how to play in someone else's band

{gain twenty years of road experience with a five minute read}

here are some free suggestions for engaging in this type of behavior successfully. i have spent a fair amount of years working and logging miles as a sideman, and likely will do so again at various points. i wanted to give you some ways to perhaps operate more smoothly within this role. what follows are some hard earned/learned lessons for your consideration.

to determine if this article might apply to you, go out and look at the marquee of the club where you are playing tonight. is that your own name up there? if not, this article is probably for you. have you found yourself in a musical version of death of a salesman, and you're not playing the part of willie loman? is the act you are working with called stumpy bill mcknucklehead and you don't happen to be stumpy bill? read on.

the principle rule to remember: your number one job above all else is to make the leader sound good, look good and feel good. {read that again. we will come back to it over and over. we will refer to this as the rule.}

your primary benefit in the transaction: you get to play, learn, work, travel, work with and meet great musicians, get paid, and gain valuable experience, all without having to sweat the business details. it's the modern musical version of apprenticeship.

your path for achieving success is two fold: 1. play great. 2. in all things, be easy to deal with.

reconcile yourself to these facts every waking moment of a tour, or other business engagement of any kind within this scenario. if you forget the rule for even a very short time span, there's going to be static. you can also reverse engineer this, detect some static? have you remembered our little rule?
there are some that will never get these concepts, there are some that can learn them, and sometimes people come along that are pretty much born for this role. you can easily determine if you are in the first group by taking an accurate inventory of your self-centeredness. folks that are really all about their own trip are miserable in this role of sideman. and they make everyone else miserable as well. i'm not intimating that this type of person is bad or anything, however, they might should consider forming their own band.

here is a little test that can be very instructive and may help create that win/win environment on a recording session, gig, tour, practice, writing session, jam, or whatever:

ask yourself, "okay..self….who is The Dude here?" most likely, it is not you. {depending on the size of the band, the odds are one in four, or five.}
who is the dude? who is the person that comes up with the ideas, signs the checks, negotiates the deals, writes the music, does the interviews, provides the credit for all the travel arrangements, keeps the books, collects the receipts, pays the taxes, mails the checks out, has likely spent years starving and building his scene before you ever got there, and as well takes the heat if things go in the crapper? that's probably the dude. identify him or her and make sure they are happy. if they are happy, things stand a chance of going great. if they are pissed off or depressed, you are screwed. {you may be operating under a band name, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a dude. and just because the dude is mellow and easy going, or a zillionaire, that doesn't mean the rule isn't in place.}
if you want to participate in making some art, get along with other musicians, get other jobs, make some bread, travel with some like minded souls, learn something, contribute in the lifting up of the battered human spirit, and otherwise maximize your opportunity, figure out who the dude {or dudette} is, and apply the rule. it's pretty simple.

once the determination is made, don't forget. but it's okay. if you do forget, you'll be able to tell very easily by detecting static. it's like if you are driving down a country road and you start hitting mailboxes, that's a sign to get back onto the road and get out of the ditch. the indicator is wired up with a hair trigger. you'll know instantly.

here is a list of ideas to help you, in no particular order {and i'm assuming you are nailing the music so much that the dude [hereafter referred to in union parlance as the leader], rest of the band, audience, and office staff would have great difficulty imagining the music without your presence. if this is not the case, guess what? you have other problems than this stuff. best to finish the dishes before remodeling the kitchen as it were. i'd hit that woodshed and practice. learn the music better, and get better at what you do in general. then you can wonder about all this other jazz.}

a. money:

don't hammer anybody for money. ever. typically the leaders i've worked for, if they were at the level where they are putting out records on labels and touring and doing stuff, it is in their interest {and they will want} to pay you as much as they can. let them do that on their own. if you like the music, your role in the group, the hang, and you feel as though you can learn something, then go ahead and play with them for a while and let the money scene develop over time. then you can make an informed call on whether or not you would like to stay on. before the first gig is a bad time to start the money hassle. i wouldn't get overly worked up about economics in a brand new situation.

it's a common misconception, that is borrowed from the corporate world i guess, i don't know where this comes from, that you have to really get in there and fight and play hardball to get what you want. the odds of this working are slight. go ahead and try, but i don't think you are going to like the result. i call this "negotiating against your teammates."

here's an issue to consider. let's say you and i go into a lemonade stand together. we agree to split the money after expenses. and you find you aren't making enough bread. the answer to this isn't to hammer me for more money. the problem is our overall collective income, not our deal between each other. if you go up to 52% and i go down to 48%, you may win that argument. but we haven't changed the cash flow. i see people make this logical error over and over. and over. our fixed costs are the same, and our net is the same. we are merely changing the clothes of the corpse so to speak. tie or no tie, that bastard is still dead.

so what i'm suggesting is to relax about the dough. you stand a better chance of making more money by applying the rule than by negotiating against your teammates. help the leader make a better record. help him or her do better shows. help the leader feel like the work is important if you think it is. in the long run this is going to be way more fruitful than pitching a fit because your girlfriend is mad at you about being gone and not bringing home enough cash.

also remember, if you have lots of outgo in your personal finances, this is no one's problem but your own. do not sweat the leader with this. remember the rule.

b. do not get involved in discussions about collective business affairs.

if you are asked a direct question about your opinion in a business matter, perhaps give a general response, but i would try to stay out of it. everyone thinks their clock has the right time, and musicians all love to speculate about how to do things. especially if they aren't personally at financial risk. just remember our rule, and keep fairly quiet. you'll contribute more by playing really great, and being in a good mood. never forget that one of your main benefits in the sideman modality is that you don't have to sweat the arrangements. all you really have to do is show up on time, play your ass off, and be easy to deal with. worrying about all the business stuff is simply not your bailiwick. enjoy this. it's the great asset of the sideman. don't blow it.

never ask for exact numeric figures on business deals that aren't directly yours {you'll be able to tell if you are involved because you will need a pen to sign something}. a gentleman or lady will never discuss money.

c. while on a tour, or in a business situation, do not, under any circumstances, self-promote your own work outside of the group you are in.

that is the lamest of the lame. this behavior directly violates our simple rule. one of my teachers told me a story about going out on a tour with a particular banjo player guy who would get out of the car at the jobsite, and rush in with a cd to give to the venue owner, before the rest of the band had even walked in. i don't think it would be possible for me to lay out verbally how much i am NOT a fan of this behavior.
don't self-promote anything. play really good. be easy to get along with. don't complain or talk too much. help carry gear. offer others some encouragement. but do not hand out your cd. do not try to "get their number" and all that. if the leader says, "hey the guy that plays keys in my band here has a really cool cd you might like," then by all means, hand it over. but the deal is, you should be asked for it directly. that type of "networking" is totally wack, and i think the term sounds a lot like "not working."

d. do not be weird about the calendar.

if someone asks, can you play march the 3rd? the answer is yes, no, or maybe, let me check. this is not an essay question. if you are unsure, get back to them. quickly. a typical musician will have this conversation about 120 to 200 times a year {one for each gig}. after a few years, it should be very smooth and easy. it's the same question over and over.

e. do not be weird {overly pedantic or confused} about the traveling arrangements.

basically, you are splitting at a certain time, and coming home at a certain time, and in between, you'll be practicing the rule, playing your ass off, and taking care of yourself, and getting along smoothly with a group of other people, productive stuff like that. some folks can never really get it straight in their heads what the order of daily events will be on a tour. i would offer that in a sense, it does not matter. you will be traveling en masse. is it really that big a deal if the in-store is at 5:30 instead of 5:00? who cares? it will be fairly obvious. hint: if you see everyone get out of the van, do so yourself. if you are at a hotel, go brush your teeth. if you are at a venue, set up. if you are at a cafe, get some food.

it's the same deal over and over:
get up
check out
sound check

perhaps there's a periodic in-store or radio interview thrown in there. but that's it. it's not a big mystery. you'll be able to tell because you'll pull up to a radio station, or record store. and get out. and go inside. and guys with clipboards will start telling you stuff.
the reason i point this out, is you'll stress the leader or tour manager out, if you are constantly confused about what is going on. the music is the fun part, the travel is the hard part. do everything you can to make the travel go smoothly.

another word about the schedule, on tour, do not slow down the group by having some personal thing you want to do on your own. "oh i'd really like to go to this hot air ballon museum in thus-and-so town." well forget it. just concentrate on your job and remember the rule. you aren't on vacation. if it works out where you can split for a bit or if you have a day off, by all means. but do NOT hassle the other folks in the group with this kind of stuff. remember our rule.

f. be really careful about getting your annoying friends into the backstage area.

some folks i've traveled with, i don't know, i guess they just don't have enough to think about, and they will look at a tour as a social event. they see "washington dc" on there and they think, "oh well i'm going to invite six of my friends to come backstage." this is a bad idea. you are there to work, do so. if it works out and you can see friends of course that's cool, but remember, the other folks in the group likely have zero interest in your cool pal frank that you went to summer camp with.

g. try to be the easiest person the leader will ever deal with.

if you do that, they will be delighted to have you back. you won't get your needs met by being difficult. or passive aggressive. or endlessly bewildered.

h. transport behavior:

don't bug the leader or office about plane tickets. they will magically appear. check-in online in advance and print out your pass, always. show up at the airport two hours early and get your bags checked-in, get to the gate and relax. have your gear where you can fly with it with no hassles. don't show up to the airport with extra bags and weight. have your trip together where you can roll it on down the street with no hassles. have your scene together going through security. never miss a flight. don't complain about air travel. an adult should not be confused by an airline. it's the same thing over and over.

keep your personal items together in the physical realm, it's bad form to be spread out all over the vehicle. a good packing plan is to work out how everything can go in, and do it the same way each time so you don't have to re-invent the wheel. have a book and some music so you can entertain yourself. always help load and unload. don't slam doors. try not to make a mess. help the driver.

and when it comes to driving:
if called upon to drive, remember, a good driver never makes the passengers aware that he is driving. he drives really smooth and easy, and is easy on the machine. there are no jerky moves and no one ever gets scared on account of his lack of technique. at this point you are basically commercially driving. be super safe and easy. remember the rule. you want everyone relaxed. if you aren't a good driver, don't. just be honest and tell them.

my suggestion for navigation is kind of inspired from aviation ground school. one person drives safely. another person reads the map {or gps} and never the twain shall meet. the way to tell the driver the directions is like this, "turn left at the next light." "drive forty miles and merge onto I80 W. i'll remind you about two miles out." let the driver drive smoothly and not hit anything. don't hassle him about the directions, just tell him simply and clearly what the turns are, one at a time. and don't give him the leo tolstoy version of directions. "well this road goes parallel for a while, we just came from back here when the gig was over, over there was where we ate the last time we were here, and anyway, this road reminds me of some other event that you aren't interested in that isn't now, so when you get there, don't turn on jackson street. oh we should have turned back there."

one person drives safely, the other person reads the map and communicates with all due clarity.

when the vehicle stops for gas, help pump the gas, check the tires and oil. i can't tell you how many tours i've been on where the band all goes into the store leaving the leader to service the car. over and over and over.

if you pump the gas, the leader or tour manager needs the receipt. always.

hey hollywood, get your rear end out here and wash them windows.

be a very clean person. spend lots of time in your bunk. maintain a cheerful attitude. try really hard not to get sick on a bus {or van/car of course}, as they become germ incubators pretty quickly. be really nice to the driver and help him. he has a hard job and you need him to be safe and happy. never make the bus wait on you. don't collect a bunch of weird food and stick it in the fridge and never throw it out. just because you are on a bus, don't have a bunch of crap on there with you. you should be able to hop on a plane and fly away easily {you'll thank me for this should things ever get weird}. remember the bus is kind of a crucible. don't get into big heavy discussions about politics or religion in a cramped environment. always be aware of other's space. don't talk much. do not invite your friends onto the bus. that's everyone's home. never make the bus stop for you. bring a bunch of vitamins and hand them out like candy. be a really good listener but don't talk very much. stay out of other's way emotionally. if someone is making a personal call in the back lounge, leave them alone. don't take sides in disagreements. if the band starts to have a really heavy business conversation in the middle of long tour and everyone is exhausted, say things like "we should get home to deal with this, let's rest and just play as good as we can and take it easy with each other." don't hassle other's with your drug and alcohol use.

i. in a radio {or print} interview situation, do not speak unless directly spoken to.

and don't talk about your own work unless the interviewer directly asks you. be quick about the answer and divert the attention back to the person that hired you. it's like being in a play. divert the attention back to the main character. that's your job. do that during the gig as well.

j. keep your intent off the merchandise.

it's not yours. remember the rule. let's say i just got a job playing with the dick nobles review, and i pass by the merch table at the show and he's got cds out there for sale. someone had to take the financial risk of manufacture. and that wasn't me. so if there is a debt to be serviced, and it's not my debt, this transaction is none of my business. if your name isn't on the debt, your name isn't on the profit check. also technically if mr. nobles sells five cds, yet is in debt 50G on the record, there is no profit.
as a sideperson i don't WANT to get involved in his business. what i want to do is play great and be easy to get along with. also, i would never hassle the leader with wanting to put out my own records for sale at the merch table. he may ask if i want to put something out and that's fine then.

k. hotels

never charge anything to the room that you don't pay for yourself. i can't count how many times i've road managed a tour with a group of people, and i go to check-out and someone ordered room service. so i pay the forty bucks and go out to the van, "hey someone spent forty bucks on room service." "oh sorry man i forgot." how does one forget that? answer, they don't. order whatever you want, but pay for it.
i keep the hotel room really neat, the maids have a tough job. tip them. also when you leave for check-out, secure the door to your room. don't go down to check-out and leave the door open. why? someone could come in and call long distance on the phone or eat the food in the mini-bar or whatever and the leader would have to pay it. if you rent me a room, you are basically giving me access to your credit line. if i then make a mess or buy a bunch of crap, i could really screw you up. remember the rule.

and i wouldn't call the leader if you have problems with your hotel room. if you are having trouble getting onto the internet or something, call the front desk, not the leader or tour manager. if you need to move because of the party in the next room, call the front desk. on numerous occasions i have had sideguys that i hired, call me in my room in the middle of the night and complain the internet wasn't working. my 85 year old mother would know to call the front desk. yet mr. cool alternative thinks waking me up is going to help. and also everyone knows, the nicer the hotel, the more expensive the wi-fi is, and the less channels on the tv. so, don't be shocked. your tour manager can do nothing about this to fix it for you. pony up.

l. touring is a series of "what's nexts."

after the show, guess what? you will soon be going to the hotel. after that guess what? travel. and then…i don't know, a load-in, a sound check, dinner, and a gig. what's next in the series. while you are finishing up one thing, get your stuff ready for the next thing. move with ease. a,b,c, what's next in this series? d.

m. don't make others work harder through your own inaction, or inattention to detail or inability to grasp the overall schema.

when it doubt, stop talking and just look.

n. you will be 1099'd for every dime you receive.

this is as it should be.

o. offer to spring for dinner or coffee once in a while.

it's a fine gesture.

p. it would be good for your head to have your own little band or business on the side, just to experience the realities of bidness if nothing else, and to keep a set of real books.

this will help you to understand.

the end.

if any of these comments offends you or rubs you the wrong way, try setting up a tour yourself for a group. try functioning as a leader and see what you think. go ahead and take the financial risk. you'll soon see my point here. the short version is just remember that little rule in all things.