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August/September 2013

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Being a Decisive Bandleader

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Being a Decisive Bandleader

Throughout this series of articles I’’ve mostly focused on self-management strategies and techniques that include the whole band rolling up their sleeves. It’’s always best this way, because the job of moving forward belongs to everyone, and more ingenuity and energy is brought to bear from many different perspectives. Of course, democracy is a messy business, but its chief benefit is that everyone has a more-or-less equal voice.

But things don’’t always work out that way. Sometimes, a group of musicians does much better and succeeds much faster with strong leadership from one or two members. This article will look at why, and give you some tips if you find yourself leading a band.

Last man standing
Let’’s look at how and why one person ends up in charge. Usually, it has to do with experience. If one member of your band has already been through most of the steps that lie ahead, then naturally that person will be the one with the most valuable advice and knowledge. The typical way this occurs is in a band that’s been around a long time. As old members quit and new ones join, the charter members will be the ones who hold the history and identity of the band in their keeping. They’’ll be the ones who know all the songs, have all the management contacts, and show a familiar face to the fans, so it’s only natural that they’’ll be out front in most decision-making.

First man playing
Sometimes a musician with a strong sense of vision will put some friends and acquaintances together to form a band, and have a very clear, informed plan of action from the very start. Whether the band bears that musician’’s name or not (like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), its activities will be geared towards a fulfillment of that vision.

It’’s all about responsibility
Another common reason that bandleaders take charge is to do the monkey work of keeping track of things – to look after certain duties, stay in touch with managers, and so on. In fact, being a bandleader has much more to do with taking responsibility than ordering people around.

Your band members will want it both ways most of the time. They’’ll want to tell you what to do and how to do it, see themselves as equals, and yet be happy that you’re doing all the work. Even so, a leader can become ever more intuitive in handling the busy work, shaping the way the band is perceived and appreciated, moving forward carefully over the bumps while helping them to grow. Whatever responsibility is taken may well be returned as credit in your favor, and a more natural authority when needed.

Leading from behind
This is actually a very common form of leadership in a long-running band situation. Great examples of this are rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young from AC/DC, or bassist Tom Hamilton from Aerosmith. Both of these musicians let the big personalities take the credit and get the attention, but when it comes to making difficult decisions, their judgement and insight usually carry the day. Leading from behind can actually be easy, if the leader has the mojo: encouraging, patient, and very aware of how to get around issues of personality. It changes the whole image of leadership from a moving target to a rock upon which the band is firmly based.

Leading from the front
A celebrity artist like Peter Gabriel or Joan Armatrading puts together the best musicians that they can find, teaches them all the material, and then records and tours. While that’s the ultimate example of leading from the front, more useful examples include Huey Lewis or Steve Miller. Both front men have been in long-running band lineups with the same people, who are treated with a great deal of respect. Steve Miller’’s big comeback album was largely written by his bandmates, helping him through a creative dry spell. This type of leadership relies on very close friendships with all the band members, making decisions that are based more on their behalf than your own.

It’’s not about you
Whether you’’re fronting the band or not, successful leadership only reflects back on the leader if the band moves forwards. There will be times when petty bickering, unprofessionalism, unforeseen circumstances, and random chaos will all conspire to make your job much tougher than you bargained for. You’’ll see right away that leadership is not about getting your way most of the time. It’’s about heading a team of creative people, each with a distinct role. Your job is to bring their creative resources together in intelligent, inspired way – and in a way that’s not pushy or smothering. The lighter the hand, the better in my experience. Only push in one direction if you can – and that direction should always be forward, on to the next challenge. If you do put yourself in the way all the time, and the band fails, guess who gets the blame?

Duties and delegating
As bandleader, you may or may not be responsible for many different aspects of the band’s success. Others may do most or all of the songwriting. Whether or not you’’re the creative lightning rod, you’’ll still have to make sure that the band learns all its parts as quickly and clearly as possible, and has a strong set list. You may be a social lion, with club owners wrapped around your little finger; or you might let another band member do the necessary chatting up and date-checking. Either way, you’’ll be the one who needs to decide how many gigs is enough, and balance the band’s growing commitments over the practicalities of personal life. Whatever the list of tasks that you can personally accomplish or farm out to others, they all come back to you eventually, and you’’ll have to act as a gateway for many different decisions.

Stopping the buck
One duty that you can’’t leave to others is making the tough calls. When a major fight breaks out within the band, you should avoid taking sides, even when you agree with one side or the other. Even trickier is when a fight breaks out on your behalf, with some members going after others because they want approval. In all situations, a true leader has to negotiate with tact and understanding of both sides – because to immediately support a side can cause all kinds of problems: resentment, more fighting, and eventual breakup. The first task is to de-personalise the conflict. Acknowledge each side as being your friends and having worthy points of view. Then put the disagreement in its own box, and see if it can be solved with logic rather than emotion.

When things can’t be solved it will be all down to you to decide. You should only exercise this power as a last resort, when it’’s clear that the band is deadlocked. You may even have to ask a player to leave the band. I’’ve been in that situation a few times, and it’s never easy or fun. If you’’re wise about it, you’ll talk things over privately with the band member who needs a change, and share perspectives. You may end up with someone leaving amicably, which is always better than being kicked out.

The ultimate reward
If you can show you know what you’re doing, be a reasonable, patient guide, and move your band forward, then you can call yourself a ‘leader’. The results will be self-evident: a productive team of musicians, great songs that involve all members artistically, a killer stage show and a growing roster of bookings. You’’ll share in your band’s increasing success, and feel satisfaction in your role of helping it to prosper.

But the real reward will be something that can’’t be bought or sold: the trust of your mates. With that, and with your continued dedication (and a huge amount of luck and good will), you can cross any ocean. So get to it.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra.