View Full Version : Leader of the Band

Mar-13-2004, 9:25pm
I've found myself in the position of reluctant leader of a bluegrass band. I've always just wanted to play mando and someone else being the "boss" was ok with me. I'm not really leadership material. I know what i want musically but when it comes to dealing with personalities and conflicts and all the other B.S. that comes up when 4 or 5 musicians get together as a "band"... i'm not much good at any of that. I'm a music person, not a "people person".

So i guess what i'm after is some thoughts on where you feel the lines are between holding your ground to get the sound you want and making the others unhappy... between following your vision and compromising to keep the peace (and the other musicians around). Or, to put it another way, where the line is between being a good, strong leader and being a hard-a$$. Bear in mind that musicians around here are scarce as hen's teeth to begin with... so that factors into it as well.

For example, 2 issues have already come up. First, committment. I want some committment to goodness and practice from this group, though i'm certainly not looking to be a "star". 2 of the guys in the group are older (50ish or so) and have little interest in spending much time with this. If i hold my ground on this matter and require the practice that i'd like to, they're history. If they go, the band is done for.

The 2nd thing is a lesser issue but... 2 of the guys are wanting to do full boat 3 (or 4) part harmonies on nearly every song. I don't want that. I like the quartet thing on gospel numbers but much prefer the more sparse harmony of just 2 parts on 95% of the stuff we do (which is trad BG). Again, do i hold my ground on this as the supreme ruler and dictator or cave to the whims of the peasants? http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

I know this is a huge, huge, snarly, tangly subject and there are no set answers. I'm just looking for a kindred spirit or some stories you might have or free advice. Thanks.


John Flynn
Mar-13-2004, 11:29pm

I empathize. I am in a similar situation. I was in an eight person old time string band where there were a wide variety of talents and goals. There was no designated leader, but one person "self-appointed" himself leader and put a lot of people off by the heavy-handed way he did it. Four of us decided to leave and form our own group. We wanted something that was smaller and we also wanted to branch out into bluegrass and blues and some other stuff for variety. I got elected leader of the new group and so far, things are going well. We are tighter than the old group, we get along better and we already have two paying gigs lined up and some other possibilities in the hopper.

I am a pretty good organizer. As a management consultant, that is essentially what I do for a living. Here is my two cents: As a leader, you always have to understand the leadership style that is most appropriate to the situation. There are several possible leadership styles, with infinite variations, and each one may apply in some professional situations, including being a harda$$. If you were all depending on the band for your livelihood, that would be one thing. But if you are working with volunteers, who can and will leave if they don't like what's going down, the style I recommend is a democratic style. In this style, you have to go with what is most satisfying to the entire group. For sure, this can be frustrating. Some people liken it to "herding cats." But taking a hard line will likely not work.

Think about why are you all in the group anyway. Hopefully it is for enjoyment. So as frustrating as the organizational aspects may be, the goal of a leader in that situation has to be ensuring that everyone is enjoying the group. Once you start doing that, you can develop ways of leading people based on it. It really helps if you all have similar goals. It sounds like the goals in your group are not perfectly aligned, so you may have to work with what you do agree on and work around what you don't. As you say, there are no easy answers. I just hope my thinking out loud was of some value.

Mar-14-2004, 12:03am
In terms of working up the material.... rotating benevolent dictatorship: #The person who's doing the particular song has final say as to arrangement. #

I guess that's the White Album approach. (When it's John's song, the other three are sidemen; when it's Paul's tune - everyone does what Paul wants. etc. etc. #Benevolent dictatorship in the respect that the floor is still open to suggestions from your bandmates, but on your songs, you have final say; democratic in the respect that everyone can be the boss.) #

<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>Of course, the cliche is, the individual who owns the PA has aspirations to be Il Duce. and he/she is often the weakest musician in the group. #When there's a group and there's one person who doesn't sing backup or much lead, and doesn't take breaks, odds are, that's the person with the gear (or booking the gigs).</span>

Atlanta Mando Mike
Mar-14-2004, 4:41pm
I also lead a band-however not in the way you re thinking ZED. I do all the booking, websight, business, organization, etc.. However, musically, the band has no leader. Everyones opinion counts, and eventually a band dynamic formed. One guy is straight bluegrass (banjo player) me and the guitarist like to play bluegrass but also like Dawg material and Jazzy stuff. Our bassist wants only interesting Jazz material because he is bored in a traditional bluegrass setting. The biggest thing I can say is that if everyone isn't willing to compromise some then the band thing can't work-period. Has to be give and take. Everyone has to do things they want to do and don't want to do. Keep in mind that the real reason for a band outside of being a pro and making a living is ussualy FUN. Yes, you want musical satisfaction, yes there may be other reasons, however the one reason most everyone has in common when they join a band is fun. Try not to be a hard -ss. If it looks like the band won't work in a way you like, seriuosly consider the time you have to spend running a band. Most people don't realize the responsibility and time commitment involved.

Mar-15-2004, 2:49pm
I agree with Atlanta Mike. #There's only way a band can have a leader, and that's for everyone to agree on that person. #Even if one guy owns all the gear, all that means is that he owns all the gear; the others are under no obligation to do it his way.

In our trio, everything is democratic. #If I want to do a song, I bring it to the group. #If either of the other two guys likes it, then we do it. #And since it's "my" song, I get to say HOW we do it. #Same applies to them. #I have to play some songs I don't especially care for, and I haven't gotten to play some that I like -- but so have they! #We apply that principle to what gigs to play, how much to charge people ... everything. #In the long run, it works very well. #Even if the other band members say they want you to be the leader, they really don't, at least not when it comes to the *music*. #It's probably OK if you handle the business end of things, but they want to express themselves musically just as much as you do, so you'll never be able to impose your will on them. #Put everything to a vote with the understanding that the losers have to go along with the majority, because they'll win some too. #For example, with the gospel stuff, if 2 guys want to do full harmony on everything and 3 don't, then don't. #Then the guys who want to at least don't feel like they're under your thumb. #They got a chance to express their opinion and simply got outvoted. #As for your situation with practice, you can't require ANYthing. #People are either gonna practice enough or they're not. #It doesn't mean they're right ... OR wrong. #It doesn't mean you're right or wrong either. #It just means you have different wants/needs with respect to this band. #Sounds like you've got a group of people whose goals aren't the same, and it's really difficult to make that work.

In the end, it's more about the personalities than music. #

Don Smith

John S
Mar-15-2004, 4:15pm
Wow, Atlanta Mike not only said it all, it sounds like my situation as well!! I'm also the booking, website, etc., guy, but the band is has no single leader. I certainly voice my opinion but I try to avoid playing the leader role. We're all in it for fun, but we're all serious about sounding as good as possible as well. Our bass player is also into jazz so we have to keep her a bit restrained but also happy.

We've been together for more than 3 years now, and it's kinda like we're a little family. Nobody is a diva, everyone is considerate, I'm actually very lucky. Early on, when we were just forming and playing with different folks, we had to make some tough decisions to let some folks go. But the end result is that now we have a stable, comfortable and fun group.

If you're in it for fun, you have to weigh your desire to make the best music you can against the fun and comraderie of your present bandmates. It's not always an easy task. Everybody draws that gray fuzzy line in a slightly different place.

Mar-15-2004, 5:44pm
Mandocrucian has a good point.

In terms of working up the material.... rotating benevolent dictatorship: The person who's doing the particular song has final say as to arrangement.

Vital IMHO to the sucess of any band is that the members mesh and are all driving down the same road (same goals, desires....etc.) If not your going to have a perpetual "jam" sound whenever you play. Don't get me wrong I understand life's not perfect. By allowing the other members to "carry" there song promotes thier "ownership" in the final product.

Good Luck to you!

Michael H Geimer
Mar-15-2004, 7:17pm
I'm with you guys that it really has to be about the group drive, and not about one person's needs over another's. But, like most every team effort, not eveyone is going to pull the same weight, be it through lack of time, lack of interest, lack of knowledge, etc. #Sadly, The Golden Rule doesn't always work so well in reverse ... just because you do things for the group doesn't mean everyone will match your contribution ... or even recognize it.

I personally find it frustrating that the solists I play with - while being great lead players, and great guys - are lousy support players. Why? [shrug] But, they often don't know the changes, and/or play with a bored attitude, wandering around the beat, trying out 'cool' rythymic variations, etc. In short, things that do nothing to help support the delivery of the lead line. IMO, at least ( e.g. Yesterday a kick-off just kept on going ... all the way through the chorus, until I asked if he was going to chop through his break, or what? LOL! )

I stopped short of giving the Commitment Speech to the folk band, as it would have only broken up the group. Instead, I *politely but firmly* resigned from playing rythym guitar. Then I went and found us a new guitar player, so I could spend my time playing mandolin instead of getting frustrated backing up Parker all the time. New guitarist Dave loves the group, and I love playing mandolin. A drastic solution for sure, but otherwise I would have quit and/or P.O.'d everyone. I learned something ... by keeping the issue focused on my specific needs, I also kept the resposiblilty for fufilling those needs without the need to throw blame. (Well, a little blame in this thread, I guess. ) Turned out being Leader wasn't about telling people what to do at all, it was about setting clear direction by example, and letting the rest follow.

There are a lot of different Short Straws to be chosen in band life - being Band Leader is far from the shortest.

Get over it all as best you can, and then try to get back to enjoying that music! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

- Benig

Mar-16-2004, 2:23am
We never wanted a leader, but sometimes someone has to say "yes" rather than "I'll get back to you," which seems to lose a lot of gigs. I can only speak for the group because we all get along, and I'm speaking for us, not telling them what to do. It works as long as they trust my judgement.

Within the group, sometimes the leader has to start a discussion or voice what the others won't say ("no, we don't want to do that song"), just to get something out in the open. Again, you are just starting or moderating the topic, and watching where it goes. Unless you hire the band and pay a salary, they aren't employees, and shouldn't be treated that way. You have to get people to follow you - a lot of people tell me they are leaders, but I never see followers behind them.

Everyone in the band will have different strengths and different musical aspirations, and usually someone has to guide those forces into a working unit. You have to make sure everyone gets featured at one time or another, to utilize their talents and make sure they know they are appreciated. I'll admit to trying to guide everyone to my own way of thinking - giving everyone music to listen to for inspiration, and jokingly telling them to "keep it down to earth" at times. But I have always looked at it with the attitude that everyone had their own contribution to make, and the trick was to figure out how to make it fit together.

It's not easy - I've considered quitting my own group a couple times. Luckily, I always gave it a little more time, or decided it was time for me to try something new.

Mar-16-2004, 5:08pm
In the end, it's more about the personalities than music. #

This is an honest truth that just eats my lunch. It's all about 5% playing music and 95% B.S. dealing with people and their hang-ups/egos/attitudes/whatever/whatever. No wonder i don't want to be the leader.

Much good word here, gents, and all very helpful. All i want is a few guys with HALF the desire that i have to play and sound good . That's all. Is that too much to ask? The "fun factor" has always been another sore spot with me. I guess most people don't mind sucking and can just play for fun and that's all they need from it. I gotta have more. It simply is NOT fun for me to sound like crap when i KNOW it can be better with some WORK. Fun for me is nailing it down and making it tight. Maybe i'm just sick that way.

Anyway... i'm really frustrated with all this, as you can plainly see. It stinks that i have to decide between settling on a crappy band or having no band at all.

Anyone ever seen a "one-man bluegrass band"? You know, one guy playing and singing to his own backup tracks? I'm seriously considering this at this point. Me, my Rigel, a CD deck and a PA. That's all i need.

Mar-16-2004, 7:12pm
I've been in a few bands over the years,just joined one last month after 4yrs kind of freelancing with whoever needed a mando player.
The first thing a band needs to do is discuss what level of participation the members agree to put forth....how many gigs?what venues are ok or not?Basicly see if everybodys on the same page in the committment dept.
Next thing is to agree on what your product will be...Traditional?newgrass?originals?
The most important thing is to have people who like playing with each other and respect thier band mates abilities.If you've got that,it'll show on stage and will be a bunch of fun too! http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

Mar-16-2004, 7:15pm
I feel for you,getting it right is a never ending quest.
The right people make tons easier and much more satisfying.

Michael H Geimer
Mar-16-2004, 9:05pm
I got a phone call last night from an old friend from grade school. He and I started our first band in High School, but Brian split right before we really got going. He's been working as a singer/songwirter since, hovering on the edge of edge of success for over a decade now.

He's an easy going guy, but as a musician he's also extremely talented and profession. I'm sure he expects the same in return, right? So he tells me, he would turn over a whole band about every year and a half, and that the whole process of finding and culitvating new muscial relationships was one of the biggest, most depressing challeges.

"I'm headin' down this long lonesome road ... "

Thing is, this is a nice guy I'm talking about, but also someone with an expectation that the band play his material appropriately - a good, fair leader. I've played with much more demanding musicans than Brian. Makes me think maybe the whole Band Leader role is the 'shortest straw' in the bunch. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif

This is why I folded my hand a while ago. Penny ante, that's it for me.

- Benig

Mar-17-2004, 6:46pm
I wouldn't even mind so much having to rotate through changing musicians... as long as there were musicians around to rotate through! Around here though we have NO choices. Our bass player is literally the ONLY man i know in this entire end of the state that plays upright! Same goes for me on mando and the banjer picker. As a bluegrass band we are most definitely One Of A Kind around here (gee, maybe i should have used that for our name http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

So even as tragic and depressing as Benig's friend's real-world experience is... I must say.. it's even more tragic for me http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/sad.gif Everyone shed a big ole tear for me now, ok?

Atlanta Mando Mike
Mar-17-2004, 10:22pm
Zeek, you gotta make it happen cap'n. If playing is that important to you and these are the only guys then you just have to bend to their will in the beginning, and later hope you can influence the monster you all have created in some meaningful direction.

Christopher Howard-Williams
Mar-18-2004, 4:33am
The problem for Zeke is the lack of musicians in the area. This means you have to go with the movement more than if you are a "band leader" or "the boss" as such, who does all the management and pays the guys salaries after each gig.
It's the same situation over here and I have suffered the same problems as Benignus (good pickers not interested in the overall group sound and effect).
I have been playing with the same guitarist for about 15 years and going to the edge many times, but for the sake of making music we come back and sort it out - and over the years we have both made efforts to please the other. Sadly consensus often lowers standards. I think it was Stills introducing Crosbie who said "we've had our ups and downs but we're still playing together" - and that's my ultimate objective. Keep on playing in a band context.

Christopher Howard-Williams
Mar-18-2004, 5:14am
The guy who plays bass with us (amateur, no leader, democractic...) also plays as a hired hand in a semi-pro band with a clear leader who selects and arranges all the material, gets the bookings and pays them after each gig. The bass player enjoys playing with us but reckons we would be a better band (more focused, tighter and better arranged) if there were a clear leader making the decisions we are afraid to impose on each other. When the leader is clearly defined and accepted, it does not seem to pose a problem; if someone in my band tried to take over as leader, that would create mayhem!!

Mar-18-2004, 1:28pm
All I can say Zed is put me in your band - I agree with your "how vocals should be handled for trad bluegrass" rule 100%. Heck I might even play the stand up bass. I guess that's the reason as discussed above soem foks keep shuffling the deck, in the hope of finding a compatible band mate.

Mar-18-2004, 6:03pm
We're having practice tonight, Kevin, what time can you be here!!??

Pete Martin
Mar-24-2004, 1:05pm
Zed, if you are very serious about your music, move to an area that has more serious musicians. If you aren't that serious, you have to get along with folks that aren't as dedicated as you.

Mar-26-2004, 2:17pm
You may not have to move. Playing out with some people may allow you to meet other like minded musicians. The ones you are with may come around, too, and there is always the possibility that the more you play with people, your ideas about being part of a band will change. It sometimes takes awhile to get a compatible group of musicians together, but when you get it, their differences may inspire you in new ways.

ALso, if you want things your way, don't be a reluctant leader. Take charge - but in a good way. It seems that I am the only one in our band who can put a set list together - everyone else wants to play whatever pops into their head at the memonet, without considering keys, tempos, song content, or anything else. It takes a lot more to make a good band (that people will listen to) than just playing well. It's also great to have people on stage with you - after years of doing it alone, I would never want to play solo again.

Mar-26-2004, 11:54pm
Zed, if you are very serious about your music, move to an area that has more serious musicians. #If you aren't that serious, you have to get along with folks that aren't as dedicated as you.
Yeah, that's what a guy would really have to do if he was 100% serious about it. I would seriously consider it but the realities of life make if impossible right now. So, the reality is, as you say, to live with what you have now. That may bite but you have what you have.

I must say the guys i now have are trying pretty hard so i sure can't fault them for that. So far they're following my lead pretty well. I'm trying to lead mostly by example and keep my demands on them at a minimum. Also trying to keep it as democratic as possible without completely losing control. I guess my main tack right now is to try to get them onboard with the vision i have for this band. I'm trying to do that more by "pulling" than by "pushing".

And it's still very early. I just need to take a breath and give it some time.

Thanks again to all for the great advice. It's been a huge help for sure.

Mar-27-2004, 1:07am
Keep working with what you have. Our band has been together 10 years. I'm the only original member, but another has been there 9 years, 6 for another, and 2 years for the last member. A couple others came and went; I think both thought I was a tyrant (one told me that, anyway, but everyone else laughed at him). The last few years, almost all our gigs (about 40/yr) come from people calling us. The rest of the guys have said that although they never would have believed it, most of our "success" (a dubious term) came from following my vision - that we could play the music we wanted (not the pop tunes they thought the audience wanted to hear), and if we played well and could convey the fun we had to the audience, we would be accepted. I got fed up a few times, and things are still not done they way I would like all the time, but we have come a long way. Stick with it.