Inside Seattle Rock: All Work and No Pay
Seattle is a good town for local music, and has been for decades. It has lots of musicians, lots of venues and lots of people who will go out and pay to watch a band they have never heard of before playing to twenty other people on a Wednesday night. Seattle’s 240 overcast days out of 365 provide inspiration for songwriters, and they keep the musos indoors practicing for their next gig.
I had the pleasure of playing in a modestly popular Seattle band during the early 1990s, back when the Seattle sound ruled the airwaves, topped the charts and fulfilled the destiny which Jimi Hendrix had so handsomely pioneered 25 years earlier. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains all had million-selling recordings. There were scads of nationally-known influential “second tier” bands as well — Mudhoney, Tad, Screaming Trees and the like.
My band, Sister Psychic, fell somewhere below that threshold of popular success. Nonetheless, we had a good run, and I’ve been persuaded to share some of that experience. I’m going to start by explaining some basic stuff about bands, for any of you who are unfamiliar with how they work.
What a lot of people probably don’t realize is that playing in a band is an artistic anomaly. Painters don’t make artistic decisions by committee. Nor do writers. Painting and writing are solitary creative endeavors, while a band is more like a serious amateur sports team without a coach. Or a paycheck.
Bands are essentially an unstable element which will hang together as long as it has momentum. If it manages to stick it out long enough to produce some lasting work, that is quite an achievement. More likely, it will last for a few months, perhaps long enough to record some demos and play a live show or two. Then, amoeba-like, it will split up and reform.
There is a hierarchy to the players in a contemporary rock band:
Singers or vocalists — there is a difference — are the most valuable person in a band. They are the bands face, voice, and frequently, its dominating personality and spokesperson. There are exceptions, naturally, but no band goes very far without someone to stand up there and represent, especially in front of a hostile crowd. Singers are frequently major contributors to the songwriting. That can be a double-edged sword.
I should mention that auditioning lead singers is like hiring salespeople. They frequently have no idea how good they are, and there is no way to know until they try out. You could be looking at the next Elvis Presley or Robert Plant, but until they stand out there under a hot spotlight and belt it out, it’s anyone’s guess.
Drummers are the most valuable instrumentalist. A good drummer can make the band. Since good drummers are rare, they are frequently in several bands at once, and are the least committed to any particular project. They tend to be mercenary, with good reason. The best way to get a good drummer for your band is to steal one from another band. “All drummers are psychopaths,” my friend Mike Schoenborn once opined. He was correct.
The next most valuable instrumentalist in a conventional rock band is the bass player. Along with the drummer, he or she will hold everything together, no matter how drunk the lead singer is … or when the guitarist’s amp fails, which is frequently.
Guitarists. Yawn. Guitarists are a dime a dozen. There are literally thousands of perfectly okay guitar players out there. The instrument has never been more popular. Guitarists who look cool usually get the job. Never underestimate the importance of looking cool.
Not many Seattle bands utilized keyboards during the early ’90s. Everyone loves a guy who can play a Hammond B3 Organ, but nobody wants to help him haul that 400-pound piece of furniture around.
Incidentally, any instrumentalist who can sing or vocalize reliably is worth double what the same player would be without that ability. Owning a mechanically-sound motor vehicle in which equipment can be transported adds value. Having a place to rehearse is a big plus, and having a PA system more or less guarantees you a place in the band.
Once you have your band assembled — plus a place to rehearse, a PA system, a van and some original songs — the next thing you have to do is book a gig. There are many theories about how best to do this. Some bands prefer to woodshed it for a year or more, writing and re-writing songs, working out parts, and perhaps making demo recordings. Some of these groups never appear in public.
I prefer to book a gig 90 days from the time the band is assembled. This puts you under pressure to get 45 minutes worth of material into presentable shape and cuts down on wasted time at rehearsals. In any case, one live performance is worth fifty rehearsals in terms of tightening things up.
In the early 90s, getting booked in a club required knowing someone. You either knew the club’s booker or another band who could recommend you for an opening slot. Contrary to popular opinion, you did not need an 8×10 glossy photograph, a “bio”, or even a demo. Though a decent demo didn’t hurt, it was seldom the deciding factor.
Getting a first show was the hardest thing. It was really political, and entirely opaque. Club owners frequently hired unqualified friends who “knew something” about music to deal with booking the bands. Many of the club owners were simply in the business of providing a place to buy and consume liquor, and viewed bands as an unwelcome but necessary cost of doing business.
Some club bookers were notorious for their cocaine habits, which they financed by skimming the door (which was all cash). More than one such booker carried a .45 to deal with any band that questioned the night’s payout.
Fortunately, the early ’90s saw clubs like the Crocodile founded, which brought a new standard of club management into the scene — serving good food in a hip atmosphere, booking high quality national and regional acts alongside the local bands, and providing their patrons with a pleasant and exciting experience.
Next time: Playing the first gig.