When I was in bands, I promoted the band tirelessly. I didn’t sing all that well, and I wasn’t pretty, which meant that I’d have a “tough row to hoe” if I tried to make it as a solo act. But I could arrange and write, and I could play just about any instrumental part or sing any harmony on most pop, rock, or country songs on the first listen. So no matter who was singing lead or taking the flashy guitar solos, the band could always count on me to flesh out the arrangements, make sure I “filled the gaps,” and add specific tonality that the song needed. As I saw it, my music dreams involved – as the song says – getting in with “the right bunch of fellows” and making myself indispensable.
Or not. While I was tirelessly trying to make the bands work, I failed to notice that the others, even the ones who constantly professed their desire to “make it,” didn’t share my enthusiasm or priorities. I also failed to keep myself going as a “working concern.” I couldn’t do anything about not being pretty, but I could have – should have – kept working to improve my singing, songwriting, solo performing, and – let’s be honest – self-promotion.
I’m writing this note now, because I just heard from a friend who put his personal music on hold to go on a sixteen-month tour with a great band, only to learn that when the tour ends, the band may dissolve, or if it stays together, he may be “let go.” To be honest, he is more talented than I was at that age, and he’s better looking than I’ve ever been. Also, he has many more options than I had when a band that I had been pouring my life into would fall apart in the pre-home-studio, pre-digital days. But he is still facing the “where do I go now?” questions that I faced several times in the 1970s.
If, like younger me, you have staked your future success as a professional musician entirely on the band’s success, what will you do if you’re suddenly on your own again? The truth is that most bands don’t last. Very few non-professional bands last more than a couple of years. Even the bands that stay together for years and achieve regional notoriety remain at risk of breaking up the next time a lead singer flakes out and you can’t find a replacement or some such issue arises.
Here are some things to think about doing WHILE you’re in the band, to prepare for the likely, if not inevitable day you’re on your own again.
Own Your Own Digital Space NOW
Have your own name registered as a domain name now before someone else grabs it. Even if you don’t have a web site right away, it’s a lot cheaper to get that registration now and keep renewing it until the time comes than it will be if someone else grabs it and holds it for ransom later. (Don’t laugh, that stuff happens all the time. For more information on that topic check out our article “Register Your Domain Name Now.”)
If you can, have SOME sort of web presence, even if it’s just a separate part of the band’s “About” page for now. If you can squeeze in time and space for a blog, even better.
Have your own Facebook artist account, and update it every day or so with a cartoon, a gig photo or SOMETHING, just to establish that you exist. If you have the time to do more, fine. But have something going on. The way Facebook works now, if someone following you likes a post or cartoon, some of the folks following them will see it as well. If some of them like it, some of THEIR friends will see it as well. And SOME of those folks will come back to see what else you got.
Now, having websites and facebook pages that are relatively static, may not be that impressive. But if you keep them marginally updated, at least Google will know where you are, and any fans you gain will know where to find you online. And there is an “if you build it people will come” element to any web site with good content. You might only have eleven readers or followers by the end of the first year, but it will grow, and that’s way better than starting from scratch if the band suddenly goes “sideways.”
Start a fan e-mail list, even if you’re just collecting addresses online, and send out SOMETHING at least once a month so they know you’re alive and feel like you are interested in them. Even if you only have fifteen fans at first. Don’t get discouraged if some months more people unsubscribe than subscribe. Consistency is key – that’s one reason one of the biggest mailing-list outsourcing companies is named “Constant Contact.”
If you are already a Twitter-head or want to test those waters, and you have something to offer online (be it free Youtube covers or silly stories from the road or whatever), you can get a lot of Twitter followers in a fairly short period of time by following a regimen like that described in Carlos Castillo’s “Twitter Cheat Sheet.”
It is technically possible through social networking to have hundreds, if not thousands of followers already paying attention to you as a person while you’re spending most of the time being part of something “bigger.” Don’t promote your music (much) – that would be a conflict of interest. But promote yourself as a person that fans can feel connected to and root for. If you provide any music, make it free for now – you don’t need the dimes and nickels, you need the connections. How hard would it be to turn such fans into would-be team-mates if the band breaks up unexpectedly and you announce a Kickstarter to fund your first CD?
Grow as a Solo Act
Keep practiced up on 30 or more songs, so you could fill in as a solo act at a coffeehouse or club or some such tomorrow night without having to think about it. Yes the chances of that happening are infinitesimal, but I know guys who had similar opportunities and weren’t ready, as well as guys that had similar opportunities and were. Guess who has regrets?
If you possibly can, work up a 45 minute set of your own material, Tom Jackson-style. Rehearse it diligently, so if you get chance to open for an artist, you can jump right in and do it credibly. Or if an artist cancels and you get his slot. Yes the chances of that happening aren’t great, but they do come along. And I know guys who had similar opportunities and weren’t ready, as well as guys that had similar opportunities and were. Guess who has regrets?
Practice performing solo in front of people as much as you can. If you can’t go someplace where you get paid, do it where you won’t get paid, or paid much. Open mics that no one attends, nursing homes, hospices, high school assemblies, wherever you can find a platform (although you’ll need to be thoughtful about material choices in some of those venues).
Even if you NEVER perform solo professionally until the band breaks up, all of that practice will help you be a far better performer with or without the band.
And, if you’ve already been building a network of fans that you can pull on JUST your name, and whom you can impress with a thoroughly professional solo performance, the transition will be a whole lot smoother than if you have to start from ground zero the day after the breakup.
Write Songs for You to Sing
So what if the band plays Funk or retro-Punk? If, as a solo artist, you sound more like James Taylor or Carole King, write some songs you can carry off by yourself. Then write some more and some more. Practice performing those convincingly as part of your “solo gig” package.
Make certain that your better songs get recorded SOMEHOW, even if they’re just bedroom demos, as long as they are listenable. And carry your demo with you, be it in a pack of CDs in the pouch on front of your gig bag or on a cutesy thumb drive you can hand out. You don’t want to be caught empty handed if someone important you bump into asks to hear what you’ve got. That happened to me, once and it isn’t one of my best memories.
No one who is in a constantly working, much less touring band, will have time to do all of the above. But these are things that need to be on your to-do list, maybe one a month or one every six weeks to get started.
In the meantime, everything you do to prepare yourself to survive as a solo artist will also be helping you become a better contributor to the band’s success. So it can be win-win, if properly done.
I’ll close with a note about being thoroughly prepared to go solo before you need to.
I am NOT a full-time musician, and I never was for very long at a time. But I was working in the software industry at a time when it was just as volatile as the music industry is now. And I used to interview for new jobs – jobs I didn’t even really want – every year or so. That way, if I needed to interview for a job in a hurry, I’d be in practice. Most of my friends in the industry had only ever interviewed once or twice in their lives, and for many of them, that was decades in the past. When we all got laid off at the same time – which happened several times with several different groups of coworkers in several different companies, I nearly always landed on my feet first, while they almost always botched their first interview or three. Contrary to what some people thought, it was NOT “bad luck” to stay in practice interviewing – it was an investment in my own career on top of what I was investing into the “team.”
As a musician, even one who is happiest working with more talented people, it is not “bad luck” to be prepared for “life after band,” it’s a way of investing in your own long-term career at the same time you’re investing into the “team.”
Best of luck in ALL your musical endeavors!