So most folks that know me know me know a couple of things right away. I have opinions I am not afraid to share and I seem to especially have opinions about music. I am an unabashed wanna-be musician myself. I’ve played rock bass for about 41 years and guitar for about half that. I’ve been in a number of bands from along for the ride bass players to “its my band, my way, or meet Mr. highway”. I also sing. Am I an good at it, maybe not so much, but like someone famous said once about about something else, I know people that are very good at it when I see them.
So today I am going to ramble about folks that commit to the torture and wonder that is the indie rock band. These come in all manner of shapes and sizes. I expect to touch on a lot of them in this post with some links of where it went insanely right and where I’d have to say “I hope the band is having fun” because if they are an audience they are hoping for it to be over soon. First the disclaimer, not everyone can agree as to what makes a good band, a decent rock song or an awesome performance. So feel free to disagree!
Let’s look at the sorts of bands folks tend to put together.
1. The Cover Band – I’d guess this is the most common rock band today. Most of the time it is made up of folks that are clearly doing this as a hobby. They tend to be a group that comes together to play a particular type or era of music. They practice when they can, gig out once in a while or more often than not never play out in public.
If they get their act together they can be found performing regularly at local sports bars or the occasional special event. To paraphrase quote from a famous movie “there is no living in that beach”. A really good one of these can land a steady gig to play several times a week. I’ve even seen cases where they become the house band and almost could scrape out a living if they have a very low standard of living and second job.
The best of these can develop a decent following if their music selection makes sense and they develop enough “chops” to carry of the songs and enough stagecraft to make the audience feel part of the show. Very very very few of these bands make it to this point. One of the very best I’ve ever seen of this class of band is the Dave Dodt Band. Dave has been rockin folks out forever, is a real talent and had a huge number of songs his band can play well. He also worked very hard to get there. To be fair he also has done something close to a “tribute” approach with the Beatles and the Beach Boys and has also done some great originals.
Another great cover band I encountered recently The Cody Rentas Band.
And you know what, there are thousands of other cover bands out there that I can’t link because its friends coming together when the can to just rock out! And if they are having a blast then that is all that matters!
So you want to do a cover band, my checklist for success.
a. Make sure everyone is on the same page as far as goals. Do you all just want to hang out and “jam” out your favorite tunes and gigging out is not a goal or do you want to have a dozen shows a month? If the band isn’t aligned about that expect major uncomfortable moments. The very best way to make a band seriously unfun is to not agree about that.
b. Know what it is you want to play. If you want some success developing a fan base I’d suggest finding some “theme” about what you want to play. Pick a style/era/niche of music to play, like “60’s”, or “Brit-pop” or heavy metal, or power pop. It can be fun to be all over the map and play your favorite songs but finding an audience that relates and enjoys a set list like this 1. “Monkey’s Theme” 2. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” 3. “Fresh Garbage” 4. “The Lemon Song” 5.”The Banana Splits Theme Song” 6. “Sitting on the Dock by the Bay” will be a challenge. If your band seems to want to play sets like this I suggest you would have more fun being a “party/jam” band.
c. Be on the same page about your level of commitment. If to reach your goals you need to practice several times a week then make sure you all can. Nothing derails a band more than having uneven expectations about commitment. Also commit to come to practice prepared. If you were supposed to have learned a song ahead of time then be sure to have learned it. Don’t waste other peoples time at practice asking to be taught the song or doing random stuff like changing your strings. And be clear about practice policies up front. Do you allow guests, I’d suggest not unless there are there to assist in the practice in some practical way. Is drinking allowed? Is other types of substances allowed in the band in any way? Make sure everyone is on the same page about the basics or down that road madness you will find.
d. Run through at least part of your current play list as part of the practice. Consider periodic full set list as performed live as checkpoints. Consider recording your practices and listening to the recordings between practices.
e. If your goals involve developing a fan base find ways to get in front of people regularly. You can’t develop stagecraft any other way. So get some gigs, even if they aren’t the ideal ones to start, network to your friends, spread the word and play out regularly. Consider getting someone to record these shows and review them at the next practice.
f. Regularly self assess. Are you moving forward on your goals, are you all having fun, is your audience growing? This is really key. Almost any band can get enough friends to look like they are developing a following, but are you a friends, social even out and about band or are your performances growing the audience.
g. When you perform stay professional!! Your set is not a chance to “shout out” to every friend that showed up! Your set is not an opportunity to invite every friend to the mic to live out their rock star fantasies! That is not to say don’t interact with the audience, but keep the goof around with friends to a minimum. Potential new fans are there to hear YOU play, not your random friends sing, not for you to talk to Fred about his new truck or ask Wilma how the kittens are doing from the stage between sets.
h. HAVE A SET LIST!!! Nothing is more distracting to someone that has come to hear you for the first time than long breaks between songs while the band rock paper scissors to decide the next song. And never never ever decide that during a show is a great time to try a new way to play a song. Even solos should have been laid out in advance. When you are filling stadiums you can amuse yourself to your hearts content but till then, no daring heroics and no self indulgent 30 minutes jams!
i. Think about how you expect the audience to react to your music. Do you expect dancing? Are you playing dance-able music? Make sure if you are mixing dancing and not dancing songs that more often than not some dancing songs are played in series with a few breaks to let folks get a drink or catch their breath (or seek medical attention if you encourage active moshing!! 🙂 )
j. Connect and promote! Be available to anyone when you aren’t performing to chat about your band. Bask in the glow if they like you and be polite if they don’t. Get a web presence of some sort. Collect email addresses. If you have more shows booked be sure to tell folks about that (or at least how to find out about it since a lot of times they may be at a different venue and promoting a competing venue at your shows won’t win you friends next time you try and get booked there again).
2. The Tribute Band – There are many bands that consider themselves “Tribute” bands. I am going to make the case most are actually cover bands that only play one bands music. So what is a tribute band? To my mind a tribute band is a band that tries as much as possible to capture the essence of the band they are performing as. That means to great detail. Often the band members are selected because the look like and/or sound exactly like the person in the band they are mimicking. Sometimes a tribute band can have a “spin” like Hell’s Bell’s an all female tribute band. Another fantastic AC/DC tribute band is Problem Child. So these bands open up some doors to possibly bigger shows because they essentially come with a large potential audience. The theory being that there are more folks that like the Beatles and might come out to hear a band that claims to be like the Beatles than some other cover band that may play a lot of Beatles. So far so good, but here is where it often comes off the rails, these bands are then compared directly with the real bands. So if you think it would be cool to play the Beatles in a punk style you’d better make it clear somehow when you promote your band that you may be more Yoko than John when you perform. So suggestions for Tribute bands besides the ones for cover bands.
a. STUDY the band you are going to be. What instruments do they play? What amps? You need to make your sound their sound and you never will if you don’t try and approximate what the original band used for gear. What is the original band like on stage? How did they dress? Is there something about them very distinctive? You will need to capture the essence of who you seek to be. If you can’t do it directly then can you find some other expression of that unique aspect of the original band?
b. When you perform never leave character!!! I cannot stress this enough! You are no longer Bill and the Billtones, you are THE ROLLING STONES! YOU ARE LED ZEPLIN! YOU ARE NIRVANNA! None of those bands is going to chat between songs to friends about random personal stuff,
c.If you are booked to play multiple sets at the same event and one will be as a cover band and not a tribute band (pretty common) make sure that the stage presence is unique when being the cover band. Make changes in costume and even consider a separate name when playing covers. Don’t spoil your tribute band brand with your other cover band activities.
d. Finally, if you aren’t willing to put in the work (and this is a class of band that requires a lot of commitment) you are better off not promoting yourself as a “tribute” band and just be happy being a cover band that plays a lot of whatever band it was you thought you wanted to tribute because the fans of the real band can be a harsh set of critics.
3. The Indie Band – I classify bands trying to go off and play their own music in this category. This is a class of band featuring original material. I love this category of band because some of my favorite music has come from these bands. This however is probably the hardest category to have real success with (and I am using the relative term for success because honestly, if you have a band that has come together and created your own music, even if you never get booked or get any fans, you did well! Be proud!). So the challenge here is to be clever, original and yet not so random and strange that fans can find a way to connect (and if getting heard is a goal, able to play out somewhere regularly). Some bands try to get to here from other band types but that takes a long time, risks whatever fan base you already have (they are probably following you because you are playing music they know and like and not as likely to be interested in “your” stuff). So my suggestion to bands that are committed to their own materials would be,.
a. Figure out your music genre. You might want to invent some new mash up of classical/rap/horn blues but getting a whole new segment of music started is a challenge very few have managed. So figure out are you roots rock, guitar driven power pop, heavy speed metal, melody driven easy listening or electronic experimental. The biggest reason for this is so that when you try and find an audience you have some idea where to start and what venues might be open to your performance.
b. Expect an uphill battle. On top of everything else a band has to do, now you have to sell new music to an audience that has never heard of you (good news, once you have some fans it gets easier). Consider finding a friendly venue that will commit to letting you play somewhere regularly, even if you have to play there for free to get heard. Look for other bands that have similar sensibilities and try and get booked to open. If you get that chance be sure to try and return the favor if you get a chance. An example of a band that made it big by playing a dive every Sunday to build up their fan base and gain their chops was The Refreshments. They agreed to play for free every Sunday at a local venue and it gave them the opportunity to build that critical first set of fans.
c. Self promotion is even more important! Get some stuff recorded as soon as possible (but don’t rush it so much the recording sucks!) and get it shared out as much as possible. I can think of several bands that only got booked once they had their music popular enough to show they had fans online.
d. If you really want to get known, expect to have to tour. Getting out on the road would fill many blogs but I’ve seen several bands of equal talent start out in the same location and the one that started touring at least regionally is still popular and regularly booked while the other has long since faded away. For examples of folks that made their career by touring smart look at Adam Marshland or Stephen Ashbrook.
4. The Lounge Band – I mention this type of band because it certainly is a common type of band. These bands sometimes have some very talented musicians and are basically a “we play what we have to to get a steady booking” kind of band. Many musicians today pay the bills being one of these bands. Being in this type of band is a job. You might like your job, but you are restricted by whatever it takes to play what and how you have to get the check at the end of the week,
5. The Party/Jam Band – This is the most random and sometimes most fun band to be in. The entire point of this band is to have fun. Members usually come together just looking for a chance to play. When they can find an outlet to play for people bonus. There is no “right” way to do this, just find folks you can play with and stretch goal, folks that will let you play for them. These bands hardly ever get booked in regular venues other than sometimes as an opening band for friends or at a venue where the owner/manager is friends to the band. A lot of cover bands would probably be happier if they just realized this is what they are and commit to this path. Unless you are remarkably talented or charismatic your fan base is pretty much however many friends show to wherever you end up playing. Sometimes there are bands that are so good at converting people to fans that they end up turning into something else. The most successful example of a party band that made it big was the Presidents, which started out just jamming at parties at the beginning of the Grunge era. So if you are having fun and you can spread that to other folks there is no telling where it could lead!
So what was the point of this ramble. Lately I’ve seen some examples of local bands/musicians very happy with what they are doing and some not so much. In every case you can trace the relative satisfaction musicians are experiencing to some very basic things.
- Be in the right band for yourself. Know what you want out of your music and make sure you are working on that.
- Make the commitment to reach your own goals for your music.
- Understand what type of band you are in and realize that those choices restrict your options to succeed.
- Don’t make simple mistakes that prevent your success.
- Know what the signs are that you are making progress or that you need to reassess your efforts.
I have a few other things musical I expect to blog about. For example what makes for a good song or a good band. I might even share a list or two of some of my favorite and least liked music I’ve encountered.
Also this week looks to be a great week for politics so you know I’ll have something to say about that soon too!