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Habits of Highly Successful Bands

By: Darrin Snider (darrin at indyintune dot com)
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 7:00:00 PM


I recently read an article by a former music exec where he listed seven things you need to have in order to succeed in the music business.  The one thing I noted, and I thought it was subtle that he did not expound on this further, was that "talent" was not one of those seven things.  Now I've often joked about this, usually as a slight against our Disney-pop-princess culture, but it really got me looking at all types of music.  We always have a tendency to stand behind music we enjoy and brutally defend the people who created it, but really, when you take an objective look at it, are those musicians any better than your average local talent?  I'm not calling Van Halen "untalented," but, honestly, I've seen cover bands that did a better job playing Jamie's Cryin' than Van Halen did last time they were in town.  The Stones?  Is there anybody out there claiming that Keith Richards is some kind of virtuoso guitarist whose music they couldn’t possibly do just to?  I don't think it's sacrilege to say that, while we love the music, and the songs ARE great, if it wasn't for the fact that they're the Stones, just about any band in town would blow them off the stage at the Melody Inn on a Wednesday night in terms of talent and ability.

But that's just it.  They're "THE" Stones, "THE" Ramones, Van Friggin' Halen.  You can play every lick of every song exactly as they played it.  Why does fame elude you (aside from the fact that you didn't write it)?  Meanwhile, while they're Teflon in the media, loved by fans and record labels despite all of the numerous shortcomings, ego problems, drug issues, arrests, and what have you.  Why is it that we can all pine for the "Mick Taylor" years or the "David Lee Roth" years, but nobody is really freaking out and saying that Five Til' Dawn is toast because Ryan Shore left the band?

First off, there's the fact that the average person probably knows David Lee Roth's name.  There is a preconception around him.  Even though you never met him, you're pretty sure you know exactly what he's like, right?  You've probably had that fateful conversation playing out in your head since you were fourteen years old, haven't you? (Oh ... just me then?)  Now, you can complain that it's easier to establish your individual personalities when you have magazine articles, MTV, music videos and a wide range of press following you around ... yeah ... all you've got is Facebook, Twitter, and the Indy In-Tune Podcast (by the way ... NO coincidence that's why the format is candid and encourages natural conversation over Q/A). 

So, how does one get to be "that person?"

Actually, that's pretty easy. Head to Amazon or a bookstore (I think there's still one or two left in this town) and pick up a music biography of an artist you admire and respect.  Pay particular attention to the chapters about their early club days before they became famous -- you know, when they were where you are now. Do they behave in a manner consistent with yours?  Odds are, no.  Look, I go out to watch local bands 3-4 nights a week, and in the last month in particular, I've been watching the habits of successful bands vs not-so-successful bands vs bands that should be successful but aren't.  Finally, it makes sense to me why some great bands languish, while a lot of not so great bands draw like crazy.

Success has nothing to do with talent, musical ability, or even dumb luck.  It's about fan engagement.

Case in point, I'm at a venue, and three bands are playing. I’ve heard all three bands play before.  Band A is just a kick ass band with great songwriting, very tight playing, and top-notch musicianship.  Band B is respectable.  They're good players, though not as good as Band A, but they haven't been around as long either.  Band C is, let's be honest since I'm not using names, really just up there to have fun and party.  There is nothing at all spectacular about their music, and their playing is usually subject to how much whiskey the rhythm section has consumed.  What has always boggled me is why, and this night was no exception, is the average draw for each band directly disproportional to that band's skill and performance quality? 

Okay, actually, it only boggled me until I started watching what the bands were doing when they WEREN'T playing.

Band A, the talented ones, played their set, not saying much in between songs, loaded up, and spent the entire second set standing between their cars in the parking lot talking to one person.  They reappeared during the last set, but sat quietly in the back, as a band, scowling, and not really talking to anyone.

Band B, the reasonably good ones, were pretty busy loading in during the first set.  And during the third set, mostly stood around their merch table talking to each other and a few people that came by to compliment them on their set.  Occasionally one would break off to talk to a friend who had come out to see the show, then return to the group.  I tried to engage them in conversation, but it was pretty obvious I was an outsider to whatever it was they were discussing.  Basically, they were very conscious of thanking everyone who had come out to see them play, but were doing nothing towards engaging with people they didn't already know.

Band C, the less than stellar band with what ended up being the big crowd, was having a party the entire night. They were introducing themselves to strangers, starting conversations at every opportunity, and ended up outside laughing it up with a large collection of people I assumed to be their fans, but later found out were fans of the other two bands -- some of whom were planning to leave after the first band, but stuck around; some of whom came to see the second band and were missing them because they were playing AT THE TIME. The tone of the conversation with Band C was completely different as well.  Who have we seen play around town that would go great on a bill with them?  Did anyone need a copy of their CD?  Who do we think is the greatest rock and roll guitarist ever?  Everything was completely laid back. I must admit, that while I was not the biggest fan of Band C before that night, I was quickly being won over as well.

Could it be that most of us have been overlooking the obvious all these years?  Is it possible that success is not directly disproportional to what you can do on stage, but directly proportional to what you do when you're NOT on stage?  Can we go so far, as at least one famous artist has said, to believe that talent really has nothing at all to do with success, while drive has everything to do with it.  Granted this is one night, and not exactly scientific experimentation, but I invite the rest of you to try to replicate these results.  Report back here with your findings, I'm genuinely curious.

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