When I was asked to write the How to Be in a Band article for the Back to School Issue, I immediately said "yes," because saying yes is basically my job now and I like having one. But it occurred to me that even though I have spent nearly 25 years playing in and obsessively observing bands, it has been a few years since I was in one full-time (much to my chagrin). With that in mind, I thought maybe I should solicit some thoughts from people who are more active in Seattle music world. I wrote to some friends, acquaintances, and people I barely know but really admire and asked them all this:
Is there any piece of advice you’d care to offer to kids embarking on the music life, either as hobbyists or would-be professionals? Anything you wish someone had told you? Anything someone did tell you that you wish you’d listened to? It doesn’t have to be life advice; it could just be a tip about where to get the best snack at 2am after loading out, what not to say to the sound engineer, what records you always go back to when your well runs dry.
I was very fortunate to receive thoughtful responses back from Tomo Nakayama, Vox Mod, Prom Queen, The Gods Themselves, Katie Kate, Shaprece, and others. Sadly, even though the new print edition of The Stranger is grand and glorious, it wasn't quite capacious enough to host these delights. But to paraphrase Ridley Scott's Alien, online, no one can see your word counts, so they're included below:
Enjoy and trust your process/do what feels right. Let go of perfection. Tip the sound engineer at the shows you play. Be honest with yourself and others. Identify your goals and what you want creatively. Create rituals. Be involved and support all of the arts in town. Plan ahead and have pizza waiting for you after the show.
Way harder than you think.
Way longer than you were told.
Find solace in your craft.
Be nice to venue workers.
The sound guy is usually kind of a dick (not always), but musicians are usually demanding idiots so don't take it personally.
Be prepared to experience a major misogyny hidey-hole.
You have plenty of gear. Use what you have.
If you have another passion that gives you health and dental, maybe do that.
Since the music "industry" is completely de-centralized, there isn't one way to be a musician. Being a musician can mean whatever feels good to you, so if you hate touring, you don't have to tour! If you only want to make recordings and try to get licensing deals, you can do that! Don't buy into the pressure that there's one path or it only works one way. But also manage your expectations. Define what success truly means to you. Find the things that make you the happiest and move towards those and leave the rest of it behind. At the end of the day, you realllllllly need to love what you're doing and believe in your own art. In your pursuit of making music, don't ruin your enjoyment of making the music! The music should always come first and let your love for it guide you. And the most important advice: Don't be afraid to totally ignore this or any other advice.
-Celene Ramadan (Prom Queen)
-Stay in school. There was a brief moment in my life as a budding musician where—against all odds and in defiance of God's will—my band was starting to become a "thing" with enough promise where I could have hit pause on my academic career to make it my primary focus. I'm so glad I didn't, because it wasn't long after graduating that I got my Sweet High-Powered Music Industry Gig, and now I'm the one behind the desk helping other musicians share their art with the world. I couldn't have done it without that diploma.
-If you're playing a Portland gig, just drive straight home afterward. It'll be easier than paying for a motel or finding a punk house floor to crash on, there will be hardly any traffic, and you can sleep in your own bed. Unless we're talking dorm bed, in which case: fuck that noise.
-Most importantly, get involved with your college radio station. Virtually everyone awesome that I know in the music business was at one time a DJ, volunteer, or employee for their school radio station. Apart from being it just being a fun thing to do, you'll get invaluable insights into the dark magic that goes into the marketing and promotion of music.
-Jason Baxter, Hardly Art Records
The great thing about this is that I met our (now 21 yr old) drummer, Ruby Dunphy when she was just embarking on her first year at Cornish to study fucking free jazz percussion or whatever it is she does there, and I've been trying to convince her to drop out ever since. Like me. I turned out okay, didn't I?! School to me seems like a thing that you do until you figure out what you really want to be— and if that thing is a professional musician— get out now, because it's a total waste of time. And chances are you will saddle yourself with a debt that will require you to get a soul sucking job out of college and devastate your chances of spending any real time on a music career. To write songs, you need life experience. Hit the road! Travel. get out of your comfort zone. Take a chance!! To become a great musician, you need to play everyday. Focus on it like a laser beam. This is a business and it's a full time job.
-Whitney Petty (Thunderpussy)
So many things in this industry are based on timing and luck and other factors outside your control, but it's also based on relationships. They say it's who you know, but that's really only half of it. I think it's who you continue to know over time. You have to surround yourself with people whose work you genuinely admire, and show up for them like you'd hope they show up for you. And even then, no one owes you anything. Everyone's trying to earn a living, and you have to respect that. Above all, keep in mind that the quality of your music is the only thing you can control. And the way in which the industry does or doesn't respond has no bearing on that quality, if you know in your gut that what you made is good. If you truly believe in what you are creating, and love what you are doing, it's bound to resonate with someone somewhere.
Also: I really wish someone had taught me soundcheck etiquette when I was a kid. 1. First off, a sound check is for checking sound. Unless you're a headlining touring band with your own sound engineer, there is no reason you should be rehearsing and arranging your newest masterpiece on stage. Do that at home. 2. Learn (and remember) the sound engineer's name. 3. Set up your instrument and then leave the stage until all the mics are set up. 4. When summoned, get back up on stage promptly, but do not play. 5. Let the engineer check each instrument individually, get a good starting level on your monitor, pay attention. 6. Wait until the engineer asks for a song, THEN start playing a song (your song, not an ironic cover of Taylor Swift that isn't part of your act). 7. Be specific about what you need in your monitor. Give your band mates a chance to specify their needs as well. 8. Always say please and thank you.
1. Finish your damn degree. That doesn’t mean you can’t go to shows, party with other musicians and jam with people.
It does mean don’t drop out of school your second year of college because you band has played a couple of cool gigs and you decide that being a rock star sounds a hell of a lot better than anything else. Of course it does.
Finish what you started. There’s plenty of time after you get your degree to fuck up your life trying to be cool.
2 Be thirsty for any knowledge that will help you on your path. So much of the business is DIY these days. You’ll end up being the artist, producer, promoter and manager of your band.
Recording engineers, sound people and other musicians love to talk shop. Getting acquainted with the tools of the trade will allow you to get the sound you want with a minimal amount of money, trial and error.
Pay attention to anything that grabs your ear. What gear does the guitarist in the headlining band use to get that cool sound, what mic does the recoding engineer use to make the vocal so fat, etc…
Take classes that will apply to your music. Yes that means taking poetry to help you write better lyrics,
3. Be nice and grateful to everyone you meet. So much of the business is word of mouth, about who you know and who they know. You’ll run into people who knows someone with a label ,owns a studio, writes for the Stranger, or is a DJ at KEXP.
That dorky opening band may be the next Nirvana.
So obviously don’t talk shit or engage in the scene gossip, leave it in behind.
There’s also a fine line between being a self promoter and coming off as desperate and obnoxious. Name dropping and exaggerating accomplishments to impress are obvious examples. There will be plenty of people to learn from.
Word gets around and people have long memories.
4 stay true to your self. Don’t go changing your sound cause you think it will get you places faster. Stay authentic,. As with any art it shows and people can hear soul or lack of.
Fight for the sound you know is right. Just cause the producer has a big name and the drummer is sick of mixing doesn’t mean you should settle.
5 Take it easy on the booze and drugs. Free booze has been the cause of many a shitty show. Don’t miss opportunities because your too high. I shouldn’t even have to mention this, you’ll no doubt learn for your self.
6 Last but not least.. Stay humble. This business can crush the inflated ego like a bug under the soul of a Doc Marten boot.
Very few make a living off music and the chances of getting rich are infinitesimal.
For all the highs there are going to be the inevitable lows.
If you’re on the fence about trying it, just do it! You’ve got little to lose and an experience of a lifetime to gain.
Get a group of people you enjoy being with first and foremost. The sounds will come if the hang is cool. Be open to everyone’s ideas. The collaborative process is totally bonding and can make for a great band.
Get all your pals involved! Ask one of your artistic buds to create a show poster, get one of your tech bros/chicks to make you a website, get an engineering student to record a demo for a school project. The more friends you have involved the further your reach. Make it so the success of your band affects more than just its immediate members.
Make buddies with the other bands in town! There’s strength in numbers and while Seattle’s music scene can be super competitive, there’s always room for the well-known/well-liked.
Be polite in your interactions. You can be an asshole on stage if that’s your shtick, but when dealing with the essential people in the music community – especially the bookers, sound engineers, stage hands, and fellow musicians etc., it’s important to show respect. You’d be screwed without these hardworking folks.
When looking for inspiration, look to the music that first made you feel something. And if you’re stuck for what to create, get yourself a deck of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies”, the inspirational cards that contain unique suggestions for breaking out of creative blocks.
And finally, be courageous! Challenge your fears and work through them. This will make you a better musician, performer and human being.
In the music industry, (and I'm sure most industries in general), people from all directions will be quick to give you advice and thoughts on what moves you should be making as an artist. Always remember that not one person has all of the answers. Take it all with a grain of salt, and hold tight the gems that empower you.