You want to be in a hardcore band? Grant Johnson, formerly of Spark Lights the Friction, tells you what you need to know before you try.
A couple weeks ago, Larsen B, a 12,000 year old ice shelf the size of Lake Ontario, slowly collapsed and disintegrated in the ocean off Antarctica. This is something that has happened on a smaller scale a few times now, yet the world hasn't really taken notice. Sure, we have lots of other more violent things to keep our attention elsewhere, but I'm of the mind that this is a signal of more drastic and dire consequences to come. Rising tides equal rising sea levels, coastal floods, erosion, and perhaps even death.
Being the great philosopher I am, I can't help but see a parallel with the hardcore/punk/metal world at large. Picture if you will a large land mass (say, Antarctica) that represents the greater body of bands and music in the independent hardcore underground. Then picture the temperature rising because of human error (e.g. mediocre and/or unoriginal music, a saturated market for new bands to gain exposure, increasing pressure to "make it big") and a number of those bands sliding off this land mass into the ocean, lost forever. It happens today, happened yesterday, and will happen tomorrow and the next day; call it a sign of the times.
So, you're thinking of forming a band, eh? Well, that's nice. The climate may be just right for you, or you may drown in the rising tide of mediocrity. How you progress is up to you, but there are few things you should know about our current state of affairs in "the 'core". There are a couple basic things it is important to remember when getting involved in this via band, label, 'zine, etc.:
- the rules have changed
- the game has changed
Basically, there are a number of playing fields where you can get involved (furthering the "game" analogy), and where you enter yourself is key to the future and success of your endeavor.
Oh sure, as hardcore has progressed and snowballed in popularity and fanbase, major labels (and to a larger extent, major label business practices) have always been there to attempt to cash in. Sometimes they do, but until recently they were pretty much roundly rebuffed. I'm not so naive to think that "it was so much better X years ago", because to someone my age X years ago, it was just the same, i.e. not as good as it used to be. Nor am I so naive to believe that some hardcore bands didn't want to be on major labels "back in the day". Hell, Minor Threat broke up because the rest of the band tried to turn the band in a mainstream, U2 style direction and Ian MacKaye refused to be a part of it.
Yet, no matter what playing field you are on, whether you play for gas money or guarantees, mark up your shirts 0% or 100%, there are a number of factors that go into this great game of being in a band and trying to make it work. So here are a few guidelines on the day to day rigamarole surrounding the formation, trials and tribulations of your modern hardcore (or hardcore-related) band, from someone on the other side of this equation.
If you're getting a band together, you obviouslyt have to collectively decide what kind of music to play. Having done A/R (that's Artist and Repertoire, or "finding good bands to sign" in laymen's terms) for a certain prominent hardcore label, it has occurred to me that many bands get together to emulate other bands and play what is simple, or popular (read: simple). They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; well "they" are full of shit. Nothing annoys people more than something that's been done before or done before and worse. So don't suck. Just kidding. You don't have to be the most technically proficient guitar/drum/bass/keyboard/vocal wizard, just do what feels right, and with passion. However, it's important to have the right equipment such as a bass guitar tuner and extra guitar strings so you can give the best performance possible. If you need a guide, pick a band you like, but don't say "I want to do this", say "I want to do this BETTER". Maybe you can, maybe you can't, but no one can fault you for giving it the old college try. An example: for the band I am currently in, my drummer friend called me and stated his purpose very clearly: "The Swarm sucked, I want to start something like that but good". Fair enough. Disagreements aside, we had a challenge and a mission, and that's all you need to get going.
This is getting trickier and trickier as time goes on. When I started going to shows some 8 years ago, generally around 100 people attended every show in Syracuse for a time. Sometimes it was way more; sometimes, and as time went on, the number proved to be much less. Then, as trends ebb and flow and kids come and go over the years, things got pretty low-key and attendance was pretty poor at some of the best shows I've ever seen. Things eventually picked up over the years, and now shows consistently draw quite a few people. However, there is a catch or two to consider. Namely, there were about ten times less as many bands as there are today in existence, let alone asking for shows. Promoters, generally limited to one or two in most cities, have a lot more to consider when booking bands these days. This is not to say that you used to just have to pick up a guitar and you had a show the next day, but out of town bands had it a little easier than they do now. Part of the problem is fickle kids who don't want to spend money to see new bands when they can listen to mp3s on the Internet and pass judgment on bands that could be amazing live, but don't represent well recorded. Also, shows are often saturated in any given town, so kids pick and choose. I've played to 5 people in South Carolina and 500 in Syracuse; those are the breaks. Don't get offended if promoters don't give you shows, or if kids don't come when you do play. Remember, this is a game, be glad that you can play at all.
Chief among ways to get yourself noticed and get shows and people talking is through a good recording. Be it a demo or a full length, you get something good committed to tape (oh wait, this is 2002, "committed to a hard drive", sorry) and ears will perk up. My advice here is to take your time in doing so. Unless you're N'Sync or From Zero, assembled by a major label and on some timetable, chances are you aren't in a rush, so don't act that way. From my experience, It pays to work things out until they're as close to perfect as they can be. The extra effort will be to your benefit, trust me. As far as studios, there is no one set of guidelines I can provide. Unless you've recorded before, try things until you know what you like, i.e. analog or digital, certain studios or engineers. If you have friends in bands, talk to them and see what they recommend. If you like how a particular record sounds, see where it was recorded and try for there, or take it to whatever studio and say "I want my instrument to sound like this". One surprise that studios can have is that no matter how good it sounds in practice, it may sound atrocious in the studio. But that's why you're there, to tweak and twist knobs and parts until it's as good as it can be. Be patient, and pay attention because being in a band has done wonders for how I listen to music, let alone produce it.
Getting a label
Again, having done A/R and been in a few bands, I know it's not as simple as sending your CD to a label to get them to pay attention to you. Some of the most popular bands get slept on by labels because they have no name at the time, and are just another CD in the pile. That's labels enlist schmoes like myself to weed through the garbage and find the halo in the haystack. Another way to get noticed is to assemble a real snazzy press pack with glossy pictures, gushing and embellished bios, reviews, whatever you want. Sometimes this works, often it's just a waste of resources. However, that's just part of the system, and if you're trying to play at that level then you have to accept the consequences. Not every label will care about you, or even write you back. Record labels are businesses, and for some their primary business, and things get backed up. You can get mad about it, but it helps to just press on. Following up with phone calls or emails can help, but if it gets you nowhere, keep going. If you know someone who does a label or have a friend who offers to help you out, it's not a terrible idea to do it to get something out. You can be the next big thing, but your first record will almost definitely not be on Victory, Trustkill, or anything of the sort. As a matter of personal experience, my recently disbanded band had a few offers to release records from the get go, almost all from friends, but we picked and chose and had things released on a schedule we were comfortable with in terms of songwriting and touring availabaility and such, but not everyone has that luxury.
Whether you have a record out or not, you have to get on the road at some point if you want your band to move forward in any way. It's one thing to play the community center or VFW in your town 100 times a year and have the same 10-20-50-100 kids see you and sing along, it's another to actually go out and seek new fans, friends and experiences on the road. And experiences you will have, believe me. Or perhaps I'm just lucky to have had the best and worse times of my life related to being on tour, who knows. Anyway, you have to do two basic things to tour: buy a van and actually book the shows. Buying a van, well, you're on your own. You can either have this be bought as someone's personal vehicle, or as a band expense. Either are painstaking and costly, get ready for it, and get used to it when the inevitable breakdowns and repairs happen. As far as booking the tour, this gets tedious. Again, if you know people in bands, get some contacts from them if you can, and recommendations on where to play. Also, seek out show postings or web pages for specific scenes; they are out there, and for some damn obscure towns too. Get contacts from there, and see who can help you out and who can't. As you get more established you can try and get a booking agent if you want more assured percs from shows as far as money and such. And sometimes, booking agents want nothing to do with you, but those are the breaks.
Either way, shoot for the stars as far as where and how long you want to tour for, but don't get discouraged if it doesn't happen the way you had planned. On my band's first "big" tour, we went all the way down to Florida, with intentions of coming back, but having only played 15 shows in 32 days, and only 2 shows left in the last 7 days, we cut our losses and drove the 24 hours from Pensacola to Syracuse. That was an experience in itself, but here are some other highlights from past tours:
- wheel flying off at 70 miles an hour on the Florida Turnpike
- engine dying in middle of nowhere, Virginia, getting picked up by dudes with KKK tattoos, referring multiple times to "spooks" stealing from their junkyard
- sliding 45 degrees down the highway in New Mexico before the highway was closed, getting stranded in Gallup, NM for two days and having some mysterious man come to the motel door at 3am looking for a place to sleep
- setting a garbage fire outside a Davie, FL Subway (take that Mr. Shitty Sandwiches and Bad Attitude)
- hanging out at a dude's house in Springfield, IL with his neo-Nazi neighbors having a barbeque out back, calling each other "white soldier", talking about rape and beating up homeless guys, while 16 year old girls pine after members of both bands
- seeing both oceans that bookend the U.S., amongst other wondrous things, and a myriad of boring and stupid things as well
With any record you put out, show you play, person you meet, etc., there is bound to be some criticism. Some people have really nice things to say, like your band, and often times you'll meet some of the nicest people in the world and make friends that last beyond tour and the scene and after you go home. But there will always be people who don't like and don't get what you're doing, and won't beat around the bush about saying so. As a music reviewer for two 'zines and a general loud mouth, I am one of those people. But since I know how that game works, I don't get upset when people say bad things about what I do musically. Not everyone will like what you do, that is inevitable; some just choose to be more vocal and venomous about expressing it than others. I am guilty of that sometimes, but I offer no apologies for being opinionated. And if someone is as mean as I am sometimes, I think of it as someone like me, with a very particular and critical ear. Maybe something good will come of it, you never know. Another kind of criticism comes from people ignoring you. You figure they don't care, and you may be right. Most hardcore kids are lazy about checking new things out, as I already established a few sections ago. Not everyone is a fan of everything, and some people are ignorant and believe what others say and just follow the collective opinions of those on message boards or in 'zines, at shows, etc. It's annoying sometimes, but don't get caught up in the politics of arguing with people about your band. It's a waste of time and energy, and the internet is stupid anyway.
Contracts, royalties/publishing, and the big enchilada
This heading actually refers to greater issues of money involved in being a band, including but above and beyond recording and touring. Depending on what label you deal with, you may or may not have to deal with contracts. Contracts suck, no one likes them; but again they are a necessary evil intrinsic to certain elements of the game. Contracts can also come into play when doing shows through a booking agent, but you don't have to deal with that as much, except for collecting your guarantee at the end of the night. As far as label contracts, there are two kinds: those that fuck you if you don't pay attention, and those that fuck you anyway. Well not really, that's a cynical viewpoint, but often true, and really just designed to warn you to take contracts very seriously. In my dealings with contracts, they were a hassle, but a means to an end. We chose to take it to an entertainment lawyer (for $500, but lawyers are never cheap), and that eased certain people's minds and strained others, but it was our choice. There was nothing inherently evil about it, just weird in dealing with an aspect of hardcore (are contracts an aspect of hardcore? Another argument for another time) I never had considered before. A contract with a label can determine or dictate the following, with varying levels of flexibility by the label or the band:
- how many albums, and what kind of albums you do (two or three full-lengths, by industry standards 30 minutes in length, and one EP up to 18 minutes, is a standard deal)
- how much you get to record (which sometimes must be repaid by the band, but is often times the only cost absorbed by the label)
- how much you get for art costs (which can be diminished greatly if someone in the band is artistically inclined, or a friend will work for free)
- what kind of publicity/advertising the label is required to do
- what percentage of the pressing the band gets to sell (generally 10%, sometimes less, sometimes a certain % on consignment where all proceeds go back to the label to recoup recording or other costs)
- if the label is responsible for producing merchandise (t-shirts, stickers, sweatpants) for the band, at what rate, and what cost to the band, if at all
- if the label provides money for tour, which many do not (so bring a LOT of your own)
- And perhaps most important to many bands: who owns the publishing rights to your recording and songs
Speaking to this last point, typically most bands retain the rights to their songs, but not necessarily the recording, which remains the property of the label. This is not so much a big deal, but if the label owns songs and recording, no strings attached, they are allowed to license it however they want, to Budweiser, Penthouse, whoever. Chances are that won't happen, but if you're of the "better safe than sorry" mentality, it's best to follow Wu Tang's advice and "protect ya neck". Still, publishing rights often determine what kind of money you can see from your album. If you register with an organization such as ASCAP, SESAC or BMI, you are subject to receive royalties from the playing of your songs on licensed radio stations, or if you play in clubs sponsored by those organizations. Unless you're some huge band, it really doesn't make a big difference because you likely won't see much of any money from this, but a. you never know and b. at least you legally own the rights to your material and no one can take that away from you. Now if you do make money, how it is divided up depends on your band. If you have one megalomaniacal songwriter, kiss your money goodbye. If you're registered under a different name for every member, you'll divide it up. But that's all up to the individual band.
As far as royalties from album sales, don't hold your breath. Labels have a lot of costs in releasing an promoting an album, and even if you're on top of the world, you might not see a ton of money from your successful album. Some labels do an excellent job on porking their best-selling artists, often leading them to jump ship in contract buyouts that reap the label even greater benefits. Most labels aren't like that, and if you're lucky enough you might see some money from your album, if not for some time.
As with all aspects of a band, don't hold your breath, but don't quit at the first sign of adversity either. Most bands lose money, some from the get go. It's definitely tough, no one can tell you otherwise. Some of the shittiest things imaginable happen to bands, as minor as breaking up before their time, to having their van, trailer and equipment stolen from them. However, the rewards are all in the eye of the beholder. For me, my band burnt out before we got to shine, and that happens sometimes, but I can still look back with a smile on my face. No band is perfect. Some seem like they are, but shit happens. People, priorities, settings, and goals change. Life goes on. Like Del Paxton said in "That Thing You Do": "Bands come and go, you gotta keep playing, it don't matter with who."