Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

How to Start a Band: The Ultimate Guide

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Image by Ozone Ferd via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0

You've honed your skills, and you're at the point where you want to start gigging with a band. Joining a band is the easiest way to hit the ground running with the opportunity to perform in front of a ready-made fanbase. Yet, it may be difficult to find a group of like-minded individuals playing the music you enjoy. So does it make sense to try to join an existing band, or should you just form a band of your own? Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each to help you decide.

Joining a band: the pros

Joining a band has its benefits. When you join a band, you may get to work with musicians you admire. You could connect with seasoned professionals that inspire you to become better at your craft. Not to mention that joining an established band increases the chances that you'll be gigging sooner and regularly and perfecting your stage performance skills. They're more likely to have developed long-term relationships with booking agents and venue owners that enable them to land better gigs.

Joining a band: the cons

Joining a band, however, means you cannot pick your bandmates and you'll have limited creative control. You're walking into a situation where the band members have a history and may have formed a tight clique. Your task is to learn how to fit in. You could wind up with really cool bandmates that begin to feel like family, but if they have polarizing personalities and a myriad of personal issues instead, you must deal with it or quit. As a new member, it's unlikely that you'll have significant input in the song selection, rehearsal process, or rehearsal and performance schedule. If you decide the band is not a good fit, though, you can always resign and search for another one.

Forming a band: the pros

If you want more creative control and assurance that you'll be playing music you enjoy in venues you prefer, forming a band may be the best way to go. Recruiting your own members allows you to select players with the skill set you desire and individuals you believe you'll have chemistry with. As the band's founder, you control the creative direction. You can dictate the size of the band, song selection, image, target venues, and rehearsal and performance schedule.

Forming a band: the cons

As the founding member, you'll have to manage the responsibilities of the band until you delegate them to others. This means you may have to shoulder the initial startup costs and function as the band's manager, booking agent, and promoter. This includes finding and hiring talent as needed, securing gigs, promoting performances, and managing the personalities in the band. Once you book a gig, you'll be responsible for ensuring the band fulfills its contractual obligations. You will be considered the bandleader by default and must assign these tasks to others if you do not want the authority. Even in the most toxic situations, you may be slow to replace members or disband because you've made such a large personal investment.

Before making your decision, explore the bands in your area and determine what you want from the experience. Take every opportunity to network with local musicians, schedule a few auditions, observe the dynamics of each band, and then weigh your options. If you cannot find a band you like or feel there's a void in the local music scene that you'd like to fill, take the reigns and form a band of your own.

What to post online to find great band members

Sonicbids' new musician tools make it easier than ever to find members for your band. If you want to attract the right players, though, you've got to do your part. How you craft your band opening post is the defining factor in the kinds of applications you'll get.

A clear explanation of what you're looking for is paramount, and it's easy to forget some of the details you should include to really convey the ideal member. Follow this guide to shape or double-check your listing to find the right bandmates.

1. What kind of sound are you going for?

Describe your sound the best you can, but also include MP3s or links for examples. If you're open to directional shifts, mention it. You don't want to shut out potentially great applicants with strict limits about your style if you're actually flexible about it.

2. What level of commitment are you expecting?

How many times does your band rehearse each week or month? How regularly do you book (or hope to book) shows? Are you planning on touring? You should consider not only the upfront investments in time, but also the long run. If you're all in it for the long haul, you should relate to potential members that they should be, too.

3. What skill level is required?

Some bands are open to fledgling musicians, while others are on a level where someone just starting out wouldn't be able to keep up. Others fall somewhere in the middle where an average skill set is fine. Especially if you're a group on either extreme, make the general ability you'll need from a new member clear.

4. Where does the band stand career wise?

Include details about the band's releases, tours, and anything else that gives insight into your history. Some people only want to join a brand-new band, while others are happy to fall in line with one that's already established.

5. Where is the band headed?

What are the band's goals? Recording? Touring? Or are you all going with the flow, just having fun and letting things happen as they may? Define what's ahead for the band as clearly as you can to be sure you attract applicants who will be enthusiastically on board.

Ready to find your next musical partner? Start searching now, or log in to post your own band opening!

What to pay attention to when auditioning a potential new band member

Here are eight things you need in a bandmate and how to audition for those key attributes, using Mary, the imaginary drummer, as our test case.

1. Show up on time

It might seem obvious. It might seem stupid. But there are millions of wonderful musicians out there who are always late, oversleep, and miss rehearsal, or can’t seem to keep a vehicle on the road to get to shows. If Mary can’t make it on time to the audition, has car problems, or has trouble coming up with gas money to get to you, expect that to be an everyday thing… even if she swears that she usually has her act together. If she’s super talented, that makes it even worse, because you’re afraid you’ll never find someone as good if you let her go. But believe me, nothing is more aggravating in a band than having to wonder where the drummer is.

[How to Find a New Bandmate]

2. Match your working style

Think about the way your band adds material. Do you play covers or originals? Do you do a lot of improvising? Do you write as a group, or does one songwriter bring a completed song to rehearsal, where the other players add their parts? Some bands practice songs on their own at home, and then bring them together having already learned the tunes. Others carve improv sessions into new songs in a collaborative process. Whatever your process is, put your applicant through it. Approximate your regular working style as much as possible to make sure that Mary can handle it. You’ll find out pretty quickly if she’s bullheaded about making changes or can’t take criticism.

3. Able to handle all of your material

We’ve all heard players who sound amazing playing their favorite style, but fall apart or get frustrated when faced with a different groove. Mary might be great at playing a straight funk, but if your band has ballads, something super fast, or a song in an odd time signature, she’d better hear that stuff too, so you know she can play it. The best players get bored playing similar material all the time, and actually excel when given some diversity to work with.

4. Strong stage presence

Maybe you’re in a goth band that stands motionless during your shows, surrounded by skulls and candles. But for most bands, showmanship is important. You don’t need to be on stage to have stage presence; it should be obvious in rehearsal. Players with good stage presence need to be comfortable enough with their instruments that they can divide their attention. If Mary shows some emotion while playing, makes eye contact to look for cues or changes, and acknowledges something cool that another player just did, she’s probably going to be a good performer. If she keeps her head down, trying not to screw up, then that’s probably what you should expect during a live show. Maybe that’s okay for your band, but you should know before you hire her.

[5 Ways to Improve Your Stage Presence]

5. The right attitude (whatever that means for your band)

There are eager young players who may not have the chops to keep up with you. Then there are crusty veterans who only seem to care about getting paid. Somewhere in the middle of that continuum is the player you want. If Mary can play well and have fun, that’s a great sign. But you should be thinking about what other personal traits you’re looking for. Does your band have a political, religious, or social outlook? Does Mary need to be an anarchist, an environmentalist, or a nihilist to fit in with the rest of you? These things should probably be made clear from the outset. Then there’s the level of sarcasm she’ll have to deal with. If your bandmates rip each other constantly and throw crude jokes back and forth, you’d better not hold back during the audition. You need to know if she’ll give it right back, ignore you, or get upset.

6. Thinks your band is great

Just like a job applicant, Mary’s auditioning you, too. This means that your band should be ready to play well for her. The rest of you should be there before Mary arrives, warmed up, tuned up, and prepared to rock.

7. Capable of performing sober

There’s an uncomfortably close relationship between music and alcohol, and countless bands have been brought down (or made much worse) by drug abuse. People who abuse tend to normalize this behavior. If Mary shows up to the audition and asks for alcohol – or brings her own, and starts drinking during the audition – that’s a major red flag. This holds true even if you tend to have a beer or two yourselves during rehearsals.

8. The final verdict

After you’ve auditioned Mary, you may want to sign her up on the spot. Or you may have decided she’s not right for you. Or you may need to have a band meeting and decide between her and Bill the Other Drummer. Either way, somebody needs to call her and give the thumbs up or thumbs down. Nobody likes making the thumbs-down call, but it’s disrespectful not to. After all, she took time out of her day, came to your rehearsal space, and put up with your band for a couple of hours. If it’s a "no," she deserves to hear it from you, be thanked for her time, and not have to sit around wondering if she got the gig. In the end, all towns are small towns, and treating people respectfully and politely can only help your band rise.

If you're looking for musicians to join your band, don't forget to check out our brand new (and free!) Band Openings tool to help you find talented musicians in your area.

How to get your new band off the ground

Getting your new band off the ground isn't exactly as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't sound that easy in the first place. So where do you start?

With so many great bands out there, it's not always easy giving people a reason why you're special or why your songs are worth their precious listening time. However daunting it may seem, it is possible, and you can do it. Follow these essential first steps to get your band off the ground now.

1. Choose a strong band name

The first thing you need, of course, is a name. A great band name should be catchy, original, and above all else, it should give an accurate picture of what your band is all about. Try not to stress out about finding the perfect band name instantly. Relax, jot down ideas when you have them, and take your time choosing a name you're going to be proud to stand behind.

Learn more: How to Find the Perfect Band Name + 8 Tips for a Strong Band Name

2. Decide on your sound

One of the biggest killers of bands with great potential is when "creative differences" arise and completely destroy productivity and your momentum. When you're first starting out, it's a great idea to make a simple decision as a group as to what you want the band to be all about. This will sidestep a ton of confrontation down the line and provide direction to work with. As time goes on, it's important to keep an open mind to healthy change and growth, but in the early stages, it's a wise choice to agree on focusing the group's energy in a particular direction.

Learn more: How to Identify and Develop Your Sound

3. Decide on your image

Hand in hand with the sound of your band is your image. Ideally, the musical decisions dictate the branding ones, but either way, image really is half the experience. By taking the small amount of time necessary to decide how you want the band to look, you've suddenly doubled your marketability. You don't need to all wear matching bowties like a barbershop quartet, but hey, if it's appropriate, go for it!

Learn more: 6 Ways to Improve Your Band's Image + 8 Ways to Build and Strengthen Your Band's Brand

4. Create and sign a band agreement

Sooner or later, you'll thank yourself for writing up a band agreement. A band agreement is a contract agreed upon by all members of the band that can outline responsibilities, schedule commitments, song ownership, finances, and more. You may never need to use it, but it's always a smart choice to be prepared.

Learn more: How to Create a Band Agreement (And Why You Need One ASAP)

5. Write your first songs

Once all the preparations are set, it's time to get down to the music and start writing songs with your new band. Songwriting can sometimes be intimidating because you're putting yourself out there to be judged by anyone, but try your best to keep those thoughts out of your head when writing, as they'll only hold you back. Don't get frustrated if things don't come out perfect on the first try. As time goes on, you will undoubtedly progress and grow as a songwriter. In the beginning, focus on sending people a clear, honest message on what your band is all about.

Learn more: 6 Common Hurdles Novice Songwriters Face – and How to Overcome Them + Songwriting 101: How to Master the Art of the Co-Write

6. Agree on a rehearsal schedule – and stick to it

Just like how you've gotten good at your instrument by practicing, your band can only get good by rehearsing consistently. The sooner you schedule regular rehearsals, the sooner your band is going to be on the fast track to glory (or at the very least, stop sucking). Round up the crew, fire up iCal, and set those biweekly dates ASAP.

Learn more: How to Get the Most Out of Your Band Rehearsal in 3 Hours (or Less)

7. Get your online presence up and running

You're a band in the 21st century – act like it! Bands communicate the same way as everyone else: the internet. Set up a tightly knit social media presence, website, and EPK, and use them to their full capacity to reach out to potential fans and industry people. Just make sure you follow these steps in order and have your image planned out before you go posting bathroom selfies to your Instagram.

Learn more: How to Perfect Your Band's Social Media Strategy: The 70-20-10 Rule + 5 Social Media Dos and Don’ts for Bands

8. Create your email list

The wise older brother to modern social media, the email list is the old-school steadfast method to reach out to your soon-to-be fans. In a world where organic Facebook reach is dwindling more and more, this is a tried-and-true method to reach out to fans directly – don't sleep on it.

Learn more: How to Build Your Band's Email List From Scratch + 5 Reasons Why Email Newsletters Are Still a Vital Marketing Tool for Musicians

9. Book your first gig

The time has come. You're ready for the stage. It's time to book your first gig, but the most important thing is to do it right. Choose the venue, the line-up, and the date wisely. You want people to go home talking about how it was the night of their lives, how they can't wait to do it again, and mostly... about you! Don't rush your first gig. Make it a memorable occasion, and you'll have many more to savor.

If you're short on personal connections with venues, Sonicbids is the easiest way to get your music in front of a network of 20,000+ promoters and talent buyers who are looking to book up-and-coming bands. Get more details here.

Learn more: The Beginner's Guide to Booking: A Step-by-Step Timeline + The Ultimate Guide to Booking Great Gigs (free downloadable PDF guide)

10. Record your music

Finally, the recording process. You gotta have music to get your band off the ground, and that music's gotta be good. Before you record, find yourself an engineer you trust. This is going to make the difference between an amazing experience and a near-death experience. You might get a couple gray hairs during the recording process, but when you hear the final product of something you wrote, there's truly no feeling like it.

Learn more: 10 Things You Should Know Before Going Into a Recording Studio for the First Time + 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Recording My First Album

5 disastrous mistakes that every novice band makes

Having a band is an amazing experience and I’m sure you'll have a lot of fun playing, hanging out with your bandmates, and traveling to places you’ve never been before. But before you get all excited, you need to understand that you'll be facing many challenges on your way towards becoming a quality band. A lot of bands make terrible mistakes right at the beginning, not knowing that these will backfire when they least expect it.

Music is art, but a band is an "organization" that consists of several people, and besides new ideas and creativity, you need to learn how to cooperate together and organize yourselves so you can work on your music and create something truly unique. Each of these things depends on the other, and you'll need to pay attention to them in order to succeed. Here are some of the worst mistakes novice bands can make, and why you need to avoid them.

1. Choosing band members solely on their musical skills

When putting together a new band, finding band members is one of the first things you'll have to do. This is where a lot of people make the most common mistake. They set the wrong criteria for choosing members. Most people set musical skills as the first and only criteria on which they base their decisions to include someone in their band – but this is wrong.

Yes, technical skills are important, and having a schooled musician is also good, but these things don’t make someone a perfect fit for your band. It’s important that he or she is creative, innovative, responsible, and that you can communicate both on a musical level and as people.

[You Complete Me: 4 Tips for Finding a New Band Member]

2. Not having a clear idea of the music you're going to play

Yes, creative freedom is very important, but too much freedom can be just as bad as having none. You and your band members must be on the same page when it comes to what music you’re going to play. Not too strict, but just enough so that your music achieves a recognizable shape on which you can build.

[How to Identify and Develop Your Sound]

3. Not having a bandleader

Like it or not, somebody needs to be the one who takes initiative and inspires others to keep moving forward. If you don’t have a leader in your band, people will forget what their "obligations" are and stop contributing to the band.

There's always that one guy who books gigs, talks with promoters, and establishes connections with fans. When I say "bandleader," I don’t mean your stereotypical lead-singer frontman, but a leader who inspires others to give it their best.

[10 Essential Qualities of Great Band Leadership]

4. Thinking social media pages pass for an official website

There are many ways of promoting your band online, and social media sites are often some of the first that come to mind. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that social platforms can replace your band’s official website. Having your own website gives you full control over your content, branding, monetization, and makes you look much more professional.

There are plenty of free resources that will guide you through the process of creating your own website step by step. You can even include an online shop with your band’s merchandise, which can be an additional source of income.

[4 Things That Every Great Band Website Has in Common]

5. Expecting overnight success

No matter what your motives are for starting a new band, it’s important not to get caught up in the hype and expect to achieve your goals overnight. It takes a lot of time and hard work to create good material; practice it to perfection and invest money in recording it.

If your expectations are high from the very beginning and things don’t go as well as you'd hoped, you and your band members may lose motivation and simply stop working. If you're tight on cash, you can try picking up any of these 15 awesome side jobs for musicians to make some money on the side while you continue working towards your band's goals.

How a new band with no fanbase can start building local buzz

Every band has to start somewhere. Many groups playing the world’s largest stages today started in small clubs in and around their hometowns. But sometimes, it’s difficult to even get that far. When you're at the very beginning, with no fanbase or connections whatsoever, how do you cut through the noise and get people to notice you? Social media is a great way to stay in touch with friends and fans you already have, but it’s becoming harder and harder to access new fans through it with so much oversaturation. Here are our tips on how a band with no fans or connections can get moving and start building a career.

Support your scene

Other musicians are by far your strongest allies starting out. In the beginning, your best (and sometimes only) shows will usually happen through other bands, whether they asked you directly or referred somebody to you. So you need to get out there and make some friends!

The easiest way to do this is by going to local shows. Use the power of the internet to hunt down bands in your area that you like a lot, regardless of whether or not they play the same kind of music as you. Then, get out there and see them live. When they finish their set, make a point to introduce yourself. DO NOT push your music or band on them from the beginning. Let it come up naturally in conversation, even if that means going to see them two or three more times. Otherwise, you’ll come off as pushy and might give off the impression that you’re just trying to get something out of them.

Keep doing this with more and more bands. The world of music is small. You’re going to eventually find that some of the bands you're friends with are also friends with each other. Book shows with those bands! Repeatedly! Keep going to see their shows, and they will (hopefully) extend you the same courtesy. Your audiences will eventually intermingle, and the ball will really start rolling.

Be visible

As a new band on the block, one of your first priorities should be creating a logo, font, and overall image scheme for the group that establishes its identity. Then, display that identity proudly for all to see!

Yes, I mean posters. It may be the 21st century, but if people are intrigued by your band name and image, they will undoubtedly check out your music after seeing your logo plastered around town enough times. Anywhere that you see other posters, stickers, or advertisements is most likely fair game (just be sure to get permission if you're putting something up in a business). Even if you have nothing to promote, posting your name and image everywhere will establish your band in the minds of all who see them.

Weekly open mics are another great way to gain visibility. Find one that occurs in a venue you enjoy, and show up every week to play a short, stripped-down version of your set (treat it like a preview). Use these as a chance to establish a relationship with the people that run the business, as well as the regulars that inhabit it.

If you can’t find a decent, frequent open mic in your town, street performances will do the job as well. Find a spot you like (depending on the rules and regulations of your city), and show up regularly. Be friendly and talk to people walking by. A strong and personable impression is a memorable one, and sticking in people’s minds is the first step towards building a fanbase.

Gig hard, gig smart

Playing live often is, for obvious reasons, a vital component of being visible and building a fanbase. The bands I was in that have generated the most consistent buzz were gigging on a weekly or bi-weekly basis in the beginning. In general, a bi-weekly gigging schedule is a good goal. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should take every single gig that comes your way. It’s important to be smart about where you're appearing and when.

It can be dangerous to play too often in one place. Doing so will tire out your audience in that area and makes your appearance much less special. So gig often, but spread them out geographically. If you live in a large metropolitan area, make it so you’re only playing the same part of town once every six weeks or so at most. In smaller towns, reach out to venues in adjacent towns and make the trip. Yes, this could involve a lot of travel, but it will pay off in the end, as you are reaching new fans consistently while keeping the interest of your current ones.

Additional networking

We’ve already covered the importance of meeting other local musicians, but there are other key contacts you want to make as time goes on if you want to continue building your audience. Local radio hosts, news/blog writers, promoters, sound engineers, and club owners are all important parts of the equation, and are the kinds of people you want to get to know as soon as possible.

Though it’s true that some of these people don’t have a lot of time for an artist who's just starting out, you’d be surprised at how friendly many of them are. Start by hunting for a radio DJ or blog writer that you really enjoy (even better if they focus on local talent), and reach out to them with a simple, professional, and friendly email. Introduce yourself, and explain how much you enjoy their work and what you like about it. Again, don’t be too pushy with your music, but offer them a free ticket to your next show (even if you have to buy it yourself), and thank them generously. Make sure that you put the emphasis on making friends with them, rather than focusing on what they can do for you, regardless of who it is or what you're pitching.

How to form your band as an LLC

When you start making a bit more money as a band and get to the point where this is really your career, you need to start treating it like a job. Your band has become a company, and just like any other company, you need to organize yourself, deal with taxes, and protect yourself.

There are a few options for bands. Right now, you're most likely operating as a partnership. Without a written agreement, every member automatically gets equal share in the partnership, but you can use a written agreement to set some guidelines for how your partnership operates and how money is split.

There are, however, some problems with partnerships – especially if you're planning to be around for the long run. In any partnership, your personal assets are at stake should you ever get sued or owe any debts. If your light show goes haywire and someone gets hurt or if you can't pay your tour bus loans, you can kiss your hard-earned savings, your car, or your house goodbye. Another issue is that if anyone in the band leaves, the partnership dissolves. You'll have to set up a whole new agreement.

The best and easiest way to avoid these issues is to organize yourselves into an LLC, or limited liability company. Limited liability companies protect your personal assets should you be in financial trouble, members can easily enter and leave the band without disrupting the whole system, expenses can be more easily written off as business expenses, and, unlike corporations, they're fairly easy and inexpensive to set up and maintain. Often, record labels will require you to set up some sort of LLC, S corporation, or C corporation before signing a deal, as it makes everything easier on their side.

LLCs are also a better option when it comes to taxes. Because of the way they function, corporations are taxed as individual entities, and their members are taxed on top of that as well. Those costs can seriously add up, and often the added costs and complexities of doing business as a corporation aren't worth it for bands.

So if you've gotten to the point where you're ready to organize yourself like a business, let's run through the steps for setting up an LLC.

1. File articles of organization

In order to create an LLC, you need to file articles of organization with your state. Don’t worry, filing articles of organization is actually pretty straightforward. You'll just have to put a few things in writing including your business name, location, the purpose of your business, and how your business is organized. If you want to get a better idea of what a finished articles of organization looks like, here's a sample.

2. Pay the filing fee

In order to set up an LLC, you'll have to pay a fee up front. This will vary from state to state, so make sure you check with your state's LLC filing office. In addition to this up front fee, some states will have an annual fee or minimal tax requirements. Often, people will create their LLC in a different state in order to get more favorable fees. Although you're still in the country, this is called a "foreign LLC" because you're doing business outside your home state. If you want to get a better idea of the fees and requirements for each state, check out this resource.

3. Create an operating agreement

Next, you'll want to create an operating agreement. Not every state will require an operating agreement, but it'll help you in the long run. This is basically your chance to figure out exactly how your band will operate. Taking the time to map this out now will save you a lot of band disputes down the line.

In your operating agreement, you'll want to lay out:

  • how you'll split income and ownership
  • how losses will be handled
  • how you'll make decisions
  • each member's voting power
  • what your roles, rights, and responsibilities in the band will be
  • how the LLC will be managed
  • how you’ll deal with new or leaving members to the band

Here's some more information on what you should include in your operating agreement.

4. Foreign qualification

If you're going to be selling products and performing outside the state in which you set up your LLC, you're going to need to register for a certificate of authority in those states. This is basically giving you permission to do business in those states. For the most part, bands are selling their music and performing all over the country, so this is a necessary step.

5. Get advice from a lawyer

You don't need a lawyer to set up an LLC, but if you're not comfortable doing everything yourself or you'd just like to have someone double-check your work, hiring a lawyer can be worth your while. Here are a few tips on finding the right entertainment lawyer.

 

Shanon Lee, Dylan Welsh, Dave Kusek, Nick Colakovic, Jhoni Jackson, and Max Monahan contributed the original content for this article. Compiled and edited by Lisa Occhino and copyedited by Allison Boron. Special thanks to Rachel Bresnahan. 

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