Mind If I Sit In?

culturebullyA friend of mine from California recently wrote on Facebook about a great blues band he had listened to that afternoon. They were professional in every way, he said, except they “made the mistake of letting strangers walk up and join them for a song or two.” My friend concluded by saying, “This practice should never be allowed.”

I agree. It seems counterproductive that a band that has worked hard to perfect its sound – and harder still to get the gig – would risk it all on a complete unknown who walks up and says he can nail David Gilmour’s guitar solo on “Comfortably Numb.” It’s one thing if it’s an open mic, as not that many people who are there are expecting to hear rock history being made that night. But getting, playing, and keeping a gig is hard work, and the band needs to be mindful of that fact, even if a patron isn’t.

Here’s what someone who asks to sit in says to the band:

Hey, mind if I sit in?

And here’s what someone who asks to sit in actually says to the band:

Hey, mind if I sit in? I realize you’ve been playing for years and have developed a unique voice and style, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’m not concerned with your years of lessons, what you had to sacrifice or how long it took you to buy your gear, or the months and months of practice it took you guys to get to this point. I want you to back me up while I show off for my friends. And it won’t bother me at all if I mess up and you look like schmucks.

Such requests should be met with a gentle, tactful, yet firm no. Someone who wants to sit in might have the best intentions in the world and may also have an amazing amount of talent, though that’s never been my experience. And to be completely fair, there are venues that encourage musicians (usually jazz) to sit in with the band. But those who would sit in, as well as those who would let them, must realize that the band risks its reputation when it allows strangers to perform with them. And a band is only as good as its last gig.

Image credit: culturebully

Feeding the Muse

stuck-in-a-rutSo you’ve recorded a few CDs, and they’ve done well. You’re on your fourth tour, and your fan base is growing. So far, so good. Except that the only posts on your Facebook and Twitter now are your fans clamoring for a new album.

When suddenly you realize you’re just not feeling it anymore.

Or you’re in a cover band, which has been riding a huge popularity wave for the past 8 months, but it’s suddenly gotten old. You haven’t had time to learn any new music in months, and while fans still show up to your gigs, the numbers are not quite what they were.

And suddenly you realize you’re just not feeling it anymore.

It’s a sick feeling. Did I peak and not realize it? you ask yourself. Is this all there is? Am I wasting my time and my life at this? And in an attempt to break out of your writer’s block, you write more songs that start to sound a lot like what you’ve written before, which only adds to your frustration and deepens the rut. Or you pull out a couple of done-to-death standards from your B-list and work them into Saturday night’s set list, even as you vow to get the band together and learn some more music soon. Real soon.

We all get in ruts from time to time. The trick is recognizing them for what they are and knowing how to work through them. Fortunately the folks at Music Marketing [dot] com have listed over a dozen ways to get out of your comfort zone and feed your creative muse. Among them:

  • Get out of the band you’re in if it stifles you. You may like everyone in it, but if you art suffers from it, what’s the point?
  • Post videos of unfinished songs on Facebook. Ask for fan feedback. This deepens the relationship you have with them, which is another source of inspiration.
  • Play in a venue that makes you nervous.
  • Join a band that plays a different genre than what you’re used to. I got out of rock for well over a year and played jazz, and it was such an inspiring and liberating experience. It forever changed the way I compose music.
  • Write a song with someone else. Fresh perspective is always good.

NatureYou can also try one or more of these suggestions:

  • Start a new project. Rather than find another band, start one of your own.
  • Introduce some original material. If you’re in a cover band, adding a few of your tunes will add variety to a tired mix. It’s also a great way to find out how your music goes over with a real audience.
  • Experiment with a different sound. Hire a sax player or percussionist for one of your gigs, or rework an entire set as an acoustic one. You may not want to shake things up like this all the time, but it’s good when you do. And your audience is sure to appreciate and talk about it.
  • Go on hiatus. Academics take sabbaticals, usually to write a book or some other project. But by getting away from a routine and focusing on something fresh, they often return to their posts with renewed enthusiasm. It can work for you, too. Just make it clear to the rest of the band that you need some downtime to recharge. If they’re not comfortable with that notion, however, you’ll need to be prepared to make what could be a hard choice.

Daft Punk was able to avoid a creative rut by using some old-school techniques to record their latest album, Random Access Memories. Thomas Bangalter explained that the duo wanted to expand its creative horizons before their music became boilerplate. Musicians can’t thrive in a comfort zone, he said. “That’s not what artists are supposed to do.” You owe it to yourself as well as your fans to keep pushing your music to new heights, but you can only do that by having a creative vision and sticking to it.

Image 1 credit: Chris Yaw

Image 2 credit: DesignPics Inc.

Updated June 12, 2013