Whether you’re a solo artist or in a band, all musicians experience an initial struggle upon bouncing onto their respective local music scenes. Some venues won’t book you because you have no music out, while others might be fine with you playing cover songs for hours. If you have no music out, how do you get good music out? How do you know if your music is good enough for a venue to accept it and book you?
There are lots of little details that musicians must deal with, many which listeners or casual music-lovers might not understand or have any idea about. As I’ve learned over the years, the devil is in the details, and doing the little things right breeds success in the end. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a successful musician just yet, I can safely say that I’ve learned enough about the business to believe that I’m headed in a positive direction.
I recently realized that my dream job needed to have new life breathed into it, so I left the band. Soon after, I started a new one with a few people that were not only talented, but also had good chemistry. Realizing that what you’re doing wrong and correcting your mistakes is a huge part of finding success in this business. Many teenagers like myself might know what they want to do in the future, but sometimes forget to think about the present. Without the present, there is no future. With that being said, I present to you eight of my own personal struggles as a member of a band, and how working through them strengthened my ability to manage, plan, and execute the steps necessary for my next band to succeed.
1. Find the right people to play with
When I first began drumming, I was happy to play music with whoever wanted to play music with me. This was the era of my musicianship in which I found out whether I was serious about what I wanted to do. Once I figured out that this was my passion, I settled with my first band that included Kumaresh Easwaran, Michael Error, and myself.
For the first couple of years, things went smoothly. We all enjoyed listening to and playing rock music and had settled on making and covering rock songs. Within the past couple years, however, Kuma’s music tastes had shifted to the point of him telling us that he wasn’t really into rock music anymore, and that he was looking to create a rock/hip-hop hybrid. Michael and I were interested at first, but after awhile Kingstreet had turned into Kuma’s project, with us simply playing the parts that we’d made to his songs.
As time progressed, our chemistry and friendships took a deep dive. Both parties wanted to push their preferred genre over the other, which never quite ended up working. Finally, after Estrada (our new guitarist) had joined, I realized we had three guys that wanted to be a rock band, and one guy that was bringing his solo compositions to practice. We decided to split, and now I’m having more fun playing music than ever before.
Being on the same page as your band mates is important, but often overlooked by many. Your music only sounds as good as how much fun you’re having while playing it, so be sure to bear that in mind when you’re playing with your band mates!
2. Follow your gut
A lot of new artists are quite eager to share their music with the world, myself included. While sharing your music is certainly important in order to build and maintain your following, you should never release unfinished, or low-quality recordings to the public.
First impressions are everything to a band, which means people that listen to a low-quality, low-budget basement EP are most likely going to turn your music off after 30 seconds. I know this for a fact, because we made this mistake too! We recorded our first EP back in 2016 for roughly $750 without having a clue as to what we were doing in the studio. We didn’t layer tracks, and only did a few takes per song. The result was riddled with mistakes and had a terrible mixing/mastering job.
At the time, I was so excited to release the music that I had overlooked how terrible of a job we had done on the EP. Before you spend your money on recording, make sure that you are well-rehearsed, and have some degree of knowledge regarding how studio time works. If you finish your time in the studio and you don’t think the tape is finished, go with your gut. Get better at your parts, dump in a little extra cash, and then finish it.
3. Make new friends
For a good while, we would play our shows and proceed to go talk to our friends afterwards. While chatting with your friends after a show isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I’ve found it to be far more important to make connections with the new people that are at your shows. These people can range from new fans that enjoyed your music, the venue staff, and most importantly, the other bands that you are playing the show with.
Since opening for a band called The Radiomen one summer ago, we’ve played a total of three shows with them. Engaging with new people at your shows expands your range of connections and really pays off in terms of building your fan base and booking future gigs.
4. Create merchandise
Another asset that we overlooked in our early years was the inclusion of a merch stand at our shows. In fact, I’ve found that not having one of these is probably one of the worst things you can do for your group. We never had a merch stand, and that effectively sums up why we made next to no money playing gigs.
Merchandising is about more than just selling shirts to fans. Having a merch stand implies that your band is serious and gives you a great opportunity to engage with the people that just saw you play. The money doesn’t hurt either, as it can do wonders by helping you pay for your studio and travel expenses.
Having merch stands up at shows can generate way more money for you than the cash handout you’re likely to get from the venue. Additionally, selling t-shirts with a cool logo on them can even be considered an effective method to publicly advertise your band. Signed EP’s are also a great way of getting people to show your music to their friends that might’ve not been at the show. Be sure to take the time to come up with a logo, and think of anything and everything that people might be willing to buy to support you at your shows.
5. Write lots of songs
Up until this past summer, our strategy for writing music was to take our time on each song and make it perfect. We would spend weeks debating how riffs should be played or how lyrics should be sung. This meant it took us about a month to write a song on average.
After our band-member overhaul, each of us decided to come up with our own song ideas which led the band to collectively write multiple songs at once. Although I was skeptical about this idea at first, I noticed that the song quality remained the same, and that some of our new riffs were even catchier than ever before!
Music is subjective. Not everyone likes every song as much as the next one, so there’s no point in trying to write ten flawless, exceptionally crafted songs for your first album. Instead, write as many songs as you can. Pick the best ones and slide them on the album, and pitch or improve the other song ideas that you have left over. The more songs you have to choose from, the better your album will be!
6. Remember to do the “other stuff”
There is a lot more to being in a band than simply creating and playing music. As I mentioned before, having a merch stand can be a real game changer, but as you continue to grow, other things become important as well.
Creating an effective plan to market and share your music is incredibly important. Music streaming sites and social media are some of the best ways to spread the word about your band and must be used effectively in order to get people to come to your shows. We were very bad about doing this, which explains why the faces we kept seeing in our crowds were familiar ones.
Managing the profit and expenses, creating a marketing team, finding a lawyer, and tour planning are just a few of the “other things” that must be done in order for your band to continue growing. Even if your tunes rock, it is important make sure that new people can hear them every day so that your audience continues to grow. Otherwise, you’ll be playing to Mom and Dad until you’re 25.
*For more info on how to do all the “other stuff”, pickup All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman
7. Turn nerves into adrenaline
Dating all the way back to high school band, I would always feel nervous before musical performances. I’d often run through different parts of songs in my head and fear the moment I had to begin playing. I felt this sensation before baseball games too, which often caused me to struggle at times during games. It took up until I saw Avenged Sevenfold for the first time to realize that I could turn my nervousness into raw power and excitement. After seeing how the band came out on stage and instantly took command of it, I felt renewed as a performer. I wanted to be like that.
This led me to start playing with confidence and force. I realized that people come to shows to be entertained, so I did by best to adopt a very entertaining style of playing. The comments I began to get after this adjustment were deeply rewarding. People would come up to me and tell me that I was doing something special, or to never stop playing the drums because I was so fun to not only listen to, but also watch.
Focus on your stage presence. Don’t get on stage and just stand there waiting for the end of your set list. Make eye contact with the audience, head bang, spin your guitar, flip your sticks, and have fun playing. If you’re having fun on stage, odds are the crowd is enjoying your show whether they look like it or not. It took us a good while to figure out how to get stage presence right, but once we did, our shows became way more fun.
8. Never quit
The fastest way to failure is giving up. The reason successful musicians wind up becoming successful is because they get back up after they get knocked down. In the beginning every musician’s career, they are going to be denied plenty of gigs, told that their music is average, and have a few bad shows. I’ve struggled with this a lot, especially now that I’ve started to see other bands that we’ve grown up with starting to expand their fan bases and become much larger locally. Music isn’t a race though. Success is found through learning, and unfortunately, musicians must find that out the hard way.
Instead of allowing the road bumps throughout your journey to destroy your dreams, learn from them and find ways to get better. A lot of this business deals with figuring out what works and what doesn’t. View your failures as successes, providing that you will improve on them the next time. Get used to being told no and turn your frustration into fuel for songwriting.
Go forth and continue doing what you love. If music is calling you, it’s calling you for a reason. Whether you want to be the next big thing or stay local, remember these tips and don’t get discouraged if something isn’t working. Embrace the journey and never give up!
Doug Queen is a junior studying music composition, arts management, and music business at Miami University. He is the drummer of a band called Kingstreet which regularly plays throughout the Columbus area.