One of the undeniable facts of life is that everyone wants to be a rock star. Maybe not technically a “rock and roll” star — maybe you really want to be a famous rapper, or a country star, or the next Wierd Al Yankovic or something — but deep down everyone wants to be a rock star, even for just a moment. Don’t believe me? Then how do you explain the popularity of the Guitar Hero games (or Rock Star, really) or even the Dance Dance Revolution games? Those games give everyone a slight taste of playing in a cohesive band, without all that hassle of learning to play an instrument or having any sense of tone and pitch. It’s also why every other episode of Mtv’s MADE was about some high schooler who wants to be in a band, or win a freestyle rap contest.
It makes sense to me at least. I’ve always wanted to play music, and since I was 14 I have been in a series of unsuccessful bands. This means that for well more than half the time I’ve been alive I’ve been playing music — which as I read that back to myself makes me feel more than a little bit old. I’ve gone through a series of styles, from Pop-Punk to Ska to Speed Metal to whatever it is that I’m doing at the current moment, and I’ve realized that no matter what sort of music you play, or who you play it with, there’s really one overarching truth to the whole music industry: It pretty much sucks.
I’ll expand on this, because if not it would have been the shortest article on OMGJeremy since my “Guide on Lovemaking” article was turned down. Hi. This is a refurbished article from the past!
Being in a Band is Expensive.
It seems like being in a band would be sort of a cheap hobby. Three to five people in someone’s garage or basement playing thrift store bought guitars or keyboards or accordions or whatever it is that you have decided you want to play. Sure, your equipment is all crap, or you manage to trick a relative into buying you nicer gear because playing guitar is a better hobby than selling drugs, but after the initial expense of buying equipment, the rest should be cheap right? No, of course not. Guitar players need to replace their strings constantly, drummers break drumsticks, accordion players… well, okay, I don’t know much about accordion players except that I can’t find an accordion for cheap anywhere.
Still, strings and sticks are the least of your expenses. If your neighbors have been pushed to the point of lodging formal complaints, you may have to pay rent at a practice space, which in my experience is an old warehouse or commercial garage where someone has put shabby drywall partitions up to make a series of 15×15 rooms that are not air conditioned and most likely smell like old beer and body odor. If you’re lucky, that will run you only a few hundred bucks a month. Let’s not forget that if you want to play out of town you will need to either find or buy an old barely-functional van, or caravan two or three cars with all your equipment, and right now gas is pretty consistently above $4 a gallon — again, that’s if you’re lucky. Vans eat gas and unless your band is already rich, I’m assuming you don’t all have hybrids that get 50 miles to a gallon. Just to go out and play at “a good show” (more on that later), you’re already looking at spending close to $100 in gas alone for a four hour trip.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for your band in costs though. Everyone in your band will need to eventually buy actual equipment, like guitars that stay in tune, larger amplifiers so that everyone isn’t playing through a one-speaker practice amp, a drum set that has fourteen cowbells and a set of wind chimes because every drummer loves cowbells, and most likely a PA system so that you can actually hear your vocals. This will cost each of you around $500 – $1000 easily, but if you ever want to do more than play terrible Nirvana covers in your mom’s basement, you will need to spend this money.
Want to record an album? There goes another few thousand, and that’s just for studio time. So far, our fictional band has spent $5000 to write, record, and release an album. This is a drop in the bucket for professional bands, but our fictional band is still a “hobby.” We aren’t touring the world or have the support of a label or anything. This is living the dream!!
But, let’s take it back a step. Let’s say you don’t ever want to really play out of town, and this really is just you and your buddies trying to learn a bunch of passable Third Eye Blind covers that you will play on occasion to try at friends parties while you try and get laid…
Being in a Band Takes a Lot of Time.
I hope you really like the other people in your band, because if you ever want to play songs comfortably with them, you will be seeing a lot of each other. Garage bands/high school bands will practice one or two days a week, for a few hours each time, and that’s just so that you can play as a group. Most likely you will spend hours away in your room working on some stolen guitar fill or solo, just so you can actually spend those group practices playing sloppy versions of your songs — instead of wasting hours teaching the bass player how to play this song because they were too busy drinking beer to learn their part. Eventually, you will start picking simpler and simpler songs, until all you play are Green Day covers because you only need to know one chord.
Good luck with having the patience to learn that horrible cover of “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows. Even the most simple of songs have their complexities, whether it’s due to the amazing skill level of the band who wrote it, or because the original band was so terrible at technical guitar playing that all their songs are nearly impossible to emulate properly (I fit in that last category, by the way). It will take hours of time for you and your friends playing that one song over and over and over until eventually you hate every single note of the song, and then you will still play this song to people who know that the original version of the song is better that whatever it is you have done to it. Ignoring the fact that the Counting Crows are fucking terrible, it still won’t matter that you have added an incredible guitar solo or keyboard enhancements to the song… people will still think that whatever you are doing is not as good as the original, which is a song that is so bad that it can instantly cause livestock to go infertile.
Do you want to write your own material? That’s slightly better in some ways, because if you pull off playing your own music, nobody can tell you it’s being played wrong. On the other hand, writing your own music has its own set of time-consuming pitfalls. That riff you’re playing during the chorus? You’ve accidentally taken a Led Zeppelin line and switched one note. You might not even realize you’ve done it but someone will at some point and then that’s all you’ll hear until you angrily scrap the song.
There’s also a really good chance you’ll spend weeks really working out a song you love, and then the rest of the guys in the band will decide they don’t really like that song anymore and you’ll never play it again. This happens a lot — as a matter of fact, in the band I was in when I originally wrote this, none of the songs we wrote in the first year were played at all eventually. Most of them were cut before we recorded, so nobody but the four of us even remember that we used to play a really shitty slow-rock song about women who sleep with random truck drivers at rest stops. I still do, and we spent months getting some of it perfected until it was deemed “the worst song we have,” despite that it had an incredible guitar solo. Band mates are dicks.
Actually, it’s not just band mates…
Dealing with Other People in Bands is Ridiculous.
Over the last twenty years, I have discovered that for the most part people in bands are wholly unreliable. Part of being in a band that is trying to play for actual human beings (instead of a collection of stuffed animals and your grandmother) is setting up concerts with other bands. You will need to find a venue that wants to let you play there, possibly pay to rent a sound system, find two or three other bands who sound at least like the same style of music you are attempting to play, and then promote the shit out of it to try and convince people that they want to spend their Wednesday night at “The Schittbukket” or some other questionably named establishment — and to pay $10 or more to do so.
So you’ll spend months setting up these shows, and then you’ll get to the big day and one of the following things is guaranteed to happen :
- A band will just forget they have a show and not show up. This will most likely be “the headliner” and the few random people that came will get mad and demand a refund.
- A band will show up without a member they need because that person forgot/is in jail/is in rehab/hates this venue and refuses to play there. This band will attempt to play a set without a drummer, and it will end about as badly as you’d expect.
- None of the other bands promoted this show at all, because they didn’t spend the time setting it up. As a result, none of their friends/fans come.
- All of the bands show up on time, and begin setting up their equipment, and then the police will raid the place for selling alcohol to minors and you will quickly pack your shit up and get the fuck out of there because you are on probation.
None of these things are good situations, and as a result only maybe 1 in 10 concerts actually happen in the manner they were intended to, which might seem cool and “punk rock,” but it’s not cool to lose out on a couple hundred dollars that you fronted to pay for the sound system, or to have a venue tell you they will never let you book bands there again because one of your bands decide that they were going to light the curtains on fire for DIY pyrotechnics.
People in bands are, for the most part, people who might not keep the best schedules. A lot of them don’t really work regular jobs, or they work jobs that require them to work at any time of day and with no notice. Some of them may have substance abuse issues. Some people are just dickheads who will intentionally get incredibly drunk and try and break the equipment that they are borrowing from you, and then will talk about how funny it was when they broke your shit the next time you see them.
Outside of complete degenerates, for the most part a lot of people in bands are in those bands as hobbies and so playing with your band on a Friday night will take a backseat to pretty much anything, from a cookout to just the chance to get a handjob in a movie theater. Basically, nobody but you will take your own show that seriously, and eventually these sorts of shenanigans will cause you to either stop playing out completely, or only book the same three bands to all your shows because you’ve found the only other people in your city that aren’t total douchebags.
But, let’s say you actually get some sort of local following, and you find a few bands that take it as seriously as you do…
You Will Never “Make It Big.”
When I started playing music, while I never really thought it would become anything larger, there was always a little piece of me that held onto the dream of becoming successful enough to be known — at least in the circles of people who liked whatever sort of music I was playing. I never wanted to be a Guns n Roses style arena-touring band, but I did think that at some point if we played with the right bands and made the right connections that in our hometown we would become the sort of band that is a given to open for those sort of national touring acts. I know that doesn’t seem like a big deal to a lot of people, and it’s almost like dreaming that you get a ‘C’ in community college, but it’s what I was hoping for. However, no matter how many places we’ve played, or how many times we’ve gotten lucky enough to get one of those opener gigs, it seems we’re not even a blip on the radar.
I’m not bitter about this (or at least just bitter enough to write about it), because it’s the real point to all of this stuff. Almost nobody will be able to play music and make enough money to live on. Of the people that do, I would bet most people hate 99% of the whole deal. Imagine playing your songs at daily practices for months and months, followed by a month or so in a studio playing those same songs to painful levels of precision over and over again until you hate every note of those songs, followed by months of touring to play in small venues for a handful of people who will probably forget the name of your band roughly fourteen seconds after you finish your last song.
This is the reality of being in a band, trying to make a living while essentially living in a van for three months of the year while begging people to buy your merchandise so that you can afford to get gas to move on to the next town, hoping that the right person will accidentally stumble upon your band and think, “I would love to invest time and money into these guys.” Then you get the chance to make an album and have a hit single, because if your first album doesn’t sell well or get some sort of amazing critical response, then you’ve blown your chance and you’re right back to playing at State Fairs right after the Pie Eating Contest and right before the Pig Breeding competition.
But… There Has to Be a Reason People Keep Doing This, Right?
Actually, yes. There is a good point to all of this, or at least there is for me. There is nothing better than playing live and having people respond well to it. I will deal with all the bullshittery of setting up shows, finding bands to play with, buying and/or repairing equipment, trying to get band members to stop playing XBox and have practice regularly, writing songs that get rejected, and all the awfulness that is touring — because of that 45 minutes where I am playing songs I wrote for people who seem to really enjoy the performance. It’s suddenly worth all the other annoyances. Sure, it might involve driving three hours to play in a shitty dive bar in a depressing former mining town, but while we’re actually playing for three people who like us enough to buy our album, it is rewarding. You will also get free beer, so that’s a nice bonus.
One of my friends who had been in bands for years gave me one piece of advice that has really stuck with me all these years: “Being in a band is stupid.” Looking at the evidence, it’s painfully obvious that he was right, and I should have sold my guitar 20 years ago and gotten way too into computers or fantasy sports instead. But I’m probably going to be the “sad old guy” who plays in little dive bars for the rest of time, writing songs that nobody wants to hear, playing those songs to crowds that have little to no interest in listening to me play them.
I can’t imagine doing anything else.