Browse through the curriculum of any good business school that charges a tuition equivalent to Kurdistan’s gross domestic product, and you’ll find courses in analytical thinking, financial accounting, leadership, managerial skills, and organizational behavior. At the end of your two-year hitch, you’ll have the theoretical foundation to join the ranks of a first-world nation’s industrial titans — and almost none of the practical knowledge you’ll need to succeed.
Were I in a position to make such decisions, I might tack an additional year onto your generic MBA program to aid in that practical knowledge. Your mission: Form and lead a gigging band and keep it together for that year. Lose a member to self-indulgence or internal strife, and kiss your degree goodbye. Have the band revoke your leadership role and toss you straight to a solo career, and you’ll be barred from managing more than the arrangement of the local Piggly Wiggly’s peanut butter shelf.
Just how can a job as seemingly simple as making music in a musty bar prepare you for a “real” business career? A working band presents many of the same challenges as other businesses. The difference is that those challenges are magnified in the small company that is your band, and, in the case of performances, they are distilled over a few short hours.
Create your business plan
At the risk of beating the analogy eight-to-the-bar, just because you have a guitar and the desire to take it on the road doesn’t mean you can create a functional band, just as having a business school degree doesn’t let you immediately launch a successful business. Both require a considerable amount of thought.
Consider: What sort of band will this be? Blues? Rock? Rap? Swing? Jam? Covers? Originals? Where and how often you perform will help shape some of your decisions, but consider your passion as well. You can certainly do “top of the charts” if you pick survival and making money as your only goals.
But playing music you hate (and which is just as hated by your band members) slowly kills your soul, which in turn drives you from the business. Over the course of my musical career I hammered out endless hours of Andrew Lloyd Weber dreck and the gawdawful New York, New York. Although my technique improved from many months of finger wiggling, my playing grew stale. It’s easier to fake sex than to put emotion into music you loathe. And the audience can tell the difference. Passion generates a more authentic product.
Recruit key personnel
The core members of a band occupy roles just as key as Employees #1, #2, and #3 in a startup. The general requirements are much the same. You want people who have the technical chops to do their respective jobs, and who have similar enough goals and taste in music to keep the band from running off the rails.
Your aim should be to find people who want to grow in their position: bassist or creative director, saxophonist or 3D printer operator. Those who lack the intellectual curiosity to expand their repertoire can’t follow you in the band’s or business’s development; those with too much ambition will disrupt its regular function and challenge every moment of creativity.
One time, my band took on a sax player who was a decent musician and a bucket of fun on stage. But it became clear that he not only wanted to be in a jazz band (which we weren’t) but also thought he should be that band’s leader. Over time his attitude caused the kind of disruption in the horn section that almost led a more valuable member to hand in his walking papers.
We explored ways to give our sax artist more to do, but our visions simply clashed; he finally left. Were I auditioning him today, I’d make that vision completely clear from the outset and ask for his honest assessment of his suitability. If it turned out he wasn’t a good match, I would feel little regret saying, “Looks like this isn’t for you. I’ll follow your future career with the greatest interest. Buh-bye.”
Swallow your ego
Before defining the roles of others in the band, think carefully about your own. As the leader, you should examine your weaknesses as well as your strengths, take on those jobs you’re good at, and delegate the rest. Understand that the band is bigger than you; your job is to feed and grow it. Therefore, taped to the body of your guitar, just above the set list, should be these words:
It’s Not About Me
Successful as some companies have been with the Self-Centered-Asshole-as-CEO model, it’s a formula for disaster in a band — and, I’d suggest, in a small company as well. I’ve seen countless bands go belly up because the group’s leader can’t bear to step out of the spotlight. He sings when other members have finer voices. He hogs every solo, and he’s always louder than anyone else. And his stage patter is a constant ME ME ME. If the band was created specifically to showcase your talents — you’re “Uncle Bob” in Uncle Bob and the Weasel Brothers — and you have the chops and personality to back it up, fine. Otherwise, insisting on roles that you don’t fit engenders discord and resentment within the band. (See Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.)
Once you have a handle on what you do well and which talents best benefit the band rather than your ego, think about other members’ roles. Is the bass player particularly good at running rehearsals? Make it his job. Is the guitar player more exacting about the nuances of chord voicings? Let her be your guide. Giving jobs to others not only puts those tasks under the direction of those best suited to perform them, but it invests your colleagues in the business, which results in a more enthusiastic team.
At the same time, bands, like businesses, are rarely entirely democratic. There will be times when a group decision is best for the sake of band cohesion, and other occasions when the leader must make the call. In my band, for instance, I’m the guy who calls audibles (picks the next couple of songs) when we’re not playing from a set list. Sometimes other members will toss over a suggestion, and if I feel it’s a bad call, I turn it down flat.
But after the gig, I explain why. “Because I hate that song” is a bad answer. The better answer is, “Kevin has to retune for that song, and I didn’t want to lose the crowd on the floor while he was doing it.” Avoid arbitrary decisions and explain your reasoning, and you build trust.
Test under harsh conditions
As with new software, it’s a good idea to beta test your band. Many musicians prefer that their first couple of audiences are sympathetic. And who could be more sympathetic than friends and family members? While playing to such a crowd is a good way to get comfortable performing, the feedback you receive will be tainted by good will.
I suffered from such good will when I was preparing a second solo album. The first one had been warmly received by those who like that solo piano/New Age kind of thing. Two years later I embarked on a more ambitious project and played works-in-progress only for close friends and family. It wasn’t very good, but of course no one told me that.
That led to six months of spinning my wheels when, instead, I could have sketched out demos for a couple of weeks, played them for real critics, massaged my bruised ego for a single weekend, and then started over with a better plan.
Spec the job
Evaluating your market requires some legwork. Visit the venue and check out the clientele and vibe to determine if there’s a place for you. We made the mistake very early on of agreeing to a two-night gig at a club that a friend had booked for us. It wasn’t until we loaded in that we discovered it was a serious biker bar (Harley not Ducati) — colors, pool cues, and loads of tats before tats were cool. Had we simply driven by the place before taking the gig, we would have known it was a bad fit.
The first night’s clientele hated us, but our burly sound man kept them at bay with a raised mic stand. The next night was New Year’s Eve — not a good night for Sam and Dave when the crowd would want Guns N’ Roses. At the end of that first night, we packed up our gear and didn’t return. We sacrificed the few dollars we earned (and a fair measure of our pride) but saved our collective skin.
Perform the gig
Once you finally secure a gig that won’t get your head caved in, your focus as leader shifts from what’s good for the band to what’s good for your customers. In this case, you have two: the club and its audience. And it’s sometimes difficult to balance their separate needs. If you please the club to the point where the music’s no fun, you lose the audience. If you please the audience by blowing out the walls but deafen the club staff, you won’t be asked back.
But bias your efforts towards the customer. If patrons show they’re happy by responding enthusiastically and buying more drinks than usual, the club will be pleased because they’re selling more of their product and you’ve given their customers some incentive for revisiting.
As with most business relationships, you occasionally have to manage up. We had a steady gig at a local bar that was owned by a generally amiable alcoholic. He had this thing for gyrating to Born to Be Wild with his shoe in his mouth — often on stage. (Don’t ask.) It was an act that caused our fans some discomfort and made us feel like idiots, but we accommodated him. As long as he got a taste of Steppenwolf-soaked tennis shoe, we were golden.
To repay your audience for their tolerance, you must give them your attention. Customers — whether in a club or on the receiving end of your product — want to know that you care about them. And here again, it’s a matter of understanding that they’re more important than the band. If they respond really well to Song A, screw the setlist and give ’em something similar via an audible call. As you provide them with what they want — and, occasionally, lead them to places that they don’t yet know they want — they’ll bond with the band.
Don’t make the mistake of taking that relationship for granted. You may have a killer first set, but an uneven Set 2.0 makes it difficult to woo back the crowd that once loved you. Always pay attention to your customer.
The gig is over, the crowd and club are happy, and it’s time to go. Applaud your audience, ask them to follow you on Facebook, tell them where you’ll be playing next, thank the club, tip the bartender and any waitstaff you’ve dealt with, be professional about getting paid, and get the hell out. Follow up a day or so later with the club to see about a return engagement.
Then turn inward. Be sure your bandmates are paid as soon as you’ve collected the money. Thank them for their hard work, and point out some of their highlights of the night. Bathe in the band’s achievements and downplay your own. If you rocked, they’ll tell you.
This is what a successful business is about. Survive a year in a band — with every member wanting to keep at it — and you’ve got hold of an experience that will serve you well in any enterprise you enter.
Photo by Martin Cathrae. Used under Creative Commons license.
Before becoming a writer for such publications as MacUser and Macworld, Chris Breen worked full-time as a professional musician in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his band, System 9, have been together for nearly 30 years.