January-February 2008

One assumes that you’re thinking about starting a band because you like music, and you want to interact with others who share the same emotion. Well, maybe. You might also be starting a band to make money. Maybe you have dreams of a recording career. Maybe you’re lonely and need a project.

For whatever reason, you have decided that you’d like to start a band. Now what? Do you know any like minded musicians? Good start. If not, then there are many venues for locating other musicians. I recently joined a band that everyone else had been gathered through Craig’s List. You can always put up a card at the local music store, or place an ad with FolkWorks.

Now the fun begins. You will be contacted by people who aren’t musicians. You will be contacted by people who are musicians, but have no desire to play the type of music you want to play, even though that was included in your ad or card. At this point, it would be wise to rent the film The Commitments and spend some time with the scene where the auditioners show up at Jimmy Rabbit’s parent’s flat. Once you viewed this two or three times, you will be more prepared for your reality.

You may get lucky. Let’s say you’re a hot guitarist/vocalist who is looking for a mandolin player, a drummer, a bass player and an accordionist to play Don McLean and Rick James tunes. Your ultimate goal is to play at every Borders Books and Music in Southern California, and to play at the San Fernando Valley Fair the same day that the pie blue ribbons are awarded. You get responses from each of the musicians, all love Don’s and Rick’s stuff and all are willing to practice and perform. All agree that Borders and the Fair are great goals. Most like pie.

So you set up a band meeting/practice. You email out a few song suggestions, the key you play them in, and you again discuss your goals to see if the others concur. The night arrives, and you put out a six pack of beer and some pretzels. Only the accordionist shows up. You spend a lovely evening practicing as a duet, even though very early in the evening you realize that this is not the accordionist you want to have in the band. Now you get to fire someone before the band even starts!

Some tough decisions have to be made. Maybe the accordionist will do. They did show up. Calls and emails are placed, and a new time is set up, although you’ve confirmed that you lost your mandolin player in the interim. New cards and listings go up.

So luck plays out, and the second time the folks actually show up and play okay. The drummer actually doesn’t know who Don McLean or Rick James are, but she keeps pretty good time so that’s okay. The bass player really likes Barnes & Noble and the L.A. County Fair better, but is willing to compromise.

So you work up a repertoire. You figure out the keys, who will take the instrumental breaks, who will sing lead and who will sing harmony. You practice. A lot. You continue to figure out the keys, etc. You get better.

You need a name for the band, and you need to get some jobs. Perhaps you agree that you need to record a demo to provide for booking. New logistics to sort out. With the band name, it’s good to Google and see who else might have chosen the same moniker. If there’s a band in East Virginia with the same name, and their website shows that they’ve released two CDs and tour regionally, it’s a good idea to think of a new name.

This would also be a good time to sit down and map out a “band future” and get some feedback from all the members as to what intentions they have for the group. This would also be a good time to get a legal agreement together to cover things like the band name. On the other hand, if you do this legal stuff now, there won’t be much fun for the lawyers in the future if you do make some money. Most bands don’t do this legal stuff, and it usually doesn’t matter primarily because there’s not a lot of money to argue about. But if a flow of dough occurs, you can bet that the issues of band name and member intentions/expectations will become very important.

The most important decision will probably be whether or not the band is democratic or led by one individual. This may never truly be resolved (look at the Stones) but the dialogue needs to be held. If the group is led by one individual, all the duties and responsibilities would best be spelled out clearly. A leader that wants all the musical decisions but won’t help set up the PA or book gigs is not a very attractive leader to follow.

So you record the demo and send it out in a nice band packet, with a photo of the group, any press clippings you might have garnered in former bands or endeavors, and you also include anything else that may influence someone to hire you. Wonder of wonders, Borders Hawaiian Gardens offers you a “free coffee drinks” contract to play next month on the first Saturday. You excitedly call the band members, and find out that half the group isn’t available that night. What to do? Do you take the gig as a three piece and hope for the best, or do you call back Borders and ask for a rain check?

These and many other conundrums will be yours in the world of bands. But some night you’ll be soaring on your third cappuccino and the band will all be in tune and in time, and you’ll think “This was all worth it.”

Or not.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.

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