It all started very casually for Band X. They got well-established in the local scene, and before long got to play other towns and cities in the region.
When some big acts came to town, Band X opened for them – and that was tough, because the audiences for those acts weren’t always kind or patient. As popular as Band X was for a certain local crowd, there was a whole other mass audience for whom they’d never played. To survive for 45 minutes, they had to up their game considerably, learning lessons in professionalism and stage presence by watching the main acts finish off the evening.
Maybe Band X won the crowd over on one or two nights. Maybe on one of those nights, a touring agent was watching, and saw the potential of these local heroes. Maybe the band reached out to the right people due to their building list of contacts. One way or another, a call was made, a contract was signed, and they found themselves on a national tour opening for a top act.
That tour changed everything. One member quit, realising he wouldn’t survive long on any future tours. (He went on to form his own band, and stayed popular locally for quite a while.) Band X found a replacement and carried on, but the local scene wasn’t the same for them. They could no longer play fortnightly at their old haunts.
The members of Band X were pretty wise and humble people. They’d witnessed the experience of another local act, Band Y, that had started to hit it big. Band Y’s lead singer had taken their burgeoning success and played it to the hilt, acting like the big man around town and generally making a complete ass of himself at every opportunity. Band Y had ended up going nowhere.
Band X didn’t want to finish their careers the same way. But what were their choices at that point? Hopefully, they’d been thinking about this realistically for some time – and so should you if your band is becoming established in your own local scene. There are some good resources for touring bands, like A Low Hum, which address the unique situation here in NZ. I won’t even try to match anything they offer in this article. Instead, I’ll keep the focus on this Building Blocks miniseries theme: Status in the Scene. How does touring change a band’s status in their local scene, and what are some challenges that they may face?
Having had a taste of the big leagues, Band X was humble enough to know that despite their local fame they were still very small fish in a big ocean. The experience also gave them a unique perspective back in their home town. They realised the difference between petty concerns and professionalism. The simple act of putting that knowledge to work automatically elevated them in everyone’s eyes, all reputation aside. While others might waste endless amount of time during soundcheck, Band X took very little time once their gear was set up and miked. Once their set started the audience would get completely swept up by their music. They’d make that well-worn old club into a magical place for an hour or two.
That leadership came at a price – people tried to make a bigger deal over them than was really appropriate or comfortable. Remembering the lessons of Band Y’s failure, Band X avoided buying into their image. They still had to deal with very careful choices when gigging locally. It wasn’t like the old days, when they could play frequently at different venues. The stakes were too high, whatever decision they made could affect everything else in the scene.
If it wasn’t ego-stroking on the one hand, it was politics on the other. Everyone wanted a piece of their success. The band had to make some hard choices about how to structure their local activities, including where to appear, who to have as openers, and what dates to gig.
When they could manage it, they would pay back favours to those who’d helped them make it to their current level of success – making an appearance on a radio show, passing along a recommendation, or even playing an exclusive gig at a small club where they’d got an early break. These gestures were also payback to the scene itself, and all the fans who’d supported them.
Band X thought that things would start to make sense once they were a touring band. Instead, it was like starting over in their hometown scene, where every new town was like breaking into a new club. The word-of-mouth that had helped them at home now became internet chat and user groups. The careful cultivation of different groups of local fans was elevated to finding a place for their style within different national and then international audiences.
Back in the old days, which band they opened for made a huge difference in winning new listeners – and that still was true. They even turned down an offer to tour as openers for a major act, because their style was just too different – and they didn’t want to deal with night after night of boos. Winning their way to the top of this new global scene would take every bit of the smarts they’d developed as a breakout band long ago, plus learning a whole new set of survival strategies. And even if they did finally make it to the status of ‘internationally established act’ there were no guarantees that they’d be able to hold onto that success for longer than a few years.
Band X wanted to keep their home town as a base, and tour from there. Their local gigs became fewer and larger. Pubs and clubs became too small to hold the capacity audience, but they still missed the intimacy of those club gigs, when they could really feel in close touch with their audience. Sometimes, they’d show up unannounced at a gig and really light the place up. One time they gigged incognito at a folk club, playing acoustic comedy-folk spoofs of their biggest hits. But they couldn’t pull these jokes very often, because they were just too damn busy all the time.
Eventually they reached a compromise. Every summer they hosted a free all-day concert at the big soundshell in the park, and invited friends to open for them. It was a great gig – families with small children could come and picnic, and the band members could just hang out with everyone. Their set could be as long as they needed it to be, and they could really get in touch personally with all the people they knew out there. Someday, when that big global scene no longer had a place for them, this little miniature world would still be listening, ready to welcome them back.
Band X is a compilation of different acts I’ve worked with or followed over the years. But a little bit of their story resonates in every act that’s eventually reached an international audience. The major lesson to take away here is that whatever your status in the scene, music remains one of the most difficult professions.
‘Success’ means different things to different people, and those who achieve one definition of success may be working just as hard as those who haven’t – and feel just as uncertain about their future. But one definition of success can’t be taken away from you, if you’re just willing to honour it – the satisfaction of playing a good gig for an appreciative audience. If you can focus on that one sense of accomplishment, any status you have within any gig in any scene will have meaning.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.