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Quitting a band over a shirt

On August 20th covering , , ,

Here is my August column at Atlas Plugged. It’s based on an essay by Robbie Banuelos about a “last straw” moment that led him to quit a band. I’ve recieved some nice notes from musicians about this one.

How Bands Die, Part 2:


In the music world the long odds are against success and a band is way ahead if it has worked out the basic issues of who’s in charge and how its conflicts will be handled.

There is a short band memoir by guitarist Robby Banuelos that begins “I was once in a ‘punk’ band that asked me to change my shirt before a show. I remember thinking ‘what the hell…’ ”. Banuelos tells the story of joining a band through Craig’s List, and being ill-treated by the somewhat older musi- cians who hired him, and finally quitting in mid-tour when he is asked to change his Levi’s button-up shirt for a black t-shirt before a show.

As you read the essay, take note of where your sympathies go, or what you would want to do if it were your band. This is a nice thumbnail case history. A black t-shirt may seem trivial, but bigger bands have been destroyed by smaller issues. Just as in families, the big problems come out over tiny items.

Banuelos says “They were the best band I had ever been in and probably ever will be in, and I quit.” He was working well musically with the others before the fatal issue of the black t-shirt. You can tell he is hurt and disap- pointed that things turned out the way they did. It’s always a shame when the music is good but the musicians can’t get along.

Banuelos thinks it’s ridiculous that the band demanded he take off his thrift- store shirt and put on the regulation black t-shirt, because they say “It’s a punk band”. Do you agree? He comments disdainfully about this, and makes a solid point that it’s a silly and trivial definition of punk to reduce it to a uni- form from the 70’s. Some of the most virulent and nasty fights among art- ists are over notions of purity: over what is real jazz, real punk, or real ab- stract expressionism. We can compare these to the real bloodshed over what’s real Democracy, Christianity, or Communism. These ideas are in- vested with great feeling because they are such important organizing ideals.

Nonetheless. I don’t think that was the main issue. This is a classic case of a band running into trouble because the leadership and authority issues weren’t clearly worked out ahead of time.

Obviously the existing members wanted to be able to tell him what to do, including how to dress and stand onstage. They also told him not to talk to the crowd, which signals that they didn’t trust him to represent the band. I agree with Banuelos this seems like a bad sign of something.

We don’t hear the band’s version of the story, so it’s possible that there was some reason for this. But I wonder what the problem was with the person Banuelos replaced — maybe Banuelos was being punished for his predeces- sor’s bad behavior. Or maybe not.

How you feel about this situation depends on how you feel about the lines of authority inside the band. Here are two choices, somewhat exaggerated:

A: Banuelos is an artist, and he’s right to tell them to stick their lame-o black shirt somewhere uncomfortable. If he wanted to wear a uniform he would be working at Burger King.

B: Banuelos is the new guy, it’s not his band, he should stop whining, put on the stupid shirt, and see if he can learn something for a change.

My answer is “it depends”. I am a psychologist, after all.

There is nothing wrong with the people in charge of a band wishing to have control over every aspect of what goes onstage, including how the musicians dress and act — even whether they smile or, if the band is from Brooklyn, look brooding, nerdy, and sensitive.

If you consider yourself an artist, you may not like the idea of a packaged “act” but the look of a band is part of the audience’s experience, just like the poster and the CD case. It is all part of what booking agents buy.

It should have been worked out before offering Banuelos a spot in the band — then it would have been a simple negotiation. “We’d like you to play with us, but we’ll be in charge of the overall stage look of the band, which you’ll be expected to go along with”. If it’s worked out ahead of time, it’s a per- fectly reasonable thing. If you are in a symphony orchestra, a country band, a slick Vegas pop act or a black-metal band, you are usually expected to look the part.

If it was put this way when they offered him the gig, he could have agreed or not, and if not, they could have gone on auditioning guitarists. It would also establish the essential dimension: who decides?

Banuelos disagrees with the band’s clothing choices, with some persuasiveness, but it’s beside the point. We could argue about band fashion until the end of time, but the real question is who’s decision it is. This is the dimension of power and authority, which is something that musicians muck up pretty consistently.

The Banuelos case study also illustrates another common flaw that destroys bands and organizations. Whether it’s perceived or real, when team mem- bers don’t feel respected, they will walk.

Prior to the t-shirt incident Banuelos, apparently had endured a certain amount of bad treatment throughout his tenure with the band. I have to think that if Banuelos had been treated like a human being, he might have been a little more flexible on the black-shirt issue. This, however became a last-straw moment, and Banuelos refused the shirt to recapture some shreds of dignity.

While “torment the new guy” is often a favorite past time among bored touring bands, Banuelos believes his band was desperate and frustrated on account of being hideously old (over 30!) and made him the foil. Perhaps, this is correct, as the behavior he describes doesn’t sound like the acts of satisfied people.

But beware – there is a cost to hazing. One is reminded of the brutal hazing that Jason Newstead took in Metallica — he was used as a scapegoat and a punching bag for the band’s unhappiness, and it almost ended the band when his departure coincided with other band troubles.

As satisfying as it is to ritually abuse, degrade, and humiliate the new band member, I have to caution bands to go easy on this. Surprisingly enough, tormenting people does not put them into an agreeable frame of mind.

Ultimately, the Banuelos essay leaves many unanswered questions. It would be fascinating to hear from the other band members. I can’t tell whether the essay’s subtitle is self-pitying or ironic: A true story about the music indus- try beating musicians down. But the piece is a good read for anyone who cares about bands.

Let me know what you think. Be sure to leave a message for Banuelos and vote up his essay on the site.

I hope he gets another band soon.

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

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