Why Bands Willingly Suck

Megan McArdle posts the following today:

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, as I reach deep back into the mists of time to recall the new bands I listened to in college, I feel like most people didn’t cut an album, or even play out that much, until they had enough material for more than one short set. To be sure, one or two of those songs was always a cover–generally a semi-ironic one–to the extent that funny variations on “X’s cover of Y” became a running joke among my friends. (i.e. Grim Reaper’s cover of “A tisket, a tasket”). But it seems like now as soon as a band ekes out enough material to keep a crowd occupied for fifteen minutes, they start circulating. What changed? The proliferation of indie labels, the low cost of cutting a CD, or something else? Or am I just romanticizing how much better things were back in my day?

I can’t speak to whether this is new or not, but as someone who experienced this phenomenon firsthand in my last band, I think I can explain. Aside from impatience, the reason a new band will start gigging right away is to begin the long process of building a fanbase. Not everyone is an indie snob, there will be people who like you even if most of your set is 80’s covers. If you hook them early enough, they’ll still show up a few months later when you’re playing more original music. Additionally, the truth is that most gigs a new band gets are going to be extremely shitty, so there’s no harm in turning those shows essentially into live practices.

Of course, I completely disagree with this philosophy. A band should never let on that it, at one time, completely sucked. It should never advertise that notion by gigging a month after the band forms. While first gigs are shitty, it’s best if you treat each one like it was Woodstock; you never know who’s going to be in the audience and you’ll always feel better knowing you played well. It’s ridiculously easy to spot a band that isn’t tight: the musicians are hesitant because their command of the material isn’t what it could be, chord changes and tempo shifts are missed, and the singer’s too busy trying to remember the lyrics to really ham it up for the crowd. This all makes for a terrible experience for anyone who happens to be watching, and it’s certainly not going to get anyone to check out your MySpace page.

I also bristle at the amount of covers that need to be learned to make this work. Your first shows will almost always be solo bar gigs, meaning you’ll have to have 2.5-3 hours worth of material. If you’ve only got 5 original songs, this means around 20 covers, which hurts you in two ways. First, you’ll waste time learning these covers that could be better used writing and learning original material. Second, since you’ll need to learn all these covers in a short time span, you’ll end up doing the following:

  • playing straight covers, meaning you’re not throwing your own spin on these songs, you’re playing them exactly as they sound on the album.
  • playing easy songs, or songs with minimal instrumental and compositional complexity.
  • playing long blues or funk jams to kill time (every band I’ve been in has done a cover of “Chameleon“)

Thus, you’re guaranteed to be playing complete crap.

Of course, my last band is doing completely fine now, as is Georgie James, so apparently there are no negative repercussions for the “gig early” philosophy. Still, it’s something I personally find very distasteful. I simply don’t like sucking, ever. I’m starting a new band now, look for our first gig in 18 months.

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