As a semi-professional musician, I keep a fairly busy schedule. While I am not a touring musician per se, I still log 100+ shows regionally per year. I do this by performing with multiple bands.
While this may not make sense for every musician, it does make sense for me and my situation here in Upstate NY. In the end, making the decision to perform with multiple groups (as opposed to one group full-time) comes down to two things:
- Where you live and the opportunities available
- How much you want to work
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked these days is: “How do you keep it all together, playing with multiple groups?” My answer is always two-fold: “It’s not easy – but I love it.”
I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the lessons I’ve learned about playing in multiple bands at once, as well as the pros and cons.
Things you need to know and do:
- People are tricky. A band is essentially a sea of personalities, and no two personalities are the same. This is a good thing because it teaches you the importance of listening to and valuing another person’s opinions. As musicians, we have a hard time with this concept, but, I promise you – it’s a good thing!
- Manage your calendar. I’ll say that again: Manage. Your. Calendar. If you want to avoid double-booking yourself, or missing a gig, it’s absolutely imperative that you keep a good book. Whether you keep a physical datebook on you, or you use a calendar app on your phone, keep it updated! I recommend using Google to create a band email account and a shared calendar that everyone in your band can see. When someone is not available to play a date, mark it off the calendar so it doesn’t get booked by mistake.
- Know when to say “no.” One of the worst things you can do is to spread yourself too thin. This isn’t good for anyone, including the people you’re being paid to play with (and for). It’s OK to turn down gigs occasionally.
- Take care of yourself physically AND mentally. It may seem obvious, but a lot of musicians seem to forget about this one. Playing an instrument (yes, this includes singers) is a physically demanding job. The grind of playing shows can wear you down if you’re not careful. It’s very tempting to take full advantage of the cheap (or free) drinks the venue provides or to “overindulge” in the green room before the gig. Start doing this at every gig, and you’re going to get yourself into a jam pretty fast. Your body is your temple. You only play as well as your body and brain let you play. Trust me – your bandmates notice when you’re not playing well. Don’t be that person.
Fuel your body well, maintain it, get some exercise, get some sleep, and unplug when you can. Find something non-musical to do in your downtime. You’ll be more inspired at your gigs and you won’t feel like you’re stuck in a grind. If you take care of yourself now, then you may just be in this for the long haul after all.
5. Don’t forget where you started. Inevitably, you’ll need to prioritize one of your bands over the other(s) if you’re going to make this work. Chances are, you found yourself playing with multiple groups in the first place because you had holes in your “primary” band’s calendar that weren’t getting filled. So, you took the call from that other bandleader and hopped on their gig. Then, another bandleader calls, and so on.
At some point, it’s unavoidable: You’re going to face conflicts on your calendar. There are only so many days in the week. If you find yourself in a situation where you have multiple bands asking you to play the same date, you’ll need to choose. I suggest you err on the side of loyalty. If your primary band has a gig offer, you should probably take it. The other bands will understand, and they’ll have to use a sub. Which brings me to:
6. Make sure you have a sub available for your band, and that your secondary groups have subs for you as well. This one is the clincher, and it’s easier said than done. Many professional working bands use a “sub” system, where most of the players have a backup person in place in case they can’t make a gig. This is really the only way the multiple-band thing works if you want to avoid frustration. You can’t be in 3 places at once, so at some point, your other groups are going to need somebody to sit in for you when you’re not there. Make sure your sub is someone you know and trust, and that they KNOW the material!
Not every band will be cool with the sub system. You’ll need to work that out on your own, but make sure you do that before committing to the group!
7. Know the material for every band you’re playing in. Again, this one seems obvious but you’d be surprised. Don’t phone in your performances. Don’t show up unprepared. It’s easy to start taking things for granted when you’ve been playing in a band for a long time – especially if you’re moonlighting with other groups. Don’t let the excitement of playing with a new group overshadow your commitment to your other bands. They deserve your full 100%. Take the time to go over material before gigs, freshen up, listen to tunes, etc. before you hit the stage. You’d expect that from your bandmates, so demand it from yourself also.
Still not sure if this is for you? Here are some pros and cons:
- Playing in multiple groups provides the opportunity to network and meet a wide variety of people (musicians, venue managers, fans, etc)
- Perform in different types of venues. One band’s genre or song list may not cater to every venue you’d like to play. Playing with different groups allows you to explore new stages.
- Become exposed to new styles of music. Playing with different musicians in different musical settings is naturally going to expand your own sonic “color palette.”
- Play more often than 1 group may allow. For example, what if your primary band only wants to play once or twice per month, but you’d like to be out every weekend? Sitting in with other bands is a great solution.
- It’s complicated. You’re dealing with a lot of personalities, a lot of music, and a lot of dates on the calendar. You need to be professional, prepared, organized, and respectful of everyone’s time and talents.
- Your bandmates may decide that they don’t like you moonlighting. If you’re up front with all of your bandmates before you take on outside work, this *shouldn’t* be a problem. Fortunately, I’ve never had this issue. But, people change their minds over time, and you just never know. You need to decide how much the outside gigs are worth to you.
- You become attached to other bands’ reputations. This can be both good and bad. If you’re sitting in with awesome, professional, kick-ass bands, then great. If you’re sitting in with bands who cause trouble for venue owners, that’s not so great. Choose wisely.
If you’re on the fence about working with outside bands, I hope this post helps you make your decision. Playing in multiple bands can be a very challenging yet rewarding thing. Rock on!