The dangers and benefits of the leadership position.
Recently, during a conversation, a drummer I now work with, had mentioned in passing, that some people he wouldn’t name, from my past had some less than kind things to say about me, and particularly, about my leaving bands and starting new ones, apparently at will, whenever I felt like it.
It bothered me for a couple of days, since I don’t remember really sitting around talking about other musicians shortcomings in the past 15 years, but I think it touched me for a reason. I left a huge swath in my wake, I’m certain stepped on many toes, bulldogged my way into clubs, concerts, and tours, and basically made it my business to enforce my creative will upon the public.
I am a bandleader. That is what we do.
A person who puts projects together, and takes them apart, is far more subject to public and professional scrutiny, then professional sidemen, or people who find more safety following the musical ideas, and leadership of others. One of the ironies here, is that a lot of those people are highly advanced instrumentalists and vocalists, they just don’t seem to have it in them to put their own thing together. I’m kind of the opposite. I don’t consider myself a virtuoso at anything, I think I sing my songs really well, but there are hundreds of vocalists I consider better than me in this area alone, and don’t even get me started on the competition for timbale playing, where I don’t even think I rank.
But what I can do, is write a set of totally original material, make it sound absolutely beautiful, recruit, rehearse, promote, publicize, arrange, negotiate, and manage, 10 people, from a group of total strangers, into a tightly knit band, that tours, performs, records, and makes money. I’ve done it several times. And it works. I will spare you the more glowing assessments of my biography, and the awards I’ve received, and blah blah blah. Suffice it to say, that I know how to make it work.
It is a specialized skill set, and one that I found, was the only way for me to get my original music heard by the public. I absolutely adore, some of the musicians and bands I grew up around, and also some of the bands I grew up listening to, but never in my life have I wanted to play anything other than what I was hearing in my own head. I have been like that since I was five years old. I have my own ideas.
This left me with one of two options, learn how to play solo instrument, like acoustic guitar, and make that my life, or, in my case put together a large band, with complex arrangements, and tight presentation.
I did the first one in my teens, the second one in my 20s, the third one in my 30s, the fourth one in my early 40s, and what I believe to be the last one just three or four years ago, and that was actually more of a combined effort from the start, with a good friend, which I wound up having to essentially lead anyway.
Some things you can expect as a bandleader, and should probably not take very personally, because it just goes with the gig, are resentment from other people, sabotage, deliberate or accidental, sudden attacks of chaos, and success. You probably invest things into the band, emotionally, physically, and financially that you will never see back. Every time you are a bandleader, you’ll get a new crash course on interpersonal politics, conflict resolution, and holding your tongue.
A guy I work with on my label, once told me, when I had been dealt with rudely, by some guy I considered a mentor, while presenting my humble idea for a new Latin electronic record label, (Now successfully in our third year) that I needed to be diplomatic.
When I pointed out, that the guy I was presenting idea to, had been super mean and sour with me for no reason straight out of the gate, my co-worker pointed out to me “you’re looking for agreement. That’s not diplomacy. Diplomacy and agreement are two different things”
This is another one of the recurring themes of being a bandleader. Holding several people together around a fire long enough to make great music, even for a couple of months, requires what any sane person might consider an unfair amount of diplomacy. But, as my friend pointed out, that’s what it took, and I am by no means sane.
Also, in each one of these bands, I booked most of the gigs without taking a fee, designed or helped design most of the graphics and logos, directed the photo shoots, and did most of the radio, television, and press interviews.
You might get the impression that I’m about to complain, nothing could be farther from the truth.
I absolutely love all of it. For me it is like snatching down a gold coin out of the thin air. And time after time, I found myself on stage in front of large groups of people, and going home with money in my pocket. I have far more positive reinforcement around the vocation of band leading, then I do negative feelings. But it does take something out of you.
One of the things that I came to understand, is that my outlook on life is very different than a lot of the people that I played with. I grew up on the streets. Homeless a lot as a youth, dealing drugs and getting into a lot of fights, until I learned in my late teens, that not only was great food, decent pay, beautiful women, and travel involved in the music business, but also so was respect, and a feeling of family.
I drew bands around me and made them family, some of them with family dysfunction, and others nearly perfectly, and bands and musicians and musical community, have substituted for the family I never had growing up.
So the benefits for me, were outrageously good. Social mobility, money, fun, great food, travel, all the things a kid right off the streets never would’ve had a chance at, all of these because I decided to be a bandleader.
A lot of being a bandleader has to do with having straight up game. By straight up game, I mean the ability to walk up to a complete stranger, or somebody you do not know well, pitch them with a totally untested idea, and get them to commit their time, money, and resources, to a project that has an absolutely uncertain outcome. This is kind of like a superpower for me, making up for the fact that I have zero skill with math, my handwriting is horrible, and I am decidedly short, and have never been possessed of modelish looks.
Game, was the great equalizer. I also learned a lot about my shortcomings from my bands.
My tendency to stretch the truth, plow through things rather than negotiate, my fiery and flashy temper, and my readiness to fight. I had to learn how to cool my head a little. Or a lot
My ability to walk away, absolutely insulted some people, I didn’t really understand until I slowed down and took a look at my patterns, and realized that some of these people, for some of them, this was the only experience like this, they would ever have, and they placed a greater value on it that I understood.
But then, not to beat myself up, I have to admit the truth that nearly all of these people, went on to play with other people I introduced them to, and that they learned a lot from being in a band with me, as I learned a lot from being a band with them. But most of the time, as a bandleader I was in the instructor position.
Still, somebody who decides to smear and clear the canvas and start over again, can be viewed with suspicion, by people who think, that you are supposed to stay at the same job for 20 years, and that somehow makes you more trustable, or more a pillar of the community. I never felt that way, and when some of these bands had peaked, and were going places I did not want to go, which happens even if you are the bandleader, I had no problem packing up my belongings, and moving on to the next project.
Over the 60 people, that I have been in five bands with, all bands that I started, lead, and sang for, and the two that were very financially successful and still are for me, I maintain friendships, with about 10 people. But then the same could be said for somebody working at a factory, or at an office. One out of 10 is not bad.
Some of the things you can expect in the field as a bandleader, are last minute cancellations, with reasons you cannot question, (true or not) drug, alcohol, and mental stability issues with members, (in my case, including myself at times), incredibly amazing once in a lifetime gigs that you have to turn down because one person can’t make it, horrifically democratic, and long stretched out meetings, where people want to have a say so, even when they really have nothing to say, and nothing to add, and worst of all, occasional jealousy and envy from other members. It’s just part of the deal, and a good idea to not take it personally. Frustrated people, usually take out their frustrations on people closest to them, and it wasn’t you, they’d be taking it out on somebody else. It’s not really about you anyway.
You will learn, in a big band, the decimal multiplication system by heart, you will have to put together travel plans, negotiate riders, arrange accommodations, and create a financial formula, wherein you and your band members can arrive back home with enough money in your pocket to make having done the gig worthwhile.
Bandleader: Moving target.
Whereas you may not get, as much money, or pats on the back as you would like, in return for the dubious title of “leader”, you will have a target painted on your back most of the time. Flat tire? You get called. Someone in the band gets into a fight with the floor staff at a club? You get called. Some band member hears that another band made more money playing the same venue? You get a call. You become the information center for an entire functioning world of logistics, problems, and challenges.
So you’d better love it. I did. I knew from a very young age that a black eye and a bloody lip come with the territory of music, and particularly with the territory of music and leadership together.
I have seen a couple other people, actually navigate and negotiate their leadership position, with different styles
One of them, a young jazz artist is still somehow miraculously running a large Democratic musical entity, (most of them are a little more regular middle-class people, and were not some the hardened, super sharp Street people I grew up with and ended up playing with), and another, who just delegated the hell out of everything, and kind of did nothing, and that worked really well too. Band leading, has to fit your natural social style.
When things work out as a bandleader they really, really work out, and it amazes you, and you get an incredible rush, having brought it all together, and seeing it work beautifully. When things do not work out, your own band becomes a pack of wolves, waiting for you to slip up, or make a mistake so they can tear you limb from limb. Finding out you made a mistake on how the payment was going to go down, last minute, three in the morning, out of town, and you haven’t booked the hotel rooms yet, can be downright spooky.
Not only will you receive a larger than life attention from the press, and the public, but also from the musical community you are essentially point person, for several other people in your decisions, impact their life in ways you might not even dream of.
Introduce a couple of people? Pow! Meet their new baby. Introduce a couple of stoners backstage? Say hello to the new alcoholic wing of your band. You are in a position to effect the state, and safety of every person working for you, and nowhere is this more evident, then bringing people and bands to new places.
Bandleader security: Keeping the band safe.
I had been exceedingly lucky in this regard, because I received hands-on training at a very young age, at staying armed, and not getting robbed. Some of the clubs some of my bands played in were in decidedly dangerous neighborhoods, and while a lot of people laughed at my safety regulations for the gigs, I can proudly say that to date, no one has ever been robbed, raped, physically assaulted, or killed, working for me in any of my bands, and my gigs number in the thousands. A lot of it is basic gentlemen stuff. Never let a woman walk alone in a dangerous neighborhood to her car at two in the morning after the gig. If you’re going to be caring a bunch of band money, no matter how big or tough you are, stay in a group of people until you’re all in your cars and leave together. Never leave anybody behind at a gig, and do a double check before you leave. If you bring somebody to a gig, and somebody threatens them, it is your responsibility to handle it in a smooth, and efficient way.
While regular people, have intense reactions with just a few people every day, while gigging, and touring especially in the initial stages of the new band, you might have 10 times that many intense interactions with people. And it is intense. You want to be a good leader. You want to make sure the band member feels safe and respected. You have to watch out for their money. You have to watch out for their safety. And you have to multiply this by the number of musicians you have in the band, and every manager, sound person, VP, publicist, booking agent, reporter, photographer, and bartender you come into contact with, because your interactions with all of these people, will absolutely affect every one of the band members I previously mentioned.
This can be very fatiguing, and is one of the reasons why a lot of people who lead bands and sing in them or play in them, may seem a little isolated, or even anti-social when they are not at a gig, it’s kind of like you’re just out of gas, and you need to regroup.
My book is coming out in January around my birthday, and in it I chronicled dozens of scenarios you might face, things that I face, sticky situations, unfair deals, and dangerous circumstances, with strategies to avoid them, and escape them when you need to.
Overall, after having been a bandleader for almost 40 years, and having had successful bands most of those years, (to me, that means paying my rent, eating well, making my car payments, not owing people money, and wearing nice clothes) I want to leave you with one final observation if you decide to be a bandleader, or to call yourself leader in any entertainment-based business.
Having a very clear understanding of what is happening around you, putting yourselves in the shoes of others, and being of service, is one exceedingly important side of the coin.
Knowing your limitations, knowing when the situation is unfair for you, and knowing when it is right to make the decision that protects your interests, is the other side of this coin.
This article, is written in memory of all the great bandleaders I grew up around, and the skills that they taught me. You’ll find more information on that, and then in my book, the Tao of gigging™ release date, Jan 20th 2016
Piero Amadeo Infante