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Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Write Lyrics: Level 2

Once you've gotten a handle on the basics of writing lyrics, there are some trickier skills to master. If you want your listeners to remember your lyrics, it's not enough to scribble down your feelings and hope for the best. You have to give the audience a phrase they can't forget, you have to perfectly seat your lyrics in the rhythm of the song, and you have to constantly challenge yourself to improve your writing.


If you want your song stuck in someone's head, you have to slather your song in glue.

This may be the most important facet of songwriting. If you want your song stuck in someone's head, you have to slather your song in glue. By that I mean, you'll pack in a lyrical hook, a melodic hook, an instrumental hook, and a bridge that's basically a different, but no less memorable chorus. That's covered in other posts, so we won't spend time and energy on it here.

When I say lyrical "hook," all I mean is a memorable phrase. Preferably, it should be UNFORGETTABLE. This is quite frequently, but not always, the chorus. It's the first phrase you think of when someone mentions a song to you.

I've noticed that the hook is often an idiom, or a phrase that you'd use in everyday speech. For example, "I won't back down" by Tom Petty in the song of the same name, "Ooh la la" in Grace Potter's "Paris," or "All hell can't stop us now" in Rage Against the Machine's "Guerilla Radio."

The human mind can only hold so much information. A listener can only remember so many lyrics, so it's up to you to craft a phrase/melody/performance/etc. that will let them easily recall your music, and draw them back to it time and time again.

You want your listeners to say (to themselves or others) "ooh, that's catchy," or "that's clever," or even "huh." If you can get them to chuckle or smile, you're got it made.

Sometimes, the hook comes first, and you build the rest of the song around it. Other times, you have to use nonsense words as placeholders, then come back and insert the unforgettable parts. It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you DO IT.

Looking back to last week's post, I'd suggest writing down any phrases you hear in everyday conversation that seem memorable. When you're ready to write your song, you can pull from the list you've put together.


This lesson came to me a little late in the game, and it's somewhat difficult for me to explain, but I'll try. Every song has a rhythm, which could come from a drum, a bass, a banjo, an acoustic guitar, a piano, finger snaps... really almost any musical instrument.

Your lyrics should never sound forced. They have to fit perfectly.

Generally speaking, whatever melody you create for a song should work with that rhythm. Beyond that, whatever lyrics you write should fit within that melody without sounding like you FORCED them in.

In the time my band has been playing out, we've been handed dozens of CDs from other musicians. Some of them have had great music, beautiful melodies, catchy hooks, and intriguing lyrical ideas, but the songs felt "off." It almost sounded like some of their phrases were rushed or squeezed.

This may seem small, but it can absolutely ruin a song. It's like when you're watching a movie, and you see the film crew in a mirror behind the actor. It breaks the "magic" of the song.

As an example, think of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The lyrics are:

twinkle, twinkle, little star
how I wonder what you are

Now imagine the lyrics were altered to the ones below, but be sure to keep the exact same melody and timing:

twinkle, twinkle, my beautiful little star
how I wonder precisely just where you are

It doesn't "fit," right? Something feels off? You have to rush to squeeze everything in, and it just doesn't work. This is the sin a lot of lyricists commit... they're trying to fit too many of their precious lyrics into a given space, which pulls the song out of the "pocket" or "groove." This issue can sometimes can be very difficult to figure out. You have to feel it out and play with it.

This is where editing plays a critical role. Once the melody, rhythm, and basic lyrics have been worked out, you have to go back into your song and find where the lyrics feel out of place. You may have to replace words, add or remove them, or re-write entire sections in order to make sure phrases match.

One of the best tools you have to fix these issues are small words like "a," "oh," "but," "you," "yeah," or "'cus." They can help to seat the lyrics into the melody, and can be used almost anywhere. Example:

twinkle, twinkle little star
how I wonder what you are
up above the world so high
like a diamond in the sky

The "up" before "above" is a bit redundant in terms of meaning. If you say the star is "above the world," and "so high" you really don't NEED to mention that it's "up." However, that little word, "up" puts the melody and the lyrics in the pocket.

Try singing the phrase "up above the world so high" without the "up." You almost make a sound similar to "uh" or "up" if you think about the rhythm when removing the "up." Part of that is your memory of the song, and part of it is the rhythm begging to be matched with a word.

This element of writing isn't limited to Pop/Rock/Country/Metal, etc. When rappers talk about "flow," it has a lot to do with what we're discussing here. The melodic quality of Eminem's or Jay-Z's lyrics (sorry kids, I'm old, I don't know who's good these days) are so impressive because they sound like they were MEANT to be in the pocket that they're in. That's what you're looking for - the audience should never question the placement of your words.

I hope this is making some sense. It would probably be easier for me to communicate this to you in person, but it's much more challenging to translate into text. If you'd like to discuss it further, or if you can think of a better way to communicate it, shoot me a message in the comments or by email.


In the U.S., there is a common saying (or idiom) that goes, "[don't] air out your dirty laundry in public." It means, don't say anything private in front of people who shouldn't hear it.

You may think your lyrics are obscure or discreet, but your loved ones can see right through you.

When it comes to lyrics, especially confessional lyrics, you may want to be conscious of the fact that other people in your life could be hurt or offended by some of the things you write. You may think you're being obscure or discreet when you're writing, but the people who know and love you can often see through you and your art.

This is a lesson that came to me at some cost, mostly because I was misunderstood, or because someone got into my notebook and read scratch lyrics that hadn't been edited, and weren't ready to be read or heard. If you're taking thoughts out of your head and life and putting them on paper, you are taking a risk that the other people in your life may be affected.

I'm also very conscious of using swear words in my music. It may seem very "metal" to throw a ton of f-bombs into your songs, but it's much less "metal" to have your boss tell you that your company won't be needing your services anymore because your extra-curricular activities don't represent the company's corporate values.

Music is therapeutic, a way for you to channel emotion and feeling. This process can occasionally allow you to go into areas of your mind and life that you haven't previously explored, which is usually a very good thing. Just be careful.


If you're out of gas, fuel up by getting away from music and getting into something else.

After you've written a number of songs, you may find yourself running out of steam, or gas, energy, or your metaphorical fuel of choice. The best way to replenish this energy is to get away from music for a period of time, however long or short, and go do things. Preferably things you haven't done before. Go visit new places, talk to new people, read different books, listen to new music.

I have no scientific explanation as to why this works, but I have seen it work in myself and others many times. New experiences lead to more and better songs. Don't limit yourself, either. Some of the biggest energy boosts I've gotten have come from reading and watching science fiction, though most of the songs inspired by that stuff don't show it. If you're passionate about something, the overflow of your passion will seep into your writing.


Once you've gotten your mind around the many facets of lyric writing, it's easy to get comfortable. DON'T. Challenge yourself. Hone your work. Get feedback from new sources. Go back and study the fundamentals. Otherwise, your lazy attitude will translate into stale lyrics. Writing is a craft, which means it's not like riding a bike... your skills can slip.

We've all heard lyrics from musicians who have been out of the game a long time and are trying to make a comeback... sometimes it's clear they haven't kept up their craft. If you want to constantly improve, you have to work at it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How to Write Lyrics: The Basics

Note: I decided to write this post after responding to a thread on Reddit/r/weAreTheMusicMakers started by a musician who froze every time he tried to write. So, this is an extension of my comments there. (Hello to any redditors who may be visiting!) Since it is about writing, there may be some crossover with my post on "Building Your Song."


Writing lyrics is a unique skill that needs to be developed independently from your musical abilities. It's the art of saying everyday things in unusual or interesting ways. Perhaps because most lyrics revolve around the ordinary, many people seem to think that anyone could do it, and do it well, on their first attempt.

Writing lyrics isn't as easy as it seems. Hell, it may even take practice.

Years ago, my significant other and one of her friends decided that they wanted to write lyrics for a song they overheard me working on. I was happy to play along. After a long period of brainstorming, writing, and rewriting, they read over what they had... it was horrible. Turns out, writing is not as easy as it seems. Hell, it might even take practice.

It's been my experience that this mindset isn't limited to "civilians." Many musicians treat lyrics as an afterthought... nothing more than meaningless phrases to act as tent-poles for the music. They can be that. However, some lyricists - true artists who take their craft seriously - write lyrics that could change someone's mood, their mind, or their life.

So, how do you do it? Well, I'll give you the basics of how I do it. There are other tips and refinements that we'll talk about in a future post, but let's cover the simplest stuff first. Take what works for you, leave what doesn't, develop your own method.


The first step to writing lyrics is to realize that at the end of the day, they are just words... marks on a page. They mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. So take some pressure off of yourself. The world will not explode if you try and fail to write good lyrics.

True, the words you write could have an impact on another person someday, but that doesn't matter during this early phase. Words come first, meaning and impact comes later.

Another side of that point is to realize that many artists - some of them quite famous and successful - make shit up, and because of the magic of art and the way people interpret it, it SOUNDS like they're quite deep.

So, you can always choose this method if you get desperate or lazy. Read the lyrics of the songs below (you can Google them so I don't get into any re-printing/copyright issues) before you read the backstories. For example:

Ryan Adams - "Magnolia Mountains" from the "Cold Roses" album. - Read the lyrics? What do you think they mean? Well... On an episode of World Cafe Live, Ryan claimed that he wrote "Magnolia Moutains" about a porn star from the 80's. Did you have any idea that's what it was about?

New Pornographers - "Letter From An Occupant." - What do you think this song is about? Carl Newman said that he just liked the way the phrase sounded, and it fit the melody. The words are totally meaningless.

Gillian Welch - the entire "Harrow & the Harvest" album. Pretty fascinating lyrics, right? Gillian confessed to Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air" that the lyrics were more about mood than literal meaning. So, the words are basically a mish-mash of things that sound cool.


If you think you should write a hit every time you put pen to paper, you will get frustrated.

You need to realize is that writing lyrics is a process. In most cases, the first draft of your lyrics will not be your last. You start with something, you patch it up here and there, you play it through, you patch again, you play it with a band, you re-write the thing from scratch. That's totally normal. It's only when you think you should write a hit every time you pick up a pen that frustration sets in.

The situations where someone "writes a hit song in 10 minutes" are the exception, not the rule. In many cases, I would guess that such stories are probably exaggerations, publicity moves, or outright lies to make it seem like the song was out in the universe and the artist just pulled it out of thin air, fully formed.

People love inspiring stories like that, probably because it makes them feel like they'll be blessed by the universe some day, but it's not often the reality of things. Writing meaningful, cohesive, impactful lyrics takes work.


Lyrics are an art form. There are many styles, and many techniques for crafting them. It's important to remember, as with any art, that people will interpret your lyrics how THEY want to interpret them, and there's nothing you can do about it aside from spelling out, "THIS SONG IS ABOUT MY GIRLFRIEND. SHE'S PRETTY AND I LOVE HER."

It can be quite painful to hear what people think your songs are about.

That's certainly a route you can take, but if you don't want to be QUITE that literal, you will have to come to terms with the fact that once you put your work "out there," it is no longer just yours. It is now part of other people's worlds, and theirs to interpret. Believe me, it can be quite painful to hear what people think your songs are about. That's just an inescapable part of the world lyricists live in.

The world loves to imagine who Taylor Swift is writing about. They break down every phrase, assuming that each one refers to a specific person or literal event...

...However, it could be that she's writing to every man she's ever met. Or about her poodle. Or that she's creating a story from scratch. Or that a team of writers are crafting the perfect song for Taylor's audience based on market research. You'll never know, but as a consumer/listener, it's your privilege to interpret how you wish.

It's very strange... several of the songs that I've written about events that NEVER HAPPENED are the ones that seem to have the deepest connection with people. They often assume that I went through this painful experience to come up with the song... to the point of asking if I'm okay. I'm fine, I just made stuff up.

On the other hand, some of the songs that I poured my heart, pain, soul, and real life into are the ones that people think are meaningless or made up. Oh well. All you can do is create. The world's job is to interpret and critique.


In my mind, there's several different stylistic categories lyrics fall into. None of them are "better" than another. They all have their place.

You don't necessarily have to decide what category your song is going to be when you're writing, but it can be helpful to have a general idea where you want to head. Once you reach the editing phase, you'll definitely want to decide which genre you're working with. The categories I came up with are:

Confessional - Whether or not the events/feelings in the song are literally true, it FEELS like they're true. If you're writing this type, it's quite possible you're holding an acoustic guitar or playing a white piano. (Dashboard Confessional - "Screaming Infidelities", Jason Isbell - "Elephant")

Abstract/Stream of consciousness - Random disconnected thoughts, basically a dream sequence. Metal and Prog love this category. (Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody", Radiohead - "Sit Down, Stand Up")

Story - There are characters who meet and conflict or come together, and they have an ending, whether it's happy or sad. (Taylor Swift - "Mine", Harry Chapin - "Cat's in the Cradle")

Novelty - The artist and the listener know the song is silly, but fun. (Presidents of the United States of America - "Peaches", Flight of the Conchords - "Business Time")

Literal - What you say is what you mean. Contemporary Country and some branches of Hip-Hop are big on this one. (Zac Brown Band - "Toes", Jeremih - "Birthday Sex")

Feeling/Vibe - This is more about the general emotions you experienced relative to a time or place or person. It's broad, but still meaningful. Metal and Alt-Rock like this kind of thing. (Evanescence - "Going Under", Foo Fighters - "The Pretender")


This part isn't complicated. Choose a "voice" and stick with it throughout the song. There's plenty of reading you can do about this online if you'd like to look into it further.

Choose a voice and a rhyme scheme, and stick to them.

First person: "I, we"
"I fell in love the first time I saw her"

Second person: "You, your, yours"
"You never said you belonged to someone else"

Third person: "She, he, it"
"She hit me and then it hit me that she was in love"


A rhyme scheme is a way to keep your rhymes consistent. If you deviate from it, your song will sound unfinished or weird. Some artists like to play with that convention by setting up an expectation and then leaving the listener hanging, but you should learn the rule before you break it.

There is no "correct" rhyme scheme to use, as long as you use one and stick to it. The first phrase sets up your scheme. We refer to each line with letters to help map things out.

"A" is the first phrase. Every phrase that rhymes with it is also "A." "B" is the first phrase that doesn't rhyme with "A." Every phrase that rhymes with "B" is also "B." Same with "C" and so on. For example:

A/A/B scheme:
I never felt so powerless (A)
Compared to this (A)
While sitting next to you (B)

A/B/A scheme:
Too tired to run (A)
Too tired to stand here and fight (B)
So I'll say you've won (A)
If it means you'll quit for tonight (B)

A/B/C scheme:
We watched Rick and Ilsa (A)
Fall in love (B)
At our favorite place (C)

There's any number of combinations or variations. Again, no right answer. Just pick one and stick to it. When I'm writing, I often put the letters in parentheses at the end of every line to be sure that I'm holding to my scheme.



The best way to start any song is to use a notebook or notebook app (Google Docs, Evernote). When you're walking around the mall, watching TV, having a conversation, whatever, and you have an idea, WRITE IT DOWN.

Do NOT assume that you will remember your idea. You WON'T. Inspiration comes at the most inconvenient times, so you have to be ready for it. "The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest mind."

If you're not feeling inspired when you're ready to sit down and write, just go to your notes and pick something. Think of random words that associate with that phrase. If you can't think of anything that ties in, just make up nonsense words. You can always go back later and add in words that have meaning.

Many, if not all, lyricists do this. Here's a few examples of demos/lyrics that started out rough, but were eventually refined into hit songs.


Another "tool" or best practice to use is to KEEP EVERYTHING. I can't tell you how many times I've cannibalized an old song to improve a new one. This is especially helpful if you tend to write about the same things or themes.

One particular bridge I wrote years ago went through half a dozen iterations and melodies before it finally made it into a finished song. You never know, so make sure you keep your stuff.


The other tool that will come in very handy is a rhyme dictionary. In the old days, you actually had to pay for one of these, but in our modern age, the internet is riddled with them. Just open the site of your choice, type in the word you're playing with, and you'll be handed a large number of options that will help you generate ideas.


"The first draft of anything is shit." - Kurt Vonnegut


When you write, write. Do NOT edit. This is where a lot of people go wrong and freeze up. You are literally word-vomiting on the page. It's not going to be good. So what? The creative portion of your brain and the editing portion, though closely related to each other, are enemies, and should rarely be allowed to share the same space.

The writing portion of your brain and the editing portion of your brain are enemies. Don't let them share the same space.

So, you invite the writer in you to take control. There's no judgment here. You pour out nonsense, good stuff, bad stuff, and everything in between. Just let it flow.

Again, you may even use placeholder words during this phase. I have a couple of go-to phrases that end up being the bedrock for almost every song sketch. They're only there to get the song structure in place, then I come back and replace them with the real thing when I'm ready to edit.


When it's time to edit, you're doing cleanup work. Does the song make sense? Can your 11-year-old sister read it and know what you're talking about? Are you using cliches? ("we almost had it all, you always catch me when I fall" -- Try to avoid using the word "fall" it all possible.) Did you maintain a rhyme scheme and a consistent voice?

One good editing trick (I can't remember where I heard this) is to pull out each line one at a time, and see if the song still makes sense. This is called "economy" or being concise. You want to say what you have to say with as few words as possible. That's a skill that comes with time.

It may help to have someone else look at your work and get their feedback on what can stay and what can go. You may be too close or too attached to think objectively about what's working.

Editing is an important skill, but like I keep saying, it is a skill, and takes practice. Don't be precious about your work. Be aggressive. Trim as much fat as possible. Whenever possible though, keep drafts. In Evernote and Google Docs, I have SONG 1 - REVISION 1, SONG 1 - REVISION 2, and so on. You may cut something out and realize later that you want it back. Make sure you have it stored somewhere just in case.


If you've done all the prep work of coming up with an idea, a voice, a style, and you don't have much to work with, or it feels like it could be better but you don't know how or why, there are a couple of ways to grease your creative engine.


Few songwriters have ever written about an amicable breakup where the two people stayed friends.

Sometimes, the best way to communicate with lyrics is to take a normal situation or story, and "push" the details a little bit. Audiences love drama, but they also love being able to guess at what's going on in your lyrics. Some lyricists prefer to be obscure and use a lot of subtlety, but most of us have to make things a little clearer or more interesting by adding some "flavor."

For example, let's say you had a breakup, and you decide to write a song about it. Few songwriters have ever written about an amicable breakup where the two people stay friends. That's not very interesting.

Breakup songs are about drama, so even if you managed to keep things civil with your ex in real life, when it comes to your song, there should probably be some holes in the wall from your fist (Dashboard Confessional), initials keyed into the person's car (Carrie Underwood), or drunken phone calls at 1am (Lady Antebellum).


Another way to add more interest to a song is to take a real-life situation and play the "alternate universe" game. What would have happened if instead of working a dead-end job for years, you quit, traveled across the country, and started a family in each state? What zany antics would ensue? If you went left, go right, if you turned around, stay the course. Songs are playgrounds, so have fun.


If there's drama or conflict, someone has to win, whether it's the narrator/hero, the opponent, or a third party. Figuring this out can help guide the theme of your song. It may even SEEM like someone's winning or losing, but then the tables turn. Tricky to do in the average 3-4 minute song, but writers do it all the time.

Take "Put a Ring on it" by Beyonce as an example. The first verse describes a breakup where it's unclear who left whom. But when we hit the chorus, the narrator makes it clear that she's not playing the victim by essentially saying, "If you didn't want to see me with other guys, you should have committed."

You have to put in the work.


Like any skill, art, or craft, you have to put in the time and work. One of the simplest warm-up exercises I use is to look around the room, find an object, literally any object, and write a song about it. I see a plant that's teetering on death's door. Okay. I could write something obvious like:

You're green
You're tall
You leave me every fall (Hah! Get it? "Leave" me?)

No real insight, nothing interesting (aside from a fantastic pun), and if I kept that going, it'd probably be painfully clear that I'm talking to a fern. That's no fun. However, if I soften the edges a little bit, we could go with:

long arms shining in the sun
a country girl
who grew up in the dirt

I gave her everything
I thought she needed
but she only gave me hurt

I see her lying there
slowly giving up the ghost
does my love have any worth

It's not going to win any Grammys, but if I didn't tell you that was about a houseplant, you'd probably never guess. You can literally write a song about ANYTHING. All you have to do is study the thing/person/experience. Break it down. Tear it apart. Put it back together. Write nonsense, then shape the meaning as you edit and refine.

Take any situation or object and put it into relationship terms. Country writers use this convention all the time.

Example 1: You don't own a truck, you loved that truck for years. You went through the mud together. (This is a metaphor.) It was your best friend, more loyal than any woman, and when it died, it left a hole in your heart that can never be filled.

Example 2: You don't just have a favorite baseball bat, you have a maple good luck charm that brought you fame and fortune, and got the attention of the girl of your dreams. As you sit there in a wooden rocking chair, holding a glass of maple bourbon, you think back to that day when you and your friend hit the game-winning homerun, which took you to places you never imagined.

Do this exercise as often as possible. A song a day 6/7 days of the week would be a good place to start. If you're just starting out, your work is probably going to suck, and suck hard, for a good long while. Even if you have some experience, most of your work is going to be throwaway. I've got several books and probably more than a hundred Google Docs and Evernotes full of unused lyrics. No one starts out at the top of their game. You have to practice the fundamentals before you can play in the big leagues.

But, if you keep at it, you will improve. It won't always feel that way. Which is another reason why you should never ever throw out your old work. Keep it close by, and go read it every now and then to see how you've improved or changed.

I'd also recommend reading lyrics of songs you like instead of just listening to them. See how the pro's do it. Lyrics feel very different on the page when they're separated from their music.


Some lyricists are born, but most are made through years of failure and challenging practice. Work at it. Suck. Try again. Go back and look at your old stuff. You'll see growth, I promise. Never stop studying and practicing. All the best.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

How to Become a Successful Musician with Goal-Setting

To get what you want, you have to know what you want. So, what do you want from your musical career? What does "success" mean for you? How will you know when you achieve it? We're all looking for this "success," but the definition of that word differs from one musician to the next. You may want to play Wembley stadium someday. That sounds like a nightmare to me.

I can’t find the actual quote for the life of me, or remember who said it, but it went something like this:

“If you want to be an actor, ACT. Find a community theater, or an indie film. If you want to be a STAR, well... that’s a different story. Move to Hollywood, sell your soul. But that’s not acting. There’s a big difference.”

This quote pops into my head whenever I meet a new fan or fellow musician. The discussion usually comes around to “what are you doing to try and be famous?” or "what are you doing to 'make it'?"

My answer? NOTHING. This reply often confuses people. I'll explain. 

Family and friends have encouraged me to audition for American Idol, X-Factor, or the Voice. I politely brush it off. That’s not being a musician in the way that I think of being a musician... That’s something different... it’s being famous. I don’t want that. I just want to make and play music

Now, don’t get me wrong, would I love to make a reasonable living with my music? Sure. I would also love to hop in a Delorean, flip on my flux capacitor, speed up to 88 mph, and visit ancient Rome at the height of its power. But with the way things are going these days, the chances of either thing occurring are about equal.

If I wanted to be “famous,” I’d move to NYC, LA, or Nashville, and I’d shop a demo to every person I came in contact with. I’m not doing that. I am, however, rehearsing with my band, writing new music, and distributing it myself. In between, we play shows, and try to pick up new fans whenever and however we can. That's what I want to do.

What I DON’T want to do is tour 364 days a year. I don't want to strap into a harness and fly over my audience, or have choreographed fireworks go off during my songs. That stuff is for KISS and Katy Perry to deal with. 

Spending most of my waking hours in vans and venues, singing to the point of injury, and acquiring stalkers is not my idea of a fulfilling career. I also don’t want to have a label tell me what kind of music I have to make based on current trends, or pay said label back for an advance on a new record. I don’t want to force myself into leather pants and a feather boa and pretend I’m cool enough to pull it off.

I want to make and play music. That's pretty much it.

I want to make and play music. That's pretty much it. It sure is nice when people listen to the music, and even nicer when they ENJOY it, but I've kept writing and playing during times when that was not the case, because the doing is what drives me.

Wise people have told me that you should define what success is for you so that you'll know when you get it. Otherwise, you'll spend years striving for an invisible endpoint, like one of those greyhound racing dogs chasing a metal bunny they never catch.

Set goals. Spell out on paper (or in Evernote, which is what I did) what "making it" means for you. Celebrate when you achieve these goals. Revise them if you discover they no longer hold the appeal they once did.

I've even gone so far as to retroactively change my goals, or write new ones after something cool happened, and then check them off. When I started my musical career, I never considered playing my songs at someone's wedding, but I fell into that situation several times, and it was AMAZING. So, I added that goal after the fact, and crossed it off.

Setting and achieving goals is a great way to feel fulfilled, and the best way I'm aware of to stave off regret.

I'd love to hear what success looks like for you. Shoot me an email, or leave a comment below.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Don't Waste (Other People's) Time


This rule is deceptively simple, but not always easy to understand or practice: never waste a person's time. That is a lesson many of us, myself included, have to learn more than once. It applies to your career in music, but it also fits into every other aspect of your life.

Time is money. If you are wasting someone's time, you are stealing their money.

You will learn the importance of this rule when people yell at you, hang up on you, ignore your emails, walk away from you mid-conversation, or refuse to give you something you need. Burn this rule into your brain. Practice it. Recognize when you are breaking it. Live by it, and watch your life improve. The old saying is true: "time is money." So, if you are wasting someone's time, you are stealing their money, and no one likes being robbed.


The trouble is that most of us, especially as kids, have family members, friends, or kind strangers who allow us to waste their time because we have a preexisting relationship with them, or because they're polite. As a result, we grow up being conditioned to think that everyone is cool with us yammering on about nothing, believing that our uninformed, irrelevant opinions matter.

Once you go out into the real world, however, you begin to realize the value of time and straightforwardness, and you start to notice that people who don't know you may get pretty pissed off if you take their time without good reason. For example, say you're asking a bar manager for a gig. You hand him a demo CD and talk about what style of music you play, and who your influences are. You're wasting his time.

The manager wants to know about audience. He wants to know how many people you can bring to a show. 9 times out of 10, he doesn't care what kind of music you play, unless he thinks it will impact what type of "crowd" it will bring to his venue. For example, a bar that caters to middle-aged yuppies may not want to feature a teenage punk band. You should have done that research before you approached a specific venue.

If you can't help a bar sell drinks, they don't need to give you a show

The only reason a showrunner cares if you're "good" or not is because he wants the audience to stay firmly planted on their barstools as it were. He wants to sell drinks and food. If you can't help him sell drinks, he doesn't need to give you a show.


Every human in the world at some point needs the help (which could be a product or service) of other humans. This includes you and me and everyone you know. The world is built on this principle: "I will help you, if you can repay me (in most cases) with money, service, an object, or gratitude."

With that in mind, BEFORE you ask someone for a product or service, ask yourself "what's in it for them?" Work that into your pitch. Why do they need you? Some people are fine with one form of payment, say money, but are not okay with others, say favors or gratitude. Figure out what drives them, and approach the discussion with that in mind.

For musicians, this help could mean that you're sending your album to a radio station to see if they'll play a song, or sending it to a blogger to see if they'll write a review. You might be emailing a studio to ask if you can intern, or record a track. You could be inviting someone to your show.

It doesn't matter what you're asking for. If you waste someone's time while asking for this help, you could jeopardize the potential opportunity you had with them, and what's worse, you could damage your relationship with them.

Realize that if you're asking someone for a product or service, you are likely not the only one. Most people are busy, and have to sort through many emails, voicemails, tasks, or customers/clients. Don't get in their way, or become a burden. The problem is, many people THINK they're making valuable use of someone else's time when they really are not.


Here is a very real example of what I mean... For a short period of my life, I owned a photography studio. During that time, I received several requests from kids who wanted to intern or work in the studio. The email at the bottom of this post is from just such a kid, a college student whose name I have removed. Please read it, and see if you can figure out where he went wrong.

Keep in mind, I'm not trying to hurt his feelings. I'm only trying to provide a practical example of how NOT to communicate with someone that you need help from. Come back here once you've finished.

Okay, all finished?

This kid clearly wants something from me: to "help out around the shop." That's fine, and I'm willing to hear his pitch. However, his email could easily have been cut down to 2 sentences, 3 at the most:

"Hi, my name is so and so, and I am looking for a photography internship. I am willing to work hard, and I have some ideas about food/commercial photography that I'd love to share with you." Phone number. Link to portfolio. Signature. DONE.

However, in this kid's message, he talks about his feelings regarding retail in my town. I don't care what he thinks... about anything really. That may sound harsh, but when was the last time any adult went to a kid and said "tell me your thoughts about the world"? More than that, these comments don't relate to his request, so they need to go.

If you're asking for something, never complain. No one likes complainers

He then complains (yes I said COMPLAINS) that other companies aren't answering his emails. That's not my problem. He complains about people labeling him. This has no place in a professional message. If you're asking someone for something, NEVER complain. No one likes complainers. If you're complaining before I've even met you, it's only going to get worse if you're working for me. It makes you sound lazy. It sounds like you think the world owes you something. Learn this lesson quickly, kid: the world owes you nothing.

The kid talks about not having a background in photography. Well, clearly. If you did, you would be asking for a job, not an internship. This is useless information. He goes past that and basically implies that he's only tinkered with photography ("[I] try to shoot a great picture that makes my friends happy"), and hasn't done his homework. He's talking me out of giving him what he wants.

He also failed to proofread (or have someone else proofread) his email. That is never okay. If I'm tripping over your sentences, I am very likely to trash your message halfway through. 1 or 2 mistakes are forgivable, a message riddled with errors is not. Everyone knows someone who is good at proofreading. For important emails, make use of their help. He also needs to break up his paragraphs. No one likes huge blocks of texts in their emails.

Hopefully, this kid will learn from the lack of response he got from other studios, and me. Hopefully he realized that when asking for something, he should stick to the point as much as possible, and never EVER complain. Hopefully he will proofread his future communications.


Even if you are a professional artist, you still have to be professional.

Another issue that musicians and other creative types run into is that they want to make it clear that they are artists when they communicate. They write flowery prose, or make attempts at humor, or try to be clever. Cut that out. Get to the point, stick to the point, get the hell out of there. Even if you're a professional artist, you still have to be professional.

If someone wants to help you, or has a reason to help you, they only need the pitch. They do not need to hear your jokes, or your poetry. Read through your message at least 3 times. If you can ask what you're asking for without a given word or sentence, GET RID OF IT.

Keep your communication simple. "Hi, I'm Jim with the band 'The Forgetful Yellephants' and we're interested in working with your venue. I've attached a one-sheet with our bio and some highlights of our recent performances, and a link to our music is below. We look forward to packing your bar sometime!"

That's all the info a bar needs. If they want more, they'll ask for it. If not, move on to the next venue.


People, especially business people (including bar owners, DJs, bloggers, reviewers), respect "straight-shooters." That is, people who say what they mean, and mean what they say. There is a reason no one likes aggressive salesmen. No one likes being lied to, or being manipulated, or people pretending to care when it's obvious that they do not.

I'm sure we all have gotten those messages on ReverbNation that say something like "love your sound, check out my band!" Don't be that guy. Be genuine, be clear, be considerate, and be quick about it. Your life and your music career will improve if you can work that way.


I highly recommend the book "How to Win Friends & Influence People." It's easy reading, and it's information you won't learn in school that will benefit you far beyond your music career. I wish I had read it earlier in my life... I just read it last year, and it reinforced many of the lessons I'd already learned through failure.



Note: I've kept this message entirely intact because spelling and formatting is part of the problem.

"My name is [redacted], I live around [your town] as of now I am in college at [a school] up in Philadelphia. I just came home for spring break last week and noticed you opened up your shop in town. I am very excited and happy to see a shop like this, open in [your town]. Usually its just hair salons and coffee houses that later go out of business around here; anyway I tried to stop by just the other day, but you guys were closed. So I am hoping, maybe you will receive this email instead. I was wondering if you guys were looking for an assistance/ any help around your shop. Anything, really. It dose not have to be an internship, I just want to learn from someone who is actually living in the field. Over the past few months I have been emailing and calling otherphoto companies (around [your county] and even in center city philly) asking for the same help. Although, they have mostly denied or ignored me. I don't understand why, to succeeded in any field you have to start from the bottom, and asking is the only way.

Although I do not want to give the impression of, this is just some silly teenage who thinks he's a photographer. I dislike it when people say that, it bugs me so much. I don't brag my work, I just learn from others and try to shoot a great picture that makes my friends happy. I have done two years of a food photography course, plus some classes in graphics at my votech school in [your town], I love this hobby so much and would enjoy to show others the excitement in it. That really, is my only background inphotography. I mean I have done some shoots over the years of my friends and events around [your county], I can attach a example photo in the message. I also noticed no one does food photography around here and if they do, it's just a little. Maybe that could bring some new ideas in your shop?

You can reach me with this email. I would love to make a portfolio for you guys. I will be free on weekends and soon for summer break. Any thing would do, really! Thanks Again."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How to Care for Your Voice

DISCLAIMER #1: This post is primarily aimed at vocalists, however, other members of the band NEED to understand some of this information in order to better work with their singers.

DISCLAIMER #2: When it comes to vocal technique, there's a lot of bad habits, voodoo, and downright false information floating around the music community, perpetuated by well-intentioned bandmembers or family members, people who claim to be vocal coaches (but have no real training), and anecdotal experience.

To try and stop that cycle of misinformation as best I can, I have included links to external resources for most of my points. Where applicable, the links are pulled from academic research, physicians, or reputable vocal coaches. A full list of sources is available at the bottom of the page.


The human voice is the most fragile instrument in a typical rock/pop/country/rap/etc. band, yet it probably receives the most abuse. A vocalist uses their "instrument" (their voice) while rehearsing and performing, and then goes on to use it every waking hour of their life as well. That's a lot of pressure to put on something that needs to hit specific pitches and volumes perfectly.

Imagine carrying an acoustic guitar with you every moment you're awake. You strum it all day. You play it inside where it's nice and warm, you take it outside where it's freezing cold. You just keep strumming... hard, soft, and everything in between. You accidentally spill some coffee on it. At your nephew's birthday party, a little kid grabs the strings with both hands and yanks them with all his might.

After all that, you take this poor guitar to rehearsal and thrash on it for 2 hours, competing for volume with drums, electric guitars, and all the other instruments in your band. How good is it going to sound after all of that stress? After a week, a month, a year of the same treatment? Keep in mind that in this case, you can't change the strings. It's an imperfect metaphor, but it helps us to stop and think about how much stress our voices go through on a daily basis.

If you injure your voice, you could be headed for surgery, or retirement

Why do we need to take our vocal health seriously? Well, if our voices get injured, we are in SERIOUS trouble. If you snap a guitar string or punch through a drum head, you simply swap them out with new ones. If you injure your voice, you could be headed for a traumatic and expensive surgery, or permanent vocal retirement.

Yet, so many vocalists polish off a cigarette, down a shot of whiskey, run up on stage and belt 2 sets over a full band through bad monitors without any preparation or thought about the damage they might be doing. Many of you guys repeat this cycle several days a week.

Mind you, vocal injuries are not limited to amateurs. Many famous musicians, including Adam Duritz, Julie Andrews, John Mayer, and Adele have all had to cancel shows, or entire tours because of vocal injury. It's one thing to miss out on "original band night" at your local bar. It's quite another to miss out on a year's revenue because you didn't take care of your voice. [Reference]



If there is only one concept you take away from this post, please let it be VOCAL REST. That is the best cure for vocal strain, and the best prevention for future injury. Every time you sing too hard, or too long, or fall into bad technique, you need to allow a good amount of time to recover. [Reference]

"Vocal Rest" means "shut the hell up"

When I say rest, I mean SHUT THE HELL UP. Whispering does not help. Some experts believe it may even be worse than regular speech. You need to be completely silent for the most part, aside from your regular vocal exercises which will help you avoid falling out of shape. You'll have to figure out how much rest you need in order to recover, but DO figure it out, and make sure you stick to it. [Reference]


You may have to change some pre- and post-show rituals with your bandmates, coworkers, and loved ones. In an interview with Howard Stern, Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows said that he spends most of his time on the road alone, because his voice can't handle the loud bars and parties that go along with touring. That's a lot of fun he's missing out on, but he also knows how important his voice is to the band, and the people who are paying for the tickets. Pro's have to make sacrifices. [Reference]

If you are a normally social person, you might consider some tools to help you commit to your rest. I've seen some tshirts and hats online that say, "I'm on vocal rest." A music student I knew in college carried around a little markerboard on rest days, and used that to communicate with people. Yes, it's awkward, but your health and ability to perform is important.

In addition to shutting up, you need to get your sleep. I'm sure you've heard about the recommended 8-9 hours per night. It varies from one person to another. Either way, get your full night's rest as often as possible, but especially before and after singing. Staying up late and waking up early will inhibit vocal recovery. [Reference]


I hate warm-ups. They're awkward, they're repetitive, they're gibberish, and they annoy people around you. That said, if I'm doing anything beyond singing in the shower on a given day, I'm going to the piano and forcing myself to do them.

Sure, you CAN sing without them, just like you CAN play the solo from "Free Bird" without picking up a guitar for a month, but chances are, it won't go as well as it could have had you prepared. It's amazing what a difference warm-ups make when it comes to stamina and range. Work them into your pre-show routine and don't make excuses. [Reference]


Drink water regularly, and avoid having a dry throat. It helps in the prevention of mucous build-up, and delivers nutrients to your body to keep you and your voice healthy. I'm not going to get into specifics about measuring out the amount of water, because some of that research seems questionable, but as for me, I drink water ALL DAY LONG. When my glass is empty, I fill it. When it comes to performing, I always have water with me on stage. [Reference]



They may temporarily ease some of the pain, but they will not magically restore your vocal strength, or eliminate the strain you've placed on your throat. Think of tea as a band-aid, not a medicine. It seems like everyone, non-musicians especially, believe that tea and/or honey will work like Popeye's spinach to bring your voice back to full health. I wish that were true, but sadly, it ain't. [Reference]

Magic throat sprays don't work, and depending on what's in them, may even hurt


Those magic sprays they sell at music stores are utter horse-pucky. Don't waste your money. They're no more effective than water, and depending on the ingredients, they may even hurt you, especially if they have numbing agents in them. Numbing your voice is bad when it comes to singing. Imagine if you numbed your arm muscles and then tried to pick up a 500 pound weight. Sure, you might do a little better than if you had not numbed, but the post-lifting experience will be much more painful, not to mention dangerous. [Reference]



Chronic strain may mean that your technique is flawed. If you feel pain every time you sing, you should go to an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor to get evaluated, and a vocal coach to correct any bad habits you've picked up. DO NOT PROCRASTINATE, go now. If you wait, you'll increase the risk of injury, and you'll just keep reinforcing your bad techniques.

Pain is the body's way of telling you that something is wrong. If you're singing, and it hurts, you need to stop singing. If I start to develop pain at rehearsal, I will usually tell the band that we have to go through the rest of the songs without my vocals, or I will at least have to avoid the high notes.

Another option would be to only sing at the beginning of a verse/chorus/bridge to confirm where we're at in the song. (Singing aside, going over a song without vocals is a great way to make sure the band has a song nailed down.) [Reference]

SMOKING (yes, that includes weed)

This is probably obvious. Smoke can damage your vocal folds, it can reduce your lung capacity, and it dries out your throat. Every paper I've read on vocal health recommends cutting out smoking, and avoiding smoke-filled environments. [Reference]


Caffeine dries out your throat. Most of the resources and coaches I've encountered over the years recommend cutting it out of your life altogether. It's going to take commitment and sacrifice on your part, but are you a Pro, or aren't you? [Reference]

Alcohol and caffeine are not good for singers


I know you're not going to want to hear this, but alcohol is not good for singers. According to this article from the U.S.'s National Institutes of Health, alcohol "can cause the body to lose water and make the vocal folds and larynx dry. Alcohol also irritates the mucous membranes that line the throat." Alcohol can also influence your perception of how and what you're singing, meaning you're more likely to be off-pitch. [Reference 1] [Reference 2]


If you can't hear yourself singing, you're in trouble. If you're competing for volume with drums, distorted guitars, or keyboards, you're going to strain and hurt your voice. Take the time to get the monitor mix right. If you don't know what you're doing, ask someone who knows their stuff to lend a hand. Many sound guys love the chance to fix mixes or to show others the basics.

It's also important to take breaks during rehearsals and shows to give your ears a chance to recover from the deafening noise of a band, and give your voice a chance to rest. During those breaks, shut the hell up. [Reference]


Any reputable vocal coach will tell you that tension and stress are bad for your voice. The problem is, it's not exactly "relaxing" to stand up in front of a crowd and sing. This is to say nothing of any emotional issues that may have come from a fight with your bandmember before the show, or that angry drunk guy in the audience that is heckling the band.

I would suggest finding some sort of regular practice like yoga, structured relaxation, or intentional breathing to help you get control over your breathing (which is how one sings after all), and help manage nervousness. [Reference]



DO NOT CLEAR YOUR THROAT, especially when you are hoarse. It feels rewarding in the moment, but you are only further straining your vocal cords. I know it sounds tricky, but it can be done. I have not cleared my throat since about 2003, and getting rid of this practice has made a huge difference in my voice. Try anticipating the urge and swallowing instead. It takes conscious and consistent effort to kill this habit, but if you're serious about your voice, you need to do it. [Reference]

your voice is the most expensive & fragile musical instrument you will ever own


When it comes to singing, the road of bad habits is easy to find, and even easier to stay on once you've found it. Your bandmembers and your significant other will rag on you when they hear you doing your vocal exercises... they'll tell you to just down a couple shots of any given alcohol before you go on stage, or to soldier through the pain in your throat at practice. The soundguy will tell you that the monitors don't go any louder, or that you don't need to use a mic that's better suited for your voice. The drummer will say he can't play any softer.

The much harder path to walk is to treat your throat and your body like the most expensive and fragile instrument you will ever own, and to take proper care of it... to change what you eat and drink, how and when you talk, maybe even how you breathe, and how you perform.

One road leads to more fun, a potentially short career, and a lot of costly consequences. The other heads toward better stamina and pitch, and a lower risk of injury, but requires a huge commitment and is usually very tedious. It's not always easy to choose which one to take.

Be More Social

If you can find it in your heart to share, link, or quote anything from this article that you found useful, I'd be very grateful. Also be sure to reach out to me via the comment system or email. All the best.


Don't take my word for it. Here's some further reading on the subject of vocal technique, care, training, and pathology:


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Play Nice with Other Bands: 10 Tips

If you play music in public with any regularity, especially on a local or regional level, you will quickly become part of a community. As you play more shows, or attend other artists' shows, you'll meet other musicians, sound guys, groupies, club owners, managers, etc., and you'll be surprised to discover that they also know so-and-so, and what's-his-name.

A lot of the musical successes you experience will be as a result of help you get from these people. Maybe a band you met 6 months ago has to bail on a gig and asks you to fill in for them, and you end up selling tons of merch. On top of that, the club owner books you for a future date because she likes your sound. Or maybe a solo artist heard your band at an open mic, and asks you to play drums on his upcoming album.

Because music scenes are so small and so social, it's a good idea to try not to piss off other people in the community. I know this only because I have pissed off or have been pissed off by many people in my musical experience. Learn from my mistakes...


For me at least, this is harder than it should be. Time your set during a rehearsal. Make sure you have easy access to some sort of timepiece when you're on stage. Write approximate song lengths on your setlist so that you can quickly shuffle things around if needed.

My band once played a show where we accidentally went over time because a mic crapped out mid-set and the soundguy had to scurry around to find a replacement. When we got off stage, the show-runner was clearly pissed, and told my bandmate that he "didn't think we were THAT kind of band." We didn't get asked to play with those guys again.

Artists take their sets seriously - they spend a lot of time preparing for them, and expend a lot of energy trying to get people to show up. Treat that time like it's money, and don't steal from other bands.


You just got done playing your set, and there's 2 other bands playing after you. If you're tempted to just load up your gear and go, try and remember that those bands probably had to sit through your set, and it's nice to return the favor by being part of their audience, especially if the show has low attendance.

Even if you aren't into the other band's music, try your best to look like you're enjoying yourself. It'll make the other band feel better, and make the set go that much more smoothly. No artist wants to look out from the stage and see crowd members, let alone musicians, crossing their arms and scowling.

If you end up playing with that band again, the performance order might be switched and it could be them who's packing up their gear and heading for the exit while you're playing. However, if you stay for them this time, they might stay for you next time.

Even worse than leaving before someone's set is leaving DURING their set.

Even worse than leaving before someone else's set is leaving DURING their set. Watching people leave while you're playing music is a big confidence killer. You don't like it when it happens to you, so try your best to avoid doing it to someone else. If you HAVE to leave early, make sure you apologize to the band before they start, and make it up to them by coming out to another show in the future.


My band played a festival a little while ago. The stage area was under a small tent, which we shared with the sound guy. We were in the middle of our first set when the next band (let's say they're called the "Delaney Family" - not their real name) arrived. They pulled up a couple of folding chairs next to the sound guy, and started a conversation with him. They continued to converse throughout the remainder of both sets. I could hear a good deal of their chat. Some of their discussion could probably be heard in the mic.

I'm sure the other band didn't mean to be distracting, and it certainly isn't the worst thing they could have done, but my clinically-diagnosed case of Adult ADHD means that I was processing their conversation while trying to remember lyrics, chords, and stops, etc. Aside from that, the fact that they were talking to the sound guy means that he wasn't paying attention to... the sound. All in all, it's kind of rude, and it's easily avoidable. Be considerate, and take the conversation somewhere away from the stage.


Back to that festival I mentioned. The "Delaney Family" was very excited to play their set after we were finished. I know this because I had barely gotten the words "thank you everyone" into the mic before the "Family" members were on the stage adjusting mics, pulling guitars out of their cases, and flipping through sheet music. My band had to work around them to get our gear packed up.

Wait for the other guys to clear their gear before you hit the stage, and clear your gear as quickly as possible.

There was plenty of time in between sets to allow us to pack up, and to allow the Delaneys to get ready to start. There was no reason to clutter up the stage area and get in each other's way. Unless you get specific instructions from the show-runner to set up while someone else is tearing down, wait until the other guys are fully clear of the stage and all of their gear is packed up.

On the other side of things, make sure you get off the stage as quickly as possible to give the next band the most time to set up and troubleshoot any issues. Don't go running into the crowd to hit on that chick at the bar until everyone in your band has cleared their gear off of the stage.


This should be common sense as far as human decency goes. If you see someone carrying a lot of gear, or if it's heavy gear, help them. Just don't drop any of their stuff. If you're a musician, you know how back-breaking some gear can be, so help a brother/sister out when you can. At the very least, open doors for them as they carry their stuff. But if you do drop something, run.


This seems to be common knowledge, but just in case it's not... At some point during your set, chat up the other band(s). You just HAVE to make sure to get their name right. Even if you shout to the band from the mic to get their name right (I've done this many times), you're basically just doing the other band the favor of repeating their name in a positive light to the audience, subconsciously reinforcing the idea that, "hey those guys are cool, and everyone likes them, and you should buy their stuff."

You're also endearing yourself to the other band, which could work in your favor in the future. What musician doesn't like hearing someone say how good they were? You're ALSO creating a shared experience with the audience - "hey, remember when we all heard those guys play? That was awesome right?" It's a small way to build a connection with the crowd.


Talking negatively about someone else makes YOU look like a jerk, especially if you're talking about them when they're not in your presence. Music communities tend to be somewhat small, so word travels fast, and if you become known as a behind-the-back-talker-guy, you will damage relationships, which could end up costing you, even if you aren't aware of it.

As an example, even if you couldn't stand the other band's music, trust me, it's best to be diplomatic and pretend that you did. Believe it or not, the world isn't waiting on your opinion... you can keep it to yourself. You want to be viewed as a Pro by the other people in the music community, and Pro's don't talk smack.


The only time you should ever use someone else's gear is if you have express (preferably written) permission in advance of the show. You need to give the gear lender time to decide if he actually wants to lend without the pressure of you standing in front of him, eagerly awaiting his answer.

On a couple of occasions, show-runners have told me that they already talked to the other band, and the band said it was okay to use their stuff. That doesn't count as permission. Make DIRECT contact with the gear owner and get express permission. You never know what details could have been lost, misunderstood, or forgotten in the communication between the show-runner and the other band. If you show up to the gig and the band is either not cool with you sharing their stuff, or they have to leave before your set, then what are you going to do?

If you're sharing gear, you're placing a lot of trust in a stranger.

If you're sharing gear, you're placing a lot of trust in people you may not know very well. What if they forget the gear? What if they get sick and have to bail out of the show just before you go on?

If you do end up sharing gear with another band, try not to change any of their settings. However, if you absolutely HAVE TO mess with their settings (after getting the owner's permission), take a picture of the setup before you touch anything so that you can get it back to where it was after you're done with it.


Pressed albums can serve as one form of business card. Exchange them with the other bands, or if you don't have your own, seriously consider buying the other guy's. It will earn you some good will. Take the album home, listen to it, and try to find something you like about it, even if you aren't really into it. Reach out to the other band and let them know what you liked. It's an easy excuse to stay in contact.


Find out where the band is active online, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, their website, or whatever site the kids use these days. Reach out as soon as you're able, and keep in touch. Comment on their songs. Check out their show schedule, and go to their shows. Stay on their radar, and they may ask you to do a show with them in the future. Your presence on their social media could also earn you some new fans.


The takeaway from all of this is: being a good musician isn't just about playing an instrument well. It's also about being easy to work with. People who are easy to work with get more work. Jerks get ignored. Even if there are no clear benefits to you, being a friendly, supportive musician to other musicians makes a better music community, and I think we all want that.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

5 Questions You Should Ask Every Potential Band Member

When you're auditioning a new musician for your band, it's easy to get focused on getting to know the musician, and as a result, forget to check in on some details that could jeopardize your band further down the road.

Or, because you're so excited about the artistic potential of this person, you might make some dangerous assumptions. For example, you might assume that someone who is auditioning for a band has their own gear, or is prepared to play the songs you asked them to work on.

Musicians are people, and therefore have very different ideas about what is acceptable behavior when it comes to being in a band. With that in mind, I'd like to provide you with some questions to ask anyone who is auditioning for your band to see if she/he really is on the same page.

1) Can they play all the songs without crib sheets?

I can't tell you how many times I've had a band member promise me, no seriously, PROMISE me, that they'd learn the songs by the next practice or gig, only to show up to said practice or gig with "just a couple" notes. I once went to a cover band gig where the lead vocalist was paging through a lyrics binder AS he was singing the song. That is just about the opposite of professionalism. I've even had people show up to auditions without having heard the song they'll be playing. They figured they could just wing it.

If you're playing with notes, the song is playing you, instead of the other way around.

If you're playing with notes, the song is playing you, instead of the other way around... you'll always be just a bit behind. There's no way to lock into the feel of a song, tap into the energy of a crowd, or lock in with other musicians if your face is pointed at a music stand. If a band member is still showing up with notes after a few months of playing with you, then it's time to discuss their commitment to the material.

2) Have they practiced their chosen instrument in the last 48 hours?

A guy once auditioned to play bass for my band. Nice guy, punctual, easy to chat with. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, we asked if he was ready to play. He asked to borrow my bass. He said he had a broken one at home, but the neck needed repair, and one of the pickups didn't work. Oh, and it only had 3 strings. Suffice to say, he didn't work out.

If someone is in a band, they need to have their own gear, be able to get it to the show, and know how to use it.

If someone is playing at the band level, they need to:

  • have their own equipment. Borrowing gear in a crisis isn't a big deal, but many players get sensitive about other people using their very expensive stuff that they have set just so. Don't assume that you can borrow another band's gear unless you have their express agreement in advance. Don't mess with the settings unless they give you permission.
  • be able to get the gear to the show. I played with a good drummer who had a great drumkit. Only problem was, he could only bring his set to shows if he had access to his company's cargo van. Planning a show had to revolve around whether he could get the van or borrow someone else's ride. That's not terribly practical.
  • know how to use their gear. You don't want to be fiddling with the signal chain of your guitar player's rig instead of starting your second song while the audience is deciding whether they want to stick around. After all, you can only ask "how you guys doing tonight?!?" so many times before people realize you're stalling. Tones and effects are important, and if you're tweaking that stuff in the middle of a show, then you are unprepared. That's the kind of thing that should be figured out during rehearsal.

Do not assume that a musician has all of those issues sorted before the show. Assumptions are the death of a good gig. ("I thought YOU were bringing the merch!") Ask these questions well in advance of your next show so that you have time to fix any problems.

3) What is a good reason to cancel practice?

Every musician in the world probably has a different answer to this question. You need to know how your band members would answer before you become dependent on them. The only reasons I would typically cancel would be the death of a loved one, or a communicable disease. Otherwise, my ass is at practice. I may be miserable, I may be barely standing, but my ass is there. Is everyone else that committed? Are you?

It doesn't matter how talented someone is, or how great they are to play with, if they never show up to play. Even if THEY can wing a song because they're insanely gifted, YOU may need to know what parts they're playing so you can work with and around them.

unless I or someone I love is dying, my ass is at practice

4) What are your 5 desert island albums?

Meaning, if you were stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life, and (for some magical reason) you could choose any 5 albums to listen to forever, what would they be? A lot of musicians are floating around out there that just want to play. They don't necessarily care what kind of music they play, or who they play it with. That may work for your band's needs, or it may not. If you're an acoustic Folk band, and you bring in a Funk bassist, you'd better be prepared for your music to experience a stylistic shift.

Some musicians are pro enough that they can and will make the adjustment to your genre without a ton of reinvention. But a lot of musicians are stuck in one style, and as a result, there could be some friction when it comes time to arrange a song. It's better to discuss your styles at the beginning of your relationship and know what you're getting into.

5) What do you expect to get out of the band?

Money? Fame? Sex? Drugs? Creativity? Free booze? Fun? All of the above? There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these motivations. I don't know if every musician has worked this out for themselves... but even if they haven't, it's never too late to start thinking about it.

Why is this important? Someone who is driven by fame, money, sex, or recognition might not be okay with playing in an original band where it's hard to get people out to shows. Whereas someone who is driven by free booze, drugs, and creativity might be totally comfortable playing songs they helped write to empty dive bars while baked or wasted.

Bands by definition are single units comprised of multiple individuals, so if each of those individuals wants to go in different directions, the unit will disintegrate. Things will go much smoother if everyone knows where they're headed.


If you are trying to add someone to the band, you want to make sure that you're bringing the right band member in at the right time. Someone who might otherwise be right for the band, but has too much going on in their life could be bad for everyone involved. You have to be able to work with them, and they with you, and they have to have the time, gear, and energy to do it right.

It's much easier to say "no" to someone who wants to join than to fire someone who's co-written songs or paid for the last album.

I'm not suggesting you sit a person down, ask them these questions, write down the answers, and then compare notes with the other band members. You COULD do that, but you'd probably seem a bit odd. However, you should try and work your own versions of the questions into your early conversations to see if there is a match going both ways.

It's very easy to say "thanks but no thanks" to someone who wants to join but isn't tied to the band yet. It's MUCH, MUUUUCH harder to get rid of someone who knows your material, has contributed money to the last recording, and who co-wrote your best songs. Stop and think before you commit.

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