On Building an Irish Band

Band Management

This is a series of articles on building an Irish/Celtic band in Arizona. In Part 1, I discussed the questions: “Do You Really Want To Be A Professional Musician?” and “Do You Really Want To Do Irish Music?”

In the section on “Do You Really Want To Do Irish Music?” I pointed out that many bands that do some Irish/Celtic music do not really identify themselves as Irish/Celtic. This group includes some extremely fine musicians and in some cases they do a higher percentage of Irish/Celtic music than some of the pub bands. The question is more one of self identification than of rigid classification. This subject will be covered later.

Can you fill the role of the band leader?

Every band has a band leader. The operation of a band can be separated into two parts – musical and business. I use the term “band leader” to describe the musical leader. It is not uncommon for the business/operational part of running the band to be handled by a separate person. The band leader is in charge of the music and makes the final decisions in that area.

The fundamental decision for any band has to do with deciding what kind of band they will be. (I will discuss Irish/Celtic styles in Part 3). This means picking the kind of music to be performed, the style of performance, the kind of audience to be targeted, the appropriate venues, the anticipated frequency of performance, the instrumentation, the time and frequency of rehearsals, the overall repertoire, the set list for each gig, etc. The band leader usually recruits the members of the band and makes sure they understand the vision of what the band is about (more about this in Part 4).

The successful band leader (in a few cases this is handled by two people) usually listens to the other performers and takes their suggestions seriously. Successful band leaders can give good reasons for the decisions that are made and are able to convince the band members the decisions are sound. In cases where the rest of the band disagrees with key decisions by the band leader, the band is unlikely to survive. Respect matters.

Usually, the band leader is the strongest musician in the band and is recognized as such by the rest of the band. I cannot imagine an Irish/Celtic band organized by a manager type as described in the movie “The Commitments”. Even at the elite level, most of the famous “producers” are all world class musicians in their own right. Irish musicians place a very high value on musical skill. Weaker players have a hard time recruiting and keeping a strong group of musicians.

One of the key factors that distinguish pub bands from trad (traditional) bands is that the band leader in a pub band is usually the lead vocalist while for a trad band it is usually the featured instrumentalist. At the same time, band leadership should not be confused with the role of the “front man/woman” who introduces the pieces. It is a wise band leader that picks the best speaker to do the “front man/woman”.

The successful band leader has a strong personality without being abrasive or dictatorial. There is a balancing act between having too big an ego, thus turning people off, and being too self effacing. As a rule, the over inflated ego is the bigger problem because it blinds the band leader to areas where the band needs improving. Excessive ego will invariably drive away strong players as well as making it harder to find gigs.

It takes a lot of self confidence to go on stage and even more to ask someone else to pay for it. A strong ego is essential to handle setbacks and keep going on. They have thick enough skins to handle criticism without striking back. While most successful Irish/Celtic band leaders tend to be “nice”, they all have decently large egos.

The problem with a band leader who lacks a strong ego is the danger of becoming indecisive. A good decision maker considers all decisions carefully and then makes the decision. Failing to decide is usually a terrible kind of decision. Another problem is when the band leader lets himself/herself get pressured into making bad decisions (such as letter a poor vocalist sing too much). The rest of the band needs to feel the band leader knows what he/she is doing.

Most successful band leaders have experience in other bands. In most cases, experience with another Irish/Celtic group is more valuable than just having played in a rock or country western band. Previous Irish experience seems to be especially valuable when a musician tries to start a pub band. Previous experience as a band leader or as a successful solo artist is especially helpful but not obligatory.

The ideal band leader is well organized and has a clear idea as to what he/she is trying to accomplish and has the music and communications skills to play the role of band leader. It would be nice if every band leader had strong business skill. However, if this is not that person’s aptitude, then the band leader has to find others to fill those tasks.

To answer the question “can you fill the role of band leader?” the musician has to be sure about his/her vision about what the band will should sound like, about his/her performance skills, his/her leadership skills, and about his/her willingness to take on the extra responsibility of being band leader.

Who is Going to Handle the Operational Tasks of the Band?

A professional band is a business. They have all the same problems of any business including planning, organizing, staffing, finance, marketing, etc. There are many ways to address these issues, but it is essential that they are addressed.

In the movie “The Commitments”, the band faced a crisis when their drummer decided to leave. He was not only a fine drummer, but they were using his van to carry the gear and the band to their performances. They ended up having to borrow a fish and chips wagon for their next gig.

Carrying gear to the gigs is one of a vast collection of tasks that need to be performed if the band is going to be successful. Usually these tasks are performed by members of the band, but friends, family, and dedicated fans can also be recruited. Band management involves seeing to it that the necessary operational tasks are performed.

BOOKING AGENT – Someone has to find gigs for the band. Even in the fantasy world of “offers coming in over the phone”, someone has to decide if the gig will be accepted and verify that the band members can make it. Often, the job of booking agent involves meeting with venue managers, giving them band recordings, and discussing price and availability. Only a small number of Irish/Celtic bands have professional agents and these are ones either tour or target specialty markets such as the resorts and convention planners.

One key to being a good booking agent is “availability.” As a rule, once the initial contact has been made, the next step will involve the venue manager trying to reach the booking agent. A booking agent that leaves town frequently or is in some other way unable to respond quickly to inquiries is simply not capably of doing the job. The band booking agent probably should have a cell phone and certainly be able to respond quickly when an opportunity arises. Even a 24 hour delay will probably mean losing the gig.

Another key is to be “up front” with the venue manager. A few years ago, one band leader had negotiated a price with the venue owner prior to St. Patrick’s Day, but did not sign the contract until after all the publicity materials and advertising had been distributed. At that point, he held up the venue owner for more money. The venue owner gave in, but refused to ever hire the band again and spread the word to the other pubs. If the final price was reasonable, it should have been discussed initially. (I might also point out that when some venues struggle to get bands they want because of their mistreatment of the bands such as double booking or refusing to pay the agreed upon price).

All band members and their fans should be looking for gigs for the band. Usually, leads are directed to the booking agent to actually make the first contact. If others are making contact, then there should be a process of “debriefing” so that the booking agent knows what was discussed and what else needs to be done.

SCHEDULE MANAGER – Usually (although not always) the booking agent keeps the master schedule for the band. This information is communicated to the rest of the band and to the person doing publicity. If the booking agent is unable to do this, then the web master is usually the second best choice to keep up the schedule.

EQUIPMENT MANAGER – Most bands have at least some kind of sound system they can take to performances. This is usually in the possession of one person whose job it is to see to it the equipment is stored properly, packed and unpacked properly, that all cords and band microphones, etc. are accounted for, and that it is transported properly. The Equipment Manager needs to have space to store the equipment properly. The Equipment manager arranges for the equipment to be repaired as needed.

SOUND ENGINEER – The Sound Engineer is responsible for plugging the system together plus doing sound checks, and controlling the system during the performance. In cases where the Equipment Manager role is performed by someone different than the sound engineer, then it is important that they work closely together.

All of our local bands do their own sound engineering. When playing at festivals and other events where the sound system is being handled by someone else, the band’s sound engineer works with their engineer to get the proper sound. This can be a real problem when working with sound people who lack experience with Irish music. Sound mixing for rock bands is really, really different.

TRANSPORTATION – Usually the various band members will arrange their own transportation of themselves, their instruments and smaller items such as personal microphones. The main transportation problem is to carry the sound equipment which means that someone with a van or truck has to be found. Usually that “someone” is a band member because they are more reliable than just “friends”. Usually.

MONEY MANAGER – Money management is no big deal when the band is paid in cash and all of the money is distributed at the end of the gig. It becomes much more complex when money is put aside for equipment, to pay for the truck, to finance a self funded CD, etc.

Ideally, the band should have a bookkeeper, maintain a set of financial records, pay expenses by check, and keep track of expenses. Most start up bands don’t bother. If the band become moderately successful – good record keeping becomes more and more urgent. VH1 runs countless “band biographies” with sad stories about bad money management.

FAN MAILING LIST MANAGEMENT – Every band should develop a mailing list to contact fans of the band about performances. E-mail is an especially inexpensive way to do this. Someone needs to make sure the sign-up sheet is available at gigs and get the information entered into some kind of computer software.

PUBLICITY – At minimum, people on the band e-mail list should get messages about upcoming performances at least a week before each gig. This is also a way to ensure it is listed by the Arizona Irish Music Society. Messages are sent to news@azirishmusic.com.

Major events such as performing at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts or at the Kerr Center might justify additional publicity work such as sending press releases to the newspapers, TV and radio stations which may trigger interviews.

SPOKESPERSON – The band needs to have one person designated as the spokesperson for the band in case of media interviews. This person should have access to the band media kit and practice handling interviews.

WEB DESIGN – Most local bands have their own web sites. It is not uncommon for a fan to offer to make a web site for the band. It is important that several members of the band know enough about the site, how it is maintained, passwords, etc. to be able to keep the site up if the web master moves away or is unavailable.

PRODUCT SALES – Once the band has a CD plus other things like shirts, then it is important to have someone handle selling the materials and the bands performances. As a rule, it is better to have this handled by friends and family during the gigs rather than restrict sales to the time between sets.

Many musicians resist confronting the business and organizational issues that running a band entails. None the less, they have to be addressed if the band is to be a success.