We have already talked about how involved it is when starting a band, and what you need to do to get ahead and be a professional. Today, we look over the next steps to take and discuss some tough topics. Are you ready?
Starting A Band: It Gets MORE Complicated…
Last year, I wrote an article about starting an original band, and I had an inbox full of comments asking about topics about what comes next. If you click that link, you will see that absolute basics of starting from scratch, and for a lot of people that may be where you are at in the process. But after all of the comments that I got, I figured it is time to tackle some of the harder parts of being in a band. Because starting a band is not easy and there is no instruction manual. Until now!
Seriously, my inbox was out of control. Thanks for all the questions!
Just like the first article, I am not going to handle these topics lightly. I am not going to sugarcoat anything for you, because that’s just not reality. We are going to continue to look at this from a realist perspective, because the music business is hard. If you are expecting to have a good time, then join a weekend band and have fun jamming. If you want to be a professional musician, its not going to be all wine and roses. Being an original band can be really difficult, but it is also rewarding!
Last time I compared starting a band to being in a marriage, and that comparison will be ringing even more true in this article. Starting a band is about creating a machine with working parts. We are going to assume that you have already taken the important steps that we talked about last time. So let’s paint a picture:
- You Have Found Members On The Same Page
- You Have An Original Sound
- You Have Made Friends With Other Bands And Peers
- You Have Killer Stage Presence
- Roles Have Been Assigned
- Practice is Effective
- A Few Shows Have Been Played
- The Whole Band Has Good Etiquette
- ANYTHING CAN AND WILL HAPPEN!
Have you accomplished everything on that list? Because those are the staples of starting a band. It’s really important to have those fundamentals to start with, and keep them along the way. Take the “Be Original” section of my last article for example. I listen to the Top Metal playlist on Spotify, and there are a lot of bands that have skipped that step apparently. I can’t tell half of the bands apart anymore. They all use the same sounds, the same plugins, playing the same style of music. It is truly exhausting just trying to get through that playlist sometimes.
No, this isn’t an “Old Man Yells At Clouds” moment. But there are tons of bands that getting five minutes of fame, and have no longevity because they sound like everyone else. Like I said, we have to talk real here. If you sound just like another band, then go back to step one. The same goes for finding the right band members. Do you have a person in your band that you know for sure is going to be a problem, as Tobias Forge discovered with his Ghost band, down the road? You need to fix that like, yesterday. One bad member can ruin it for everyone.
I also hope that you have assigned roles to the band members too, because there are going to be new roles presented today. I know I am repeating myself, but it really is imperative to have all your bases covered if you are going to do this for a living. Everyone needs a role, and if they didn’t have one before, they will get a role from this article.
Being original, having a look for the stage, and knowing your role in the band is all going to important later. If you don’t have the fundamentals, then the steps in this article are where you will fail. If there is a problem, then now is the time to address it. Put down the phone or close the laptop and go handle that stuff right now. If you’re ready, the let’s proceed!
If you have taken heed to all of the previous advice, then you have probably played a few shows and you have been paid. Maybe you haven’t been paid yet, but eventually you will start making money as a professional band. Money can be a big point of contention within a band, so we are going to discuss this first. Money is the root of all evil, according to some. But it is a necessary component to your band being successful. So why don’t we start there?
Starting A Band: Money?
Making money from playing shows is not easy at first. When you’re first starting a band, no one knows who you are. So you have to pay your dues usually, and open up for some bigger local bands first. This is usually an unpaid spot, and that really sucks. But we have all done this before, and you will too. What you are looking to get, is enough hype around your band to hopefully get a “guaranteed draw”.
A draw is how many people you can pack into a venue. If you tell a venue that you can pack it out on a Friday night, and the draw will be around 50 people, that’s awesome. But you also have to be honest about this, with yourself and the promoters/venue. If you promise a big draw and 5 people show up, this is going to look really bad and the venue is going to be pissed off. But if you make enough noise, and do enough promotion, you will eventually gain a local following. Assuming you followed everything I already laid out. Once you have a good draw, you will start getting paid!
Getting followers that come to your shows is an organic process, if you offer something different and unique…people will come see you. This is why I stress originality and stage persona so much. People don’t want to come to a show and hear three bands that all sound the same. Conversely, they also don’t want to see people on stage that look like they just left work. They want to see a show, and your “look” is part of this. If you look like a band, and play original engaging material, people will pay to see you.
When you get people to pay to see you, it can happen in different ways. Sometimes you get a flat fee for playing a show that is written into a contract that the venue or promoters will provide. Other times you may get part of the “door charge” where people pay to get into the venue. Either way, it’s positive cash flow coming to your band. This is a big step, and once you have a good draw, then it’s time to talk about our least favorite subject in the process of starting a band: Money.
I remember the first show that I ever got paid for, and it was such a huge feeling of accomplishment. I felt like I was finally becoming a PRO. The Primary reason we all play shows as a band is because it’s fun as hell. But we also want to be paid for our time, talent, entertainment, and expenses. So let’s assume your band is making money, even if it is only small amounts in the beginning. The first thought is to take the money and split it evenly right? That’s fair for everyone in the band isn’t it?
Splitting up the money between everyone is the worst idea possible. Chances are, it will be gone the next day. But don’t fret (pun intended) because I have a solution for you. Remember when we talked about roles? Well some lucky person is about to get their first role, or they are getting another one depending on how you dealt out the roles in the beginning. It may sound silly, but you are going to need a treasurer.
Someone in the band is going to have to be the person in charge of the money. This means that they stay after the show and make sure you get paid, first and foremost. But this person is also going to hang onto the money, so trust is going to be important here. But if you have chosen the right people to be in your band, this shouldn’t be an issue. Now this person can just hang onto the money if they want to, but that can get complicated later down the road.
I suggest you set up a bank account. Now I know this seems like a bit much, but we are talking about becoming pros here. Not just some local hero band that plays on the weekend and thinks this is one big party. You can easily set up an account either in one person’s name, or the whole band if you want. The best option is to open a joint account between two members, so they have to both be present to make a withdrawal. But having one person to control all of the finances is just fine.
Now you have a couple of options of what to do with this money. I can give you two examples, and you can choose the one that works best for you. Like I said, starting a band is complicated! There are two ways to do this, and both have advantages and disadvantages.
- 1. Use The Money For Band “Stuff”: This is easy. You use the band money to replace broken equipment, buy strings, replace drum heads and speakers. These are day-to-day things that you use the money for. This is good for the moment, but bad for the long term.
- 2. Save The Money: This means that no one touches the money at all. regular expenses are covered by the band members themselves for gear and such. This is good for the long term, but makes the present tougher.
Option number one can be good and bad for starting a band. Knowing that you have money saved up, should something tragic happen when it comes to gear is a great feeling. But every dollar you remove from the kitty is a dollar that can go on to fund the rest of the items on this guide today. Just something to keep in mind, as music gear is expensive. If it is an emergency, then you have no choice, sometimes.
Option number two is the more stable option in my opinion. This will make sure that your future is secure when it comes to buying other things for the band. Buying gear is a necessity, but bigger projects like merch down the road are going to cost money. Do you want to pay for studio time out of your pocket? This is something that will vary from band to band. Option two is how I have always ran the operation, and sometimes it made me look like the bad guy. But it worked out for the future.
Which option you choose is up to you, but I recommend that you save money indefinitely. Because you will need it in the future if you plan to continue on and level up. Most musicians have day jobs in the beginning anyway, and that should cover minor gear expenses. If you are all totally broke, then using the money for expenses might be the only way. But this will put you at a disadvantage later, because you have to spend money to make money when starting a band. Starting a band is a marriage and a business, remember? Which brings us to…
Recording Your Music: Studio Time!
If you have shows under your belt, and have gained a pretty decent audience, then it might be time to give them something to remember. I bet you there is a song that you all like to play, and it’s a banger. That song is probably the one that also gets the most response from the crowd too! Everyone just loves this song, and it probably gets requested at shows. This was the whole point of starting a band, right? This means that the time to record is finally here. But how do you even begin?
In the first article, I told you to get familiar with all of the other bands in your local scene, remember? This is important when starting a band because you will need help along the way. One of the things you will need is knowledge about local studios. Picking a studio that is the right fit for you can be hard, because sometimes the studio might not be equipped for your style. This is why you need to know your scene.
Ask the bands that you play with about studios, since they will probably be the same genre as you. You can talk to the other local bands, and listen to their recorded work. If a band has a song recorded that sounds similar to what you want, ask them where they recorded it! Since you made friends with these bands already, they will probably hook you up and introduce you to the studio owner. They might even “take you under their wing” if they are a bigger band, and get you a discount. You never know!
The band that you play shows with may even own their own studio! This would be a perfect situation, and it has happened to me a few times. Sometimes the quality was better than the local studio could produce. But the reality is, you will probably have to go to a professional studio. I suggest you go to a real studio over a friend’s home studio unless they have something really amazing going on. You need someone with the tools you need for your band. Speaking of…
The last thing you want is to be a heavy metal band, and show up to a studio that records mostly country artists. This is not going to work at all, and it will waste everyone’s time. If you sound like Lorna Shore and you go record with the studio that does folk music, it will be bad. Make sure you listen to the studio’s recent output, and see if it lines up with your sound. You may have to travel to a nearby city that is larger than your own. Make sure to make accommodations if this is the case. This is another reason to save your money from gigs!
Maybe you are thinking that you can just do it yourself at home. I don’t have any problem with this if you already have the gear and the knowledge. By “the knowledge” I mean that you know how to properly record a band, have pro gear, know how to mix, and know how to master. If you aren’t 100% on this, then just go to the studio. It will be so much faster, and easier. I like to record everything at the studio, and take the tracks home to mix and master them myself, but that’s after me doing this for 20 years!
Some studios charge by the hour, while others may charge by the project. Just like booking a show in the last article, you need to ask all the right questions so you can make sure you have the budget worked out. This is where the saving money as a band issue pops up (for the first time, it will pop up again later). If you have been saving money since starting a band, you should have enough to get recording started at the very least. This is why I suggested saving the money. Make sure you know the total cost and details upfront. This includes mixing and mastering. Know the total cost upfront from the studio you choose.
As a band, you need to choose the song to record. I would not do a whole album these days, and the next installment of this guide will discuss why. I suggest you sit down as a band after practice and pick 3 songs that you know are great, not just good. I’m sure you have two or three that are in your head as you read this. Out of those two or three, you need to whittle it down to just one. No pressure, this is only the song that will define you as a band for the coming year or so!
At the beginning of starting a band, we talked about compromise. Everyone needs to be happy with the song you have picked out to be recorded. But more importantly, make sure its a song that you all know well from that grueling practice I spoke of in the last article. But also make this first recording a great song, the one that always gets the crowd moving. Not everyone will agree on which song to record first, but that’s ok. Pick the banger that you can play in your sleep first, and other songs can always be done later. Take a vote if you have to, majority rules in a democracy.
Oh, and please don’t pick some 8 minute long epic song that belongs in a Lord of The Rings movie. Pick something short and sweet, that will grab the listener’s attention immediately. No one is going to listen to a 4 minute long guitar solo after the piano intro and wait for the first verse to start 6 minutes into the track. Well, maybe Tool fans will listen to that…but you aren’t Tool. Get it? Got it? Good!
Studio Etiquette: Be A PRO At All Times!
The way you act at the studio may vary depending on the studio, but remember, starting a band is a business. You need to be in top shape when you go in to record. The week before, make sure you don’t have any gigs lined up. Because you need to practice the hell out of the song that you plan to record. Make sure everyone has the song down, and you are consistent every time you play it. If there are any issues, work them out in this week of practice. Whatever you do, don’t make any drastic changes to the song.
Just like gigs/shows, everyone needs to be on their best behavior in the studio. If you followed the first guide that I wrote, then you are probably used to being on your best behavior and providing a positive public image. I have some suggestions, but again…it really depends on the studio. But I have some general rules that should help out as an guideline:
- Bring all of your gear, you may or may not use it. But bring it all.
- No drugs, and no drinking. This is a job, remember.
- Greet the producer/engineer, and thank them upfront.
- Have a song outline for the producer (more on this later)
- Listen to the producer, they know what they are talking about.
- Know your parts.
- Have any gear presets ready to go.
- Have someone with a camera!
I like to have a meeting with the studio beforehand, and discuss what you want to get out of the recording. Tell the staff there what you have in mind for your song. Talk about the schedule, and express how long you think it will take to get everyone’s parts done. You can even bring some examples of other bands that you like, and use them for “reference tracks”. If you want a sound like a certain song or album, now is the time to bring it up. Have drum sound examples, the guitar tones you have in mind, and an overall tonal outline that you can show to the studio.
You should start with the song outline aspect of recording, once you arrive and you are set up. You should have the song mapped out for the producer, or maybe even have a rough demo for them to listen to. This gives the production team an idea of how to go about recording. A song outline is easy to write up. Just have it mapped out like “Loud Verse/Chorus/Quiet Verse/Chorus/Breakdown/Outro”. I like to go the extra mile with this, and write down how many bars each part has, and the dynamics or each part. Like this, hopefully this makes sense:
- Intro (Swell)
- Hook Riff (Loud, Quick 2 bars)
- Verse 1 (Very Quiet 6 bars)
- Chorus (Everyone Loud 4 bars)
- Verse 2 (Whole band this time, 4 bars, half time)
- Breakdown (Heavy and tight, 8 bars)
- Guitar solo (6 bars)
- Last Chorus (Very loud, 8 bars this time with harmonies)
- Outro (Fade the song out, 8 bars)
- Tempo 120 bpm
- Clean verse vocals and aggressive chorus vocals,
- Two guitars distorted, one clean guitar, keyboard pads/samples on verses, distorted bass
This may seem silly to people that are used to going into the studio, but I do a song outline every single damn time I record. This just helps everyone stay on track and understand the song structure. Trust me, the production team will be impressed, especially if you are a young band. Tell them you are just starting a band, and you want to get everything right the first time.
Have all of your gear ready to rock. This means everything needs to be dialed in for the song before you show up. Tweak your Line 6 patches, tune your drums, changes your strings…all before you walk through the door. That being said, also know your parts backwards and forwards. You just spent a week practicing before going to the studio, so you should all have your parts down perfectly. If the studio charges by the hour, this is even more important, because you don’t need anyone wasting valuable time doing take after take after take.
Show up ready to go, and have a positive mindset. If you’re the singer, then make sure your voice is rested, and warm up before you step up to the mic. Everyone should also bring backups, just like a gig. Bring extra strings, and all of your tools. bring extra everything. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AND IT WILL. Get that statement burned into your mind forever, you will be better for it, I promise.
Now some producers will just let you do whatever you want, and offer zero input. Personally I see this as a red flag, and I don’t like this approach. Others will offer lots of input, and may even suggest restructuring the song or making some changes. It really is up to you to take this advice or not, but take heed and at least listen and consider. They may have an idea that you didn’t think of! You can always say no, but these guys have probably seen tons of bands and heard tons of songs. Always take it as a suggestion and be open to change. It might turn your banger into something next level.
The studio may have some really wicked high end gear that is available to use, and the producer may let you use some of it. Expensive drums and amplifiers, or good microphones. If they let you use anything, then treat it with care, and let the engineer dial it in for you. It might not sound good alone, but they know how to dial it into a mix and make it sound great. Be extra careful with all of the studio equipment they let you use, and respect it!
When it comes to mixing, this may be done with you present, or not. Personally, I would ask to sit in on the mixing portion. When it comes to mixing a song, every single song is different. Some engineers will mix as they go, and there wont be much left to do at the end. Some do the exact opposite. Either way, advocate for yourselves, if you have a sound in your head then make sure it gets on the recording the way you want. Want a heavier breakdown? Say so! If something sounds bad, then tell the producer what is wrong, and suggest a fix. This is your band.
I mentioned bringing a camera along, and this is super important too. Someone needs to be taking some really great pictures of the band having fun and recording. Video would be even better. Please don’t use a cell phone for all of this, use a GoPro, or something similar. Bring a photographer friend with you if you can (you’re in a band, one of you probably dates one). These photos and videos can be used later for promotion before you release the song. This material can create some serious hype around your song. Post the pictures on social media, and announce that you have a song coming soon!
Mastering is a totally different part of the recording process. Some studios charge extra for this, but it’s incredibly important. Starting a band is hard, but starting a studio is even harder. Mastering is truly and art, and it has nothing to do with just “making things louder”. It is essential to get the dynamics of your performance across and make sure that the song is radio/Spotify ready. Learning what mastering is composed of is a good idea.
Mixing and mastering can take a while, so be patient with the studio. They want your song to be great just as much as you do, because the studio’s best advertisement is your music! When you part ways, and allow the studio to wrap up the song, ask them to burn the “Stem Files” to a disc for you. That way, you have each track of the performance, and this can come in handy later.
You may not be happy with the final song mix, but you are happy with the performances. Having the Stem Files will let you take it to another studio to be remixed if you wish. The Stems can also be used in remixes that other artists can do, like someone who does DJ/Electronic music. They can take your Stem files and make cool remixes. Always leave the studio no matter what, with your Stem files. Pay extra if you have to, but most studios expect you to ask for this.
Make sure you thank everyone involved, and let them know that you appreciate all the help. Ask for a timeline, if possible, so you can plan a campaign for the song release. Ask any questions you may have before you leave the studio. Be super classy, and put your best attitude forward, even if it was a hard day of recording. Studios sometimes give discounts to bands that are easy to work with and have positive attitudes. Your song may come out perfect, and you may want to use this studio for the next single. Building a working relationship is key.
Starting A Band: Where Do We Go next?
Hopefully, you are waiting on your masterpiece of a song to be mixed and mastered. In the next installment, we will talk about what to do next. Chances are, if you have made it this far, you are probably having a blast. But you also know how hard it is starting a band from scratch. That’s ok, it definitely has a degree of difficulty, and this lifestyle is not for everyone. But for those of us that are built for this life, this is awesome.
Our article next week will be about the next steps to take after you have this amazing banger of a song recorded, mastered and ready to hit the web. We will go over the next steps in detail, because even though all of this seems like it was a journey so far…you have a long way to go!