If you want to be a rock star be prepared to persevere: in most cases the four year minimum applies.
Posted on | December 13, 2008 | No CommentsI know this is a bold statement. And let me be honest, it’s not really based on any empirical evidence, just my observation of a lot of rock bands. Nevertheless, I stand very firmly by this statement. Of the bands and solo artists I’ve seen achieve success in the music biz game (e.g., get a major label deal, become a touring act that earns steady money, etc.), it seems to have taken most of them at least four years to get there.
And in those cases where it takes less than four years, you’ll probably find that the people involved in the projects in question brought connections and experience with them from previous projects that hastened the process along.
But even in these cases, people with lots of experience still often have to face a tough reality: Starting a new project means starting from scratch. Old connections open some doors. And experience helps people play the game. But even these folks usually end up pretty much starting from ground zero.
So what should you take away from all this?
Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, don’t be impatient. And if you’re not ready to jump on for the long haul, don’t be surprised when things don’t work out.
I can’t tell you how many great bands I’ve seen break up right as the band was really coming together (at least from an outside observer’s perspective). So be realistic about the timetable. If you think something major is going to happen in six months or a year, you’ll probably be disappointed (unless you’re joining a band that has already been at it for a while).
That’s why the four-year rule is helpful. It encourages you to establish a three to four year timetable for a project with intermediate goals along the way.
This is the way it happens for a lot of people I’ve observed. The band forms, starts rehearsing and writing songs. By the end of year one, if the band is any good, it’ll be playing shows regularly, building an audience and maybe working on a recording of some kind. Often this first recording will be a self-released CD or single.
If things keep progressing, by year two, the audience for the band will have grown, and there will be another recording in the works. With luck, maybe an indie label will have expressed interest in releasing this CD after much work by the band letting indie labels know about the project. By now, the band may have started to do some regional touring. And once the second CD comes out, they may decide to mount a larger national tour.
The first national tour will bring a lot of things to a head. The money will be bad. The crowds will likely be much smaller than those the band is used to playing in front of at home. In addition, there won’t be many friends there to cheer the band on. So for perhaps the first time, the band members will have to face audience feedback from strangers head-on. This can be pretty jarring. Band members will also be in close quarters for a number of weeks, crammed inside a van.
If this tour doesn’t break up the band, it’ll come back stronger and wiser. The hungriest and most ambitious bands will try to go back out on tour again as soon as possible. And with luck, the second time around will be a little better, especially if the indie label or the band has managed to do a little promotional groundwork (e.g., setting up press and radio interviews).
Usually, the more the band tours, the more music it sells and the better it becomes. But touring without coordinated promotion and press support can also become treadmill. So if these elements aren’t also in the picture, the lack of these things could also do the band in.
By the start of year three, things become a bit more serious. People are getting a little impatient. Lots of bands break up in year three. If the band has promise, some larger labels have probably taken notice. The interest is really pretty light. But if you’re in the band, it’s hard not to give it a lot of weight. And even light interest shouldn’t be disregarded. It means the band is on the right track.
The band will be working on another record in year three, probably for indie label. But the band is probably starting to get a little disillusioned with its existing indie label, realizing its many limitations (or it may be getting really disillusioned with still having to go the DIY route). So the band is pretty much plotting its exit strategy, and its eyes are pretty focused on the bigger label prize.
The record the band makes in year three will probably be a pretty significant leap forward. If the band is a young one, it is finally learning how to make a record and work in the studio. If it’s a band of veterans, things probably have a bit more seasoning by now. One way or another, more money has probably been spent on the recording. If the band and indie label have succeeded in promoting the band, it may try to obtain a showcase spot in some of the music conferences like CMJ and South by Southwest.
Hopes will be high, especially if the members of the band are still relatively inexperienced and naive. The literature for the conference will reference the names of bands that “got their break” from playing at the conference in previous years. And in fact, this will sort of be true. Every year, a couple of bands do get signed to bigger labels after the conferences. But although the conference literature often implies it, these bands usually have not come out of nowhere. They are not literally unknowns, and they have been on the bigger label radar before attending the conference.
Consequently, most bands will find the music conference a pretty demoralizing experience. It’ll be like going on tour for the first time, only worse. This time, the band will be in a town filled with hundreds of other bands. Many will be in more or less the same situation: relatively popular at home, pretty much unknown outside of it. And the starkness of this reality can be pretty sobering. It’s hard to face just how big the pond is and what a small fish you are.
With luck, the band will get to play in a small venue with good foot traffic. But unless there is already a pretty strong buzz about the band before it arrives for the conference, not many people will show up, especially if this is the band’s first time playing the conference. Saavy bands will try to see if they can play some other shows during the conference at parties or elsewhere. Those shows may not be great either, but at least more shows improve the odds of more people getting to check out the band.
For many bands, the aftermath of the conference experience is a turning point. A lot of bands break up in the six to eight months after this experience. But in doing so, they miss the real point of the conference: to make contacts and try to learn from the experience. If the band survives to play the conference again it will have a much better sense of how to make the best of it, and a much better perspective on things. The music conference is not the war. It is just one battle. A victory won’t win the war; a loss need not be fatal. If you survive to fight the battle again next year, you’ll have a much better sense of how to prepare. And with any luck, more people will show up to see the band play.
Assuming the band survives the conference gambit, things will be reaching a critical stage. Another national tour is the logical next step. With any luck, maybe the band will hook up with another band of greater stature. This can be a good way to expand the audience. That or maybe the band has met another band of equal stature from another region at one of the conferences and they decide to tour together, with each band headlining in the regions where it is stronger. In any event, if the band is to succeed, it will need to see some progress on this tour in terms of attendance and response. Otherwise, there’s a good chance the band will break-up.
But if the band can survive this gambit, it now begins to play against a much narrower field. A lot of these bands do get a shot at the bigger label, better gigs, etc. But of course, even though it seems like the “brass ring,” getting signed to a bigger label is really only the first step in much longer campaign. Against heavy odds, the band has prevailed in the first war. But now it’s time for the next one. And this one is fraught with even more pitfalls and lower odds (see the soundscan figures here, less than 1% of records sold at the platinum level).
So it really helps to know what you want if you make it this far, because the fog will be mighty thick once you get there.