Reflections on a Failed Music Career: The Politics of Being in a Band
By Wil Forbis
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Perhaps no social unit has been more glorified by the megaphone of pop-culture than the rock band. From Josie and the Pussycats to the Partridge Family, from the Monkees to Spinal Tap, members of rock bands are presumed to live lives of eternal adolescence, indulge in orgies of sexual conquest, and share unbreakable bonds of friendship. The public eats up biographies of famous bands and studies their histories in the innumerable documentaries available (my favorite: "Dig" about the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.) And, it goes without saying that everyone wants to be in a rock band. Look no further of the success of the "Guitar Hero" video game. People yearn to be on stage (for reasons I've written about in more detail here.)
In my 20 plus years of playing guitar, I've performed in numerous bands. There's no doubt that many of the great moments of my life have been the result of band membership. But so have many moments of angst, personal turmoil and frustration. It ain't easy. I'd like to say "being in a band is a lot like being in a marriage," but I've never been married. (Hey, I'm crazy, not stupid!)
I can say that being in a band is nothing like how it's presented by popular culture (though "Spinal Tap" gets close.) Let me bust two most ridiculous myths I often see presented about band life.
Myth #1: Band Members are Best Friends in the Whole Wide World, Forever!
Members of bands are often presented as a unified, singular tribe of like-minded misfits. They dress the same. They have the same haircuts. Take a look at a poster featuring the latest heavy metal band and you will see a glowering band of brothers, united in their determination to rock. Take a gander at most modern pop groups and you see what appears to be a blissful communitarian marriage, devoid of any acrimony.
Of course, anyone who's ever been in a band, or know someone in a band, or has been conscious for a single hour during the past 40 years knows this is a crock of shit. Band members often do like each other, but they just as often can't stand each other, or are indifferent to each other, or just don't find each other very interesting. Mick hated Keith (probably still does.) In their prime, Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks could barely stand each other. Axl Rose hates every person he's ever shared a stage with, as well as every person who's ever lived.
Such fiery relationships are not unpredictable. The stated purpose of a band is to create music. Unfortunately, music is a vague, ill-defined thing. There are no set rules, and different people will have different ideas about what constitutes "good" music. This can lead to a lot of discussions and arguments were the only real arbitrator of what is right or true is the intensity of displayed emotion (again, like a marriage.)
Myth # 2: Musically Speaking, All Band Members are in Total Agreement
When you watch band interviews, or read band bios, you often get the impression that every member of the band is on the same page when it comes to music. They all appear to share the same same cultural background, and liked the same kind of music growing up. If there's any disagreement, it's granular. The lead singer might say something like, "Jizzy, our guitar player, tends to be into screamo death metal, while I prefer post-80s hard-core, but we've managed to coalesce these different influences into a consistent sound."
Personally, I've never been in a band where everyone is on the same page musically. I have been in bands where the drummer only liked 80s heavy metal, whereas the guitar player listened exclusively to traditional jazz. That said, most musicians --- almost by definition --- have pretty wide ranging tastes. If you're shooting to be a professional musician and you know you're going to get called up for country gigs, and jazz gigs, and rock gigs and maybe even a little klezmer, you better have some familiarity with all those styles.
Nonetheless, sometimes the fact that individual band members have disparate influences does become a problem. Every experienced musician has been in a least one band where the guitar player thought he was in a reggae band while the drummer thought he was in a funk band, and no one wanted to confront the elephant in the room. Bringing different influences to the table can be a great thing, and lead to some great music, but every member has to be willing to meet the others somewhere near the halfway point.
The solution to these problems might seem obvious: only join bands with people you like and with whom you share compatible tastes. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. The reason for this might surprise some people: there's a shortage of musicians.
Many of the people living in cities where I've inhabited --- Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego --- might balk at that statement. In those metropolises you can't go 2 feet without tripping over some long-haired, lice ridden goon lugging a guitar or bass drum around. But most musicians want to play with people of similar musical ability --- nobody wants to feel like they have to carry the band, or be outclassed --- and that limits your pool of potential band members. On top of that, people want to play in bands where everyone shares the same commitment level. If it's a weekend "for fun" band that should be acknowledged, as it should if the goal is to become rock gods. (Surprisingly, the important conversation determining people's commitment level was not had in many bands I've been.) Again, the pool shrinks.
At this point, you have two options. One is to look around in your group of friends for people you'd like to play with. The second is to post an ad on a bulletin board or in any musicians publication looking for players. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages: You know you get along with them (they are your friends, after all.)
Disadvantages: Being in a band together is a great way to ruin a friendship. And you may find you over or underestimated their musical ability due to your desire to have them in the band.
Advantages: You can very specifically spell out your requirements in terms of style and commitment level without feeling any guilt.
Disadvantages: You have no idea whether you get along with this person. Months can go by before they announce that they are committed to the cause of white separatism.
Regardless of how you find your fellow band members, the day will eventually arrive when you realize you have to kick someone out of your band. Calling up and firing a band member --- often a good friend --- is one of the most gut wrenching things I've ever had to do. It can be worse than some breakups. With a failed romance, you're often at the point where you can't really stand the person anyway. The dismissal of a band member, however, doesn't necessarily have anything to do with him as a person (yes, sometimes it does) but simply their musical ability. There's no getting around what you're fundamentally saying during that conversation: "You suck. Can we still be friends? (And, more importantly, will you still come to our gigs?)"
It may seem like I'm focusing on the negative here, but that's only to offset the glowing affirmations of the band life as it is presented in popular culture. The truth is, I'm friends with most of the people I've played with, and I consider the bonds and musical memories that we share invaluable. Since high school, whenever I've moved to a new town, the way I've met people has been music --- going out to open mics, or participating in jams. It's a way of finding out if you have something in common with another person that transcends social class, personal income or what sports team they like. As is often stated, music is a language, and playing music with someone is about communication. There are those moments where you are jamming with someone you've just met and the two of you lock in on a groove or melodic idea and you know it: you're friends for life.
That said, it ain't no fuckin' Partridge family.Next Month: Has technology destroyed popular music?
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.