Author: Campbell, Bruce

Shift Happens

I have wrote before about how being in a band is like being in a family. And I still believe it – it’s an apt analogy. But I wonder what it’s like in the top ranks of professional music. With some notable exceptions, it seems that the personnel in band ranks change fairly frequently.

In the “gifted amateur” ranks, I understand the forces that push and pull at bands. There’s the dreaded “day job” for one. Being in a band that has something on the ball means getting gigs, and that means late night gigs during the week, and gigs that require travel, and THAT means a strain on the goodwill of your employer. By travel, I don’t necessarily mean the “pile in the band bus and drive 200 miles”, either. If I have a 7PM gig in San Francisco, it means I have to leave work early to get there in time for load in. Most bosses can only take so much of it, so musicians often have to make the choice between their jobs (which is what pays their mortgage and keeps the family in food and clothes) and the emotional and spiritual pull of being a performer.

Sometimes, it’s a family situation. Every family is different, and sometimes, having a family member away for regular practices and weekends taken up by gigs is simply not acceptable. Forced to choose between the band and the family, most reasonable people will choose family.

Another stress on band unity is conflicting commitments and goals. These things don’t

often come up until the band starts doing well, and then it comes out that half the people in the band want to do whatever it takes to “make it”, and the other half just wants to have fun. When things get to the level where it’s time to put the real hard work into arrangements and vocal stacks, the fun can drain out of the experience for a lot of people.

Then of course, there are personalities and egos. Everyone’s got ‘em. The more a band plays the more time they spend together, the more these things come into play. Often a band will start with one person as the de facto leader, and then over time, somebody else, by virtue of a talent or energy level, begins to challenge that leadership. I wouldn’t want to be in a band full of sheep, but too many strong personalities can be stressful, too. It’s something that has to be dealt with, or the band either drifts apart, or goes supernova.

I imagine the transition from amateur band to truly professional one has some has some poignant moments. The members who are committed to turning pro will have to make some choices about the members who are ambiguous about that ambition. Or, it make become apparent that some band members are no longer able to keep up musically, as the rest of the band reaches new levels. Either way, some old friends have to go – gently or otherwise.

Ever notice that when a major band introduces the members, they’re almost NEVER from the same neighborhood, or city or even the same state? Those bands aren’t made of childhood buddies who did well, are they? There was a core talent, and that person or group of people found the best players they could, and convinced them to buy into their vision, regardless of where they live.

So, what dynamics affect the lineups in these bands? Look at how stable the lineup in the Del McCoury Band has been! Other big names seem to have new faces for every tour. Did the sidemen get better offers, have to drop out to deal with family issues, get fired for cause, or all of the above? I know sometimes, sidemen emerge as headliners in their own right, like Dailey and Vincent. Sometimes I feel like a little kid stuck outside the ballyard, trying to view the game from a little knothole in the fence!
Posted:  5/6/2009

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