The following post is the latest in our ongoing content collaboration series with the fine folks at Sonicbids. Enjoy!
“Citing artistic differences, the band broke up in May,” sings songwriter/pianist Ben Folds. Then he recounts how the band reformed without him and changed their name. This event is far from extraordinary in the world of music and illustrates how far creative people will go just to avoid having confrontations with their bandmates. Bands are like families, but the love and comradeship between you and your musical friends can suddenly become a burden when things aren’t going well.
How do you proceed when you’ve got people with different ideas, and no middle ground presents itself? You don’t want to damage friendships or bruise people’s feelings. But there are ways to keep your artistic integrity and protect those critical relationships. By borrowing techniques from business managers, sports coaches, and psychologists, you can steer through artistic difficulties and come out stronger on the other side. Here are a few proven techniques.
1. Talk in an informal setting
The Boston Red Sox are not a band, but any band would love to parallel their success. Manager Terry Francona, now with the Cleveland Indians, won two World Series titles with the Sox, in large part because he managed the egos and big personalities in his dugout without contributing any additional drama. Francona famously eschewed calling formal team meetings to sort things out, believing that such measures put people on edge and made them defensive, shutting down meaningful dialogue. Instead, team members with grudges or problems would drop into Francona’s office and talk things out informally, one on one, often over a board game or a cup of tea.
Band problems deserve a similar airing. Band meetings should be reserved for figuring out who’s working what gig for the band or deciding on cover art for a new CD. It’s often more productive to sit down in a diner or talk in the car on a drive than to bring everyone together for a formal band meeting. After all, it’s most likely two individuals who are at the heart of the matter. Wouldn’t it be great if those two could be on the same page before bringing it up with the whole group?
2. Be willing to let problem songs go
Creative types are all familiar with the problem piece. It could be a book, a song, a poem, or a sculpture, but the common element is that this one just isn’t coming together. Sometimes it’s just time to set the work down and move on to another project. Writers call this piece a “trunk novel,” something that stopped being fun or just stopped progressing and got locked away in a trunk to be finished later… or never.
When two musicians can’t see a song in the same way, it’s a good time to play the trunk card. It’s not worth having a falling out over four minutes of music in a two-hour set, is it?
3. Pay close attention during the audition process
In business, you’ll often hear about the 80/20 rule. It comes up in all different contexts: 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients. 80 percent of work is completed by 20 percent of your employees. And of course, 80 percent of problems are caused by 20 percent of the people in your organization. In any population, drama, backbiting, and resentment seem to emanate from the same handful of people, whether it be a middle school classroom, police barracks, or nuclear submarine. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to be really careful who gets into your band in the first place.
You can use a handful of interactions to extrapolate what someone’s actually like on a daily basis. For example, if someone’s late to the audition and the first two rehearsals, expect to be waiting around for that person on a consistent basis, even if (or especially if) he swears that he’s “not usually like this.” It’s amazing how often the always-late bandmate is also the one who starts arguments about songs and always asks people to buy him lunch. What if that guy just wasn’t in your band?
4. Recognize a “break”
You might be an amazing punk-rock drummer. You’re comfortable with metal and hard rock, too. Maybe you can even play a 6/8 blues. But what if somebody suddenly called a swing tune, or wanted a rockabilly beat? Everybody has something they don’t know how to play, or at least don’t know how yet. This often happens when a songwriter tries something new, when a band plays a radically different feel, or when somebody creates a part in a strange time signature. At these times, musicians often “break” and can’t seem to play the part with the appropriate feel, speed, or technique.
This might be a good time to see item number two on this list and let that song float away… or at least table it long enough for people to practice a little. It’s also good to understand that sometimes people just don’t have the feel to play certain material, and that’s totally okay.Nobody asks Ozzy Osborne to sing “Good Morning, Heartache.” Don’t show up your bandmates by giving them a hard time about it.
5. Find the win-win situation
Everybody says they’re willing to compromise. But are they? How many people view a compromise as giving up what they want? The fact that others also lost doesn’t make this pill any easier to swallow. When you’re an artist with a creative vision, something almost like the vision in your head may not feel good enough. The bandmate who’s standing in your way most likely feels the same.
But in music, anything is possible. Is there a way to let both people win, or to find another option that’s even better than what you both have in mind? After all, you must have moments when one musician expands on and advances the ideas of another, making the music better. Use that collective genius to try new things until everybody feels like they got the win. That magic solution is out there in the universe somewhere. Try to capture it.
6. Try not playing the role you’ve settled into
Psychologists note that family groups and other conglomerations of people tend to fall into established roles. In your band, maybe your bass player always complains about long road trips. Your guitarist always wants to stay at the club for one more drink, but the keyboard player works an early day job and always wants to take off immediately after the show. We all get locked into these roles. If there’s strife and drama in your band, try to identify your role, and stop playing it.
If you’re the one who always tries to mediate between people who argue, try stepping back and just letting them hash it out. If people unconsciously try to push you back into your usual box, that’s a good sign that the role you’re playing could be burdensome and unhelpful, meaning that you’re onto something!
In the end, nearly all of us got into music because it was fun. Let’s not allow creative differences to get in the way.
Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.