re trying to establish brand loyalty and if you follow up a solid 1.0 set with an uneven Set 2.0, the brand suffers. Again, keeping the customer’s needs in mind above yours rarely fails.
The gig is over, the crowd and club are happy, and it’s time to go. Thank your audience, thank the club, tip the bartender and any wait staff you’ve dealt with, be professional about getting paid, and get the hell out. While it’s perfectly okay to plant the seed for a return visit, don’t push it. A simple “Thanks so much, we had a great time. We’d love to come back.” gives the owner the opportunity to offer another booking, but if it doesn’t come, don’t push it—she may be tired and not want to deal with the calendar. Follow up a day or so later during that person’s regular booking hours and see what happens.
During your breaks you should have been mingling with the crowd, thanking them for being there and listening to their feedback. Provide them with other ways to contact you—via Facebook, Twitter, and a mailing list. This is your customer base and one you’ll want to keep in touch with. As the night ends, give them a last thanks and tell them where they can next see you.
And don’t forget your bandmates. Be sure that they’re paid as soon as you’ve collected the money. Thank them for their hard work and point out some of their highlights of the night. Bond over the weird old guy that kept hitting on women young enough to be his daughter. Bathe in the band’s achievements and downplay your own. If you rocked, they’ll tell you.
Survive a year in this band with every member’s desire to keep at it and you’ve got hold of an experience that will serve you well in any business you enter. And that’s something to sing about.