How to Start a Band

5% Savvy's 80s tribute album“How have you not started a band yet?”

After twenty years as a musician and three as a creative lifestyle blogger, I’ve heard quite a few good reasons to start a band.  Some of the best:

  • Artists are people who make art; musicians are people who make music.
  • The band provides accountability for daily practice.
  • The original analog experience is a small group of musicians in a room together.

Over time I’ve learned that to start a band, there are really only three questions you need to answer.  Here’s a practical guide for how to start a band, based on my experience with 5% Savvy and the Studio 25 Fine Arts Show.

Who’s in the band?

How to choose

Think of the network of musicians you know – friends, acquaintances, classmates and so on.  From that group, narrow your choices based on availability, necessary skills, and mutual respect.

  • Availability.  I don’t mean who’s available to practice this Tuesday – I mean who has the resources available to commit to what you’re expecting.  In my case, I needed guys willing to dedicate most Tuesdays and the occasional weekend.  You might need people willing to go on tour.  Wherever you fall on that spectrum, be up front about the commitment you’re hoping for and don’t hold it against people if they can’t make it.  Don’t leave your band mates wishing they hadn’t committed to this in the first place.
  • Filling a need.  If you’re starting a jazz band, look for musicians who know their higher chord extensions.  If you’re starting a metal band, get guys who can shred.  Or maybe you just don’t have a bassist yet.  Whatever the reason, choose musicians who can fill a need in the band or at the gig.  I needed multi-instrumentalists with a wry sense of humor and a willingness to experiement, and I was happy to find that the guys I had in mind were available.
  • Mutual respect.  I realize this is a bit of a utopian vision given the previous two  requirements, but it’s so important for your band to have some version of this.  You have to share credit and creative work or trust each other to take responsibility for it.  You have to give each other the benefit of the doubt when one of you is late for practice.  And you have to be the kind of people who can hold each other accountable.  Whatever that looks like for your band, you have to actively encourage it and work toward it.  After all, you started this band.

Core group, and session musicians

At the amateur level, availability and commitment can vary widely even week to week.  Work through your selection process with both a core group for the band who will play at most shows, and a select network of session musicians, who can step in if, for example, your drummer can’t make it or if you need an alto.

What do you guys play?

Six Words or Less

This might sound like I’m asking you to sacrifice the fullness of your vision, but hear me out.  The first show I booked for my own band, I had to describe us as “kind of a folk-rock, acoustic-electric duo with a sense of humor and a lot of classic rock influence.”  A description like that doesn’t tell a venue why they should book you or an audience why they should listen.  You should be able to describe your band in six words or less, like Mumford and Sons’ neo-folk acoustic pop or the retro-futurist 80’s pop aesthetic of Walk the Moon.  It’s okay to experiment, especially as you “find your sound” or develop as artists, but give yourself the benefit of clear goals and criteria by working through this six-word process for each experiment.

How to decide

Here’s a few questions to consider as you narrow down your six-word descriptions, define your goals, and find your sound:

  • What instruments can we bring to the studio or the next show?
  • What venues are within your reach?
  • What are people at those venues really looking for?
  • What do we enjoy playing?
  • Do we have the chops, the raw technical skill, to pull this off?
  • Can we put a clever twist on what the genre or the venue expects?
  • What can we do that’s amazing?

When’s your next show?

How to Start a BandPeople ask you this at parties because they intuitively understand what I mentioned earlier: artists are people who make art, and bands are people who play music.  5% Savvy didn’t really come together until we had our first show on the calendar.  It helps to think two gigs ahead so you can always answer this question.

Another approach to this question is to have a call to action.  What do you want people to do next?

  • Follow the band on Twitter?
  • Visit your website, if you have one?
  • Pick up some merch?
  • Support you through a virtual tip jar like Patreon?
  • Download your album on Bandcamp?
  • Support a charity or a partner orgnization?

The people at your show are often the most receptive they will ever be to your message, so make sure you don’t waste their attention.  Give them something clear, simple and tangible they can do to support the band and keep the energy going until your next show.

What are you waiting for?

Starting a band isn’t a mystical process for the super-organized elite. I’ve found through trial and error that most creative projects only lack someone to take the wheel – preferably someone with enthusiasm. Use these simple questions to get your band started. Get out there and play.

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