"Starting a Band 101"
They say it's better to start young, and maybe it is, but it wasn't until I was 22 that I decided to be a rock 'n roll star. My college graduation was only a few months away and life's big questions were inescapable. Most
formidably: "What was I going to do with my life?" While the questions
followed me everywhere and their answers seemingly lead me nowhere, it was
only by twist of fate that Emerson's Essay on Self Reliance fell into my
eager and impressionable hands. Upon reading the essay, it was then that I
boiled my future down to two basic premises: What most did I know how to do
and what most did I enjoy doing? The answer to both of these questions was:
"Play Guitar." It was time to start a band.
Before I go any further, I'd like to premise the following by saying that
the things I'll talk about in this article are insights, ideas and
information based on personal experience from choices that I have made for
myself and my band. There are no right or wrong answers, no magic formula
and, certainly, no easy way to the top. Almost all of my past experience has
come on a DIY level (Do it Yourself). So, I write this article now in hopes
of answering questions for the young rock 'n roller of tomorrow.
The greatest asset you can possess in life is to believe in yourself.
Trust in your heart. Do what it tells you and you can never be steered wrong.
This is especially true in the arts because no one will believe in you, your
songs, your voice or your lyrics unless you believe in them first.
If you wanna start a band for the free booze and pussy, that's a great
idea. If you wanna start a band to express your inner self or purge your
childhood angst, that's a great idea too. But, if you wanna start a band to
build a career, tour the country, release CDs and ace your day job then you
have to be willing to work for it: very, very hard.
You have to make great sacrifices, stand up for yourself in the face of
adversity, have passion and talent, have more talent, push your creative
limits constantly, appreciate the highs with the lows, possess patience,
tolerance and acceptance, be diligent and skillful, and, woven through all of
this, you must have faith and perseverance, knowing that nothing is going to
come to you overnight, that you'll reap what you sow, and that if you put one
foot in front of the other for long enough you'll eventually get to where you
want to be.
So, you've made the decision to rock and now you need a band. You'll need
to find people who are talented and rich with spirit. Get out there and beat
the pavement for them. You'll find them in time. Keep in mind that it may
prove important to find people of like mind and similar experience because to
be a great band requires the fusion of many minds working together to make
one magical sound.
You do not have to possess a masters in music theory to be a great band
or great songwriter. A great song will come together like a great dream and
when you hear it you'll know it's right. Many of the most timeless songs were
written with three or four chords and an unforgettable melody.
As you look to your influences and life experiences to help you in your
creations, go out of your way to be yourself and try not to emulate your
favorite band or what's 'hot' at the time. Do your own thing so that it feels
right and comes together in a way that makes people want to hear more. If you start a band that sounds like what's all over the radio and MTV, most likely
by the time you even start to gain any recognition by fans or industry, that
style and sound will be history accept for the couple-few bands who pioneered
it in the first place.
Assuming you've now got your players in place and the dynamics of your
desired instrumentation ready to go, you now need to think of a name for your
band. It is important to think of a good name for your band that sticks in
people's heads and is, at the least, unique. If you find yourself searching
the Internet because you're unsure as to whether your chosen band name is
being used currently, or has been used in the past, then you have probably
chosen the wrong name and need to rethink your options.
Now you've got your players and a name and you're officially in a band.
All the chicks are talking about you at school and you're feeling pretty
cool. But, alas, you have no material! Assuming you want to play live shows
and release a CD, you're gonna need to start writing some songs. Create a
goal for yourself of writing around 8 songs (or 30 minutes worth of material)
so you can at least play a short live set when the time arises. Start writing
and jamming together. Practice, practice, practice. It will never make for
perfection but it will get you as close as you can get to feeling positive
and confident about your material in all formats. Bring ideas to rehearsal.
Have lyrical ideas, song concepts, grooves, riffs, a melody line you've been
humming in your head... anything that you can think of that will forward the
goals of the band. Write what feels good to you. When it's flowing you'll
all look at each other and know it. Sometimes you'll even get goosebumps when
it's really on. Have patience in defining your material and individualizing
your sound as a group so that you can come into your own naturally over time.
Write lyrics that are meaningful to you and that work with the
instrumentation and sound and in time they will find their audience. How you
sing and play is up to you, but however you do it, do it with conviction.
Now you're ready for your first live show. Generally, my advice for bands
just getting started is play often and play anywhere and do it for free. Play
parties in your friend's parents' basements, living rooms, outhouses and
anywhere you can find an outlet and an audience so that you can begin to
understand what it is like to play live and the communication that is needed
onstage to make all your hard work and hours at practice a reality.
Everyone's first show feels like a short and insane dream. Your head and
heart are both pounding like someone's hooked you up to a jackhammer and it
is all you can do to just get through it. Don't worry about it. Your comfort
zone will develop in time as will your moves and fantastic sex appeal.
After you've had a little experience at parties and smaller bars and feel
you can bring some people to your favorite club, it's time to start making
some phone calls. Get ahold of the name of the talent buyer for the club you
want to play and call them and ask for them by name. At this point, take
anything they offer you so that you can get in there and show them that, at
the least, you don't suck. Or if you do suck, show the club that you can
bring them bodies so that they know you are worth their time and worth having
By doing this you can get to know the sound engineer, the bartenders, the
club owner, manager and anyone else who's in the bar. Extend your hand as a
show of humility and appreciation to everyone at the show for coming to see
you and to the club for having you. If you call the club to book a date and
they don't call you back, call them back again and again. In booking gigs,
your persistence can never be softened. You may have to call the club back 15
times before you accidentally get the right person on the phone and they are
in a good enough mood to give you a shot.
Focus primarily on your local scene for starters and, again, play
everywhere and anywhere you can get a gig. It would be a good idea to ask
friends of yours who are already in bands playing around the city if you can
open up a show for them. That will help you to get in front of some extra
people as well as bypass the labors of booking the show without having
already established a true working relationship. Through friends and
connections you should be able to swing a few shows here and there at smaller
places for starters, but you can't play with the same band at the same club
An obstacle that is going to arise when booking shows is that the club's
talent buyer is going to ask you for a press pack. In this you will need, at
the least, some recorded material. At this stage a simple demo tape should
suffice. Along with your demo, you'll need to include a biography on the band
describing who you are and what you do. Be creative. You will also need a
photograph and some press, if applicable. Make sure you have your contact
information on your demo and pretty much everything else you send out.
Include a note that reminds the talent buyer of the date you discussed on the
phone or via email. Once you send the package give the club time to open and
listen to it before calling them back. A week is usually fair and sufficient.
Don't bug them. Keep in mind that you are not the only band trying to get a
show there and, most likely, the talent buyer has 25 to 50 packages just like
yours sitting on their desk waiting to be opened. So, when you call them
back, be persistent but don't be pushy.
Give the club a reason to book you a date such as telling them you can
bring 50 people, or that the local college station is playing you on their
local band program or that you can get a write-up in the local newsweekly for
the show. Anything that you can say or do to separate yourself from the rest
is good. Just make sure your promises hold up to your projections.
Now, you've got your first real live gig! Send the club posters to help
in advertising. Also, make fliers. Thousands of them, not just 100. Drive
around town and put up posters in all the record stores and any other place
that will let you. Advertise the show up on the front page of your website.
(You have a website don't you? If not, don't be stupid, and get one quick.)
Start to create a buzz through name recognition. Keep practicing in the
meantime. It may also be wise to hold off playing any other shows a couple
weeks in advance so that people will come out with excitement and in numbers.
Always call the club 10 days to 2 weeks prior to the gig to advance the
show. First, make sure that the show is still happening and you haven't been
bumped in favor of a more established band. Ask what the load-in time is,
where the load-in is, what time soundcheck is, and what the sound engineer's
name is. Get to know the sound man as most likely he will be the primary
person you talk to that night and, in many cases, you will even get better
sound! Confirm your show time and the length of the show. Confirm the amount
your getting paid, if you're getting paid at all. And, without wasting the
talent buyer's time, ask any other relevant questions that you'll need
answers to. Overall, keep it short and to the point. Asking the right
questions and coming to know their answers will help you to be more organized
as a band and should also help you to gain more respect from the club.
Other notables regarding gigs: show up earlier than you think necessary,
have a mailing list ready (email preferably because it's free, but snail mail
is okay too), be courteous to the other bands and their members, and have
merchandise or stickers or demo-tapes to sell. Remember people's names. Warm
up before the show to get your blood and heart moving and your vocal chords
primed. Don't get wasted before the show as you'll be the only one who
thought you really rocked (listen to a live recorded performance of a night
you're playing wasted and you'll know exactly what I'm saying). Bring a
cassette or dat tape and ask the sound man if he can record the performance.
Have new strings on your guitar, have plenty of back up chords and picks and
sticks, and always be ready to rock as every show you play will be someone's
first time seeing you and someone's last.
It's show time! You're nervous, but you're ready to rock! The show went
off without a hitch, everyone said it sounded great, and you are feeling on
top of the world. At the end of the night you settled up with the club and
they paid you $100. You're rich! You can all go out and get real drunk and
buy a 20 sack. Wrong! Stop! Don't do that! I thought you wanted to record a
CD, buy merchandise, and put a down payment on a new/used van. You do, don't you?
Next step: Save your money. Open up a bank account or set up a system by
which you save every penny you make. As much as it may feel wrong, it is only
right once you start making a few bucks to start to treat the band as a
business. You hate to hear that, so do your fans. A band is supposed to be
all fun and parties and chicks and it just doesn't seem right to worry about
the money or treat it like a respectable business. Well, if you want that new
van to haul your equipment in, and you want to press a couple thousand CDs
that sound and look good, and you want to buy a new amp or drums so you can sound as good as you play, and if you want to quit your shitty day job, then you better start saving. At the beginning, the money you make at shows is the only source of income that you will have until you have a good CD and good merch.
At this point, you've been a band for about 4 to 6 months and you've
played about 15 shows. You've made an average of $100 at each show and saved every bit of it. You have $1500! Now, it's up to you on how you want to spend it and the options are nearly limitless. You could buy T-shirts and stickers to sell at shows, you could use it as a down payment for a decent van, or you could use it to make more press packs and demos to send out-of-state to start gigging in other cities. But, all that would be getting ahead of yourself.
You've only played 15 shows and you only have $1500. (It may seem like a lot
of money but, believe me, it's not.) More than anything, you need to give
your audience and the industry something good that they will want to listen
to again and again... something that will have them coming back to your shows
singing every word and knowing every riff in your music. Thus, it would be my
suggestion (as your manager for the duration of this article), that you put
your money towards getting into the studio and recording a CD.
Now, it's time to record! Often times, bands make a few big mistakes when
they decide they want to go into the studio. The first mistake they make is
not being prepared enough for the recording environment. Some tools in
helping you prepare would be to listen intently to your live tapes and see if
what you think you're playing is actually what you are playing. Certain
questions to ask yourself would be: Is the kick drum lined up with the bass
guitarist? Is your band really that tight as a whole? Are the vocals and
harmonies sang well? Is the song even that good?
Your drummer should be practicing to a metronome, the guitarist should
have his leads memorized, and the singer should know exactly what he or she
wants to accomplish vocally, emotively and otherwise. All these aspects can
help you in recording as you will come to find that the studio experience is
an altogether different beast than playing live and practicing. Every minute
that you did not prepare outside of the studio is a minute that you are going
to have to pay for, literally. Also, being extremely well prepared makes for
a much more positive studio experience as a whole. With long days at $50 an
hour or more and a desire to come out of there sounding better than you ever
have before, preparation, or lack there of, can be your best friend or
A second big mistake that beginner bands make in the studio is trying to
do too much with too little time and money. In your case you only have $1500
and you want to do all 9 songs you have, plus a new song that you've just
written but the bassist hasn't even heard yet! You can do this if you want
and, sadly, most new bands do. What you often end up with is $1500 worth of
crap. In such a case you will have to record the music for all 9 or 10 songs
live in an uncomfortably short amount of time. Then you will have to hastily
overdub the vocals, mix it down, compress it and have it all done in no more
than 3 days. Bad idea. Plus, ask yourself honestly how many of your songs
that you play live are really that good. Sure, you'll be excited to hear
yourself rock on CD and you'll have something to sell at live shows, but is
it of any quality that anyone other than your mother or girlfriend would want
to listen to it over and over again? Probably not. Put simply: Quality is
more important that Quantity. With that in mind, I strongly advise recording
your best 5 songs so you get the best quality out of your recording time and
The recording process itself could be covered in an entirely separate
article so I will not go into too much detail on this subject. If you are
well enough prepared, I would suggest tracking your songs to a synched
metronome starting with the drums, then bass, then guitars or keys, then
vocals, then harmonies and then any production or overdubs you would like to
add. If you absolutely have to do it all live, just make sure it doesn't
suck. Make sure the drummer has new heads and that there are new strings on
all the guitars. Get plenty of rest the night before so you don't break down
too soon. This is especially true for the vocalist.
Also, it may prove to be beneficial to meet with the engineer ahead of
time to discuss options, gather information and ask questions. It is helpful
to like and trust the opinion of your engineer, too. You could ask to hear
previous recordings that he or she has done, but at this stage in the game it
probably isn't necessary.
Now you've recorded your first 5 song EP/CD and it rocks! But, you're
broke again so it's time to start gigging so you can afford to pay for the
duplication and printing of your coming product. You've only been a band for
a relatively short period of time but you've got fantastic momentum and that
Play all the shows you can to get more dough so you can release the disc
properly. After you save up another $1500 to $2000 you'll have enough money
to pay for 1000 CDs and maybe a little left over to make some stickers or
T-shirts. At this point, too, you should be averaging more than $100 a show
so it shouldn't take as long to get the dough you need for the CD and its
In ordering the CDs it is probably best to order an all-inclusive package
at a quantity of 1000. There are many companies that will take care of
everything for you for one nice price, but you should always call around to a
few of them for quotes to save the band money. You could also ask a friend to
do the design work for you so that you can be a more integral part of the
look of your product and hopefully represent your band better in the process.
Once you have sent out your master CD and printing specs on ZIP expect to
wait about 1 month before you have your CDs in your hands. Always ask the
manufacturer what their turnaround time is and never book a date for your CD
release party until you have the discs in your hands. If ever a law applied
at all to a band, it's Murphy's Law.
Once again, you'll want to be gigging in the meantime so you can continue
to save money for merchandise, promotions and that van you so badly need
because about now your girlfriend is getting a little tired of letting you
borrow her dad's truck to haul all of your gear around in! Make up some
advance copies of the disc on your computer to give to local newspapers,
commercial and college radio stations, and other key players that will help
you to hype your coming release. Put a couple sample songs on your website
and every chance you get in your daily life, let people know that you have a
CD coming out. Update your press pack and website and, to save yourself time
once the CD is back, have all your promotional packages addressed, posted and
ready to toss in the mail as soon as your CDs arrive. If you haven't done so
already, now would be a good time to send out an email to all those who have
signed up for your email mailing list and ask your fans if they are
interested in joining your street team.
A street team is one of the most valuable DIY tools a band can possess.
Street teamers will help you enthusiastically spread the word about your band
for free for no other reason than because they think you're great and want to
be a part of something that they believe in. Forge relationships with these
people and you will find that you will become great friends with them. Be
creative and make sure you give back to them. Some examples of how to do this are making T-shirts specifically for street teamers, giving them advance
copies of your disc, taking them out to dinner, getting them into your shows
for free, and, generally, expressing your appreciation of their efforts as
often as possible. You may also want to appoint a street team member to be
the coordinator and leader of your entire street team because trying to
manage your street team with everything else you're doing can be very time
consuming and you don't want your street team to feel left in the dark about
the happenings of your band. You're as ready as you can be and, finally, the
day you've been waiting for...
Your first CD has arrived and you are officially a rock star!
Now the real work begins. First, call up your favorite club that you've
by now established a good working relationship with and set a weekend date
for your CD release party. Get strong acts to open the show for you as you
will want it to be a show that people just can't miss no matter what. Set the
date far enough ahead so that you can promote the show incredibly well and
make sure that the "greatest band in the world" isn't playing your city on
that same night or your numbers will suffer.
As soon as you have a show date set for your party, call up the local
record stores/chain and meet with them to set up a consignment deal for your
discs to be sold. You will have to sign a standard contract that establishes
what percentage each party will get upon each CD sold. Usually, the band will
get anywhere from $6 to $9 for a disc being sold at $12. Don't be afraid to
haggle a bit to get what you think is fair and necessary to make a profit
after all your expenses and hard work. At this time, you will want to ask
about co-op advertising, in which both parties contribute to an advertisement
in the local newspaper, or tagging your CD release party on a block of radio
commercials previously purchased by the record store. Since you're pretty
much dead broke again and any money you currently have, or will receive in
the future, will have to go towards promotions, ask the record store if they
will take the amount you owe them for the co-op out of what you make from CD sales prior to you receiving your cut. Most will do this as long as they
think you can sell at least 50 to 100 CDs. (You better be able to do that!)
Lastly, tell the record store that you want to officially release your record
on the Tuesday prior to your big weekend CD release party. Not only will this
give your audience time to go out and buy the record ahead of time, allowing
them to familiarize themselves with your material, but it is also the day
that all new releases come out in all record stores nationwide.
Next, call the radio stations and set dates for your band to do
interviews and play songs off of the CD to promote the show. You may also
want to inquire about purchasing a block of advertisements. If you have the
money it's worth it. You can also ask the radio station if they would be
interested in sponsoring your event as it is good promo for the station and
even better promo for your band. If they are interested, you will have to tag
their logo on all your thousands of fliers and posters you will be putting up
around the city and, in return, you should get a break on the advertising
fee. Getting a radio station behind you can be one of the greatest assets you
Next, call the newspapers and ask for a CD review, a calendar listing, an
interview or article with a photo included, a review of a live show, critic's
choice and anything else you can to get your band into print. Also, it may
help to get some press if you purchase an advertisement in the paper, as a
little "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" never hurts... especially in
the music business.
With only a few weeks until the big day, you've now got forthcoming
articles in two newspapers, two radio interviews, a block of ads on the radio
station, your CDs are ready to hit the stores, you've been practicing and are
tighter than ever, the hype is all around you, you've sent out emails, your
street teamers are on the ball, your T-shirts and stickers are in and you've
even gotten a preliminary email from a record company asking you to submit
your CD to A&R. You're rolling!!!
Make sure you don't play a show anywhere at least 3 weeks prior to your
CD release party. Stick to your interview commitments, practice even more,
and continue to promote, promote, promote!
Now, the big night is upon you. You're well rested and ready to kick ass. It's the calm before the storm and you know you have to be great. All your hard work and commitment have lead you to this one day in which you are going to prove to the world that you have what it takes to move the human race. The opening bands have finished their sets and you're next. The tension is building, the house lights go off and the cheers rumble through the packed club. There's a brief and meaningful band hug right prior to giving the signal, and, all at once the curtains are pulled back. The cheers are deafening. You look out among the mass of bodies filled with excitement, the drummer clicks a four-count, and like a bomb... you're a rock star.
Congratulations and good luck.