In my last Building Blocks article I charted the path that it took for a breakout band to establish itself in a local scene. Now we’re going to look at the next step: what does it take for a band to maintain that status, and become a dominant player in that scene?
We all know what an established local band looks like from the outside. They gig regularly, with a dependable crowd that seems only too willing to spend more nights out than usual just to show up to most of their gigs. Band members seem to own the stage, with a polished charisma that unites the crowd around the message of their music. They may have an album or several releases out there, with fans wearing t-shirts and plastering their stickers around town.
What does this success and profile look like from the inside? That’s difficult to precisely answer, because art is a very personal thing. One size does not fit all –– in fact, one size may not fit anyone. The forces that cause a songwriter to compose in a certain way are just as unique to them as the reasons why someone else would want to hear that song. But it’s true that while the solutions can be very different, the challenges largely remain the same.
As I mentioned last time, a breakout band has to develop their audience through playing many gigs that introduce them around. They should know the lay of the land. Who are the popular acts, the great managers, the good venues and the active fans. Forming alliances with other breaking bands is a must, and getting good credibility with established bands even more so.
These all seem like tasks off of a checklist –– but flip that list over and you’ll see that what it really means is that a band has to become part of an existing community. Not only that, a band should form strong enough ties within that confusing, ever-changing group of people so that their own community develops within it. That’s really the first great truth about being established. You are an essential part of what’s going on. It’s not that you tell people what to think and how to act, it’s rather that your art resonates with what people need to say and do in order for life to make sense. If you’re really in touch with your audience, then the simple act of communication becomes art. All the mechanics of gigging and recording are really in service of that interaction.
This isn’t selling out, rather the opposite. You’re having an honest conversation and the longer and more sincere the discussion, the stronger your art and your status will become. But beware –– everything that’s true about verbal conversations is also true about artistic ones. If your jokes aren’t funny, or you talk too much about how great you are (or how sorry we should all feel for poor little you), or you get stuck on something people can’t relate to, then the conversation drops off very quickly.
If you keep saying the same thing without moving forward, you can turn from local heroes into curiosities; a band that was great once but no longer that interesting. Try to avoid being that bore at a party (or on stage) who everyone knows is going to say the same thing no matter what the conversation is about.
This is why it’s so important to listen to your audience as much as youd want them to listen to you. Find out what they’re thinking, and what moved them about your act. A scene is a group of interacting people; it’s not a bunch of fans and four musicians who hide in their dressing room all night. You’ll see on stage which songs have the greatest immediate impact, but that’s just the most obvious reaction. Often it’s the music with deeper meanings that keeps people coming back and makes them loyal for more than a couple of nights. The only way to find out is to talk to them.
So when you grow, you grow with your audience. You relish the same victories, and suffer through the same challenges. Eventually you become a voice for what’s going on, and the more determination and inspiration you put into that voice, the more it will speak for the people around you.
Still, music is also a business. You’re limited by what is possible for the performing venues, and they have to deal with high rents, insurance costs, patrons who tank up on cheap supermarket beer before going out, and any number of other practical problems. As a breakout band, you might struggle to get bookings at first –– but if you make it to established status it’s because those who run the venues saw you as part of the solution to their problems. In fact, the bands that are the most pro-active in problem-solving are the ones that get booked the most often. An established band is a partner with the booker, they have to help them get more people into the venue and keep them there with a satisfying show.
Venue management have to worry about this every night, and if they do then so does the scene. Your band as a part of that scene will start to feel the realities of the situation. Even if you’re very popular, you’ll still have slow nights and setbacks. You can’t solve everyone’s problems, much as people will eventually try to say you can. But you can find a rhythm for your own community. That’s the best way to ensure the longevity of your presence in the scene. You’ll last longer if your appearances are at the right time, instead of all the time. You can make a bigger impact if you’re not spreading your time too thinly.
No matter how comfortable you get in your role as a successful local band, never forget that you’re still treading water. Your popularity can plummet overnight if a key member leaves or venue closes. You might come to see all the hassle of playing gig after gig as routine after a while, but it can still wear you down both emotionally and financially. And then there’s change: your audience might outgrow you and move on, or vice versa.
Becoming established locally means that youll get asked more and more to open for bands that have a much bigger profile than local hero. Then you may well realise that local scenes are just testing grounds for bands that have wider professional ambitions. In some ways, you’re still a breakout band, but on another level, the regional or national stage. How do you make that step yourself? Tune in to the third and last episode of this Building Blocks’ miniseries, Touring Bands, in the next issue of NZ Musician.
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.