8 Lessons From Music's Greatest Blunders

Posted by Gordon Lamb on Mar 14, 2014 04:07 PM
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The history of performing music is rife with goofs, gaffes and outright tragedy. Chances are, if you’re in the music game, you'll make plenty of your own mistakes. But don't worry, there are a handful music mishaps that can serve as your guide. Avoid making these particular mistakes and you’ll already be miles ahead of the average band.


1. Police your own money

Bands have a weird habit of losing money on the road. No, not through expenses, but actually leaving wads of cash laying around somewhere and then having a, “D'oh!” moment. A most spectacular incident of this sort happened to Neutral Milk Hotel at a Pizza Hut somewhere between Minneapolis and Chicago in 1998.

They remembered to not leave a bag full of money in the van (the amount of which is remembered as between $3,000 and $20,000) but forgot to actually take it with them when they left the Pepsi palace. They'd gone two hours down the road before they realized this, hot-footed it all the way back and luckily found the bag lurking in the shadows underneath their table.

Taking a page from The Minutemen's playbook they started buying money orders and mailing their funds home. But that's so last century. Get an account at a national bank and do daily ATM deposits.

2. Figure out how much of the band each member “owns” early on

Probably nothing has broken up as many bands or caused more post-break-up resentment than money. Sure, you'll figure that out later when you actually have some, right? Plus, everyone gets along so well this should never be a problem. False, hombre.

Splitting everything evenly worked well for The Doors (and for a more modern example, R.E.M.) until decades after the fact, they weren’t so crazy about the idea. But even in cases where the decision is made that members doing the most heavy-lifting get paid more, a clear understanding and agreement upfront saves a lot of trouble down the road.

Nothing kills the myth of rock-band-as-street-gang more quickly than band members squabbling over money because, man, it's all about the music, man, not money. Except, of course when it is about money. Still don’t believe me? See what the former members of The Smiths have to say about it.

3. Going overseas? Get your ducks in a row

It's no secret that bands have flown under the radar for years when heading to the UK and Europe. That is, flying over with merchandise shoved in suitcases, no secure work permits, etc.  The thing is though, this is always risky and reeks of amateur-hour shenanigans. Athens, GA  band Cars Can Be Blue tried this a few years ago and it didn’t end well. The dirty duo landed in England with zero cash on hand, a bag full of t-shirts and barely knew the name of the person picking them up. Unable to convince the authorities that they were merely vacationing and really liked wearing t-shirts with their band name on them every day, they never even made it out of Heathrow. They were forced to turn around and head back to the USA on the spot. 

4. Hire a professional, not a party partner

OK, this isn't actually funny at all but it bears repeating. The 1977 plane crash that destroyed Lynyrd Skynyrd  could’ve easily been avoided. In fact, before Lynyrd Skynyrd took flight, the plane had been inspected by Aerosmith's flight operations people but they grew suspicious of the pilot/co-pilot team of Walter McCreary and William Gray since they'd been seen trading swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels during the inspection. Although the crash was ultimately attributed to fuel loss, it still stands to reason that if 1970s Aerosmith—or whatever hard partying 21st century equivalent you like—says no to something because they think it's too out of control, then your band probably should, too. And let’s not forget about the time Mancunian proto-ravers The Happy Mondays hired an ol’ pal, who also happened to be their drug dealer, to be their manager. The result? A trip to Barbados (the crack-cocaine capital of the world at the time) to record their next album. Of course, it quickly devolved into a crack-fueled bender that lasted for months and literally bankrupted the seminal UK label, Factory Records.     

5. Choose your gimmicks wisely

Anyone outside of Australia remember Regurgitator? Anyone in the whole world remember Cartel? Both released albums in the past year and each was reported on widely due to their participation in last decade's utterly corny “Band In a Bubble” project. No one remembers the bands but somehow people remember the bubble. And guess what? That's exactly what was supposed to happen! The bands were fodder; the bubble was the product. I don't care if it's Dr. Pepper or MTV and all you can see is dollar signs and “exposure.” Don’t get blinded by the light. Be cautious and thoughtful about what gimmicks you want to align yourself with and consider how things may play out in the long run.

6. Look at your stuff and imagine how you would steal it

The world is a mean place sometimes and thieves will steal anything they think is valuable. Why? Because they're thieves and that's what they do!

It makes no difference whether it's an entire truck full of well-worn Sonic Youth gear or a whole bunch of high school band tubas. It could be instruments crucial to a middle school band's performance at Disneyland or Jefferson Starship's bass guitar (nicknamed “The Dragon”) purportedly “made from the same tree” as Jerry Garcia's guitar.

If they’re there for the taking, someone will do just that. So think like a thief and always protect your gear as much as possible. Take it into hotel rooms with you if you can. Have someone sleep in the van with it. Since no tactic will protect you 100% of the time, get your stuff insured. Best rule of thumb is to be aware, thieves don’t discriminate!

7. Don’t try to game “Fair Use”

Think that goofy photo you found at a yard sale would be a perfect image for your album cover? How about a straight barely-parody rip off of a corporate logo? Sure, you might get away with it and squeak through the door of “fair use” laws but heavy rockers Tad sure didn't. They were sued twice over these exact issues.  For a more recent example, Lil' Kim is currently being sued for ripping an image off Reddit. It's just a hassle you don't need and, look, there's a whole world of useable artwork out there. Find some.

8. Know when to bite your tongue

Part 1 - When you get your wish say thank you

People have this ability to speak out of both sides of their mouth, as they say. People in bands are no different. To wit, an indie darling of just one year ago--DIIV--managed to get themselves banned from South by Southwest for speaking out publicly on the corporate culture surrounding the event.

Legitimate complaint? Possibly. They’re certainly not the first band to have an “A-ha!” moment, suddenly realizing that an event that accommodates hundreds of thousands of people might actually cost, you know, money! An over-reaction on SXSW’s part? Maybe. But there’s a way to air grievances without shooting yourself in the foot.

The lesson is this: Be careful what you wish for and when you get your wishes (i.e. high profile showcases, sponsorship dollars, sweet opening gigs for popular touring bands) try your best not to talk trash so publicly that it gets back to those who granted them. 

Part 2 - Don’t air your dirty laundry

Case and point: Metallica. In fact, they could fall under both of these categories. Remember when drummer Lars Ulrich successfully alienated an entire generation of fans by raging against Napster, the file-sharing platform that propelled the industry into the 21st century and changed how future generations will experience music in its brief 3-year existence?  

Not a smart move, and the lesson continues: Once you've sliced out your piece of the rock star pie and are sitting on millions of dollars please don't reveal that you spend $40,000 dollars a month on a band counselor to help you and your mates work through your issues. Especially don't reveal this in a documentary designed to help you push your dubious “new sound”. And especially don't do this after your drummer has made your name synonymous with jumping on your largely working-class fan base for trading your music. It just feels tacky.

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Topics: Features, Legal & Money, Marketing & Promotion, Booking Gigs & Touring


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