What to Expect Your First Year as a New Band
Vanilla Sugar, year one survivors
Photo by Alex Ramos
Somewhere, some kid unwrapped his or her first guitar this Christmas. And, maybe he or she found a few other kids who also received instruments, and have decided to form a band.
It's an exciting time. You come together, bonded by the notion of changing the world with your unified creative vision. That, plus you get to choose a cool band name and talk about the type of groupies you hope you'll attract.
But what happens next? Settling on "CthuLou Dobbs"--I'd love to see that band logo, btw --and blurting out you prefer brunettes with blue eyes takes all of five minutes. What's the rest of your first year as a band going to look like?
My kids are members of four bands at the moment, so I asked them and some of their friends to think back on their Year Ones. What do they recall, and what advice could they offer these newbs who have never even broken a G string or gotten too drunk to play a gig yet?
But before I turn it over to them, I'll tell you what I recall from those early days.
Practice. Lots of it. My kids were serious about making music; it wasn't a passing fad. Chords strummed out, hours at a time, until they became something recognizable. Trumpet lines repeated like I was hearing the Symphony warm up in my home. So much piano playing in the den I thought I'd time warped back to an Old West saloon.
My son's band started as a duo and became a quartet over time. For a couple of years, one of its members was his sister. She first went on the road with the band when she was just 15. She recalled those early days as idealistic and hopeful.
You'll need one of these. Except maybe nicer than this one.
She bowed out of the group last year to focus on her own music and to save her relationships with her brother, the band's members and its fans. Everyone seems much happier this way.
Jessica Perry's band, Vanilla Sugar, formed in 2012. She said the challenges don't always lead to band breakups.
"Starting up a band can be one of the most difficult things to accomplish in music," she says. "You have to find the right chemistry between people, usually four or five different people, with completely different personalities and make sure it works."
For her and her bandmates, the right mix was an all-female group delivering alt-electro-pop. Think Sleigh Bells reimagined as Sleigh Belles and you've got the gist.
"Much like the relationship between siblings, there will be fights, arguments, disappointments and you just can't avoid that," she says. "But with each argument that is overcome, the closer you and your band members will be."
If you can get your fellow bandmates to share your passion and practice and also get past the creative and personality differences that doom bands, you've got to take the music to an audience. Doing it once is a no-brainer. Keeping it going is the hard part.
"Your first year, expect no one to be there at your shows, because no one knows who you are," my daughter says.
Harsh. But, honest. Most of those first shows were family-and-friend events. And even those people may stop showing up. It's easy to get discouraged because it can take some time to generate a fan base, and the best way to do that is to play shows whenever and wherever you can.
Photo by Mike Rasmussen/Bombs Away Photography
"I've been touring with Mad Conductor since 2006," he says, "and all together have done close to 300 shows across America, Canada and Europe, all of which I booked and organized myself.
"Booking tours is an incredibly painstaking process for little tangible yield," he continues. "The experience will change who you are and your understanding of the world. You start however you can--four or five guys chip in and buy a cheap van, you take out all the bench seats but one, load it up with your gear and hit the road."
Expect a lot of logistical work that someone has to do. That someone is almost always at least one member of the band. Booking tours, creating a Web presence, networking. How well or poorly you do these additional things will dictate whether anyone ever actually hears your creative genius.
Another thing--don't be a wimp. Wimps don't rock.
"Be prepared to play for little to no money, sleep on floors if you're lucky and eat whatever is there for you. It's a good idea to tour with a nest egg," says MC Devlin. "If all this doesn't sound difficult enough, you also, as a bandleader, have the impossible task of keeping a band together. Get used to a revolving-door lineup. Even my band goes through changes often and it is never easy to transition, but it's just another challenge you face in the business."
"The first year will be a doozy," Perry agrees. "Book as many shows as you can to get your name out there. Make sure you use social media to your advantage. Pass out flyers, and talk to people at other local shows. Word of mouth is a great thing."
As someone who's been an up-close observer, I'm here to tell you the one thing you will need above all else--talent, finances, even patience--is the confidence that you can succeed in at least a small way at what you're doing. Some people would argue my kids have very little of those first few qualities, but they have a strong belief in their music and its message, which has carried them past years one, two, three, four and so on. Without that, your garage band will probably never make it past the driveway.
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