Cool things I learned from being in bands

1:17 PM James 0 Comments

Since I picked up a guitar at age 14, I'd dreamt of being a rock star and playing to packed audiences around the world (or at least around town). In high school, I was in a pop-punk band called This End Up. In college, I went acoustic and delved into songwriting and recording on my computer. When I moved to LA, I played open mics, joined my church's praise band, and pursued an indie career, recording and releasing my own album and playing at historic LA venues like The Viper Room and The Mint.

I never went pro with the music thing, but it was a huge source of enjoyment and education for me. Here are some of the lessons I learned from being in bands that still stand out to me today.

  1. How to write music. Ever wanted to express how you feel about someone or something? Writing a song is an unforgettable way to get your point across.
  2. How to really play my instrument. A lot of casual musicians can play some songs, but they're looking down at their hands, which is not the most engaging thing to watch if you're in the audience. Being in a band and playing in front of people makes you want to make eye contact with your bandmates and your audience. That, in turn, forces you to learn how to play without looking down, to relax, and to improvise. Things like that make the experience more enjoyable for everyone. When they see you're comfortable, it helps them be comfortable.
  3. How to recruit people - to play with you, and to come to shows.
  4. How to run a team of peers. Providing leadership for my peers didn’t come naturally to me. I thought of myself as a nice guy who didn’t want to boss anyone around. But what I realized was that a leadership vacuum is no fun. It leaves the group directionless and unmotivated. Someone needs to step up and lead, and that means you experience opposition, friction, and disappointment. But once you have a band working, coming to regular practices, learning songs on their own and perfecting them together, good things start to happen, and being in a band gets a lot more fun.
  5. How to collaborate with each other using verbal and musical communication. Writing riffs, lyrics, and arrangements on your own is nice, but it’s exponentially more satisfying when everyone in the band adds their own unique flair. Oftentimes, the song goes in entirely unexpected directions. Sometimes, you’re pleasantly surprised. Other times, you liked your version better, but you let the band own the song.
  6. How to market yourself and get gigs. Time management of packing and setting up for gigs. Networking with bookers, venue owners, and other bands you share the bill with.
  7. Friendship. Being in a band is one of the most unique kinds of friendship I’ve experienced. You share the creative side of yourself, which is scary. You spent extended amounts of time with each other practicing, traveling, and getting to know each other.
  8. How to think on your feet. What do you say when the cops show up and shut down your practice or your (unpermitted) outdoor show? What do you do when you break a string (or a strap) onstage, or when the power to your amp or your mic keeps cutting out? How do you stall, how do you connect with your audience, how do you handle a heckler?
  9. People will think you’re cool for no particular reason (at least when you’re in high school to your early 20s). Don’t let it go to your head.
  10. You can provide yourself and other people deeply satisfying levels of entertainment for zero marginal cost. Upfront cost for gear, however, is significant.
  11. What you think is cool and important is NOT what your bandmates and your fans think is cool or important. Sometimes the simplest riff or melody will became their favorite thing. Sometimes they just want to hear you play “Champagne Supernova” or “Billie Jean”, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Listen to those people and they’ll continue to be YOUR people. While we’re on that...
  12. How to take feedback, from your fans and from listening to yourself. Fans and audio recordings don’t lie. It’s a brutal truth but a valuable one. Listen closely and listen hard. Improve however possible. Realize that most people never become as self-aware as you, and that this knowledge will allow you to grow in ways you never imagined.
  13. The important fact that you’ll never be everything to everyone, but you’ll be everything to someone, or to your people, and that means everything.

Shoutout to my fellow musicians and fans who helped make this list possible!