Up until December of last year, I was in a band named Digit Dealer. Over the two years we were together, we recorded two albums, played a bunch of shows for our friends and even managed to pull off an overseas tour. Although it was a fun experience, the band was ephemeral and generally unsuccessful; in other words, it was like the majority of bands throughout human history.
Being typical in that way, Digit Dealer embodied many of the common highs and lows that come with making albums, playing shows and touring. These are some the worst aspects of that ride:
As they’re essentially your competition for imaginary record deals, big ticket concerts and hordes of clawing fans, there aren’t enough awful things that can be said about other bands. Other musicians in general are overrated sellouts and untalented posers, while the ones you meet personally through the circuit of basement shows and dank venues are either egomaniacs or hacks.
Once, after loading in our equipment for a show at Lit Lounge, we got chummy with the bassist of a band from New Jersey named Transistor Radio (or something equally stupid). Although his band was slated to open, his bandmates were nowhere to be found. We comforted him, tried to convince Lit Lounge’s sound guy to have their set delayed and even helped find a parking spot for their van when the rest of the band finally showed up. In exchange, Transistor Radio (or whatever) insisted on playing second — in our slot. They parked their asses at the bar upstairs and simply refused to go on. Eventually, we were forced by the sound guy to go on first, before most of our fans had even arrived. Transistor Radio continued drinking upstairs through our entire set. Assholes.
Recording is a pain in the ass. There’s hundreds of dollars of equipment and software necessary to pull off even the most D.I.Y. productions, and cutting something exactly the way you want it is time consuming, expensive and, in all probability, impossible.
The first album that Digit Dealer recorded was at a studio where our sound engineer friend Bill worked, just outside of Washington D.C. Because we didn’t have any money to rent out studio time, we had to record the album at night when the place was empty. Compound that by the necessity to catch Bill not only while he was free, but when he had enough energy to work with us through the night, and the fact that we could only be in Maryland for so long before work and school drove us back to New York, and we were left with two consecutive nights to record the entire album. And we did it: for two nights we worked from 11 to some god awful hour of the morning, capping the second night (read: morning) with a five-hour drive back to New York. Thank you, Adderall.
This may be a really ungrateful thing to say, but screw fans. Yes, they are the only people who listen to your music and show up to your shows, but sometimes they can be really frustrating. They’re late to shows or they don’t show up or they spend the entire event outside smoking cigarettes.
Even when they’re actually present for the performance, you have to overcome Angry Cross-Armed Statue Phenomena (ACASP): Mysteriously, fans will pay good money and spend their time trekking out to see a band they enjoy only to stand motionless during the entire performance, not singing, not dancing, with their arms crossed, appearing to be confused and angry about the background music. I’ve done it and so have you. It must have something to do with the energy necessary to cross that tipping point beyond which everyone is dancing, moshing and losing their minds — but until that point, the crowd suffers from ACASP. And it’s brutal. Sometimes it feels like the equivalent of people coming to your birthday party and, when it’s time to blow out the cake, someone suddenly standing up and shouting: “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What the f-ck is going on here?”
I THOUGHT WE ALL UNDERSTOOD WHY WE WERE HERE.
This is the most romanticized aspect of being in a band: traveling from one town to another to play songs for adoring fans, seeing the world while being paid to do it and being loved everywhere you go for your art, being showered with gifts of alcohol, drugs and groupies while casting off the drudgery of everyday life — the job, the school, the obligations — for the adventure of the open road.
Sooo not the case. Most small bands tour on their own dime, which means packing into a van, driving across the country, facing the fickle nature of performing in places you’ve never been, sleeping wherever you can, drinking to cope and repeating the process until you finally make it home or snap along the way.
Digit Dealer pulled off one real tour: Nine days spent playing seven shows in five cities in England. We were invited to do it by our friend Aisha, a fan who happened to work for The Agency Group. She booked our shows and secured work visas for us, but we were on our own to cover costs, get from one place to another and find places to sleep.
In bullet points, here’s how it worked out:
- Despite eating and drinking as cheaply as possible and forgoing any hotel rentals, we spent a ton of money.
- We could only afford to hire a rental car only when we really needed it, leaving us to haul around our equipment and luggage by hand the rest of the time.
- We slept on people’s floors and couches, in rental cars, in the VIP section of a dance club, in a hotel so dilapidated that it was free and, once, all together in the same bed.
- We once played our entire set to two people: members of the opening band who mercifully stuck around.
- We drank a lot to feel better, which left us hungover — but we had to keep traveling, so we drank more to overcome the hangovers, which gave us even worse hangovers, which we then had to drink even more to overcome. At one point, I was drinking to not throw up.
Your bandmates illicit some of the same ill will in you as rival bands do, but you’re forced to put up with them regularly, so it’s that much more extreme. Plus, you’re typically friends with your bandmates, so your relationships end up being inherently bipolar. You love them for your minor successes and hate them for your crushing failures (an arrangement of circumstance which somehow permanently excludes your own accountability). The cracks, strains and drunken arguments really begin to show on tour.
Like I said, the one tour and coup of Digit Dealer’s run was our trip to England. Austin (guitar, synth, vocal), Sean (drums) and I (bass) spent those nine days together almost constantly. Spending almost 216 consecutive hours with anyone will make you want to kill them; spending almost 216 consecutive hours with anyone while going through the highs and lows of playing shows, the anxiety of being functionally homeless and the soul-crushing effects of a seemingly never ending hangover will make you want to murder them.
Things almost fell apart on the eighth day of our tour, in Nottingham. We had played a decent set to a practically empty room that was part of a club filled with pasty juiced-up bigots. After watching a few fights break out and nearly getting into a few ourselves, we decided to head back to the home of some newly made friends who had offered to put us up for the night. On the way back to the car, the bottom of the entire situation fell out: all I remember is Austin screaming at Sean about affecting an English accent, and Sean apologizing profusely — in an English accent. It was that simple. It was hilarious, really, but we couldn’t see that because we had just had it with each other. It was like arguing with your girlfriend about nothing because you can’t figure out what’s actually bothering you, except in this case your girlfriend keeps affecting an English accent and is yelling at herself about it on a sidewalk in Nottingham while all you want to do is just get back to this random kid’s house to crash on his couch — JESUS CHRIST, WILL YOU TWO JUST SHUT THE HELL UP?!
*Incidentally, the things listed above are also the best parts of being in a band: Other bands are actually your brothers in arms; aside from embarrassing photographs, your recordings end up being the only tender testaments to your band’s existence; fans, whether you know them or not, are really just your most supportive friends; touring is the single best excuse for/ method of seeing the world; and precisely because you can feud with or become estranged from them, your bandmates are your family.