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How Bands Die

On July 29th covering , , ,

My July 2007 article for Atlas Plugged. The title says it all:

A newly formed band has the life expectancy of a mob informer in prison. If you are involved with bands, you know how hard it is to keep them together. The brutal economics and Darwinian pressures of the music life are often the cause.

However. It might actually be a good thing for some bands to die quickly so the members can learn from their mistakes and go on to form new bands. Besides, if some bands didn’t die, the entire surface of the earth would soon be covered in bands.

But some bands die before their time — the songwriting is good, the gigs and fan base are there, they may even get a sudden burst of success, and then they just implode. This is a shame, and it’s preventable. The culprit? Human nature. Here are just a few of the ways bands destroy themselves, and some things you can do to make sure your band still has a pulse.

WHEN MINOR FRICTIONS BECOME HOMICIDAL RAGE

Imagine you have a tiny pebble in your shoe giving you a slight irritation. Now imagine you’ve walked five hundred miles with that pebble irritating you…

Joining a band with someone is a combination of marrying them, fighting alongside them in a war, and being trapped in an elevator with them. Soon you will have heard every joke they know at least six times, and you will be (over) exposed to the way they talk, drive, eat and smell for far too long.

The term “personality conflicts” is often a nice way of saying bandmates just hate one another. Some bands will choose a member solely based on their chops without taking time to get to know them.

It is not necessary to be best friends-forever with a band mate, but if you have a visceral dislike to anything about them, this dislike will be magnified many times over when you’re on the road together.

A good rule of thumb is that if you would pick someone to go camping with in bad weather with inadequate gear and not enough food, they might be a good person for your band.

DEVELOPING AN IMMUNE SYSTEM

Passion is good. People who care passionately about their work can disagree passionately – disagreements, anger, or arguments can be good for the relationship and the project.

But, a band needs some kind of process to work things out to insure that they will to be resilient enough to contain their passion and to withstand the stresses of creating music and thrashing out all of the things than need thrashing out.

Without this, your band won’t be able to fight off infection and it will die from the next case of the sniffles or disappointing gig.

If there’s enough basic respect and trust, a band can clash openly without tearing itself apart. If band members harbor contempt and mistrust, it’s not sturdy enough to do this. And if this is the case in your band, you have to ask yourself what you’re doing working with people you don’t respect.

It’s important to know yourself and to know what annoys you — and to realize what there is about you that others find annoying.

Sturdy bands and teams make their personality differences work for them by transforming their differences into strengths.

Suppose there’s one person who likes to make decisions quickly and hates pondering things, and another prefers to keep options open and think about them for a while.

These people can drive one another barking mad, or they can come to realize that their differences are a good thing. There is a time to be decisive, and a time to keep things more fluid and open, and it’s a stronger team that has both tendencies on board.

Your most outgoing member might be good to develop contacts, while a more introverted one might work on the arrangements, and so forth. If you can find a way to realize that the differences within people in your band are a positive thing, your band will be more resilient.

EQUALITY IS OPTIONAL

Every band has to figure out how to lead itself — it can be an absolute dictatorship or a democracy where everyone is equal. It can be the kiss of death to proclaim that everyone has an equal say when you don’t really mean it. Problems occur when there’s serious disagreement or it’s unclear how decisions will be made or who is authorized to speak for the band.

A lot of people become musicians because they don’t like traditional authority relationships. It’s an alternative to working for the Man. This can mean that there is a discomfort with the concept of leadership.

If one member starts to act like the leader, the band may tear this person down. But bands need to get direction from somewhere. They need to be able to make decisions, choose repertoire, enter into booking agreements, rehearse, hire and fire personnel, and a thousand other things.

Leadership is the ability to get people to work together. A good group is full of leaders, who can inspire the group to be effective in different ways at different times.

A simple example of this is that moment in rehearsal when one band member says “let’s try doing it this way”. That person is showing leadership at that moment. If the other members aren’t too insecure, they can let one another exert leadership at different times. In some bands, leadership comes from everywhere, and in some bands, it all comes from one person.

Power and authority are legitimate issues. The problems come when the power can’t be worked out openly, and people have different expectations about how it all works.

Musicians can be bad about this, not willing to admit to themselves or others that they want power and control, presenting a mellow front and then quietly ripping each other’s skin off trying to be in charge.

There’s a good example of this is in the movie I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Wilco is recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There is an excruciating scene in the mixing of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Jay Bennett, who is very technically hands-on in the mixing process, belabors a point about where to punch in a drum track.

Jeff Tweedy wants to move on. Bennett keeps talking about how the drum track is discussed, which seems pointless and weird, and stops the session’s momentum. The other band members flee the increasingly tense scene that culminates with Tweedy vomiting in the bathroom. Bennett is soon fired. This seems to be a shame because Bennett is truly gifted and made solid contributions to Wilco.

If we can trust the film, Tweedy clearly saw himself as the leader but didn’t want to be overtly boss-like, while Bennett cluelessly expected to have an equal say with Tweedy when he really didn’t.

Authority is the right to make a decision and enforce it. Some bands thrive with a supreme ruler, as was the case with the Frank Zappa and Ray Charles bands. Other bands like U2 are reportedly more democratic giving everyone equal control.

If you want to be the sole authority of your group, that’s fine, but you need to make that known to everyone. The worst fights come when people are led to expect to have a say in decisions and then they wind up having no say.

Your band might be better off if you have everyone taking responsibility and contributing ideas, rather than just relying on one person. Even if that one person (you) is a genius. But you need to be honest with yourself. Don’t say you are going to share decision-making power equally if you don’t mean it deep down.

You might have to face the fact that you’re not in charge as much as you’d like. Whining and scheming are not recommended. Using sneaky or underhanded means to power is a good way to destroy the band.

A better strategy is to win the respect of your band mates by having really good ideas, being highly a reliable person and a fantastic musician and listening to the good ideas of others. Though this still might not work.

If your girlfriend, or your boyfriend tells you that you should be in charge because you are the most awesome one, do not listen to them unless you want your band mates to call your partner Yoko.

HEALTHY EGO VS. DESTRUCTIVE NARCISSISM

It’s really narcissism – the belief that you are special – not ego that destroys most groups.

Everybody has some narcissism. There may be exceptions, but they aren’t worth talking about. I’m assuming that the Buddha isn’t in your band. He’s probably working with Brian Eno instead.

Musicians who claim to have no ego or narcissism are either dishonest or naïve. Anyone who pursues a career that is performed on a raised platform, with spotlights and amplifiers and expects applause is seeking attention – ergo –ego.

It takes a fair amount of narcissism to be in this business in the first place. It seems to go with creativity somehow. It feeds onstage electricity, charisma and the confidence to grab the attention of thousands.

As in most things, the problems come at the extremes. It’s possible to feel that you are special, but realize that others are special also. We might call this a healthy type of narcissism.

Some however, feel that they are so special that they’re entitled to treat others like pawns on the chessboard. They may lie, manipulate, steal and cheat because they don’t recognize that anyone has a right to stand in their way. They can be very thin-skinned and over react to tiny criticisms or slights. They may lash out in rage when the world doesn’t treat them as special as they imagine themselves to be.

A highly narcissistic person can be remarkably arrogant, and have trouble admitting that they need anyone else. If this reminds you of the stereotype of the obnoxious Hollywood type or the spoiled-rotten rock star, you’re right.

This level of narcissism is clearly unhealthy and destructive to working relationships, and it’s one of the big forces that break up bands. People with a very high degree of narcissism can be very charming and seductive, and can make people feel special, but then use them and throw them away.

Another problem is that extreme narcissists don’t listen. They can’t take criticism or feedback that they may need, either because it injures their sense of specialness or because they hate to admit that they need others. Someone who can’t take feedback might never improve.

The examples of out-of-control narcissism destroying bands and performers are too numerous to even begin to catalogue. VH1’s Behind the Music series is largely dedicated to this. I’m sure you have your favorite story.

THE DANGERS OF FAME

One of the dangers of fame is that it creates conditions for a person’s narcissism to grow like a tumor. If everyone is opening doors for you, clamoring for your attention and telling you that you’re wonderful, it’s hard not to become a monster. I have the greatest respect for people who keep their emotional balance under these conditions.

Even if you are in a small local band, you can get a taste of this. If you play a good set in a bar for twenty people and the audience is really with you, people will come up to you on your break and speak to you with admiration and excitement.

The attention can be gratifying, and it is one of the satisfactions of the performing life. But if you want to keep your balance, you need to keep this in perspective. If your band becomes hugely successful, you will need to realize that the thing that the fans are yearning for is not exactly you, but some kind of fantasy-thing of their own creation. You should enjoy it, but not take it all too seriously. I sincerely hope you have this problem soon.
If you and your band can tell one another the truth, you can keep everybody sane. You have to trust one another enough so you will listen even when you don’t like what’s being said. things like “you’ve written that song before” or “you need to get a guitar teacher and bring up your skills” or even “the partying has become a problem”. The magic words to keep your own narcissism from getting out of hand are “I can’t do this without you” or “I need your help.”

In the corporate business world, there’s a lot of effort expended in developing teams. There are loads of books and team-building exercises and high-priced expert consultants, and some of them are actually worthwhile.

One definition of a team is a group that’s doing something and they succeed or fail all together. If the members succeed or fail individually, it’s a committee. People want to be on teams, and no sane person wants to be on a committee.

US VS ME

Here’s a classic way bands die right when they become successful. The group forms and everyone puts aside their own ego a little bit to make this collective thing. . People are thinking about “us” rather than thinking about “me”.

But something happens where there’s a jump in the group’s fortunes. All of a sudden, band members start to think about “me” again and the band comes to a bitter and destructive end. This is beautifully portrayed in a fictional band in the movie The Commitments — they don’t even get to be successful, but just being on the brink of success made the band members start to think of themselves first and the whole thing collapses.

The cure for this is to find some way to keep everyone’s narcissism from getting out of control. This requires maturity and balance, which are sometimes in short supply.

But everyone needs to remember that you can’t have a band all by yourself. You can be a solo act or a ProTools compositional genius, but you can’t have a band, and to have a band, you have to admit that you can’t do it all by yourself. And furthermore, this means you don’t get your way all the time.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Psychologist & former pro musician, Dr. Mike Jolkovski spends his days helping musicians and other bizness entrepreneurs successfully navigate group dynamics, avoid self-destruction & thrive.

He’s currently doing research on conflict, power & ego in bands for an upcoming book. Take the survey or email your stories, experiences & opinions at mj@workingthroughmusic.com.

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