You step out on stage, the lights blinding you from the massive audience that is in a frenzy. The banjo player kicks off the tune and you immediately feel the familiar rhythm groove that comes from playing with this band for two solid years. The other four members of your band have earned your confidence – you know they are every bit as talented as you are (if not more), they work hard at their craft and won’t let you down during the performance. Everybody is hearing the timing the same way. Everybody sings the vowels the same way. There is no clutter – just pure notes… nobody stepping on your fills. The dynamics are incredible – sometimes during your performance you can hear a pin drop, other times it is so loud you can feel the sound waves thump in your chest. The material is brilliant – unique but familiar sounding enough. The audience knows all the words and are singing along.
This is what we are all striving for. A great, talented band, wonderful music. An engaged and appreciative audience.
I have been in Bluegrass bands just about my entire life. I would highly recommend joining or forming a band, no matter how little experience you may have playing Bluegrass. Even for novice pickers, being in a band will give you motivation to practice and provides a targeted set of materials to work on. Working up arrangements is a very valuable experience and is a great vehicle to put some of the theory outlined in this book into practice. There are many venues for novice bands to perform throughout the country, many of them run by local bluegrass associations. I’ve found these to comprise really friendly folks and really receptive audiences.
There are two ways of organizing a Bluegrass band. The first is where there is one or more bandleader and the rest are side-people. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys is a good example, and there are many others. The second is the formation of a democratic band where everybody gets a vote. Blue Highway is an example of a democratic band.
There are advantages to each approach, and obviously if there is somebody in the band that has established name recognition, it is usually better to go with the bandleader approach. In addition, having a bandleader in the band to break ties and establish a vision for the band can really help move things forward in a very clear way.
Organizing a band as a democracy can work well too, although you ought to be prepared for at least a little bit of band drama as the group transitions thru the “storming” phase. An additional concern is that it is often difficult to fire a member of a democratic band, especially if friendships are involved. On the plus side however, a democratic band can be a lot of fun and can be a preferred structure for non-professional groups and pro groups alike.
A great way to get started as a band is to look for opportunities to play on stage in front of an audience. Just about every locality that I am familiar with has either a bluegrass association or local gathering that features performances of Bluegrass bands on a periodic basis (usually monthly). These typically feature a formal stage show, complete with a sound system either before or after a jam. Although these events are almost always unpaid, they are an excellent way for a band to hone their stage show in front of a live (and usually quite sympathetic) audience.
Once a band has gotten a pretty good show together, it is time to play local venues. I’ve found that there are plenty of places to perform in public as a local band for (probably not very much) pay. These opportunities range from publicly funded events at parks and libraries to a Saturday afternoon performance at a nursery or winery. There are always local taverns to play as well, many featuring Bluegrass music.
When playing for money in local establishments, it is always good to keep a business perspective in mind – not only for the band but for the business that is hiring you too. For example, if playing a bar or tavern, you’ll be expected (over time) to bring in additional people over what would have been a normal sized crowd for that establishment at that time of day. If you are not bringing in enough to cover what the band is getting paid (either through extra food and drink revenue or a cover charge) then your days are probably numbered even if you are the next J. D. Crowe in banjo prowess. However if you are playing at a hardware store or a nursery, you are in a much better negotiating position – the intent is usually to improve the atmosphere and make people think the store or business is a cool place to be – these things are much more difficult for the owner to measure in terms of pay-back and you are probably safe charging as much as you can possibly get away with for these gigs.
Many bands move from playing local establishments to becoming regionally recognized bands by performing at bluegrass festivals. Getting selected for the bill as a regional band at a festival is usually not that easy and varies tremendously with each festival. It is best to ask around and gather some ‘local knowledge’ as to how others were selected in the past to perform at a given venue. For example, one well-known festival in the Pacific Northwest sponsors a jam and concert in a small town near the festival grounds each month and selects the regional bands based on their performance at the November event. This is not advertised or written anywhere on their web site. If you didn’t know about this practice (or perhaps showed up in December at the jam instead, hoping to impress), you would not get to play on this stage unless you are part of a nationally recognized professional band. Needless to say, as this practice became known by word-of-mouth, the November jam has gotten very popular with local bands.
Another good way to get hired as a local band by a bluegrass festival is to enter a band contest associated with the festival – many of these are advertised as “the” way to get to play on stage with the big acts (assuming you win). Yet another way is thru the “inside” track: Knowing a board member of the festival team can at least lead to your band being brought up for discussion. And, it does often help to know who does the hiring of regional bands. Trying to influence this person directly rarely works, but it is always good to know the mechanics of things as you wind your way thru the bureaucracy that inevitably exists as part of any festival. Having a good package is also essential – and we will cover this later in the chapter.
Probably the best way to advance to regional status and start playing festivals is to build a following. Festival promoters and talent buyers will always ask the question, “How many people will this band bring in?” There are many different strategies of building a following, and all the successful ones involve a combination of marketing (through social media these days), knowing the type of people in your audience and playing to their expectations as well as obviously having a high-quality offering of great music and entertainment. We will explore this quite a bit more in the next chapter.
Every successful band that I am familiar with has a highly disciplined routine for band practices. Each band is a bit different, but there are some important common elements:
- If at all possible, it is best to have a regular set day of week (or month) and time for practices.
- Business meeting: I find it important to start or end with business (non-musical) issues. This will give a chance to discuss goals, grievances and communicate the state of the band’s business health to the rest of the team
- Record all practices: Band members can take the recording home for further practice and analysis
- Have a pre-set agenda for which tunes will be worked on. Have people come to the practice with specific ideas for arrangements.
- You may want to consider a separate, focused vocal practice, especially if not all the members sing. Vocal arrangements can be tricky and need lots of time and practice to iron the bugs out, and it can be tiresome and tedious for non-singing members of the band to just sit and listen.
There are many successful strategies that bands have used in making the transition from regional to professional (national) acts. Here, we will give a few key factors and guidelines that might get you started in the Bluegrass industry.
One of the most frequent obstacles that bands encounter in attempting to go pro is that members tend to want to keep their day jobs and not commit fully to a Bluegrass band as a primary bread-winning source of income. In many (most?) cases, keeping the day job is a wise strategy financially, but can inhibit a band from going professional pretty dramatically. There are a few well-known exceptions to this (such as the Seldom Scene in the early days) but these are rare. There are also very fine well-established bands that have achieved national recognition already and where most or all of the members have day jobs, but, necessarily, these bands are not playing over 100 dates a year all over the country.
Assuming you’ve made the decision to go full-time with your regional band, one extremely helpful thing to do is to get a sponsor. It would be optimal for your potential sponsor to be someone with some name recognition, and someone who can open doors for you. Likely candidates include currently well-known Bluegrass performers that make their home in your locality. If your band is high profile in the local Bluegrass scene, it won’t escape notice of the bluegrass pros in your area and most of these folks are more than willing to help up-and-coming talent from their hometown.
Note that many of the new bands that are currently up-and-coming on the Bluegrass scene have a sponsor. This is a person who has helped them line up deals with record labels and recommended them to Bluegrass festival promoters. And yes, you will need product – e.g. a professionally produced CD – that can get airplay on local and national radio channels.
Another, perhaps more frequently used strategy applies to an individual musician “going pro” and not the entire band. I know of many examples of national acts hiring pickers out of regional bands, and if your Bluegrass-picking prowess is such that you are getting the attention of first and second tier national acts, then perhaps you can expect an invitation to audition for a position in one of these bands.
A marketing package for your band is an essential tool whether you are a local or regional band. Most packages that I’ve seen consist of a cover letter and a band information sheet, detailing facts about the band and its members. There is also often a press release of some sort as well as a demo CD and a professionally done band picture included in the package. Other essentials include a band web site and a Facebook page showing, at a minimum, a schedule and some facts about the band. Almost all pro bands have a publicist and an agent as well as a record company A&R and promotion people pulling for them, and each plays a vital role in packaging the act. We will cover these roles in a later in this section.
The lion’s share of gigs played by local bands does not rely on contracts to set terms. There is usually a word-of-mouth agreement and in 90+% of the cases, this suffices. However, without a contract, the risk is almost always higher for the band than it is for the hiring establishment. I have seen several instances of bands, travelling many hours, only to find a light crowd and the owner cutting back their gig to only one set with, perhaps, half the agreed-upon amount in pay. This situation can be avoided with a cancellation clause in a contract. There are also some finer points such as liability disclaimers, guest lists, and other amenities that would favor the band. I will hasten to add, however, that low paying local gigs hosted by tavern owners rarely feature contracts, and most proprietors will refuse to sign them anyway. For local bands, this usually isn’t an issue as the opportunity costs of committing to the gig aren’t that high, especially if the venue is close by the band’s base of operations.
As your act becomes more in-demand, the playing field will even out considerably between you and the purchaser of your show. In addition to getting significantly more money, you can start to ask for a dressing room, a hot meal, and an escort to and from the airport, your brand of beer on ice 30 minutes before sound check… really anything is negotiable. You’ll want to take a non-refundable deposit 30 days in advance and have explicit cancelation terms for things like force majeure (acts of god) and other potentially unforeseen circumstances. I’ve even seen the right to cancel written into a contract in the event of the artist receiving a better venue to perform that night. Yes, if you are a big star, you can ask for anything.
YouTube and Social Media
It is impossible to overstate the importance of video assets for your band. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all continuously viewed by talent buyers and industry professionals, looking for the next big thing. A professionally done set of videos can do much more for a band than a CD or even a very well-prepared sales package. Promoters and talent buyers have come to rely on video when hiring bands which gives much more information about your act than just about any other format. Good videographers can be hired at reasonable prices, and whether they film you at concert / festival venues or produce a music video for your band, it is an essential investment.
In addition to professionally produced video assets, current real-time videos on both your Facebook page and your website will keep your image fresh and appealing. The number of video views is available for all your potential customers to see, and a high number of views is an indication of strong engagement with your fanbase. Promoters love to see that (along with thousands of Facebook likes on your page).
It is fairly easy to take a cell phone video, using an editing program such as iMovie to produce different artificial camera windows and motion and make a very convincing video in a short amount of time. I would not substitute professionally produced video with this approach, but it will do in a pinch and can be used to continually keep your webpage / Facebook page full of fresh video material with essentially zero cost. Also, as mentioned previously in this book, setting up a smartphone-based Facebook live session for each and every gig (with the phone’s camera in the audience pointing at the band) is not a bad way to gain engagement with your fanbase. And it will provide a permanent record of your gig to be studied and scrutinized later for improvements.
Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites can serve the role of getting your band an on-line presence. However, it is still important to have a professional looking web site for your band. These will typically contain a band overview description (with professional looking photos), an on line calendar and a section where people can see and hear your music videos. In addition, your website should have a way for people to download high resolution photos of the band and a press kit. Finally it is important to have a way for people to contact you thru the web site (usually by an on-line form of some sort).
The easiest way to get a website for your band is to hire a web developer to create one for you. There are a ton of small independent contractors as well as larger companies that can do this for you. If you are inclined to do it yourself, there are many tools out there to both help you create and administer a website for you. I have found that GoDaddy is as good as any out there and they are very reasonably priced.
BandsInTown and ReverbNation
On line music communities such as BandsInTown and ReverbNation enable you to create a community of fans as well as link in to other bands and venues on line. They both feature on-line calendars which can easily be linked to your social media (e.g. Facebook) band web pages as well as your band’s webpage. I use BandsInTown for this purpose and I only need to update the band’s calendar in one place – it is replicated to my band’s website and Facebook automatically. They are both free, I’d highly recommend checking out both.
CD sales have plummeted in recent years, replaced primarily
by streaming music. Making a CD can
still be important for a band and working with a record label has other
benefits including sponsorship, marketing and publicity. If your band is not ready for a major label,
a good alternative is to work with a local studio (or a home studio) to produce
your own CD. The physical CD can still
be an important promotional vehicle for your band, and it is usually worth the
$3-5000 (or more) that needs to be spent for a professional quality product –
although you should not expect anywhere near full return of the money thru CD
sales. There are lots more that you need
to know about when you make a CD – copyrighting your songs, paying mechanical
royalties and getting distribution. This
will be covered in detail in the Music Licensing section.
Section IV: The Bluegrass Band (you are here)
 There are rare taverns that are owned by people that just love Bluegrass music. These folks probably will be much more forgiving if the till doesn’t become quite as full when your band plays.