Where is your band going wrong?
It's Tuesday night at The Sweatbox, and you're third on the bill to a jazz-funk jam band whose lead singer is more hat than man.
There are three people in the audience and they're all on their phones. You sound terrible and you can't put your finger on why (although you suspect it's got something to do with the drummer). You started a band to have fun, and this is very definitely not fun. What went wrong?
Frankly, it could be any number of reasons ranging from the complete absence of talent to forgetting to tell everyone (including the bass player) that the gig was even happening.
However, we're willing to wager that you're making some fundamental mistakes. But worry ye not! We're here to help you spot the problems, eliminate them, and get your band off the toilet circuit and into the stadiums. Maybe.
It's worth noting that the wisdom imparted herewith was all learned the hard way. Everyone at MusicRadar has made these mistakes, some more than once, so we're not here to preach. Rather, to give you the benefit of experience so that you don't make the same mistakes we did.
So read on for advice on everything from practicing to online promotion, unless of course you know it all. In which case, good luck next Monday night at the Suck Bunker. We reckon you're going to need it...
Practice, practice, practice
You know that thing everyone always says about practice making perfect? Well, we're sorry to break it to you, but it's true.
If you want your band to sound good, it doesn't matter whether you're playing delta blues or djent, you're going to have to practice. Time spent in the practice room working on songs, polishing up arrangements and really nailing that middle eight will pay off in the long run. Plus, there's an added incentive - there are fewer more enjoyable things to do than make a racket with your mates.
So the first lesson to learn here is: stop being lazy. If you want to be great, you're going to have to put the time in. Stop posting pictures of your dinner, your cat or your cat eating your dinner on Tumblr, and go practice. Put down the Xbox controller and go practice. Step away from Netflix, and... well, you get it.
When you play live, you'll be more confident. When you record, the band will be tighter and will waste less studio time. You'll write more songs, which eventually means you'll write better songs. But most of all, you'll get all of the suck out of your music in the safe surroundings of the practice room. Trust us, it's for the best.
Recording the masterpiece
Think you can book at day at your local recording studio/ bloke's garage and record your debut album in a day, Beatles-style? Think again, chum.
Unless you're The Beatles (which, let's face it, you aren't) you need to be realistic about what to expect from your day in the studio. Sit down with your band and talk about what you're actually going into the studio for.
Think about it logically: how much time do you have, and what's the studio set up? If you've got a day or two in a small studio with a decent live room, you're probably going to be better off concentrating on one or two of your best songs.
If you've practiced long and hard (and if you haven't, don't bother wasting your cash on recording – it's no fun for anyone involved), have some faith in yourselves. Use the gear you're used to, get yourselves set up and comfortable, and see what you can do.
There are plenty of things you can do to make your studio experiences enjoyable as well as productive. Stay sober. Be friendly to the engineer and listen to his advice – he knows more than you, and he knows how to get the most out of the studio. If you can, speak to him beforehand and discuss what you want to do.
There are minor considerations that can prove to be pretty important too. Relentlessly check your tuning. Make sure you eat something and take the odd break. Get a decent kip the night before so that you can keep your concentration and energy levels up.
If you can help it, don't ask for the moon on a stick. You're not going to be able to do 300 guitar overdubs in a single recording session, so keep that in mind. Ultimately, be realistic, keep an open mind and enjoy yourself.
And, just in case you were't paying attention up there, stay sober. There's nothing clever about ruining a day's recording because you can't handle your jazz fags and fizzy pop.
You've recorded a demo, you've booked a gig, and it's time to take those all-important band photos.
Almost everything you need to know about making this a success can be boiled down to one thing: do not pose in front of a wall.
We'll say that again, in case you missed it: do not pose in front of a wall.
Show some creativity. You're supposed to be an artist, so think outside the box. Forget the box. The box is an illusion. Standing moodily in a line by some crappy local graffiti is not edgy. It's lazy, and it's been done by almost every band on the planet.
So go and do something different. Think about local landmarks, strange buildings or unique locations nearby. Scout them out. Do some research. It'll make for a much more interesting set of pictures.
When you find your location, the next thing is to find a photographer. That means someone with a decent camera who knows how to use it. These days, folks like this are ten a penny, and you shouldn't have a problem finding a relative or a friend with a good idea and a chunky looking camera that you don't understand.
Don't just take a band selfie with a smartphone. It's nowhere near as funny as you think it is.
It's also worth taking a good hard look at what you're wearing. Think about the sort of music you make and the bands you love in your genre. Great bands look cool, and that doesn't happen by accident. No one's saying you have to get a stylist or wear some sort of uniform, but you'll be doing yourselves a favour if you actually talk about what you want to look like.
Aesthetics are important. Rock and roll is about the full package, which means making a aural and visualimpact. Remember that before you rush out to stare moodily into the middle distance in front of your dad and the camera he got for Christmas.
Live and loud
You're about to take to the stage at The Rock Hole, all your friends (and both your parents) are there, and you don't want to screw it up.
Here's our fireproof plan for making everything go smoothly, in handy bullet points:
- Practice hard before the gig, and settle on the setlist way in advance. Nobody wants any surprises on the night.
- Talk to the venue and any other bands on the bill beforehand. Will you need to bring amps and a full drum kit, or will there be some sharing? Is there a guest list? Where's the venue? Get all the details sorted, and make sure everyone in the band knows what's going on.
- Turn up early and soundcheck properly – no noodling. Listen to the sound man and do what he says. He is your friend.
- Make sure you've got plenty of spare strings, sticks, batteries and any other breakables.
- Don't get hammered while you're waiting to go on. Sounds obvious, doesn't it?
- Watch the other bands and be friendly. You're all in the same boat, and you want them to watch your ground-breaking set, right?
- If you've got nothing to say between songs, that's alright. Don't feel you have to be a comedian or a philosopher. It takes time to feel comfortable on stage, and to begin with you're probably better off saying nothing at all than rambling.
- No noodling between songs. Nobody is enjoying it.
- Don't outstay your welcome. Stick to your allotted time and be punctual, or you'll throw the whole night out. And remember, no one wants to hear you jamming for an hour. No one.
- Enjoy yourselves. You're playing a gig, not erecting the Berlin Wall. You're supposed to be entertaining people, and it's worth trying to remember that. Not everyone can pull off studious cool, and sometimes it doesn't hurt to look like you're having a good time.
Finally, a word on frequency. Once you get into the swing of gigging, it can be difficult to turn down offers of shows. And while there's something to be said for getting live experience under your belt, beware playing too often in too small an area.
No matter the band, if they play the same town week in, week out for months, eventually people will loose interest. So mix it up - play different areas, organise your own tours with bands that you've made friends with on the circuit, and give yourself time to promote individual gigs.
On to the web
Take it from us: if anyone in the music industry happens upon any of your social media pages and there is no obviously signposted link to some music, they will go away and never come back.
You're a band. Your music should be front and centre, so put that SoundCloud link with your demo on it everywhere. On your Facebook page (ideally in a helpfully labelled tab that says MUSIC big and bold), in your Twitter bio, in an email footer, tattooed to your forehead – everywhere.
Here's a handy hint though: don't email your songs to anyone. Emails containing an album's worth of MP3s are immediately deleted by everyone, no exceptions.
When it comes to your web presence, it's tempting to join every site going, but we'd advise restraint. Pick one or two and concentrate on doing them properly. The value of social media is that it means you don't have to waste time and money on building your own site right off the bat, so take advantage of that.
Try and give all your pages a unifying look. Update them regularly, but get involved in conversations rather than relentlessly plugging your latest EP/gig/limited cassingle release. There's nothing worse than a band who does nothing but talk about themselves, and it's a sure-fire way of losing fans.
Use the strengths within your band and its extended family. If you know a graphic designer, or someone who can write, then get them involved. If one of your band has somehow amassed thousands of twitter followers, get his 140 character genius all over your band's twitter account.
Some bands can get away with being aloof and detached, but that's the exception rather than the rule. There was a time for mysterious musicians who emerged once every couple of years with a new album before melting back into the mist, and that time was the 1970s. Nowadays, people expect interaction, entertainment and engagement. If you can't deliver that, then try and find someone who can show you how.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to ensure people care about your band online is make great art. Don't just throw out half-baked demo recordings every month. Take your time and make something that will knock people out. A single well-recorded great song will do more for you than a dozen free albums. One clever video can break your band across the world, overnight.
Collaborate with people who can do things you can't – animators, graphic designers, web wizards, film makers, bakers, candlestick makers, whoever – and get involved. You'll find people being creative all around you if you look hard enough. Ask around at work or at school and you can be sure to find someone who is desperate to make music videos or design cool logos. The key to online success lies in showing that your band isn't another bunch of dim-witted wannabes clogging up the internet pipe. So take risks, have fun and do something different.
This is probably the most important lesson, and one that many bands never learn.
Be nice. It's as simple as that.
You see, no matter how talented you are (or think you are), if your attitude stinks sooner or later people are going to stop working with you. Yes, rock and roll was founded on some of the biggest egos ever to have strummed a Strat, but that doesn't mean you can start acting up as soon as you've uploaded a home recorded EP to Bandcamp.
All throwing a TV out of a hotel window is going to do is lose you a deposit and get you banned from hotels. Smashing equipment is petulant. Abusing audiences, kicking off with promotors and generally acting like you're God's gift are all surefire ways to get blacklisted from venues and labelled an idiot by everyone you come into contact with. Scenes are small and word travels fast. Get a bad reputation and not only will it spread, it'll stick.
And remember, if you want to sell records or even think about making a living out of your music, it's going to take a lot of hard work by a lot of different people working across a range of specialised areas. Bands don't operate in a vacuum, and the way that you interact with the good people of the music industry will impact everything from the gigs you get to the number of people willing to come and see you.
Even the worst of rock's egomaniacs balanced out their childish nonsense with charm, charisma or talent. But we aren't all born superstars, so play nice. In the end, if you try your best not be a total jackass and concentrate on making the best music you can, the worst that can happen is that everyone has a good time. And that's what the whole thing is about anyway, right?