6 Big Things Things You Learn Joining a Rock Band
Universal life lessons derived from trying and failing in music for two decades
Spoiler alert: No band I was ever in became successful. Not even slightly. My music career was an unremitting failure. If you’ve come here to learn about music, forget it. I know as much about that as the next useless dork.
However, if you’re looking for some hard-earned wisdom from failure, try looking in the mirror, loser. Only joking, you’ve actually come to the right place because 20 years in bands kicked my arse and taught me a thing or two about life, whether I wanted to learn it or not.
Along my musical journey, I learned a bunch of stuff and now I’m going to tell you about it. These lessons aren’t specifically about music, they’re more broadly about creativity and life in general. The lessons are as applicable to you as they are to anyone else.
Ready? Then we shall begin.
1. Hone your craft
Any creative endeavour is 99% craft and 1% art. When you’re 24, it’s easy to look at your favourite musicians, authors, and actors and believe they’re blessed with god-like talent destined to be adored.
But no. Those creative heroes hone their craft every damn day. They’re disciplined, consistent and they practice, practice, and practice some more. They also practice. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it.
Talent means nothing. Dedication means everything. Mentality beats intelligence every time and consistency is the secret sauce.
There’s no magic to the process, 99% of art, 99% of anything, in fact, is a craft.
I’ve met enough naturally talented musicians and artists over the years to know that’s not enough to “make it”. Most of these people waste their artistic gift because it comes bundled up with chaos and disorganisation. They also took their talent for granted and didn’t nurture it because they felt they didn’t need to, eventually, they were all superseded by the people who actually worked hard.
Everyone can be great if they put the work into being great. Les Brown says, “there is greatness within you” but most of us aren’t prepared to dig for it.
Almost every band I met talked ad nauseam about “making it” but never put the work in. Everyone wanted to go to heaven, no one wanted to die. We were all there to party and that’s what we all did. Partied until the party was over, until we got too old or were overtaken by those who were more focused and dedicated. It sucks, but most of us wasted time trying to act like rockstars.
2. Don’t buy into stereotypes
This brings me to my second point: don’t buy into a stereotype or a lifestyle. No one is “one thing”, you are a verb, not a noun.
At times, we all make the mistake of trying to be one thing, an image, a stereotype, a label. This was prevalent in the world of unsigned bands where everyone acted like an undiscovered Kurt Cobain, but no one wanted his work schedule, nor his woe. Everyone just wanted to be gifted with his attention, talent, and selection of nice cardigans.
The moment you choose to be a “thing” is the moment you remove your individuality. You play to the gallery and walk down a boring, well-worn path.
David Bowie once said:
“I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that.” - Daivd Bowie
Don’t put yourself into a box. Everyone is already trying to do that for you. Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “Be you, everyone else is taken.”
3. Teamwork and leadership matters
I hate to admit this as it makes me sound like a boring Stephen Covey textbook (damn, those books are dry), but it is true. I used to joke that being in a band was like being in a relationship with three other people at the same time. You had to deal with the ups and downs of a group and juggle everyone’s needs. And when any one of those people got the hump, lost motivation, or decided to quit, everyone felt the pain.
I’ve replaced drummers in bands more times than you (or they) can count. I’m not sure why, but it’s always the drummer who leaves. Unreliable types with too many options, I figure.
Whatever the case, everyone has to feel included, every feeling has to be considered. You’re not a band, you’re a team, a gang. And like all teams and gangs, they need a leader.
I know this sounds corporate or military, but I’ve been in bands where no one is prepared to drive decisions and have the vision to move a band forward. The upshot is it goes nowhere. Conversely, I’ve been in bands where one person screams, shouts and blames, and the band collapses under their toxic personality.
Leadership and teamwork are vital elements to get right otherwise the band simply won’t last.
4. Focus on the music, man
Or focus on whatever you’re trying to do in life, without distraction.
For example, in a band, the music matters head and shoulders above everything else. It’s about being so good they can’t ignore you, not sounding average but looking cool and knowing the right people. Sure, some people make it like that, but they’re swiftly killed off by time and criticism.
There is a phrase from the British Olympic rowing team which is “Will it make the boat go faster?” Every decision they made was run through this filter. If it didn’t make the boat go faster, it was a waste of time and they didn’t do it.
Bands (or anyone with creative goals) needs to ask “Will it make the boat go faster?” for their chosen endeavour. Focus matters. Be myopic. Be obsessed. Understand what moves the needle.
I knew of bands who self-produced demos and EPs and would tweak them for two years before release. What will make the boat go faster, tweaking that track for another six months or just realising the fucking thing and writing more music? (Answer: it’s the latter).
Focus on “the one thing”. It’s why you exist. It’s why you’re there. Everything else comes second. If your music isn’t good enough (or your boat isn’t fast enough) you’re an also-ran at best and no one will care.
5. Prepare to sacrifice and sacrifice some more
This is so bleeding obvious, it almost goes without saying. Almost, as you wouldn’t believe how many people join a band and then feel aggrieved it equates to work.
I’ve had people complain about rehearsal times being too early, being too late, I’ve had people not turn up to rehearsals because their brother was visiting or they’d made other commitments. Often, people treated the band as an inconvenience or an optional extra to their life. If you’re going to be in a band, a proper band that is, be in a fucking band. You have to accept all the crap that comes with doing anything properly. Namely, you have to make it a priority and accept the sacrifice.
There’s an odd disconnect where people believe art and creativity shouldn’t be hard, but fun. “It’s not a job” I’ve heard people say. Shut up and do the work. Be a pro.
In fact, I’d go further. I’d suggest art is harder than most day jobs. Art doesn’t have boundaries like a job, it doesn’t pay like a job, it doesn’t offer security like a job, it doesn’t have a clear path of progression like a job. Art is about working on faith and fumes, it’s a chaotic and directionless adventure through self-doubt, endless toil, and small levels of insanity.
There’s a reason why there are millions of bankers, accountants and insurance brokers but only a fraction of artists and musicians: because it’s fucking hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Instead, they opt for the well-lit path of corporate safety.
In short, suffer for your art or prepare to fail.
6. Be present and enjoy the process
Lastly this. It sounds trite but it’s the most important point on this list. It was exceedingly rare to meet a musician whose mind wasn’t two or three steps ahead of where they were. They were never satisfied, everything was treated as a transient step to where they were “meant” to be; where the next big gig was, what recording they were planning, who they were trying to work with next, what label meeting they had lined up, yadda fucking yadda.
No one seemed to love simply being in a band and playing music. Everyone begrudged playing a set to 15 people in a pub on a wet Wednesday night. And they shouldn’t, as 90% of the process is building that foundation and besides, they’re actually playing music, 15 people or 15,000.
If you don’t love where you are, you’re not focusing on what you’re doing and everything becomes an escape plan, which is a recipe for disaster when creating art. Moreover, you’ll run out of steam. Creative work can be fun but it’s mostly a lot of toil with very little recognition or support. Be your own champion and love the process. It’s the foundation of all success.
And that’s it. There are a dozen more points I can think of but they’re all variations on the same themes: focus, be consistent, understand there are no shortcuts, and mostly, shut the fuck up and do the work.
These principles are so universal they apply to every facet of life; art, corporate jobs, relationships, fitness, self-improvement, and everything in between.
P.S. If you care, you can read my detailed exposé on what it’s like being in unsigned bands here.
Thank you and good night.
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