A while ago, I posted a blog about the economics of being in a band. I came to the conclusion that there was little chance of making a living from gigging & that you really had to do it just for the love of it. As I stated at the time, the reason I gave up live work some time ago, is because I have no real affection for going out and playing live. I received quite a bit of criticism for this… “How can you call yourself a real musician if you don’t get out & do some gigs?” was the general thrust of it. So, now I think it’s time to explain myself.
Being in a band: getting together with a bunch of people who are all as committed to music as you are; playing music that you love; enjoying the warm glow of an appreciative audience & even getting a few quid for your trouble… what’s not to like? Well, if that were the case, then I’d still be treading the boards. Sadly, in my experience (and this is just my experience) the reality of it is more like this…
You meet up with a bunch of folks who’ve all answered the same ad as you. You go out for a beer or two, maybe even a curry, and discuss the type of music you’re all into, what songs you want to include in the set, perhaps even a band name. A first rehearsal is set up & you all agree on a list of about half a dozen songs that you’ll all learn for that initial band practice.
Next, you spend the week or so before the agreed rehearsal learning the songs; working on that tricky solo; making sure that you have all your parts ready so you can hit the ground running in the practice room. Sure, there are always going to be some things that have to be left to the actual night of the rehearsal… how to divide up any harmony vocals between you; coming up with an ending for songs which fade out on the recording etc. But, by and large, you know the songs inside out and you’re ready to rock.
Come the evening of the rehearsal, you turn up to find…
The drummer hasn’t learned any of the songs. This is a given. Drummers do not learn songs. They may insist that they have done so, but this usually equates to listening to the track in the car and familiarising themselves with it in a somewhat vague fashion. Rarely have I ever played with a drummer who will set up his kit at home and play along with the track to learn where the accents & fills should go, or what the dynamics of the tune are. In the rehearsal room, they simply count off the tempo (too fast, usually) and busk along with the rest of you in a “dum-chicka, dum-chicka” manner until they’ve got their head around what they should be doing. This can take weeks.
The singer needs two of the three songs (from the list of six) that he’s actually learned to be transposed into new keys. He could have phoned or emailed the bass player & guitarist to let them know this in plenty of time for the first practice but didn’t. So you find yourself having to transpose on the fly, usually it’ll be a song which depends on open strings for the riff or solo which are now unavailable in the new key, making the song nigh-on impossible to play without re-tuning for that one song. Rest assured he really DOES know the songs though… as long as he has his lyric sheets… “Oh bugger, lads – I’ve left the folder at home, can we do that one next week?”
Then the bass player… he’s been on a course or been doing overtime at work & only learned three of the songs as well. Unfortunately, it’s not the same three as the singer, so he’s desperately looking over at the guitarist’s fingers on the fretboard to see what the chord sequence is and come up with a bass part to fit. A peculiar form of “sight reading”.
This goes on for months before the band is anywhere near ready to get out and play some shows. Then, just as you think you’re getting somewhere, one of the guys reveals that he’s fed up with everything taking too long and that he’s jumping ship & going back to the band he was in beforehand. He knows their set like the back of his hand and can slot straight in… plus they have gigs ready & lined up. So, what next? Is it worth placing an ad for his replacement? Or should you just call it quits? You’re all heartily sick of the set by now & you’re not even gigging it yet but you soldier on and recruit a replacement. The new guy sticks around for a month or so, but you’ve all had a few weeks off from rehearsing whilst looking for a new band-mate, you’re all a bit rusty on the nine or ten songs that you actually know by this point. He soon picks up on the general wave of apathy and departs the fold.
If you’re really, really committed to making it work though you may start over, and maybe a year after the initial band meeting you might just be ready to gig. Time to start contacting some agents then.
Agents are liars. Fact. “Yes, lads… I can get you the work. Just spend a few quid on recording a pro-quality demo, getting some photos done, putting up a website, getting a stage backdrop made and doing a showcase gig then get yourselves a few hundred Twitter followers & leave the rest to me.” (Erm… what exactly does that mean? Oh… you’re going to write out the posters… well, that justifies you 25% cut doesn’t it?)
Weeks after the showcase gig (which the agent probably didn’t turn up to) there’s still no work in the diary. He eventually does come through with your first gig though, if you’re lucky. The venue is some bleak social club in the kind of remote village where the local newsagent sells cards that read “Happy Birthday Uncle Dad!” The kind of “close knit community” where the village school has forty kids but only two surnames on the register. The place you’re going to play has a car park which recently held the world record attempt for the most amount of broken glass per square inch of tarmac, and a concert room on the 3rd floor, only accessible by a rusty, rickety outdoor fire escape. Dressing rooms (or “cupboards” as they should be called) can usually be divided into two types – those which smell faintly of urine, and those which absolutely reek of it.
So you do the gig & it goes OK (let’s assume). There are two types of gig on the circuit up here: “pick-ups” and “no pick-ups”. A pick-up is where you get the money on the night from the venue. A no pick-up is where the venue pays the agent who then gives you a cheque at the end of the month minus any commission owing from all the shows you’ve played. Many is the time that we’ve limped the van to the gig on the last remaining thimble full of diesel, thinking “it’s OK, tonight is a pick-up so we can fill up on the way home.” You know what happens next, don’t you? Track down the club’s concert chairman and ask for the money at the end of the night and be told “No, lads… this club hasn’t been a pick up in years – you need to get the money from your agent.” Anyone got any room left on their credit card for fuel?
Every month or thereabouts you’ll get a cheque from the agent & when it actually doesn’t bounce on you, you might get a couple of hundred quid or so. Result! The trouble is that if you think about it too much, and take off the expenses you’ve incurred (a years worth of rehearsal room costs, for a start) you realise you’ve earned less per hour than a parking metre.
I apologise to any bass players, singers and drummers who may feel slighted by this account of my experience on the live music circuit in the north east of England. I’m sure there are many guitar players out there who have committed all of the sins I describe & driven their band mates to distraction. I’m also the first to admit that I’ve dropped clangers and made howlers both in the practice room and on stage – human beings make human errors, after all and no-one is perfect. But I will always hold my hands up and admit my f**k ups, then go away and burn the midnight oil, practising away to a ticking metronome into the wee small hours if necessary, to remedy them. Also, I’m sure that there are drummers, singers and bass players who are conscientious and professional in their outlook – it’s just that I’ve never been in a band with any of them.
Please don’t take this as anything more than a personal account of my decades of playing live. To paraphrase Bill Hicks “I don’t mean to come across as jaded, cynical and bitter… but I am, so I do.”
Until next time,
Have Fun (or at least try, anyway) 🙂