What's a Working Band to Do?
Part 2: Image, Identity & Goals
by Erik Jay
“What’s a Working Band to Do?” is a practical series of how-to articles. It is not about describing the unified field theory or exploring the outer reaches of human philosophy; it’s about working in the music business in the real world, so it’s not even about being a star, okay? It’s practical, do-able advice.
Now, it might seem that Part 1 about “wearing all the musical hats” and taking charge of your career should have come second, or third, but certainly after this article right here about “Image, Identity & Goals.” But not really, and I’ll tell you why: Because I am talking to you, Mr. or Ms. Working Musician, I wanted to get some tools into your hands right away so you could be about the “buzz building” business. That’s what I did, and that’s what you can do with what I gave you in that first article.
Now that you are in motion and working (or about to), you can pause just a second and take up the task once again of defining who you are, what you do, and what your goals are in doing it. You have to know the ingredients before you can bake a cake, and you’d better choose carefully if you want to please as many palates as possible. So, consider: what kind of band (or duo or solo performer) are you, what are your goals, how would you describe your sound or genre in 10 seconds and 25 words or less, and is it all about wedding gigs and making a little dough or is it your life's work?
How you answer these questions — shoot, how you even ask yourself these questions — will tell you much that you didn’t know about your motives. It’s okay if you just want to play a few clubs, college events, and wedding gigs, but if that’s the case, your marketing plan and your choice of material will be vastly different than what it would be if your goal were to Change The Face Of Modern Music. The primary difference between being a gig band and an artistic undertaking is in repertoire; unless your tunes sound just like “You Are So Beautiful” or “Wind Beneath My Wings” the wedding guests won’t want to hear them. And on the other hand, if that’s just what your originals do sound like, people will have no reason to buy them. Clear?
So, what do you sound like — more importantly, what other artists are you compared with by the people who listen to you? It’s okay to be “something like so-and-so,” but get too close and people are likely to stick with so-and-so, the know quantity, rather than risk money on an unknown quantity. Ask your audiences to tell you; send a few tracks to music-review Web sites (if you don’t have any music recorded, keep reading this series!); get feedback wherever you can get it, and then formulate some answers to those inevitable questions. “You wanna play my club? Who do you sound like?”
The more people you have in your musical enterprise, the harder it will be to nail down a common set of goals; it is a plus when it comes to musical identity, of course, because a “confluence of influences” can result in some really original sounds. But if your bassist is a pre-med student, or the drummer wants to move to the south of France next year, it is going to be real tough agreeing on a game plan. So, here’s the first thing you need to do if you have a working band right now and want to chart out your future: Be honest.
Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your collaborators. If it is vital and life-affirming and absolutely necessary for you to write and perform music, say so; don’t settle for a gig band in the hopes that it will turn into something else. Get out now and start over. Oh no! Is that hard to do? Will it cost you some money (at first, anyway)? Will Nikki Seven the rockin’ bass player not like you anymore? These are all small prices to pay to retain your integrity and be true to your calling.
And the same goes for everyone else you work with, whether it’s two or four or six people. You can probably survive some cast changes around the edges if you have a solid core of dedicated artists, and that’s true whether the goal is to be The Next Big Thing or just to play pricey wedding gigs in the best part of town. Drummers and bassists and even lead guitarists, if they’re professional enough to read charts a bit and have good ears, can come and go almost willy-nilly if the solid core, the writer or writing team of the band, is stable — and talented, of course.
So, what are you? Where are you going? Who is going there with you? These are the important questions you have to answer before you start working out a precise career plan. The buzz building tips in Part 1 and these image-defining, goal-setting questions in Part 2 can all be put into practice whatever else is happening and wherever it is you end up charting a course toward —but it is time to figure out the reason, and the expected payoff, for what you and your colleagues are struggling to do. Sure, nothing good happens without hard work and struggle, but you really can’t get anywhere with all that effort unless you know where it is you want to go.
Time to find out. Right now.
Erik Jay is a writer, designer, and BMI composer/artist who lives in L.A. with one wife and two dogs. At his site, erikjay.com, you can take Door #1 for his editorial and design work, or Door #2 for original music.