Tag Archives: band management

Don’t wait for lockdown to be over. Your band needs you now.

It doesn’t feel like it’s a good time to be in a band right now, does it? It’s not safe to get together for auditions or rehearsals, and it’s not even possible to rehearse online (curse you, internet latency!) as I discussed in a spring 2020 post here . But that doesn’t mean this lockdown time should be wasted. There’s still a lot of positive band-work to do.

How I miss this place. Our soundman’s basement studio.

Forming a band and keeping it together is a challenge no matter what level you’re at. A band is way more than just a few people getting together to play music. There’s emotion and passion involved. There’s time and commitment, and a whole lot of people management. No matter what age you are or what type of music is involved, a band is an organic thing. I wrote about this in a previous post here, but here’s the gist in graphic form:

A successful band needs these three items in equal amounts.

A band lives or dies by the health of this three-part dynamic of talent (being able to play an instrument), chemistry (being able to get along), and schedule (being able to rehearse regularly). Prior to the pandemic lockdowns, these three things kind of worked themselves out together. People jammed together and decided if they wanted to continue. The chemistry would continue to grow – or not.

But just because we can’t get together right now doesn’t put an end to this process. I strongly recommend bands keep the momentum going by getting together on Skype or Zoom at the same frequency that they used to rehearse, maybe even on the same evening. There’s still a great deal to talk about: set lists, song endings, harmony parts, solo breaks, onstage banter, equipment, and other elements of a live show. You can discuss places to play, people to approach, or just talk music, sports, or anything else. The point is, even though you can’t work on the music, you can still work on the chemistry and continue to gel the band.

This is also a great time to work on the tunes themselves. Even though we can’t rehearse together, there are karaoke versions of tunes out there that can be downloaded with specific instruments removed, so that each band member can work on what’s important. These tunes provide consistency and can act as the base tune. You can use a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to edit fadeouts into the hard endings or transitions that you plan to use when you play this tune. If there are solos to be learned, the time is now to practice the hell out of them. Same goes for your originals.

If you have harmonies, either vocal or instrumental to work on, or transposition of tunes into different keys, that’s something you can use Jamulus or JamKazam for. Sure, the latency is too much for real-time jamming, but how many times have you done the Spinal Tap thing, all searching for those harmony parts, wasting valuable and expensive rehearsal time? Jamulus and JamKazam at least give you the opportunity to practice segments of tunes, and that’s something you would do in person anyway.

This is also a great time to build up your brand, by participating in social media – Instagram, maybe Twitter, maybe Facebook or Tik Tok, as well as setting up relationships with event planners, bar owners, gig booking sites – all those people who will want you to play for them one day.

If you are looking for a new member to join, or if you are someone looking to join a band, the weekly video chat call is a great place to spend some time and see if you like each other, and what you have in common. You can all audition each other personality-wise.

The idea here is to not let the pandemic lockdown put dust on your instruments or dry out your desire to play. Every band member has the opportunity to do their part in getting the band’s various components individually so you can hit the ground running when the time comes. We all want to get back to playing live music, but it’s easy to forget that even in pre-pandemic days, there was more to forming a successful band than just the rehearsal.

It’s the best way to make up for this train wreck of a year.

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A Matter of Distance – Why Rehearsing Online Can’t Work

Like all other musicians on the planet, I really miss rehearsing and, of course gigging. So, like many of us, I went online to see if it was at all possible to rehearse using internet technologies like JamKazam and Jamulus. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Everyone’s assumption is that because we can all use Skype, Zoom and all the other video conference technologies to chat in real time, then we should be able to play music together. But the issue is one of latency.

When you talk with other people over Zoom, the minuscule delay that that happens between the time you say something and they hear it, is is just that – very minuscule and fits perfectly in with the brain’s natural interpretation of spoken sound. But music depends entirely on sticking to a beat, and as soon as you have more than one person involved, everything depends on matching that beat. The internet just cannot simulcast in absolute real time.

When a band rehearses in a studio or plays on a stage, everyone plays within mere feet of each other. Sound waves travel through air at roughly 1,000 feet per second. So you would have to be standing 500 feet apart from each other to start to notice troublesome delays. An audience at a large outdoor show might have people standing more than 500 feet from the speaker stacks, but the music from all the band members is mixed together and sent out at the same time, so even if it arrives half a second after the musicians played it, it will all arrive to those people at the same time.

“Can you hear me now?” The Stones in Rio 2006 – note the repeater towers all the way down the beach. Image courtesy Medium.com

For mega concerts like the Rolling Stones in Rio (1 million people), or any outdoor mega concert, speaker towers are set up both at stage level and also much further away and they are synchronized to ensure the sound going to the further towers is delayed slightly so that all sound waves from all speakers stay in line with each other without creating a cacophonous echo. That, by the way is also why we use floor monitors or in-ear monitors – to block out potential problems that come from too many speakers at different distances.

As a side note, it has always intrigued me how big acts do the whole audience participation thing, getting them to clap along or call and answer, without the musicians getting thrown off the original beat. For my money, Freddie Mercury was still the best at understanding this.

Freddie Mercury from Queen working the crowd – Wembley 1986 – Click the photo to see it on YouTube.

Live music is about connecting to that beat, and the speed of sound makes synchronization a non-issue. The internet, however, was not built to work at the speed of sound. It has always been about sending packets of data through a network of hubs, and anyone who is old enough to remember 14.4 modems knows how agonizingly slow that was. The very fact of being able to have a video conference with family members during this time of lockdown is still a fascinating concept to all of us who grew in the pre-internet era.

But for rehearsing music, it’s still not good enough. The problem is latency – a delay of 30 microseconds or more, and that’s too much for musicians to handle. My experience using Jamulus – but which could be applied to any of the online jamming brands – is that a delay of even 10 microseconds makes it feel like someone is playing just behind the beat.

Let’s take an inexperienced drummer for a moment. Why am I picking on drummers? Because a drummer’s job is to keep time, and to keep the flaky front people in line. Adrenaline and excitement make it very easy for a guitarist or lead singer to start a tune off too fast, or to waver the tempo as the tune goes along. We rely on drummers to be the metronome for the tune, and to deliver timing in an artful way. Inexperienced drummers, who have not yet recognized the true value of what they bring to the music, will sometimes fall behind the beat, just by a little bit. They enjoy themselves a little too much and start “playing along” to the tune instead of leading it. Just like anyone would do when tapping their foot or their steering wheel to a favorite tune.

The problem with a drummer who slips slightly out of the pocket is that the other musicians will then try to slow down in order to match the drummer’s reduced tempo, and chaos can ensue. Obviously, overcoming such slippage is the goal of any serious performing band.

But that’s what happens, in my experience at least, with online jamming solutions at their best. It’s certainly nice to hear your bandmates, especially after weeks of isolation, but playing inevitably starts to drag as everyone’s brain struggles to compensate for this minor lag.

Many online jamming solutions put the word “jam” in their name, and that’s because jamming is different from rehearsing. We can noodle around, playing tunes loosely and working on chords an harmonies, and yes, there may be great value in that. Think of all the precious rehearsal time you have spent trying to agree on the ending of a tune, or which harmony to take in a chorus. Those types of things – working on bits and pieces of a tune – would work well with a jam software, although I would suggest that Zoom, Skype or similar might be easier to use, because of the visual component.

This is a USB Audio interface. It sends an XLR and a line input (mic and guitar/keyboard) into your PC via USB. Price is roughly $100-$150.

In all of these situations, it really helps to have good audio equipment – that means sending your microphone and guitar signals through a USB Audio Interface device into your computer. Relying on the computer’s own teeny mic will not really cut it. Again, drummers need to decide whether to mic their kit, or maybe dust off the e-drums and plug them in. And of course, everyone needs headphones. You will also need an ethernet cable to connect your computer to your home router, because WiFi generally adds to the latency.

But to repeat, jamming, is not rehearsing. Rehearsing focuses on getting a tune (that everyone has already practiced thoroughly at home, amirite?) and putting it together as a multi-person product. It relies not only on the latency-free delivery of sound waves, but also on the eye contact and body language that all performers rely on to guide each other through the tunes. This, sadly, cannot be done online.

My summary, then, is that you will not be able to rehearse properly online until it’s safe to be physically in the same room again. But here are three things you can do in the mean time:

  • Use Zoom, Skype, Google Meet or some other video conferencing technology to meet up once per week to talk. Have a band meeting. Discuss tunes, family, whatever. If you used to rehearse on Wednesday nights, then schedule an online band meeting for Wednesday nights. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, band chemistry is vital to its ongoing success, and this actually might allow for more “together time” than you have had in the past. I know that even after this lockdown passes, I will ask my band to have a meeting once per week, outside of rehearsal time.
  • You can discuss starts and ends, and practice them online. That’s not the same as rehearsing the entire set, but it will make sure that once you are together, you will all have complete agreement of how the tunes should play. That will win back some lost time at least.
  • Use karaoke tunes to practice your parts with a virtual band. I’m a devotee of karaoke-version, which provides high quality versions of tunes with or without lead and backing vocals, and for couple of dollars more, you can create a custom track that strips out or lowers the volume on any of the instruments on the recording. Forcing yourself to play tunes without the existing singer/musician leading you on helps you step over that crucial barrier between recognition and recall.
  • Follow Steve Mac on Twitter (@The_WaveWatcher). He delivers a steady stream of highly valuable tips for gigging musicians that are an education unto themselves.

Soon, hopefully, we will be able to return to our rehearsal spaces and venues. It will be a different world for a while, which much greater focus placed on physical spacing and hygiene.

Until then, stay safe, keep practicing, and don’t let your instruments get dusty!

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Forming a Band? – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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