Finding, Keeping, and Firing Musicians

[ LiB ]

Finding, Keeping, and Firing Musicians

Running a band of any type basically makes you a small business owner. And part of any small business is the Human Resources Department. Because you will be wearing many of the hats in your rock and roll small business, you will be running this department yourself. Here's what it entails.

There are basically three phases of Human Resources that you'll have to perform:

  • Finding musicians

  • Keeping musicians and if need be

  • Firing musicians

Finding Musicians

Placing ads and word of mouth are the most common ways to get a band together. I try to shy away from ads because you end up weeding your way through a lot of idiots, and not many great bands started from people placing ads. Most start from word of mouth. But a few did start through the classified section, including Dead Kennedys, so it's worth a try. Dead Kennedy's guitarist East Bay Ray got his "East Bay" nickname from the ad that started the bandhe lived in the East Bay (Oakland) and the bass player, Klaus, wrote down what Ray had in his ad next to his phone number, "East Bay. Ray." without the periods.

Writing an Ad

The classic way this is done is something like this:

(Type of music) band seeks (instrument) player. We sound like (popular current group) meets (popular older group ) in a dark alley and they fight. We have rehearsal space, gigs, a coffee machine, groupies, and major label interest.

You: cool hair, pro gear, transpo, ready to commit and rock to the top. No poseurs!


The band is usually lying about the "major label interest" part. It usually actually means "We are interested in being on a major label," not "A major label has expressed interest in us." This is because to have a major label interested in you these days, you basically have to already have a following. Any band with a following probably fills vacancies through word of mouth and never has to deal with placing ads.

I hate the part of the musician-finding process where you are asked, "Who do you sound like?" I find this constrictingvery in the box-type thinkingand it ignores the fact that the most original bands are founded by people with very different tastes, not very similar tastes. People with the same tastes tend to get together and sound like whatever's on the radio that week. I usually respond "Pink Floyd and Minor Threat," and if the person is still talking to me, there might be a reason to pursue further discussion.

I used to say, "Who are my influences? How about who I've influenced? People in Soundgarden, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Flaming Lips all have my records. I don't know if I've influenced them, but they like my music. [1.] And I've recorded with people from Cracker, Smashmouth, Wallflowers, Parliament Funkadelic, Samhain, Dead Kennedys, and the 10,000 Maniacs," I stopped saying this because it sounded too cocky and made people think I was lying, even though I wasn't.

[1.] My editor asked me to clarify how I know this. It's different in each case. Some because I've seen them at our shows and talked to them, some because they told me, and some because someone who knows both of us told me.

I dunno , I guess what I'm saying is that all of this "Who do you sound like" doesn't ring very true in my heart. And it's often unintentionally misleadingthat ad that East Bay Ray placed to start Dead Kennedys said he was looking to start a new wave band, and the DKs were about as far from that as you could imagine.

But still. It does give people a handle to see if you're playing ball in nearby ball-parks. But I find a better way is to cut a demo on a four-track or your computer (see Chapter 11, "Hardware Recording," and Chapter 12, "Software Recording") and upload an MP3 (see Chapter 13, "Make and Promote Your Own CDs") and put the URL in your ad. This is very importantthe person will instantly be able to hear if you are of a comparable style and level of competency to even bother with. And it doesn't hurt to see a photo of someone you're considering working with. You might send them one of you, too. Hearing each other via MP3s can save you both the time and expense of setting a meeting, driving across town, lifting amps, and more.

Also, if an applicant overuses terms such as "My equipment, my amp, my, my, my," he probably isn't very professional. Pros take it for granted that they have good gear. Amateurs are all about the gear, because that's all they have. People with talent don't need to brag about possessions. They have talent.

Pretty much everyone has access to the Internet these days and can at least download a short song on dial-up and check you out. If they aren't set up to do this or can't figure it out, they are probably not technically advanced or smart enough for you to want to deal with anyway, to be quite blunt.

I also tend to write ads that offer some of my outlook on life and art and commercethis kind of sorts out people who are coming from a completely different take and will feel like they're wasting their time with me. This does take the risk of blowing off someone who might potentially be good, but probably won't. Especially if you live in a major city, there are so many people to choose from that I think it's okay to do this.

Here's the ad I wrote and placed on Craigslist.com (an amazing free resource I highly recommendfor finding anything, not just musicians) that got me part of my current band:

Fuck Getting Signed

Guitar and keyboard wanted. YOU: post-punk spooky cool brilliant shimmery psychedelic hard rocking & competent. We also need two female backup singers.

US: Excellent singer /bassist and drummer . Looking for stellar musicians with no alcohol/drug/spouse problems for amazing band.

We are looking for strikingly original players to play NOW.

WE AIN'T LOOKING TO GET SIGNED. We've both been signed and we didn't like it. Big labels treat musicians poorly. We have no desire to help those fat old pimps make any more money. They have enough. They don't need us and we don't need them. We would like to see them fall. They contribute nothing to the world.

KAZAA KAZAA HEY!

We don't mind being popular and that is quite possible without a big label. And we love to play. LOVE IT!

Many people say, "Music is my life" but don't back it upIt's more looks and swagger than talent and showing up. We are looking for reliable people to learn songs quickly, write their own parts , bring their own sound to this quickly & efficiently and PLAY.

Singer is professional filmmaker/writer who doesn't have a lot of time to write new stuff, so . We have 25 or more totally complete, kick-ass songs ready to go. They are all better than most of what is on the radio. That is not hyperbole, nor is it bullshit bravado. It's the truth.

I will pay for rehearsal studio. We will split all gig money equally.

We want very good, confident-yet- humble people who can learn a tape, show up on time, be in tune, play well, and remember the stuff. Rehearse three times a week for a month and then start playing gigs. A lot. You should be able to travel regionally a little bit.

I'm not gonna bother with the "We sound like, we listen to ." Yuck.

Don't need it.

We don't have a vision, we have actual music.

IF THIS RINGS TRUE, Download these songs I wrote, sang and played :

"All My References Are Dead": http://www.kittyfeet.com/hatefed.htm

and

"Too Many Babies": http://www.kittyfeet.com/too_many_babies.mp3

and

"The Web": http://www.kittyfeet.com/the_web.MP3

and

"Roach Gurl": http://www.kittyfeet.com/roach_gurl.mp3

(these are four of the songs we'll be doing)

Please learn them and call me.

Michael Dean

213-555-zzzz

Los Angeles


This was quite effective at chasing off the people I didn't want to deal with. I found my two backup singers, Andrea and Traci, with this ad.

But when our guitarist left and I decided to replace him with two guitarists, I needed to be less demanding, so I pared the ad down to this, and I must say I got a lot more responses:

Have Gigs. Need Second Guitar.

"Kittyfeet" is a really good band with songs and gigs. We played one gig. Drew 49 people on a Wednesday night. Played great, and then our excellent guitarist moved out of town.

I've turned down four gigs this week. We need another guitar player. You?

YOU: spooky cool psychedelic hard rocking & competent. Can learn a set in one night from the CD. We're looking for stellar musicians with no alcohol/drug/spouse problems for amazing band.

US: I pay for rehearsal studio (downtown).

Excellent singer/bassist, drummer guitarist and two female backup musicians.

Photos here: http://www.kittyfeet.com/newband.htm

Songs here:

http://www.kittyfeet.com/hatefed.htm

http://www.kittyfeet.com/too_many_babies.mp3

http://www.kittyfeet.com/the_web.MP3

http://www.kittyfeet.com/roach_gurl.mp3

These are four of the songs we'll be doing. If you want to gig NOW, learn these and e-mail me please.

Many people say, "Music is my life" but don't back it upIt's more looks and swagger than talent and showing up. We are looking for reliable people to learn songs quickly, write their own parts, bring their own sound to it quickly & efficiently and PLAY.

Singer is professional filmmaker/writer who doesn't have a lot of time to write new stuff, so . He has 25 or more totally complete, kick-ass songs ready to go. They are all better than most of what is on the radio. That is not hyperbole, nor is it bullshit bravado. It's the truth.

Michael Dean

Los Angeles


By the way, our excellent guitarist hadn't moved out of town. He was still in town, but he was a flaky bitter drunk (even though he has a really good heart). I saved his face by making up a fib. He reads Craigslist, and people would know who I was talking about.

That was long ago, and no one will know who I was talking about, so I am telling you the truth right now.

I had already found my drummer, Reuben, without an ad. He was an old friend from San Francisco. He hadn't played in years , but, although rusty, he was still a really good drummer. It's like falling off a bicycle.

Once people answer the ad, I usually ask them to play or sing for me over the phone. If they won't, they probably aren't good enough or confident enough to play in a kick-ass rock band. Like Reuben says, "A real lead singer will drop trou any place, any time." While I wasn't actually asking them to take off their trousers, he's rightanyone who isn't willing to sing probably isn't a singer. Same with guitar players.

I am always polite when talking to peoplemusicians have fragile egos and are often nice people. When it's obvious that they wouldn't work out or be happy in my band, I am kind. I never slam them to the ground, even if it seems they didn't really read the ad and they start telling me how much they want to get signed or whatever.

I had a friend who tried out on guitar in a band with a drummer I used to play withthe guitarist was cool and had a unique style but wasn't as technically good as the drummer. The drummer stopped him after about a minute and said, "You're a fucking fool. Why did you even bother to reply to my ad? It asked for good musicians. You aren't even good enough to call yourself a musician and you are wasting my time." The guitarist was crushed and gave up music for a spell, which is a pity, because he makes some pretty cool stuff on his four-track, stuff I found quite listenable. This drummer should be hanged for that, in my opinion. I'm just glad I ain't playing with people like that anymore. I won't do it, no matter how good they are. It's emotional suicide.

While jamming, here are some things to look for. These indicate that the person might be a good member of a band. They:

  • Show up on time (or call if they are going to be late).

  • Do what they say they'll do, like if they talked to you Tuesday and said they'd call back Wednesday night, did they? Or did you have to call them?

  • Tune up their instrument, know their equipment, and have a good tone.

  • Are respectful of you.

  • Learned at least the chords and changes to the song(s) you gave them to learn.

  • Came up with good parts of their own to bring something cool to complement your changes.

  • Play well, or at least at a similar level to you.

  • Listen to what you are playing and react to it. That is, they are playing with you rather than just playing in the same room with you.

  • Have good musical ideas.

  • Don't play way louder than you (some of the best guitarists I've played with were people I actually had to ask to turn up the first time we played).

  • Are enjoyable to be around.

If, after jamming for a bit, it's apparent they aren't the right person for you, you can just say something like, "I don't think we're a good match," and if they have any emotional maturity (probably unlikely ; we're talking musicians here ) they will be cool with it. Also, you can ask them, "If someone more your style answers my ad, can I give them your number?" Then you are honestly trying to help, and the news that you don't want to be musically married to them will come easier.

Most professional bands do not find people with open casting. Sometimes they pretend to (like Korn holding nationwide open call guitarist auditions), but it's usually a publicity stunt . At that level, it's almost always done by professional referral. Major labels sometimes even have a "Mister Rolodex" guy whose full-time job is putting together bands.

But when you're starting out, word of mouth can be useful, too. Your friends will usually know what you're all about and know people to point you to. Asking at music stores, record stores, or college radio stations can work, too. I find that asking around and telling people that you're looking, in conjunction with an ad, is a good way to fish for players. It has worked for me; I've found people both ways.

Don't be afraid to knock on doors. Literally. I met one of my oldest friends and sometime musicial collaborator, Beau Brashares, when we were teenagers because I heard him playing loud guitar and knocked on his door. His dad let me in. I walked up into his room and didn't introduce myself . I just said, "Play something really fast." He did, and we've been friends since.

Once you find someone who is competent and like-minded, set up a session with her. Bring her to your studio if you have one, or get together at one of your houses . When auditioning guitar players, bass players, singers, or keyboardists, it's always a lot better to jam with a drummer keeping a beat. Or a drum machine or computer looping program.

Start out by playing one of your original songs that you uploaded as an MP3a song they've heard before. If you haven't written any songs yet, you can play a song by someone else, but keep in mind the point is to make it your own, not to sound just like the record. Also try playing unscripted together a little, jamming, improvising, and see how you interact. Sometimes the muse is shy and the magic doesn't show up on the first session. Keep your mind open to the possibility that you can try again later for that.

Remember: You don't have to commit to the person on the first "date." You can often use the first time you jam with someone as "round one," winnow out the people you don't want to play with, and then use the resulting short list for your callbacks. I even try to avoid the terms "callback" and "audition ." We're all peers here.

Just treat everyone well. Don't act like a Hollywood casting agent where you have all the power and you're doing the lowly applicant a huge favor. You aren't and you ain't. (And if you are ever in a position where you are popular and auditioning unknowns, you have an even bigger responsibility, in my view, to be humble and nice and not an asshole.) You probably aren't going to be paying these people until you've been playing out a while, so you can't treat them like employees. And even paid employees have to be treated with dignity .

Also remember the golden rule of showbiz: "Be fair to everyone. You meet the same people on the way up that you meet on the way down." [2.]

[2.] Also remember the golden rule of hiring anyone : Be careful who you employ ; you may have to fire them at some point. Or worse yet, live with them.

Keeping Musicians

Robert Fripp [3.] once said that there are three things that keep people in a band, and that two out of these three criteria have to be satisfied for each person to stay in the band:

[3.] Robert Fripp is a genius. He's also a cranky old man and has been one since he was a young man. A long time ago I saw him do a free lunchtime concert in the lobby of one of the World Trade Center towers . There were about 200 people listening raptly and a bunch of others milling past behind them. Remember that this was lunchtime in one of the busiest places of business in the world. Some of the people in the back were chatting and Fripp actually stopped the show to yell at them for talking.

That's like going into a restaurant in New Orleans and complaining that the fish is burnt.

  • The love of the music

  • The friendship with the musicians

  • The admiration from the audience

I would probably add "The money you make" to that list, and say, "Everyone has to be satisfied by any three out of four."

When you start a band, there will be no money and no audience yet, so you'd better like the people and the music. At least you'd better be able to be in the same room with the people without wanting to kill them. If you can't stand them from the start, keep in mind that it ain't gonna get better with time. It's like an abusive marriage : It will only get worse. Better to end it now rather than later when the people have a lot of time and effort involved in it and will hate you for firing them. (And if there's money involved, they will probably sue you, too.)

You're gonna have to live with the people you pick for a long time (and in very close quarters if you go on tour). So find people you like. Or at least people you don't dislike.

It's hard to get good players who are reliable to be in a band. It's kind of like that old saying, "You can have it fast, cheap, or good. Any two out of the three. Take your pick." It's nearly impossible to find people who will learn songs quickly, do it for free, be cool to hang out with, and not be late all the time. People like that stand out, and someone else usually has them in another band already. But there are good people; you just have to find them and then use your people skills to keep them.

It's important for everyone in the band to be assertive with communication and logistics. If someone calls and leaves the message, "I got called for some last-minute work tomorrow and I can't afford to turn it down. I'm gonna have to cancel practice," it's frustrating, because then there's several more phone calls that you have to make to pin down a make-up practice. But if they say, "I got called for some last-minute work tomorrow and I can't afford to turn it down. I'm gonna have to cancel practice, but I'm available Wednesday night, Thursday night, or Sunday afternoon, and I have my cell phone with me today," it's a little less stressful for you.

And never forget to compliment people! Regularly and sincerely. There's nothing wrong with being regularly supportive of your fellow musicians if you're being truthful . "I like your new song a lot," "You're singing is getting a lot better," even "It's good to see you" or "I like playing with you." Mark Twain said, "I could live a week on just one kind word." Most musicians have such delicate egos that they can usually only live a few hours on a kind word. Be supportive of each other. Because at first, no one else will be.

Firing Musicians

Iggy Pop said, "I love firing people!" I don't love to fire them, but I am much more attuned now than I used to be at telling when things ain't working. When I was younger , I would often stay in a situation (musical or otherwise ) that was bad for meeither the people were creepy, flaky, or just not competent. I feared not having a band and would stay in a bad one rather than leave. I would never do this now.

It's a tough call sometimes. If the music is great, and you're making money and getting adulation from lots of people (i.e. if three out of the four criteria are met), it is easy to stay in what basically amounts to a dysfunctional relationship.

You should fire people in a way that doesn't lead to you having a disgruntled employee on your hands. Especially an employee that you never paid and who probably spent money (at least gas money) to work for you.

If you have a problem with people, it usually makes sense to give them a chance to fix whatever they are doing wrong. This has two positive results. First, if you actually have a valid point, maybe they will realize it and correct it, once you respectfully point it out. Though probably not. This leads to the second point: If you give them a warning and they don't correct it, it's more on them and less on you when you finally do fire them.

When you do have to 86 someone, it's best done with thought and a little planning and a lot of consideration. This beats just getting pissed at someone and screaming, "Fuck you, get out!" in the middle of a practice. That will create an enemy, and enemies are a big waste of time and energyenergy you should be putting into creating and spreading your music.

When you have to fire someone, you first have to consider whether to do it in person or on the phone. Doing it by e-mail is really tacky, though writing it down does help you think out your logic better. One thing you can do is write it out as a letter to get it clear, and then don't send it to them. Use this as your notes when you finally fire them in person or on the phone. (Also, anything you put in writing can be used against you if they decide to sue.)

I recently fired someone in my band for being flaky and bitchy. I would have done it in person, but my car was out of commission, and he didn't have a car and was taking a two- hour bus trip each way to rehearsal. I figured, and rightly, that it would piss him off less to be fired over the phone than to make him spend four hours total on the bus just so I could fire him. I explained this to him on the phone, and he actually appreciated it. I also had asked him to be less flaky a few weeks earlier, several times, so he was not surprised and not very mad at me.

This is a best-case scenario. It doesn't always work that well.

We're all heard tales of disgruntled employees returning with guns after being fired and shooting up the place. This is not likely, but does happen to the point where corporations have very strategic plans in place for firing people with dignity. You should be no different and keep in mind that rock musicians tend to have even fewer life skills and coping mechanisms than the average person. This is for two reasons: One is that, as Frank Zappa said, a guy who spends 12 hours a day of his formative years in his room mastering an instrument tends to be deficient in some other area, like hygiene or ability to relate with others. The second reason is that rock and roll tends to attract , by definition, people with low self-esteem and large egos. Look at me I spent all of my 20s caught up in a fa §ade of "I'm a rebel man; I don't have to play by your rules." This has evolved into a happy crank in his late 30s who rarely leaves his house unless it's to go 3,000 miles away to be paid to lecture somewhere, which happens often. The rebel-rebel "rock and roll lie" is the basis of much of what drives the rock support industry (people who make their living catering to the hopefuls: guitar manufacturers, independent publicists, do-nothing managers who charge money up front, and so forth). I would exclude the book in your hands from that list, because I feel this book actually offers realistic advice on "making it" on a small level rather than simply offering dreams of a probably unattainable huge rock star level of success.

So, basically, when you fire someone, remember that you are probably dealing with someone in his 20s or 30s with the coping skills of a small child. I have heard this called the King Baby model of psychotherapypicture a toddler on a throne, pooping and screeching and demanding things, and being catered to by his subjects (fans) and Queen (girlfriend/mother). Keep this in the back of your head when dealing with musicians and you'll do fine. Just remember that there is no "later" for toddlers (or musicians), only "now." They all want what they want when they want it. The things that make someone want to jump up on stage and say "Look at me, World!" are usually deficiencies. We all have them. All musicians. Especially lead singers. Especially short lead singers. Trust me. I know.

NOTE

Dean's Rule of Singers: "(Usually) the more compelling a singer is on stage, the more personal problems he has off stage."

If you have to fire someone, treat them the way you'd want to be treated. Put aside the passion and keep to the logic. Don't blame them; just state the facts. And since a band is a marriage, you could take a tip from marriage counselors. This applies while trying to work things out instead of firing someone, as well as ending it with them when they don't work out: Talk about how you feel rather than what they did wrong. "It frustrates me when you solo over my singing all the time," rather than, "You don't care about me and don't respect me, and I know it because you play too loud." "When you're constantly late to practice, it makes us feel angry ," rather than, "You're an asshole and you're always late."

Another good angle is to talk about doing it for the music rather than taking it personally . And isn't the music what it's all about, anyway? At least in theory? "It would serve the song better if you simplified your drum fills during that chorus," rather than "You suck and you hate me and you're playing too much!"

Ya feel me?

This wording can work in a firing, too. "We feel that your incessant drinking and aggressive behavior is no longer serving the band. We got into this for fun, and it's not fun. Maybe you'd be happier in another band." Some firings, as well as some "talking-tos" can feel like interventions. Hell, sometimes they are interventions.

No matter how loving and respectful your firing is, you can end up with an enemy. Some folks are just wired that way. They want everything handed to them and rage at anyone who doesn't do their bidding. And playing in a rock band, even at the smallest local level, is often predicated on dreams of "Dude, we're gonna be huge !" And when you take that away from King Baby, he gets pissed.

Basically my life experience for dealing with angry lunatics is to do the Judo Jedi thing and step out of their way. Do all the footwork you have to in order to clean up your end of the deal with this person, and then go away. Get their equipment back to them (even if you have to go out of your way to do it), get the practice room key back from them (or change the locks if you have to), and then if they are treating you poorly, stop responding. Don't return their calls, send their e-mail directly into the trash, and so forth. This can be hard and is only for extreme cases, but if someone is genuinely treating you in a creepy manner, step out of their way. This advice also works later when you get popular and have to deal with stalkers.

People like this are angry barnacles who always need to attach themselves to someone. If you stay slick and they can't cling, they'll go find someone else to torment. Almost every time.

And if the person you fired doesn't stop bugging you, keep in mind that old saying, "You're nobody in Hollywood 'til somebody wants you dead." That's kind of overstating it, but if you put yourself out there, more people can see you. And a certain percentage (small if you're an optimist, large if you're a crank like me) of the world are just jerks.

In closing, remember that musicians are your most important resource (after great songs). Without them, you don't have a band and won't get heard as easily.

Treat people the way you'd like to be treated. Don't jump into a musical commitment too early. Have realistic expectations, work hard, and you'll be in a better position than 90 percent of the people out there playing music today.

[ LiB ]