Houston Bands Are Doing It Wrong
Houston Skyline, Photo: Public Domain
If you look real hard around the country, you should be able to find at least one band in every city that’s doing things correctly. If you’re smart about things, you start your band, play locally to get your sound right, and then you start following time-tested methods to further your career. In Houston, however, it seems that most bands are hell-bent on either taking advice from someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or following their own way of doing things, which leads us to where we are today — a bunch of bands doing things the wrong way. Playing free shows, not having recorded material ready to share, not having photos, or hiring unqualified employees that aren’t able to help you actually gain any traction will get you nowhere as a band. Below, we’ll examine the steps I believe all bands should take if they want to actually succeed in the music world. Because to be perfectly honest, this city’s music scene can’t go anywhere if we keep insisting we know what we’re doing without looking to those who have success already.
Before beginning, it should be noted that even if you follow all of these steps it may still take a good while before you actually get any traction as a band. That being said, there are still a ton of bands who’ve done everything right and still have a hard time making waves, possibly because there are a million others doing it as well. Just know that if this is the career path that you want, it’s a very tough and difficult world to get into. And any meme you see shared about owning $5,000 dollars worth of gear to play for $50 dollars is usually shared by someone in a Cheap Trick cover band.
Band rehearsing, Photo: Stocksnap
Step One: Get Good
Let’s not kid ourselves, we have all seen a band suck live. I know that it’s “not nice” to be honest with your buddies’ band, but sometimes they suck. Most bands have this tendency to play shows way too early in this town, and that’s a huge mistake for varying reasons, the largest being that when you aren’t ready, you aren’t ready. In the past five years, I’ve maybe witnessed no more than twenty percent of Houston bands play their first outings like they’re ready to conquer the world. The rest fall into the varying categories of either not having matching guitar tones, really needing to practice a lot more, or not getting the imagery correct. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and “they” say that because it’s true. No one wants to see your band “work it out” in person, so practicing for two to three times a week — minimum — for no less than three to six months is your best bet. Also, recording your practices doesn’t hurt either.
Tone matching is a real thing, and seasoned musicians and people like myself will notice when the tones are off quicker than you’d think. If the drummer needs to tune his drums, or the guitarists are off in levels or tone, or if the vocals sound tone deaf, everyone knows it and it’s painful to hear.
That final one, imagery, may seem crappy to say, but it’s real. While the image of a band shouldn’t matter, it unfortunately does. We live in a world where people care about image. You might not believe that, but don’t forget that there’s a reason the new Macbooks come in colors. It’s of the upmost importance to make a decision of who you are as a band and to get your “look” together. And I promise you’ll get taken more seriously when you do that.
Step Two: Google Your Proposed Band Name
Come on now, how lazy do you have to be to name yourself something that already exists? If this band you’re starting is as legit as you think it’s gonna’ be, the odds are not in your favor that the band that had your band’s name first won’t either send you a cease and desist letter or ultimately win in court when there’s a fight over the name later on. I secretly think this is where the no-vowels-in-band-name thing originated, and it’s definitely where the adding “TX” to a band name comes from. Use social media while you’re at it, and remember that there’s already a band called Metallica — and a band called Battery, and a band called Alcoholica.
Step Three: Play The Wrong Shows First
This may seem counterintuitive, but playing out in the suburbs a couple of times, or at a benefit show at an unpopular venue for someone you don’t know, may be the best thing for every band to do when first starting out. This is not to say that the suburbs have a worse crowd, but the odds of bigger venue promoters or music journalists being at your show is much slimmer out in the burbs. Playing “the wrong shows” will let you get a reaction and tweak any leftover problems you might have, even if you’ve practiced like suggested above. Live music means that if something can go wrong, it will, and the slick moves you practiced in the garage might not go over well when you’re playing at a live show. You can also start learning to do things like setting up your drums before you put them on stage, learning cues for the sound guy on how to ask for more drums in the monitors, and learning how not to act when there isn’t a rider for your band, no matter how worthy your mom said you were of one. There’s nothing worse than watching a band act like they’re Aerosmith and then take twenty minutes to set up their gear onstage. You can also learn how to meet other bands and ask to play with them — before you start acting like you’ve never heard of them six months later.
Photography, Photo: Maria Tyutina
Step Four: Get Photos/Get A Web Presence
I can’t say this enough: photos go a long way. Whatever image you want to portray, photos will make this image easier to comprehend. Sure, you might think that you look like the perfect vaporwave act, but you should remember that those of us who make a living from the music industry are older than you and might not know what vaporware is. Your look will help convey it much better. Also, credit the photographers — please!
There is a trend now where bands don’t think they need a web presence. Those bands are total idiots, and here’s why: everything is promoted through the web nowadays. The only people who shouldn’t have a web presence are politicians and your grandma, and they both do it anyway. You should have an Instagram, a Bandcamp, a Facebook, a Twitter, a Tumblr, a Soundcloud and all the streaming sites too. Stop lying to yourself, the web is the future and you look stupid when someone tells me you’re great and I can’t find you.
Step Five: Record Something
Ugh, how many bands do I have to keep seeing who think it’s a good idea to start booking shows without having recorded material? Granted, the steps above don’t convey that, but by the time you’re playing at actual music venues and not at a bar that happens to have live music, you need to have something for people to hear. I hate to say this, but in today’s easy-access digital age, something is better than nothing, and the fact that anyone — literally anyone — can access these tools for free means you have no reason not to have something recorded. That being said, most people will usually give a new band a pass on the quality of their first recording, and having literally anything out there to give us an idea of your sound is better than having nothing.
In-Store, Photo: Stocksnap
Step Six: Make Friends in the Music Community
You know who gets on good shows? The band that’s easy to work with. Sure, you read somewhere that promoters make a ton of money, but in this town that’s not always the case. When a promoter hits you up on a show in your first year as a band, ask yourself why you shouldn’t play it over why you should. It seems like a lot of bands in Houston think they’re too good to open for a touring act on a Tuesday, when in reality that’s how you get on the weekend shows that have a larger attendance. Being cool with the promoter, not acting like you deserve a set amount of money without bringing out any people you can point to, and accepting your worth go a long way with a solid promoter. Some of the best bands in this city played on bills with less than fifty people in attendance, and music journalists like me saw them before everyone else. Making friends with other bands goes a long way as well. And in all honesty, you could book your band for the next year if you became friends with ten local bands. Being friendly with everyone goes a long way. You may ask yourself how someone gets a song debut in Free Press Houston, or how they get their music written about, so here’s a little secret: those who are easy to deal with are usually who get things first. Furthermore, being kind to a journalist who describes your sound in a different manner than you hear it yourself is much better than messaging them to tell them that they’re wrong — trust me. You may think your band sounds like War On Drugs, but I promise you it doesn’t, so get over it.
Step Seven: Stop Playing Every Week Around Town
Once you really get going, you’re going to gain steam and get offered a ton of shows, and this is when it’s time to decide what to do and what not to do. As mentioned earlier, this city has a ton of solid bands who play way too often. After your first year as a band, start slimming things down to no more than once a month. There’s a power in saying no, and if you can draw at least fifty people every time you play, you can start turning down all of those crappy show offers. This goes for playing what are called “soft ticket shows,” a show that is free. I can’t stress it enough that playing no-cover shows is a good way to kill your band’s career. No promoter worth a damn cares if you drew three hundred people at a brewery because there’s no way to calculate if that actually happened or not. Slow down the no-cover shows you play, no matter how much money you’re getting offered. If they can afford to give you $400 dollars, just imagine how much money you’re leaving on the table. The best way to build a fanbase is to make people want to see you — and pay to see you. Your mom might have said once, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?,” and she was right, no matter how much you hate hearing that. No one cares about your band when they don’t have an investment in you.
Step Eight: Start Playing Outside of Town
Geez, do I have to actually tell you this? As much as I hate to say it, being the biggest band in Houston doesn’t really mean much. And being the biggest band in any city doesn’t really mean much either. Your goal should be world domination, no matter how stupid you think that sounds. The bands that get on SNL, on all the late night talk shows, and on the festivals are leaving their cities behind. Don’t worry, you don’t have to make this difficult. The circle method, which is going out to three surrounding cities first, is the best route. Eventually, you’ll start broadening that circle every time you take it. So this means that playing Galveston, Beaumont, and maybe Huntsville or College Station the first time is best. Then add San Antonio, Austin and San Marcos to that circle. Do this on and on when you’re starting out until you’re ready to visit one of the two coasts. I promise any agent, manager, or promoter will tell you that the ability to draw in multiple cities goes a long way in helping to book a tour. And you’re more likely to visit places within a six hour drive more frequently than you are the two coasts. You should also consider college towns like San Marcos, College Station and Denton first over their larger sister cities because college kids wanna’ hear new live music, and you can grow your fanbase faster if you play to people with nothing to do on a Thursday.
Recording, Photo: TookAPic
Step Nine: Record Properly
Okay, so now you’ve been a band a minute and those old recordings on Garage Band don’t sound so fresh. Now it’s time to hire outside of the group’s friends. This means either recording at home and hiring an engineer to mix and master your material, or going to a studio to make it all. Remember that Houston has multiple Grammy-winning engineers who will record a record out the door, mixed and mastered, for under five grand. So stop going to places that want mammoth amounts of money. Their industry isn’t what it once was, so they’re more likely to record your band for much less than you think, and these places that want exorbitant amounts of money are BS. Also, remember that you don’t need vinyls — you want vinyls — and going that route isn’t best for a newer band. Vinyls are expensive, they’re very difficult to recoup your money from, and you’ll want to sell them at a price point that no one really wants to pay. Cassettes are a great way to sell something physical without selling the farm to get it. A record mastered for cassette and digital is your best bet, and also remember that a solid cover that conveys your sound is better than a cool-looking cover that leaves us all scratching our heads. The cover is a great representation of what the listener is in store for, and pretty much every record label that has success knows this already. You may think that you’ll look like a sellout for following this method, but you already sold out when you took money to play a live show, so stop bucking the system!
Step Ten: Hire Outside For Help
After all of these steps, it’s time to look at hiring someone (or multiple people) to help you out. There have been plenty of bands who hire PR firms before they play outside of town or have a product to sell, and that’s a big waste of money. Those same bands may also have a manager, and that is also a big mistake. You don’t need a tour manager until your band makes money on the road, nor do you need a sound guy or someone to sell your merchandise before that happens. So get over all of that. I’ve seen Lou Barlow from Sebadoh sell his own merch, and he’s much more successful than your band is. Hiring outside forces when you have something to sell and places to go is when you take those steps.
Having an agent who gets you shows around town without getting you shows outside of town is like having a creepy uncle who you always have to give cigarettes to. Obtaining an agent isn’t rocket science; in fact, it’s very easy because they’re essentially all about the money. First, find a band that you sound kind of like that has more success than you (but do this within reason). After that, go to Facebook to find out who their agent is. Now do this nine more times and email all of the agents using the phrases “put us to work,” and “we want to work for you,” and “we want to make you money,” and you’ll get a response, I promise. Make sure that you include a photo, a song, and any pertinent information, including a short bio. If you don’t get a response, follow the process until you do. Don’t email CAA, UTA, or WME unless you want to waste your time, and messaging Billions and Paradigm might yield similar results as well.
If you want to hire a PR firm, just know that you typically get what you pay for, though sometimes even that isn’t true. Before you hire a PR firm, look up their client list and then Google the bands they represent to see what kind of press they’ve gotten in the past two years. That should give you a rough idea of what you’re paying for.
If you absolutely have to get a manager, make sure you have something for them to manage. A manager negotiates your business deals like a recording contract, or if you’re in a Pepsi commercial, or if your music gets into a movie. If they haven’t done that for any of their bands already, then they probably aren’t much of a manager. While managers do more than this, you do need to find what they’ve done first before taking them on as an employee. Remember that a manager shouldn’t get to take two or more cuts either. While it’s become popular for them to push this narrative, just because your manager found your agent that doesn’t mean your manager gets a lifetime cut from your shows. Trust me, you have the rest of your life as a band to have people try to take your money who did very little, if anything, to earn it, so be mindful of who you employ.
Also, make sure you hire a band attorney that you can talk to for free as well. Never, ever sign anything without a music attorney looking at it first, and don’t sign anything without said attorney explaining it to you in the simplest of terms. If you have the money, you might consider hiring a separate attorney to double-check your agreements just to make sure the music attorney didn’t place something in the deal just for themselves. While I don’t know any music attorneys who have done this, there are plenty of tales out there by bands who’ve had it done to them, so be mindful.
Being in a band doesn’t have to be as difficult as some of you are making it. And if you heed these steps, I promise you will make things a million times easier for yourself. As far as listening to your friends about what to do or what not to do, remember that unless your friends are in a band that’s moving thousands of units and touring the globe nonstop, you might not get much from taking their advice. And while this isn’t a definitive list of how to do things, these are all things that every successful band has done in the past.