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.
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.
RIGHT MEMBER AT THE RIGHT TIME
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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