How to Start or Join a Band That Has a Chance at Making It
You’ve been playing your instrument for a little while now, taking lessons or perhaps teaching yourself to play. Maybe you’ve tried writing songs or composing your own music. You’ve gained the basic skills on your instrument or voice and the next stage is getting together with a band. You want to jam out with your friends and maybe get on stage to play for a live audience. You know your music is good enough and you want others to hear it. It’s also the best way to increase your musical skills even more. Whether you want to start your own band or join an existing one, you should have a strategy. Whether you decide to start a group or join one, the goals are the same: play music with others and get in front of an audience.
Schools often have ensembles you can join and some schools will even support you in starting your own. While this is a great opportunity to learn–why schools exist–it may not give you the musical freedom you want. Still, I’d recommend getting involved with performing at your school if possible; it’s an easy way to learn and gain useful experience. It might also help you find other musicians and form a group to play outside of a school setting. Many famous musicians started their first bands with their classmates while still in school.
For musicians looking to form or join a band, I can offer some practical advice which should be useful.
Practice, Practice, Practice
There is an old joke about a man on the street in New York City who asks a stranger: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The stranger answers: “Practice.” As old (and corny) as this joke is, there’s a crucial truth contained in it. Your success playing in a group will depend on your musical skills, talents, and abilities. The best way to develop all these is through daily practice.
Let’s get more specific. I don’t mean to say you should practice a lot. You can waste a lot of time with practicing the wrong things. Of course, the basics of technique, music theory as it pertains to your instrument, and perhaps reading and improvising deserve rigorous attention. It helps to have a good Teacher or program of study to accelerate your learning and avoid pitfalls. You don’t need to spend hours every day to make meaningful progress. What’s most important is that you should be practicing the right things.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers: The Story Of Success (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) explains the “10,000 Hours” theory, using the Beatles as an example. The core of this idea is that it takes that long doing something to master it. Applying this to our topic, I would say—beyond the basics—you should be practicing what you want to be the best at. If you want to be a great soloist, you should be spending time every day soloing and jamming. If you want to write songs, you should be writing every single day. Put your most focused practicing efforts into whatever you want to excel at. You will need to do it a lot if you want to be really good at it. To be good at playing in a group, you need to spend a lot of time playing in a group.
The bottom line is that you need to put in the time to improve your skills and build on your talents. There really aren’t any shortcuts for this part of becoming a great musician. The work you put in is at least as important as any natural talent you may be lucky to have.
There is an old joke about a man on the street in New York City who asks a stranger: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The stranger answers: “Practice.” As old (and corny) as this joke is, there’s a crucial truth contained in it. Your success playing in a group will depend on your musical skills, talents, and abilities.
This brings us back to our original question. How can I start or join a group?
There are a few questions you might ask yourself before embarking on this journey. The first question is: what style of music do you want to play? If you want to play rock music, pop, or hip-hop, that is important to declare right at the outset. If you are looking to play classical chamber music, that would also be crucial information. There are many sub-genres and it wouldn’t hurt to be specific about where your primary musical style interests lie.
This doesn’t mean you should limit yourself to playing some narrow sub-genre of music, although you could. To increase your opportunities, it might be smart to remain open to other styles of music. You might discover some style of music you didn’t know you even liked. Playing different styles of music outside of your favorite style is also a good way to learn new things.
Depending on the kinds of musicians in your area, you can afford to be more or less choosy in the style of music you wish to play. At the very least, be able to describe your musical interests to other musicians that you meet. If you can be up-front about the kind of music you want to play, that will help you to find other, like-minded players. It will also help you avoid wasting time trying to play music that doesn’t interest you. Ideally, you will be excited about the music you choose to play.
Start Here: Next Steps
There are some concrete next steps you might consider to find your future bandmates.
- Write an ad. This is a bit like a personal ad, where you mention your group playing goals in the context of style preference, plus any other goals you have relative to playing in a group. For example, how much time do you have available to rehearse? Is your main goal to play out in front of audiences? If so, in what kind of settings? The trick is to say just enough to be clear, without adding a lot of detail that might not be too relevant. Also, the style of your ad can go a long way to getting the responses you want. Do you come across as friendly and business-like? Nobody wants to play with someone who seems flaky, so avoid being too quirky, though a little personality can be attractive. You might also mention your realistic level of skill or experience. Place your ad on platforms where people in your vicinity will be able to see it.
- Play at open-mic jam sessions. Every city and town has bars and other venues that open their stage to aspiring musicians on off nights. Typically, on a Monday or a Tuesday, there should be multiple sessions going on where musicians can go to sit in with a house band and jam. This is an excellent opportunity to strut your stuff and connect with other local musicians looking to form a band. If you play well and get along with others on a social basis, hanging out at these open mics is a great way to generate interest. It’s a long-standing tradition to connect with other local musicians in this way.
- Respond to an ad. Check local listings on sites such as Craigslist or follow musicians’ groups on other social media sites. You could attend a meetup for musicians in your area. At any given time there will always be groups looking for players. Study the ads carefully and craft your response using a professional tone. Be honest about your skills and your goals. Sometimes there are auditions for bands, and you can also audition to play on cruise ships or at summer resorts. Some, but not all these auditions require you to read music. Screen ads carefully to determine which opportunities are best suited to you.
- Network, network, network. Build relationships—online and in person—that could lead to playing opportunities. Networking is an art form, which when used effectively can lead to the most amazing opportunities. Make sure that your network knows about your musical ambitions and is aware of your talent.
- Create an electronic promo kit (EPK). An EPK is a standard of the music industry that musicians and bands use to promote themselves. A proper EPK has a brief artist bio, promo pics, plus audio and/or video recordings. The EPK should clearly state the genre of your music, your experience, and your goals. An EPK can be hosted on your website or social media pages, or at various social platforms designed for the purpose, such as reverbnation.com or sonicbids.com. Having a quality EPK is a great way for other musicians and bands to discover you and you can use it to promote your band for gigs as well.
- Broaden your skills. If you play an instrument, you could also learn to sing. Every band needs a singer, so musicians who also sing are always in high demand. Some of the best singers are also terrific instrumentalists. You could also learn a second instrument, called a “double.” If you play keys, maybe add the sax as a double. Many guitarists double on electric bass. Having a second or third instrument will make you more valuable to many groups.
- Own great equipment or have your own rehearsal space. Every band needs a place to practice, and if you play shows, sound gear, and a vehicle to move it around. If you can afford it, owning the gear and transport is a great way to make yourself popular as a player. Even just having really good equipment for your own instrument will be seen as a plus. The more accomplished players tend to have professional gear. This applies to everyone but is especially important for drummers, keyboardists, guitarists, and bassists. A singer should have their own microphone that has been chosen to complement and enhance their voice.
- Move to another city. This might seem like an odd bit of advice, but realistically, if you live in a very small town, on a tiny island, or far away from a city, your choices of available musicians to play with will likely be fairly limited. There are plenty of (true) stories about now-famous musicians who moved early on in their career to a major city, just to find others to play with, get in a band, or start one. A city known for having lots of musicians might be a great choice and it might even play into where you decide to go for college, if that is in the cards.
These are some tips to enhance your likelihood of success when looking to start or join a band. They aren’t all-inclusive, and there are other strategies you might try, limited only by your imagination. It is helpful to talk to other successful musicians who might offer you further ideas on the best ways to find other musicians to play with. I recommend studying the careers of your favorite musicians to understand how they tackled this issue early on in their own careers. Looking at what they did should give you some additional ideas and inspiration that will help you to move forward with your quest.
You might be a long way from a major tour with your band but the point should be clear. Don’t be a jerk because nobody likes working with a jerk.
Don’t Be A Jerk
This final piece of advice should be self-evident. Nobody likes to work with a jerk, or be around one. The reality of the music business is that we tend to spend a lot of time with the others in our group. Traveling to gigs, eating meals together, waiting backstage for the soundcheck or performance, rehearsing, attending band meetings—there is a lot of downtime in the music business and it can get problematic when band members don’t get along with each other. Small infractions or perceived slights turn into major irritants and tempers can and do flare. This can even put the survival of the band in danger, to state the obvious. We’ve all heard or read about the horror stories that led to the breakup of a successful group. Some bands even travel with a Psychologist whose job is to intervene if an argument gets out of hand. There is a lot of stress involved with performing at a high level every night on a tour. Some major tours have very high expenses and if the band has a falling out, the tour might be affected with a lot of money at stake. I’m not making this up.
You might be a long way from a major tour with your band but the point should be clear. Don’t be a jerk because nobody likes working with a jerk. If you find yourself working with one, your impulse will be to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. And just as in any business, there are a lot of serious jerks in the music business. Whether you are looking to play just for fun, to become a better musician, to make money, or for any other reason, follow my advice in this article and watch your opportunities appear and grow.
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