Full disclosure: I’m in a band that’s trying to make it. Before you call me a hypocrite and shut your laptop in disgust, know that I’m prepared (and expecting) to fail just like every other local band I’ve encountered. Here’s why your friend’s band will inevitably break up before hitting the big time.
1. Your band sucks.
Take a group of friends, put instruments in their hands and this is usually what you’ll get. It takes years to create an environment in which good songs can be crafted efficiently by a group of people. It’s a fragile process that requires talent, a common goal, dedication and leaving egos at the door.
It can all be ruined by one egotistical member who thinks his ideas are always the best, one member who never shows up (drummer) and one person who’s bad at their instrument “but we’re all friends so it’s not like we can kick him out, right?” It’s hard to strike a balance between friendship and working relationships, which is why the most successful bands weren’t started by friends, but acquaintances.
Believe it or not, even outside the band, friends and family are the worst enemy for a new band. Sure, they’ll come to the shitty shows at the local dive bar and cheer them on no matter how many unsure guitar solos and drum beats that don’t stop with the song there are. They’ll reassure the band that they’re “really good” and they’re “gonna be rock stars.”
And that’s the end of most bands’ development. They lose the motivation to get better because they think they’re awesome. Improving takes work and isn’t always fun, but jamming with your friends and slapping some songs together is easy as buying a nice camera and calling yourself a photographer.
2. Nobody cares about local music.
With instant access to basically every song ever on various streaming services, it makes sense why people wouldn’t know about or care about local music. You don’t see Spotify or iTunes featuring local music on their front page.
While most people are perfectly content lapping up the formulaic slop mega-corporations churn out, a small minority actively seek out new, underground music. But no matter how good your friend’s shoegaze band is, it’s hard to get an audience to pay – money – to see them on a Tuesday night. Venues often won’t give weekend slots to local bands, reserving them for more popular touring acts.
There are a fair amount of unknown bands making incredible music, but sadly people just don’t care.
3. The band doesn’t treat it like a business.
Music is the product and selling it is the objective. It’s not what people imagine when they think of a musician’s lifestyle. It involves a lot of stuff like:
- Setting up a website
- Maintaining social media pages
- Scheduling regular practices
- Booking shows
- Learning how and where to publicize yourself
- Making CDs (or vinyl if you’re one of those people)
- Recording your music
- Finding a mixing and mastering engineer (or learning how to do it yourself)
- Figuring out how to get royalties
- Starting a bank account
- Planning tours
Those are the kinds of things ambitious local bands spend most of their time on.
A band is a start-up in every sense, but most musicians, even serious ones, treat it like a hobby. It’s easy to see why. We learn music as something fun to do, not a career path. But nobody in the music industry wants to work with a hobby band. This hobby mindset stalls the progress of even the most promising bands.
For the sake of argument, let’s say your friend’s band becomes really good, establishes a small following and is full of serious musicians. Then it all comes down to one thing.
4. You have no money.
“Money is the reason w exist, Everybody knows it, it’s a fact. Kiss, kiss” – Lana Del Rey
Unsigned bands can easily earn tens of thousands of dollars by selling their music and merch online and playing a lot of shows. I know what you’re thinking: “Whoa! Sounds like a nice payday considering you’re doing what you love.” Slow down there, pal. There are some expenses you’re probably not accounting for.
- Studio time
- Music videos
- Pressing of CDs (or cassette tapes if you’re a tool)
- Possibly a manager who gets 10-15% of everything
Then split whatever’s left between the band members four – five – sometimes six ways, and what you’re left with are unpaid bills and the envy of watching your friends eat extravagant brunches with their salary money.
The extremely low pay coupled with slow progress compels many musicians to get a full-time job. Once that happens, the dream is dead. T-minus six months until the band announces on Facebook they’re taking an “indefinite hiatus to explore other opportunities.” Remember what I said about a band being a start-up? It’s pretty hard to get your start-up off the ground when you’re sitting at a cubicle working for someone else most of your waking hours.
I was in this position for a year after graduating college. I saw my coworkers go home and relax at the end of the day while I drove two hours to play to 12 people in a cafe. Unsurprisingly, trying to have two careers starts to put a strain on the band, the job and relationships.
Here’s what inevitably happens. You start to get lazy about booking shows, momentum slows down, the band becomes less tight on stage, the live shows lose energy and start to become monotonous. You’re up for that promotion at work (brunch money!) and you come to realize that you can’t continue this way. You make the “responsible” decision to quit the band because you “gave it a shot but it just didn’t work out.” The other members are too preoccupied with their own jobs to replace you so they all call it quits.
Another band’s life claimed by the merciless fist of capitalist America.