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Are you a musician? Is your band having issues? Our new advice columnist, who we’re going to call Fan Landers (a.k.a. Jessica Hopper), is ready to give you Real Talk about any problems your musical outfit might be having—whether professional, practical, or sartorial.Confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
My friends and I formed a band in January 2000. Though we changed our name in 2004 and the drummer and I are the only original members, we’re still pretty much the same band. We used to tour a lot, but now that some of us have kids and better jobs, the best we can pull off is an occasional weekend jaunt a few hours away from our hometown of Montreal. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tour for two or three weeks at a time now and then once the kids are a bit older.
I believe we make vital, interesting music. To paraphrase David Bazan, “[One of] The Only Reason[s] I Feel Secure Is That I Am Validated By My Peers.” Over the years, we have played with a number of bands that we admire and their reaction to our music has always been overwhelmingly positive. Not enough to recommend us to their label, but, you know: sincere handshakes, a gleam in the eye, a pat on the back, etc. Enough to convince me that we are not wasting our time anyway.
All this to say that we have never succeeded in attracting many people to our shows. I thought of a metaphor for our situation the other day: while some bands are like those sticky gummy hands when you first buy them (they stick to whatever you throw them against), our band is like that gummy hand a week later. Some dust and cat hair has accrued and it no longer really sticks to anything. How do you explain the inexplicable, to me at least, magnetism of certain bands? I have seen frenzy rise and fade and it only lasts in a few cases, the “early adopters” (i.e. people who don’t only go to big summer festivals and arena shows) having usually moved on once the so-called “lamestreamers” and “dad rockers” have taken a liking to whatever buzz band.
This brings me to my second thought on the matter: after a certain age, most people don’t really go out to discover new bands. I realized not too long ago that I myself haven’t done so in years. I still go out fairly frequently, but really only to see friends play or bands that I already like. So I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to put out a record (we already have three under our belt, two of which were released by local labels that are new defunct) that people like enough to come out and see us play songs from it live. Last year, when I was trying to promote our record, a journalist told me that I was “at the bottom of the heap” because I was contacting people on behalf of my own band. I took that to mean that, nowadays, you need a publicist to get reviewed and played anywhere. The most we have achieved is sporadic local college radio play. And yet every year, there are indie success stories like Das Racist, who grind hard and get mad respect for doing everything themselves. So why, I’m wondering, is it seen as “so fucking amateur” to contact weeklies, blogs and college radio by myself? I asked a PR dude how much he charges for tracking and promo the other day, and he said “$1000 for a new release”—but is this money wisely invested? My bandmates laugh at the thought and hate the idea. I don’t like it either, but I want to do what it takes to get our music reviewed and heard… For many years, I believed in the old “cream rises to the top” mantra, but with the current glut of better-funded and hyped bands, I’m no longer sure that’s the case. How do you suggest we proceed? Do we just keep putting records out ourselves and hope for the best?
—Fanless in Montreal
You are asking me a lot of questions, but whether to hire a publicist isn’t really what you are asking. You want me to give you a reason to continue on with your band and I’m not going to. Lets look at the facts as you have laid them out: You are eight years into being what you termed a cat-hair-covered gummy hand, you are jaded about a game that favors kids, their energy, ideas and newness—all of which you feel alienated and frustrated by. You are wishing rock n’ roll was fair when you totally know better. Making another record is bad idea, it’s going to be a waste of your time and the Canadian goverment’s money: name a band that “broke” eight years in. (Other than Fucked Up.) If you must make a record, do it at home for cheap, throw it up on Bandcamp, and email the link around. Don’t be vain and commit effort to pressing a record for a band that doesn’t tour or draw. Maybe it’s your band’s fault, maybe you’re boring, but maybe you are awesome and it’s just wrong place wrong time. Most of the time, music is a fucking crapshoot. At best. It’s time to pack up your gummy hand band and call it a day. You tried. The end.
Now, you can keep making music or start a new band, but, before you do so you need to put some meaning back into your musical life. You said it yourself—you are only seeing friends’ bands and, I’m guessing, a steady diet of reunion tours. With kids and a real job, you can’t really spend Saturday morning digging through the new singles bin at the record store. Nevertheless, you need to find a way to dig back in, find a couple new bands to get into and maybe some old obscure shit that is genuinely inspirational. Find a couple MP3 blogs you can trust and check out a few songs every week. Go buy a record on your lunch break. Rather than being wrapped up in all this negative bullshit about your band’s failure to launch, or what that writer said to you, you just have to move on to something posi that is going to affirm your belief in music. Otherwise your self-pity and poor luck will sour it permanently. Hopefully you will be re-inspired, write a few songs. But, hang back, have modest aspirations, throw some stuff up online—don’t focus on how you are going to make it work this time, just have fun. If you can do that, the rest will fall into place. Maybe.
Dear Fan Landers,
I am in a band with my best friend from college, and we have a productive creative partnership. We’ve released a full-length studio album and we’re about to release another couple of songs, and I am proud of all of the songs we’ve written and recorded (especially the new ones). However, we have two interrelated problems.
First, when we were making friends in college, we never became good friends with a drummer or a bassist, it’s just us two singer/songwriters in the band. This is a problem because we want to play rock music; we play acoustic every now and then but it gets old. In order to record or play shows we assemble a temporary lineup of random friends. These friends are always either too busy to join our band, not up to our standards to become permanent members, or they’re professional musicians whom we have to pay to play with us. We briefly had a drummer and bassist who had the technical chops we wanted, but they weren’t enthusiastic about our old songs. They mostly wanted to write and play new songs that they would have an equal creative share in, so they were both poached by another band that was just starting up. I’m insanely jealous of bands like U2 who were band buddies in high school and are still together today… we can find random musicians on e.g. Craigslist, but can we find friends that we can trust, who share our musical tastes and goals and are loyal to the band? After being together for almost a decade, I don’t know how we can even add another permanent member at this point, but it seems like it’s necessary. How can we find new members who will be as dedicated to the band as we are? We’d be happy to make new members equal partners if they don’t mind learning and playing our old songs, and if we like the music they write/contribute. Or should we not try to find other members, and just keep trying to make the band work with two people?
Secondly, because we don’t have a permanent lineup, we almost never play shows. I don’t know how we’ll ever have a chance at hitting it big if we aren’t touring/gigging constantly, it seems like there are limits to how far we can get just promoting ourselves online with our recordings. A lot of our songs just don’t sound as impressive acoustic, so if we were to play lots of acoustic gigs with just the two of us it seems like we either need to accept that our songs won’t sound as cool or write new songs that are meant to played acoustic. Should we just work with our recordings and online promotion and accept that our live appearances will be rare? Should we play acoustic shows even though we would rather play rock music? Or should we sink all of our energy into hunting for more band members?
How can we move forward as a band if we don’t have enough permanent members to properly perform the rock songs that we write?
Your twofold problem has a twofold solution: First off, you need to be playing shows. Like, a lot of them. Half an audience at any given show is going to be a musician themselves and watching you play, they might be thinking “Those dudes need my drumming.” Make jokes between songs about how in your dream that song sound like Watain, not Loggins and Messina, and all you need is the right rhythm section. Maybe you don’t find you drummer at the show, but maybe you meet someone who knows the perfect drummer. Don’t pay some ringer to sit in with you; just get out there as is. Sell it. Make your insular singer-songwriter bromance seem like it’d be fun to join. Post some ads on Craigslist saying “Rhythm section needed for established band”—that should give people the idea that there is some back catalog. I wouldn’t invest too much time into recording seriously until you find the right people to fill out the band.
Also, you are too wrapped up in this idea that you are going to be besties with the new members. That comes later if it comes at all. Don’t try to pal down with them too hard, that can make you seem desperate. You already have your BFF in the band; that should be plenty. If friendship and trust is the most important thing, place an ad for a friend that can also play bass.
Secondly, you need to take the hint about your old songs. You are too attached to them. Unless you guys were some Westerbergian pop auteurs as teenagers, your first songs are probably your worst songs. You said yourself that you barely gig, so it’s not like you have some hundreds-deep audience screaming for the oldies. Go through your material, save the seven best songs, and start fresh with whomever you can bring into the band. Don’t present to them four unreleased albums of material to learn. You already blew it with one good rhythm section; learn from that mistake. Write songs with new band members; otherwise they don’t have a reason to be invested in your band.