Throughout my musical career (I use that term very loosely in that having a career in something usually means you actually make money doing it and, you know, do it full-time, neither of which I do) I have had many great moments, some okay moments, and plenty of that-fucking-sucked moments. If there is one thing you should expect when forming a band it’s that it is never going to be what you expect it to be.
Today, being that it’s been a while since I wrote any sort of “list” for BumsLogic, I have decided to come up with a list of 5 myths about playing in bands. These are mostly based off what people who don’t play in bands think about those of us that do. I shall pre-apologize for my cynicism. My pen name should’ve given that away before you even read this.
1. You Get Paid. You Get Laid.
Now, I am not saying that both of these things don’t happen–and sometimes, yes, sometimes they even happen on the same night!–but mostly, throughout the course of playing in a band, you spend more money than you make. Let’s break it down for, say, a guitar player: A half-descent guitar is going to cost you no less than $500-$600. A good amp the same. Add in pedals, cables, stands, strings, etc. and you are easily dropping thousands of dollars before you even step on stage. And that is being modest. Throw in your drummer’s kit, the bass rig, keyboard gear, and PA system and you can easily cross the $10k threshold without blinking an eye. Cheap huh? Most gigs (unless you are one of the lucky bands that can consistently draw hundreds of people to your shows or constantly book frat parties that overpay you) you will get paid between $3-$300 (the latter if you’re lucky). And this isn’t even taking into account transportation, accommodations, promotional, and food costs.
Everyone knows humans (men and women) seem to have some animalistic attraction to musicians. Hey, I won’t complain about it. Put a somewhat good-looking dude in a bar on a random night and he might find someone to go home with. Put that same dude in that same bar with an acoustic guitar in his hand while singing Ed Sheeran songs and his chances will automatically increase 376% (I did the math). Same goes for the lady musicians, don’t think it’s only women that fall for this. Plenty of men will become enamored with a woman playing drums, strumming a guitar, or singing (then again, most men would become enamored with a woman picking up after her dog).
But in reality, most people who play in bands that aren’t selling out major venues are going home alone (or with their significant other(s)) after spending the night running up their bar tab and playing for 15-20 of their closest friends in some shit hole corner bar. The “groupie” scene is somewhat of a myth these days. That is, unless you are Steven Tyler or a boy band (same thing?).
2. You Must Be A Really Good Musician.
This is probably true if you play in a jazz band but rock bands…not so much. I am not saying there aren’t hundreds of thousands of extremely capable rock and roll musicians out there, because there are, you just probably never actually hear them because they are playing open mic nights in South Dakota for 14 drunks. You see, when most bands form it’s usually a group of friends deciding to make it happen. Maybe one person is really good at their respective instrument, maybe one is just okay. Chances are, in a band of four people, perhaps two of them are actually “good” musicians. And no offense to the non-instrument playing public out there but you are mostly fucking clueless when it comes to judging talent (just listen to top 40 radio).
For bands that “make it” those numbers are usually a lot higher. A great band is such because, well, they are musically gifted and know how to use those talents to write great songs. Plenty of awesome bands can have limited musicianship, but they know The Golden Rule: it doesn’t matter if you aren’t a virtuoso on your instrument as long as you can write kick-ass songs that people will connect with.
Say what you will about Simon Cowell but at least that mother fucker can tell if someone has talent after hearing 3 notes.
3. The Style Of Music Your Band Plays Is Your Favorite Style.
One of the bands I used to play in had the opportunity to gig with some really awesome bands. After one particular show I was talking to the bass player of one of these bands and we talked about the various styles of music we each enjoyed. At one point he said to me that some bands “wear their influences on their sleeves.” I couldn’t help but think he might have been talking about our band and our somewhat derivative sound.
When a band forms there are usually some cohesive influences that helps direct their sound. “We’re all into reggae so…let’s start a reggae band!” One person loves ska, one loves dub, one loves dance hall, etc.. They will undoubtedly find themselves making some form of reggae music. But what if one person loves heavy metal, one loves pop punk, and the other loves 70’s funk? This is where things can get a little messy. When I see a younger band playing and their sound is self-described as “punk/funk/rock/hip hop/stoner metal/ska/folk/EDM” the first thing I think about is that comment the bass player made. They haven’t yet decided what they want their sound to be, they only know what other sounds they want to try to emulate, so they throw all of their tastes into one boiling pot and what comes out is the Red Hot Chili Peppers (I tease cause I love).
Just because someone plays in a jazz band that does not mean they don’t go home and throw on the latest Slayer album. The bass player in that metal band you love might be listening to James Taylor backstage. Peoples musical tastes are all over the map. Musicians, especially, tend to have very eclectic musical pallet’s and most will take a gig playing in a band that is successful even if it’s a style of music they aren’t necessarily a big fan of. Call them musical mercenaries. Call them hired guns. I call it trying to make a living. Or people that play in cover and wedding bands.
4. You Are A Flake.
Perhaps this has changed with the “intellectualism” of music over the past 10-15 years but I would guess that most people hear someone say they are a musician and think that person is probably a.) broke b.) on drugs, or c.) a flake. You know, after I typed that I said to myself, “well, yea, usually.” So even I tend to stereotype my musical comrades. And I am certainly not going to sit here and say that a ton of musicians I have met or played with don’t fall into one of these categories. A.) Musicians–per item #1 on this list–tend to not make a lot of money playing music. B.) Musicians, like the rest of the general public, tend to partake in the recreational usage of mind-altering substances and enjoy a refreshing adult beverage(s) every now and again. C.) Musicians, like many “artists”, tend to be outcasts, or “weirdos”, or flakey. I can’t unequivocally deny that musicians are any of these things.
Keith Richards, in his excellent book Life, said (and I am paraphrasing here), “people still think of me as a junkie. I haven’t shot junk in over 30 years. But if that helps to perpetuate the myths about me then so be it.” People want to think of their rock stars as drug-addled, manically creative, rebels. Would it shock you to discover that Marilyn Manson can form sentences or that Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco or that Frank Zappa (the biggest fuckin weirdo of us all) eloquently testified before congress? That is not to say any of these people aren’t technically “flakes,” just that not every musician is a burnt-out junkie that has the IQ of a minor league baseball player.
5. You Make Money Selling Your Music.
Considered just writing “duh” here.
Perhaps one of the biggest myths about playing in bands is that you make your money selling your music. Everyone has read about the streaming wars and how little bands are getting paid these days from Spotify, iTunes, Rhapsody, etc. Though I don’t have industry data to back this up it’s pretty safe to say that most every artist out there not named Taylor Swift aren’t setting up their grand-kids trust funds with the profits from their digital streaming.
Enter the live show. Simple fact: bands make the most money by playing live shows. Period. It’s quite basic: the more people you can draw to your show the more money you can make. Live shows offer a band opportunities to build local, regional, and national audiences, to sell their own merchandise, and to demand up-front payments. So the next time your friends band is playing do them a big favor and go check them out. While the Foo Fighters will enjoy that you are fan #15,987 at their show, your friend will be elated that you are fan #15 at theirs. That $7 cover you paid to watch them will undoubtedly help them record their next song, get to their next gig, pay for printing flyers, or at minimum, help to pay for the doorman’s next eight ball.
Playing in a band will often be one of the most rewarding elements of your life. If you play in a really kick-ass band than you can literally have surreal, out-of-body experiences (it helps if you take mushrooms before you play. I am kidding kids. Don’t Do Drugs!). Even if you play for five people and make $8 a night, if you play an awesome show you know it. But also realize that with all the good comes all the bad and unfortunately, most bands experience way more of the bad.
Which makes it even more important for you to 1. download/purchase your favorite bands music. 2. Sleep with a musician in a band. 3. Go see your favorite local band play live when you can. and 4. Talk to a musician about economic social inequality and its ramifications on the educational system in America. You might be surprised they can actually converse with you on the topic. That is, assuming they aren’t too wasted.