I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Leader of the Band!
Playing in a rock band is fun and rewarding. You get together a few times a week, learn a bunch of songs and play a few gigs. If you do it right you’ll have a blast, and maybe even make some money.
But one day, out of nowhere, a chilling thought may occur to you: If I don’t speak up and tell the rest of these guys what to do, they will just sit here staring at each other. Or, they'll mess around the whole time. Some of them might not show up at all.
If you have recently come to this realization, congratulations are in order: You are the leader of your band!
Look, we musicians are quirky people. We tend to be free-thinking, creative types who march to our own drummers, sometimes literally. The chances of a bunch of us getting together and spontaneously moving in the same direction are pretty slim. Musicians need leadership.
In most successful rock bands that leadership comes from one or two members within the group. They are the driving force behind the band, and other group members take their cues from them. In most cases they are the band’s main songwriters, often they are a guitar player, and they tend to be the people with the clearest vision for the band.
It’s also a personality thing. Some people are more inclined to lead, where others feel more comfortable simply doing their job to the best of their ability. Neither is wrong, and those band members who choose not to step up to a leadership role are every bit as valuable as those who do.
In my time in bands I always seemed to end up as the leader. In high school, I was captain of my sports teams, and later in life I worked in management in a business setting. It’s all pretty much the same thing, and what works in one job will work in another.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years, some of them the hard way. In this article, I’ll share some of the points I think are most important when it comes to leading a rock band.
The Power of Leadership
For some people, finding themselves in a leadership position brings out the worst in them. They take it as a power trip, and think because everyone is looking up to them they are somehow superior.
That's a bad way to look at it, at least if you want to be successful. Leadership is a role and a challenge, and there is no guarantee you’re going to succeed at it. It’s important to get any delusions of grandeur out of your head from the beginning.
Being the leader of your rock band means hard work, focus, and smart decision making. The fact that your band looks up to you for this role is an honor, but one that can be taken away if you go about it like a jerk.
And, just because you are in a leadership role doesn't mean everyone has to do what you say. You are not the boss of your band. Every member of the group should still have an equal say in decisions, and nobody should be made to feel like they are less important than anyone else. As the leader, it’s your job to make sure that happens
Remember the words of Uncle Ben (from Spiderman, not the rice guy): With great power comes great responsibility.
The responsibility of leadership involves all the things that keep the band ticking. You must be the band’s prime mover, the grease in its gears, and the cooler head that always prevails. That is the challenge of leadership.
Foster a Creative Environment
As the leader, you have a lot of ideas. You're a creative person and you have a very clear vision of what you want your band to accomplish. You write most of the music, and you might even show up at every rehearsal with new songs for everyone to learn.
That's good. Bands need talented, highly motivated leaders who write awesome songs and constantly push the group forward. Just don't forget that you aren't alone in your mission.
There are other people in your band, and they are probably pretty creative too. If you are a good songwriter and have a strong personality they may not feel comfortable coming forward with ideas. In a worst-case scenario, they might even be writing songs they are afraid to present to you.
There are so many good bands out there, and the market for rock music is dwindling. Competition is fierce. No matter how great you are as a songwriter, there is always room for improvement. If you have other band members who are capable of contributing, isn't it a shame to allow them to languish in the shadows?
Instead, encourage creativity in your band. Ask for ideas, and listen to constructive criticism. It's good to write songs on your own, but also take some time each rehearsal to write together as a group.
Consider using brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas for songs. If you have a long time between rehearsals, challenge other group members to write something for the next time you get together.
It is one thing to say everyone's ideas matter, but as the leader, you need to make sure the other band members feel like that's really true. Everyone who is willing to contribute to the songwriting process needs to know their opinion will be heard.
You Are Your Band’s First Manager
Someday when you are famous, or at least when a record company is trying to make you famous, you’ll have a manager to book shows, tell the band where to go and what time to show up, and take care of travel arrangements, hotel rooms, and budgeting.
You’ll have a publicist who works to get the band’s name out there, and you’ll have merchandising people who worry about t-shirts, posters and whatever else you want to put your band’s name on.
But before you have those minions at your disposal, who do you think gets to worry about all of that?
As the leader of the band, you need to have your head in the game as far as booking gigs, publicizing the band and managing the money. More importantly, you need to manage rehearsal sessions and make sure everyone knows what’s going on.
It’s nice when there is at least one more person in the band who is able to put their mind to these things, but sometimes, if you want the band to succeed, it all falls on you. That doesn’t mean you are alone in getting it all done. A big part of leadership is inspiring other people to act, and act well.
Learn to Delegate
If you are in charge of all of the above it can seem like if you don’t get it done nobody is going to do it. If you look at leadership this way you’ll drive yourself mad! You can’t possibly do all the things necessary to run a successful band on your own, and you shouldn’t try. Put your ego in your pocket and save your sanity: You need to delegate!
Delegating tasks not only helps you, but it’s also good for the group as a whole. Giving people ownership of a job means they are more likely to be invested in the outcome of that job. It’s human nature to want to succeed at something, especially when the rest of the group is depending on you.
Again, remember you are not the boss, and I’m not suggesting you just start telling people what to do. As a leader it is your job to come up with the vision of what needs to be accomplished. It should then be put to the group to see if they agree, disagree, have some alterations to your ideas or have some ideas of their own. Once it is agreed upon, then it’s time to figure out how it gets accomplished.
You can’t do it all. So how do you motivate people to jump in and get things done?
Motivate by Encouragement
There is a common misconception about the military that higher-ranking people simply shout at subordinates until they get the desired outcome. The truth is, good leaders in the military and elsewhere know when it comes to getting the best out of people there are better ways than intimidation.
During the course of combat, there are no doubt times where a little yelling and screaming is in order. But you are not in combat in your band, nor do you outrank anyone in your group. Instead of getting excited and acting like a jerk, motivate through encouragement.
It’s all about psychology. If you know Bob the Bassist has been working on his scales in his spare time, you might say, “Bob! You sounded great at rehearsal today. I can really tell that extra practice is paying off!”
What do you think Bob is going to be more inclined to do, practice harder or stop practicing? Especially if Bob wasn’t sure if his practice had been making a difference, you have just reinforced the idea that practice is good, and Bob should keep it up.
Maybe Dave the Drummer reluctantly accepted the task of lining up a gig for the weekend. He’s not thrilled about it and is pretty sure he’s going to mess it up. The reason many people take a backseat in group situations isn’t that they are lazy. It’s because they aren’t totally convinced they can do it, and don’t want to let the group down.
Encourage Dave through the process, give him guidance if needed but let him take ownership of the task. Most importantly, make sure he knows he did a great job when he’s finally gotten it done, and that the entire band appreciates his efforts.
Dave will be more likely to volunteer for new tasks and will be more convinced that he can get it done. Success breeds success, and with a few more victories under his belt, Dave will no doubt be way more active when it comes to getting things done for the band.
Lead by Example
It’s important to encourage band members through positive methods. As the leader of the band, your words have weight. If you go around acting depressed there is really no reason anyone else in your band should feel like anything good is ever going to happen.
On the other hand, a positive mindset can be infectious too. In other words, lead by example.
You can’t expect your buddies to show up on time, learn new music, work hard in their own spare time or go above and beyond for the good of the band if you aren’t willing to do the same. You can’t expect them to believe the band is going to succeed when all you do is go around talking about negative things.
As the leader, your words, actions, attitude and demeanor matter. The way you carry yourself sets the tone for the rest of the group. If you allow yourself to be lazy or late, or if you fly off the handle all the time, sooner or later, consciously or not, the other members of the group will be thinking, Well, the guy we count on to keep this thing together doesn’t care, so why should I?
Lead by example. You will not be perfect all the time, but your band will see how much the group means to you, and chances are they’ll be right behind you.
Learn to Let Go
My final point is the one I’ve struggled with the most, not only in bands but in other creative situations, and even in the business world.
When I’m involved in a project I care about I tend to have a very clear vision of exactly what I want to accomplish. When those accomplishments involve working with other people, I’ve learned I need to be comfortable with letting go of some of the control and trusting in others.
You can’t effectively encourage anyone in anything if you won’t accept their ideas. You can’t delegate effectively if you cling so tightly to control of the project. You will struggle to do anything discussed in this article. You are not the leader of your band. What you are is a dictator.
I guess that’s fine if you are a solo artist, or if you really are the boss of a company with your name on the building. But, in most things we do in life we need to work together.
As the leader, it is your job to have the vision, but it’s also your job to help every member of your band to be the best they can be. With their input, the project may not turn out exactly how you imagined, but it could end up being even better.
I’ve always thought of being in a band like four or five people all trying to have a relationship together. There is drama, personality issues, and excitement, and often someone is in the bathroom crying for reasons you don’t fully understand.
It sure isn’t easy, and if you accept the role of leadership you will have a lot of challenges ahead of you. But it is also very rewarding, and your willingness to step up could mean the difference between having a successful band, or one that never makes it out of the garage.
Good luck. I hope this article helped!