Making Music, Making War

Making Music, Making War

“Hey, this is Dan. Call me back. I should be in town… for a while.”

The disappointment in that awkward pause made my stomach sink — shouldn’t he be on tour? I called him back and got the bad news: Lifetime had broken up.

He was sadly resigned to the loss. I was angry — I wanted more shows, more albums. As he told me what had happened, I found myself fervently thinking that there had to be a better way. Great bands shouldn’t just fade away because they hit a snag.

Of course, experience told me just the opposite: great bands die all the time, sometimes for really bad reasons. At that moment, I decided that someone should do something. A year later, with my psychology doctorate in hand and a job lined up with a mediation firm, I decided that that someone would be me. I’ve spent the last two years talking to musicians, managers, producers, roadies, label people, and anyone who would stand still about what causes bands to break up, or less dramatically, perhaps, limp along distracted by interpersonal battles that sap their creative energy.

What I found was that the bands that are most successful, both commercially and in the satisfaction they get from it, have found ways to overcome the challenges to working well together. Every band will face tough times, but those who can rise from the fray with their relationships intact will survive and prosper.

If It’s Not One Thing…

There’s no shortage of things that bandmates can disagree about. If you really think about it, it’s amazing that any get along at all. A band combines the best and worst of friendship, family, work, creativity, and play. Satisfying the sometimes conflicting demands of these many roles is no mean feat.

Probably the most obvious source of disagreement between bandmates is the almighty dollar. When there’s only twenty bucks to split five ways, people may not really care how it gets divided, but when you add a couple zeros, it’s a much stickier issue. So things like the division of writing credits take on a much greater importance when a label shows up with a check.

What’s more, money tends to be used as the great equalizer. For example, suppose the singer didn’t help out at all with setting up this particular show, so the drummer decides that she should get a smaller cut of the profits. Easy enough, right? Maybe, when you’re only looking at one situation, but being in a band involves thousands of overlapping situations. Maybe the singer doesn’t help with booking, but she did design the T-shirt that they sold thirty of that night. How does that money get divided? What about the person who handles all the interviews?

When you start adding it all up, it quickly becomes clear that running a band involves many talents and even more time. No one person can do it all, but how is each person’s contribution measured? Is an hour of website design equal to an hour of licking stamps for a mailing? Or do you compare based on street value ($25/hr for the one and $5/hr for the other)? It depends. It depends on what it takes for the bandmates to feel comfortable with each other, that everyone is putting in their share. Dave Prukop from Washington, DC’s Lickity Split openly concedes that, “the contributions to the effort are definitely unbalanced. Fortunately, we rarely get into the ‘I do more than you do’ pissing contest.” For these guys it works; others aren’t so forgiving.

Even assuming that everyone is contributing equally, they must also decide as a group on what they are looking to achieve. For example, in certain genres, the pursuit of success cannot appear to overshadow artistic credibility. This makes for a convenient rationalization for anyone who thinks of themselves as a musical purist and doesn’t want to be tainted by business matters. “How you divide the work seems like a mundane thing,” according to Lifetime’s Dan Yemin. “It seems like it puts the emphasis on the business instead of the art, but the art gets short-circuited if those things aren’t agreed upon because people’s feelings get in the way.”

Unlike most traditional business partners, musicians have more ego invested in the songs, performances, and band’s success. The creativity inherent in songwriting and performing exposes a certain vulnerability — this is a piece of yourself that you’re putting out for people to judge. As Cory Jennings of Baltimore’s Dime Arcade puts it, “if you’re going to be a performer, you have to have an ego, but you’re riding the razor’s edge because it can’t be too small or too big.” If you don’t have enough ego, you’ll either not have the guts to take your music to its potential or you’ll be so insecure and defensive that no one can work with you. If you have too much ego, you become insufferable. Or, as thirty year veteran Buck Brown puts it, “if you’ve made enough money and believe your own myths, you can do no wrong.”

This brings us to one source of difficulties that few people think about until it’s too late: dealing with success. Most people assume that all the problems disappear when the money starts rolling in. They don’t disappear; you just trade in your old problems for shiny new ones. For example, the band may now need to employ people and do boring yet scary things like pay taxes. On the artistic front, the band may need to form a plan that goes beyond “let’s tour a lot.” For bands that have taken things pretty much as they came, this thinking ahead can be a foreign concept. Philadelphia-based Weston found themselves at a crossroads last year, prompting guitarist Dave Weston to quip, “Our goal now is to get a goal.” Sound familiar?

Speaking of touring, no discussion of band minefields would be complete without a solid paragraph devoted to this pressure cooker. Put bluntly, “touring can kill you,” in the words of punk stalwart Dave Smalley, who has logged more van-hours than most through his work with Dag Nasty, ALL, and now, Down By Law. And if the rigors of the road aren’t bad enough by themselves, touring also exacerbates any existing tension. Chicago-based 88 Fingers Louie learned this lesson well when they broke up 10 days into a nine week tour. According to bassist Joe Principe, they would have broken up anyway, but probably not as soon if they hadn’t been on the road. (Two years later they re-formed, which makes for a happy ending but an unpleasant middle.)

Finally, there’s the issue of what to do when someone leaves the band. Separations and losses are inherently difficult, but especially in a band situation. As in a divorce, the separating bandmates may still be tied together financially, which means that they can’t just cut and go. For example, will the departing member continue to receive a share of the profits from sales of the T-shirt that she designed? If so, how much and how often will she be paid? If the separation is an ugly one, then all sorts of other resentments get thrown into the middle of what is, at its heart, a simple financial arrangement. Even when the separation is largely amicable, like when Weston’s bassist decided that he wanted to focus on other priorities, it can still be hard. Dave Weston said it was “like when someone you know is dying.” Considering all the time they had spent together, it’s a significant loss.

It’s Too Expensive

All this turmoil can wreak havoc with a band’s ability to do what it needs to do. For example, interpersonal strains invariably influence people’s ability to be creative with bandmates. Collaboration requires a feeling of safety to put fledgling ideas out into a cruel world. Critics and audiences can be fickle, so you should be able to trust your bandmates with your half-formed ideas, but if they’re still pissed from last night’s argument then that open-mindedness is gone.

The bad feelings can also carry onto the stage, making it impossible for the band to connect musically. This then throws off their ability to connect with the audience. One of the worst examples of this that I have heard (so far) was of a band that toured for six weeks of daily shows without any communication between one of the members and the rest of the band. It got so bad that the roadie had to stay in that member’s hotel room to relay phone messages to him. That must have been fun…

Beyond the music, a band has a tremendous amount of other stuff to take care of. This is all the sometimes boring but nonetheless crucial behind the scenes work of running a band, like managing the mailing list, setting up tours, sending out press kits, etc., etc., etc. There’s a lot to coordinate and everyone needs to lend a hand for it all to get done. Pittsburgh-based Anti-Flag knows well how the key to getting it all done is teamwork. “Getting along really well makes us able to work more,” according to drummer Pat Thetic.

So far we’ve focused on how all this impacts the band, but haven’t said much about how anyone else is affected. The band members are merely the bottom tip of what I like to call the inverted pyramid. Rising above them is everyone who depends on that band: the managers, booking agents, roadies, clubs, labels, promoters, families, friends, fans, etc. If the band implodes, all these other people lose out. Sure, there are other bands out there to fill the void, but you take it personally when your paycheck depends on this one band or, in the case of a fan, when you take so much pleasure from these specific songs.

So how can bands prevent this sort of trouble?

Making It Work

Some people prefer to go solo and avoid the headaches of depending on other people. After attempting to make it work with hopefully like-minded souls, Jared Kessler of New Jersey came to the conclusion that he can’t rely on others as completely as he can on himself. But the solo model doesn’t work in most genres, leading some musicians to form a band where they are clearly the leader. This is still no guarantee, because you’re still depending on other people — even the most dictatorial leader is screwed if a bandmate doesn’t show up for a performance.

The most obvious protection against future disappointments is to choose the right people to start with. Musical chops are important, but there’s more to it than that. For example, Alison Scola of Ohio-based Full Blown Kirk discovered that “someone’s personality, beyond their talent, is the most important thing” because even great music won’t be enough to overcome the inevitable arguments. While serving as a back-up musician for such acts as Nils Lofgren, Buck Brown learned that “they don’t pay you to play,” but to get to shows and rehearsals on time, be a great guy (or girl), and do everything that needs to be done with a great attitude. Even this doesn’t guarantee success; sometimes everyone is a great guy but the match is a bad one and personalities clash.

It’s possible, however, to reduce the chances of difficulties arising. For example, Dan Yemin rose from the ashes of Lifetime to form Kid Dynamite, perhaps not without a few bruises, but better for the experience. “The most important thing I learned from watching one band fall apart and putting another one together is to make things as explicit as possible from the outset with regard to how the band works and what its goals are.”

When problems do arise, the band needs to deal with them directly and in a productive manner. Like most people, musicians often prefer to ignore problems in the hopes that they’ll go away. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, they probably get worse. As one manager put it, “there’s an air of what isn’t said — it’s really hindered them in a huge way.” The trap is that people often fear confrontation because they’re worried that it will be too uncomfortable or will do too much damage to the relationship. Unfortunately, resentments tend to build on themselves and come out in unintended ways that wind up doing more damage. So frustration with someone for not helping with load-in may be released by scheduling a rehearsal at a time that is known to be inconvenient for that person. In order to prevent bleed-over like this, Nancy Tarr of Washington, DC-based Dead Girls & Other Stories has a rule against talking about business matters before a show. Segregating the different aspects of being a band like this ensures that problems are dealt with in the proper context.

Sometimes the problems evolve to a point where the band needs some extra help in getting beyond them. This is usually someone like a manager or mutual friend who plays referee, often to good effect. Sometimes, however, a truly objective person is needed. If the band has money to burn, and no desire to continue working together, they can hit at each other with lawyers, to predictable effect.

There’s another option, however. Some bands choose a less destructive approach to resolving the difficulties that allows them to move on and be more productive. A mediator can help warring bandmates get to the root of what’s going on and find a solution that works for the whole band. The best part is that the band makes the final decisions. This makes it more likely that their resolutions will stand the test of time and tours. Being in a band together is an extremely personal relationship, so the solutions have to be personalized as well. A typical mediation can last from a couple hours to a full day or more if the issues are particularly complex or the bandmates particularly stubborn. Costs vary, with some mediators charging by the hour and others by the case, but most are very reasonable, especially when you consider the increased productivity and peace of mind that mediation offers.

Music is a serious business and, just like any business, sometimes you need to invest for success. Most musicians invest freely in gear but don’t put enough time or energy into their working relationships. A successful band needs both.

• •

Dr. Ari Tuckman is a clinical psychologist in practice in the Virginia suburbs of Wasington, DC. He is the founder of Dog Days Music Mediation which helps musicians get along better with bandmates. He has written or Musician and Songwriter’s Monthly, served as a mentor at the Millenium Music Conference, and spoken on the radio about the sources of conflict in bands. You can get more information at www.MusicMediation.com or contact him at ari@MusicMediation.com.

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