OK, this comes up a lot in conversations, and it seems that very few people really understand the processes that go into forming the bands that you listen to and take for granted. Here’s a quick bluffer’s guide to how it works. It’s pretty long, so I’ll split it up. I’ll explain later on why 99% of bands aren’t playing arenas, though it should be self-evident if you missed out any of these steps along the way.
Learning the craft
In order to be good at playing any musical instrument, you need to be putting more effort into it than 99% of people in bands. Yes, you don’t have to be particularly good in order to be in a band, but lack of aptitude will limit you and frustrate you, so if you have the choice, then get practising. About 90 minutes a day should do it – guitar or piano are the easiest and most versatile, but there’s always a shortage of bassists and drummers. Sure, any fool can play bass, but good bassists are hard to find. If you play a more niche instrument such as the saxophone or flute, it’s worth additionally learning guitar or piano to make sure your skills are always in demand. It’s definitely worth learning how to read sheet music, and some classical music theory, too, even if you only play rock.
A drummer will need good upper body strength and a soundproofed rehearsal area. Don’t piss off the neighbours. Establish good ethics to start with and keep people on your side: you might need them later. Look at Hollywood – the people getting the most work (e.g. Sandra Bullock) have a reputation for being very pleasant and professional. The people who suddenly drift by the wayside despite early promise are either druggie wasters or dicks – which more often than not amounts to the same thing.
Form or join a band
This is the hard part for most people. Traditionally, Melody Maker or your local indie record store were the recruitment consultants for aspiring musicians. Now, social networks can get the word out that you’re looking for collaborators.
Find people who are into what you’re into – and people with whom you can comfortably work. You don’t need to have absolutely everything in common, aside from a commitment to a common goal. Essentially, these people will be your work colleagues – you don’t have to love them, but you have to be able to work with them. Someone serious-minded who just gets on with the job will be far less annoying than someone fun who just wants to lark about.
The most valuable member of a band is the one who acts as quality control, regardless of any other role they play. Think: Chris Vrenna in Nine Inch Nails – you can normally tell which member of the band was the quality control because the minute they leave, the quality of the material suddenly becomes wildly unpredictable and everything is a double album of which only ten tracks are actually any good. Whatever role you personally play in the band, practice tact and diplomacy when it comes to telling the eye-wateringly egotistical singer their ideas suck. All singers are egotistical, but avoid the truly arrogant ones – someone who can’t listen to good advice is no good to anyone. A healthy level is just someone who is laughably pretentious but otherwise easygoing and pleasant – after all, it is they who have to make an idiot of themselves in the spotlight.
Of course, you can do it all yourself if you have a home recording studio and a knack with software. That’s a separate skill in itself, though – as complicated as learning a musical instrument to proficiency. Too many people buy synths or soft-synths and then don’t bother to learn them properly. If you stick to sample CDs and presets, you will never be excellent. Writing electronic is collage-art, and your skill is in assembling sounds in a way that has never been done before. Never view it as the easy route.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
You should be able to find a practice space near to where you live, which split between a band won’t break your pocket. Aim to practice at least once a week together and then spend an hour or two a day on your own, going over your parts and/or writing lyrics.
The advantage of going to a rehearsal studio is, of course, space and equipment. If you can rehearse in a garage, that’s great, but the acoustics normally aren’t as good and you’ll be pissing off the neighbours. A typical studio has a range of amplifiers, microphones, a basic sound mixing set up, and those vital tea-making facilities. Don’t just turn up, get drunk and talk about how great you’ll be.
Record a demo
This is one thing that’s easier to do if you’re noodling around on your home synth, but should be easy enough for anyone to accomplish.
If you’re an indie band, you might be able to get away with borrowing a mate’s 4-track recorder. It will sound rough as hell but for that type of band, it can work. For almost anyone else, you’re going to need to stump up the cash together and go into a studio. Being in a band is an expensive business. Allow one full day for each instrument, including vocals. If you expect to nail the vocals in one or two takes, you might as well not bother – you are extremely unlikely to get anything useable in that amount of time. The more thoroughly rehearsed you are before you go in to record the demo, the less time you’ll need to spend in the studio. You’ll need three tracks.
If you can afford to get it mastered (about £50 per track in English money) then so much the better – the difference in professional quality and clarity of sound is staggering. Even if you have the know-how to do your own production, an external sound engineer can bring an extra pair of ears to the mix and point out bits that you might have overlooked. They can almost always do a better job than you could yourself, so it’s worth making the investment.
Next up: playing your first gig