Has being in a band lost its gloss? Lots of people record in their bedrooms, these days, working on solo projects, sans collaborators. The media is full of stereotypical stories about the drunken, drug-binged debauchery of life in a band, the musical differences, the betrayals, the induced, permanent hearing loss, the bitter, acrimonious splits and the endless, soul-destroying touring. It all seems too difficult and too fraught with down sides.
OK, there are many reasons why being in a band can be a bad idea. Just ask my dad. I’ve been in a band. When I was young, he was fond of telling me precisely what these bad reasons were (from the comfort of a drum throne behind his drum kit, on stage at his latest band gig, ironically). Are there any good reasons to be in a band?
I think there are. Here are mine:
- Musical differences – Other people’s musical ideas and influences are often better than your own and they frequently bring surprising nuggets of musical gorgeousness to the band. If you want to broaden your musical compass and your taste, join a band.
- Being passionate about something – There is no doubt that being in a band allows you to express the full reign of your passion, even if that passion is spandex and big poodle hair-dos. If you love guitars, the easiest way to find your tribe members is to join a band. Learning to be expressive of your passion is a good thing. It serves you well.
- Dream a shared dream – A dream you share can be more powerful and vivid than one you dream on your own. If you are a dreamer and love to dream, dreaming the same dream with several other dreamers is just divine. Who was it that said “a dream you share is reality”?
- Sharing a shared aesthetic – How many times in your life have you enjoyed a concert, some show, an art exhibition or a movie with somebody that dug it as much as you did? It’s a good feeling. To be moved by the same art as a dear friend is can be a very unifying experience. In a band, that happens more often than not. You play and get off on the same music. That’s bliss.
- Learning to hear your own voice (instrumentally and vocally) – There are few things quite as satisfying as hearing your own distinctive way of making music and better still, liking what you hear. A band gives you the space, support and safety to grow as a musical artist, so that you eventually stop sounding like everybody else, and begin to sound like yourself. You know when you’ve hit the sweet spot, because your band mates are generally smiling too. That’s a harder place to find, outside of a band.
- Learning to start and end at the same time – Playing songs in a band requires that you begin and finish at the same time. When you don’t, it sounds bad. That can be a very useful lesson, in life.
- Learning to sing in harmony – The ultimate expression of collaboration is to sing in close harmony with your band mates. Few things in life are quite as sublime. The same thing applies to playing in harmony, actually.
- Learning how to keep the beat, swing and stay in time – This is another of those sensual delights. When everybody is in the groove and it sounds tight and loose at the same time, with a strict rhythm, but a human feel, you really are in sonic heaven. It’s a delicate balancing act. Learning how to do this in a band makes it much, much easier to record your own stuff, solo, in a studio. You just have to bring the memory to mind. This particular skill, once learned, is a wonderful thing in all sorts of intimate settings and seldom forgotten.
- Learning to spotlight others and share the limelight – In a band, you very rapidly learn that the world is not interested in your self-indulgent, egocentric, twenty five minute, shredding guitar solo. You rapidly learn the joy of watching your band mates, in turn, soar and perform spectacular audio acrobatics, getting the audience on side with the band and amazing you out of your brain. You get to do this every night. And best of all, they lay the foundation and safety net for you, when it’s your turn to briefly shine.
- Learning how to shrug things off when they (very publicly) go wrong – If you are prone to embarrassment and cannot stand the humiliation of things screwing up when everybody is watching, join a band. It’s going to happen. What you learn is how to carry on regardless, laughing off the problem and recovering from the gaff rapidly and entertainingly. You learn to stop taking yourself so seriously and that, in most cases, nobody dies if you play a bum note or miss a cue. A way to defeat fear of failure is to fail in front of lots of people you want to impress, then live to tell the tale.
- Conquering stage fright through safety in numbers – Everybody gets a little frightened just before they go on stage. That seems to be a universal human experience. The fear can be debilitating and cause you to give up on public performance for good, but if your best mates are jumping on stage with you, at the same time, it never seems quite so bad and everybody know that everybody else looks goofier and more nervous than you do anyway, right?
- You get good at lifting heavy, delicate things – One of the things I learned, moving a band into and out of gigs, transporting the gear in a cramped, tiny van and expecting it all to work flawlessly the next time you use it, was how to pack too much stuff into too small a space and not break anything. This lesson has paid innumerable dividends during my many house moves.
- Getting cheered at – Nobody ever cheered for me on the sports field (I was no good at sport). Nobody cheered when I achieved good things academically (mostly people were dismissive). The times I got a genuine, loving, uplifting cheer was when I was in a band. I can understand how some artists become addicted and dependent on this feeling. It’s a beautiful moment.
- The chance to dance – Those of us with body image issues will find liberation in a band. There are few other places where you can dance unashamedly and without inhibition, in front of lots and lots of people you might not even know, yet still feel cool. In fact, you are often encouraged to dance some more. The more you dance your music, the more authentic it can sound and the more people seem to like it. Shake your booty.
- Learn to write songs – Saying your own thing in musical form is a wonderful skill to learn. The great thing about learning to write songs in a band is that if the audience yawns or your band mates continue playing poker when you play them your latest ditty, you know you have more work to do. Eventually, you bring something to them that excites them and by that trial and error method, you learn how to write a good song and say things you are passionate about saying, in highly memorable ways.
- Looking sharp – You can wear any crazy stuff you like in a band, People expect it. You can find your personal look and style faster in a band, than you can working in an office, for example. Dressing in a style that suits you makes you look comfortable and confident. That’s such a great lesson to learn. Every girl crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man.
- Competition drives improvement – Nothing teaches you how to be a great guitar player faster than being in a band with another great guitar player. The same is true for songwriters and singers. With modern technology, even the drummer has competition. The competition can be healthy, especially when one guy brings in the latest thing he has learned, you both (or all) learn it and the next time, somebody else brings something new in. Before long, you play better than anybody else (except your band mates). Actually, even if you are terrible players at first, at least if there is an arms race to get better, you do. That’s much harder to do on your own in a bedroom with a metronome and some sheet music exercises.
- Loads of practice – Following on from the previous point, there is no doubt that you will practice your instrument, your singing, your memory skills and your art far more when you rehearse with your band than you would on your own. For one thing, it’s more fun that way. Secondly, others are watching, so you have to get good. Lastly, nobody wants to be the weakest link. Practice makes perfect.
- Sound balance, your own sound, a sound that gels – Learning to sound good comes from having to tweak the mix until you can hear the drums, bass, guitars and singer without anybody drowning anybody else out. It takes a while, but you eventually figure it out. Turning everything up to eleven does not, in point of fact, produce the best sound. This really helps when you come to mix your tracks in the studio. It also protects you against the hearing loss.
- Learning what the audience wants and likes – If you are a smart band, you pay attention to which songs in your set list work and which ones don’t. If you are writing original material, this informs your records. If the audience likes a song you wrote and you polish it through repeated performance, recording it well gets much easier and you already know people are going to like it. It’s a head start.
- Learning it’s about entertainment – As a band playing for an audience, you quickly learn that you are not there to play to your band mates with your backs to the crowd, or to stare at your shoes while you humourlessly plunk out the next number you’ve announced in mumbled fashion on the microphone. People came to enjoy themselves. They want to be entertained. That’s why you’re here. You are here to amuse them, for a brief time. It’s your job to take their cares away and help them lose themselves in the moment. If you can do that and leave them smiling and wanting more, that’s a very nice feeling.
- Learning from covers – If you can’t write songs, learn to do so by playing songs written by people who can. Performing covers sorts out your chops, your musical ear, your ability to learn quickly, your sound and how to construct your own songs so that people want to hear them. It’s a good thing.
- Mateship – I have lifelong friends that were once band mates. We’re all getting on in years, so that’s pretty enduring. This has to be one of the best reasons to be in a band.
- Learning how to get a lot of sound out a few, cheap instruments – When your instrument choices are constrained, it’s amazing how ingenious you all get at squeezing new sounds out of what you have. I learned to play guitar with a toothbrush, a comb, a chunk of brass wardrobe door runner, a screwdriver, a piece of pipe and various other household objects, while looking for new sounds. I found them. You will too.
- Learning to beg and borrow to get the show on the road – Diplomacy and the art of persuading people to trust you with their expensive possessions is sometimes the only way a young band can assemble enough gear to actually put on a show. Doing so in a trustworthy and reliable way, without making the donor feel used, short changed, dismissed or patronised takes some learning to do well. Once you know how, you’re a better human being. It also teaches you how and when to be the donor.
- Learning to show up – Woody Allen claimed that eighty percent of success is just showing up. This is never more true than in a band. Without one member, there is no band. If there is no band, there is no show. If there is no show, a lot of people have been let down badly. You all have to meet your commitments and be where you say you are going to be, when you said you would be.
- Dealing with detraction, distraction and destruction – Keeping focused on your goals is harder to do than it sounds and bands are notoriously full of opportunities for detractors to demolish you, for girlfriends and other distractions to divert you from your dream and for various destructive behaviours to emerge. If you can successfully navigate these forces and stay true to your goals, you’re set for life. You can do anything. Nothing can phase you.
- Learning how cool you can be seen to be – Your self confidence can grow in a band. You know you’re just a mortal, but you can also glimpse yourself through other people’s eyes. You can be cool too. That’s a nice realisation to reach. Just about everybody is more amazing than they think they are. Being in a band proves that to you.
- Giving your imagination free reign – Music provides a great deal of scope for the imaginative to use musical expression to produce highly original and surprising results. If you are imaginative, there are few more comfortable environments than being in a band that appreciates your flights of fancy.
- Realising you’re not a rock star, you’re just playing a role – At some point, every band member eventually learns that nobody can survive living the life of the mythical rock God. To do so invites early death. Being in touch with the limits of your own mortality and frailty, while being able to momentarily play the part of an invincible rock deity is a satisfying emotional release, but without the mileage. Learning to put on and take off the cloak is very liberating.
- There’s no telling how big you can be or far you can go – The life of the average band member is one of pure possibility. There is no way to tell how big your band can get or how much success it can enjoy. The sky’s the limit. Few other situations in life permit that breadth of horizon and limitless, unbounded opportunity. Being an entrepreneur might be the only other thing that comes close, I don’t know. Again, the feeling of freedom and lack of constraints, dependent only on the qualities you bring, can be intoxicating.
- If you go nowhere, it almost doesn’t matter because once, you were in a band, man
If you have the opportunity to join a band, then do it. There is a lot to recommend being in a band.