Money Lost—and Lessons Learned—From My First Band
In some respects, making a steady living from your music is something of a pipe dream — an Atlantis of aspirations — unless you’re one of the chosen few (or you’re willing to play covers at weddings almost every day).
Selling music is tough, as the market is so saturated with DIY musicians trying to make a quick buck. In London, when you turn up to play a show, you’re treated more like a pest than the entertainment. Most of the time, if you think you’re getting paid you’ve got another think coming.
Almost a decade ago, I moved a few miles up the road to the Big Smoke with the wide-eyed dream of making it big with my first London-based band, De Shamonix. Instead, I learned a thing or two about music and money.
Lesson 1: You have to budget for weekly travel and practice costs
I’m from a large commuter town just outside London. Before I secured a job and actually moved into the Smoke, I had to scrape my pennies together to grab a train into Paddington and hop on the tube to practice.
At first, I would leave my flat with a little cash and head up to North East London to rock out with the lads; however, my failure to budget did leave me in a few sticky situations.
One evening after practice (which then cost £10 each per person for three hours, roughly $14.14 today) I decided to go to the pub for a few beers with the band. I didn’t budget for beers, or for the fact that if I decided to stay out, I would miss my train and have to wait until morning to pay for another ticket back to Slough.
I went out, spent the last of my pennies in Camden and ended up stranded at Paddington. I slept under my bass guitar, stretched over the pungent warmth of a drainage grill and waited for sunrise to come. When the sun rose, the ticket barriers closed and with no money to my name I was forced to walk back home with my bass on my back, passing Monday morning commuters who must have mistaken me for a common vagrant. They were right, I suppose.
It took me four hours to walk back. Luckily (in retrospect), I didn’t have a steady job at the time, or anywhere else I needed to be. The blisters on my feet were a painful reminder that as a vocational musician, you should always set aside a minimum amount each week for band-related expenses — and store away a little contingency cash somewhere, just in case.
Lesson 2: Always shop around for a studio and always do your research
The first time I recorded with the band, we were so desperate to get into a room and lay down our new tracks that we did a quick Google search of places in the area, hastily compared rates and booked ourselves into the cheapest place we could find without talking to the engineer or looking at our place of choice beforehand.
We turned up with high hopes of making a mini-masterpiece, but as soon as we got there, we realized that both the studio — and the producer — were not a good match. At all.
The studio, a lock-up in a North London industrial estate, was okay in terms of equipment; however, the recording room was too small for all of us to lay down the core parts of each track together with baffles and capture the essence of our live sound.
Not only did we end up having to record each track separately before even thinking about overdubs, our engineer didn’t like us very much. We wanted to rock, and he specialized in acoustic music. Fail.
This cost us valuable time—which, of course, meant that we had to shell out more money. We ended up having to pay for an extra day for mixing as everything took longer; the mix was watery and the songs lacked the raw energy we were aiming for.
We managed to get the tracks mastered elsewhere for an extra cost of £150 ($212) between us, which did serve to salvage them slightly. All in all, the whole experience was a costly disappointment.
Always shop around, visit studios and talk through your hopes and plans with an engineer/producer before committing to anything. The cheapest isn’t always the way to go — and as we found out, you could end up busting your recording budget on damage limitation.
Once we recorded an acoustic track with a dusty old multi-track on top of a microwave and I personally think that tune packs more of a punch than the demos we cut in that studio with that engineer.
Lesson 3: It’s okay to drink before a gig, but know your limits
When you’re waiting around at a venue with a bar, it’s okay to sink a few pints between soundcheck and showtime if that’s your pleasure. In fact, sometimes it can loosen you up and help you play more fluidly. Just don’t overdo it.
A few years back, we landed a great gig at a venue called The Black Heart which, if we performed well, promised to lead onto bigger and better shows.
We rehearsed like maniacs, got some serious shut-eye the night before and turned up to the venue as fresh as a collective daisy, ready to rock. The room was packed and everything was just right, which was why we got overexcited.
Forgetting our usual pre-show drink limit of three pints, we celebrated our potential rock and roll glory with a host of weird and wonderful shots — turning our set into an uninspired, sloppy mess. The drummer, the front man and I held it together enough to bumble through the songs, but our guitarist was blackout drunk. He stood there swaying uncontrollably, dribbling into the microphone and playing two notes over the entire gig, which quite frankly, went down like a fart in an elevator.
Yes, we got hecklers, but more importantly we were deflated, embarrassed and only had ourselves to blame. In case you’re wondering, we weren’t asked to play there again. Oh, and one of our members accidentally busted a stage monitor, which left us all out of pocket.
Lesson learned: be professional and know your limits to avoid breaking stuff and screwing up any future opportunities that could potentially be very lucrative.
Lesson 4: Make friends and don’t be afraid to call in favors
This isn’t about brown-nosing, nor is it about playing the game. Being in a band and working your way through the gig circuit gives you an opportunity to meet other creative types and forge friendships.
Not only is it good to support others walking in your shoes and show a little appreciation, meeting people such as photographers, graphic designers, artists, guitar techs and video editors can also help you out in the long run — as long as you don’t take advantage of people (if you do, you’ll become unpopular pretty fast).
When we started gigging, we would keep ourselves to ourselves, play our shows, and either head straight home or go elsewhere for a few drinks. This was okay for a while but we soon realized that our network was miniscule.
In order to get band shots or video footage we would have to cobble together our efforts with mediocre results. In the end, we resorted to paying so-called “professionals “— and more often than not, things didn’t turn out as we wanted.
As soon as we started hanging out with other the bands floating in London’s musical Labrador Current, as well as their friends, we found that more people would attend our shows and by calling in a few favors, we got top-notch band shots, video footage, and flyers made — for free. And we returned the favor whenever we could.
Around a year before we disbanded, we put on an EP launch at Denmark Street’s famous 12 Bar Club, which was a roaring success. The place was packed, the venue cost us nothing and all of our promotional materials were produced for the price of a few rounds of beer — around £50 ($71). It was one of our most triumphant moments and something I’ll never forget.
Eventually our guitarist became tired of gigging and decided to leave the band to pursue a solo project. Around a year or so ago, the three of us teamed up with a new guitarist and formed the Crying Skies. We are very proud of our new sound and the four of us are a well-oiled unit, especially due to the fact that we learned so much from our past financial blunders.
Until you do make it, being in a band is essentially a vocation fueled by raw passion, but if you love it enough (and you’re savvy with your finances), the rewards are endless. The people I’ve met, the music I’ve made, and the bonds I have forged as a result of playing in London all these years are simply priceless — although it’s fair to say that I’ve blown more money than I’ve made through making music.
I have no regrets.
Dan Hughes is a North London based writer with a penchant for oddball fiction, the bass guitar, beer, Bukowski and traveling to strange places. You can find out more about him by getting lost in his Catchy Space.
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