Dealing with a Bad Band Leader

Q: Since you have travelled and played with many you might be able to shed some light on this: My band has enjoyed some success in our home country, we have an album released via a label and have played the better venues of our area. We are now on our first tour – a three-piece, and well, to be frank, the way the band is run is very loose with times, itinerary, contacts and so forth. Of course this affects morale. The playing is great 99% of the time, but we’ve had to deal with many trials, like being subjected to heavy smokers (none of us are), and no food until late into the evening. Being green and getting things started as a band is one thing. Being miserable is another. Where does one draw the line? Or talk about it without sounding like a whiner?

A: There are a thousand ways to answer this. Much of it depends on:

  1. If the money good. You didn’t mention the money but I’m guessing the answer is no.
  2. If this is a “we’re a band and we’re in this together” thing, or if you are instead a hired hand, working as an employee for an artist.
  3. Your threshold for discomfort.

I’ll talk about all three, but I have to say that a band leader needs to make the comfort of his or her musicians a factor, or at least have a bit of sympathy. I can’t imagine making a group of musicians (smokers or not) crash in a house with chain smokers. That’s not only highly uncomfortable for most people, it’s unhealthy. If the band leader is adversely affecting the health and comfort level of the band, then you absolutely must address it.

It can easily put somebody on the defensive if everybody comes at the band leader at once with gripes and complaints (no matter how diplomatically you begin the discussion, it can get ugly quickly). That said, one person can easily end up looking like the one in the band who complains too much, if only one of you brings these things up. Personally, I speak my mind regardless, if I feel confident in my logic and assessment of the situation.

I think the safest way to go about it would be to bring it up while everybody is there, in a very non-threatening way. For example, on a long drive in the van you could say, “Band leader, not to whine about it, but I had a really hard time with the smoking in the house last night. I was super uncomfortable the whole night. Can we make it a point to have some non-smoking options every night?” or “We need to figure out a way to make sure that we get food before the gig, I have a really hard time concentrating and playing well”.

It’s tough for me to capture the exact wording for your situation, so think through what you want to say and find a balance in your tone. Don’t be accusatory or too forceful and annoyed, and don’t be apologetic or squishy either.

It sounds like you are in the early stages of the road-work game and that means that there’s not much money. If you’re crashing on couches, that means that you are likely sleeping wherever you can. Unfortunately, discomfort is a part of paying dues. I spent years with a band taking turns sleeping on the floor of the van, asking who had a place for the band to crash from the stage each night, and so on. This put us in houses full of animals and smokers – with allergies flaring, eating gas station food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sleeping in the van, camping on the side of the road… We did what we had to do, but it was a democracy and we were all “in it to win it” come hell or high water.

If you are working for an artist as a hired gun, he or she needs to operate at the level you demand with regard to money, comfort and accommodations. You need to set that bar and stay home if the leader won’t meet it.

Your threshold needs to be at a level consummate with the demand for your services, your desire to be on the road and other considerations.

In other words, you’ll have to decide how much you love the music and how much you really believe in the project and this step in your career. It can be a tough call, especially if you don’t have much else going on musically outside of that project. Personally, I was willing to suffer more than most, for longer than most, until I could afford to set my own rules: I need “x” amount of money to leave my hometown, I need my own hotel room… And, of course, everything is negotiable depending on how I feel about a project or the artist.

In an ideal world, the band leader will hear you and your concerns and make every attempt to make you more comfortable. But chances are if it’s that rough, there’s little choice. I assume that the band leader isn’t living high on the hog while you guys suffer.

With regard to itineraries, there’s really no excuse. You have every right to say, “Whenever possible, I need to know where we are going, where we are staying (not to mention how much I’ll get paid) as far ahead of time as possible so I can make plans accordingly.” If they can’t at least tell you where you are playing, when and what the accommodations look like (even if there are none, tell him you need to know so you can try and make plans) then that does not bode well for the organizational skills of the operation. Again, everybody has a different threshold for that stuff. That threshold tends to get lower and lower as you age and gain experience on the road.

There are three primary types of road dogs out there in my (over generalized) experience:

  1. The true road dog: This person is just in it because that’s what they do, and they are happy to drive 12 hours a day, sleep for 4 hours in the van and play a 4 hour show, night after night, with no complaints. These folks are a hearty bunch, and you have to love them for it. They also often wind up being fantastic artists with a unique voice and a lot of great stories. (Think Mike Watt or Stevie Ray Vaughn in his early years).
  2. The princess: This person has been there and done all of it, and they know what they want and expect on the road. If the band leader can’t meet their expectations, they catch the next flight home (or at least, fulfill their contract and lose the band leader’s number afterwards. The make every grievance known and expect things to be done the way they want them done or somebody is going to hear about it. I won’t be giving examples here, ha!
  3. The modern day pro: This person has been there and done that, but they have respect for what goes into making it happen, from the lighting crew to the booking agent to the promoter and – especially – the band leader. There’s compassion and understanding, yet they also know what they expect in return for their time and talents, and they know how to make things clear ahead of time to avoid conflict. When asked to do a tour, they know how to lay it all out there in a way that’s straight-forward, leaves little room for interpretation (but is not overly aggressive) how much money it will take, what sleeping arrangements they’re comfortable with, how they prefer to travel and so on. They love a well-run tour/show and everybody loves having them on board. These people are generally a good hang, take care of themselves (don’t drink too much or eat crap on the road) and are exactly where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. They know how to make it smooth for themselves and everybody involved.

I strive to be that #3 person, and a large part of getting there is knowing your thresholds, your limitations and your preferences. In addition, it requires that we develop the people skills necessary to get what we need without causing conflicts. It takes experience to learn what we don’t know.

It sounds like you’re getting some of that right now. How you handle it and the repercussions will likely be another learning experience. Just do the best you can with humility and grace without allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.

Best of luck! Drive slow, and sleep often.

Readers, what has your experience been, and what advice do you have to share? Please tell us about it in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Mellen Cancel reply

  1. All right, but… what if the band leader has proven to be really bad, uncareful and unwilling to hear and give a damn about what his bandmates could say ?

    • In this case, I would say, quit the band…

    • john shaughnessy

      One thing I’ve learned after many years in the business is that you can’t change people, you can only change yourself. A bad band leader isn’t going to get better with complaining. It’s probably time to move on.

    • gene

      Read the article one more time. Is the money good? Is the music worth the discomfort? Are you getting enough positives out of this situation to counter-act the negatives? Make a decision, be straightforward, remain professional. Personally, if there were an issue in a group that i needed to address and the bandleader was “unwilling to hear” it, I would seriously consider leaving that group. In other words the money would have to be really, really, really good. I’m guessing it’s not, or else you already would have made the decision to stick it out. If you do stick it out, knowing the bandleader’s attitude toward complaints, keep those negative comments to yourself or you run the risk of tarnishing your own reputation.

  2. Tod

    Find another or start your own band, Hewik. ??

  3. Mellen

    Our band leader, Joe, isn’t a particularly good musician compared to the rest of us. He’s pretty much a caveman on guitar with little-to-no concept of music theory or fundamentals. He’s also not much of a lead singer, musically speaking though he has mis moments and he’s a great frontman (actually, a typical frontman. All attitude, charm and fire. In other words, often times, an assshole). But as a band leader, he is excellent and our band could never have progressed this far without his business acumen, wealth of public resources and networking skills. The rest of us are amazing musicians (lead guitar, bass, drums) with years of ear-training and diverse musical backgrounds (rock, jazz, funk, blues, alt, etc) and preferences but we may as well be a bunch of autistic children as we aren’t good at business-making decisions. Because of that our band dynamic works. Everyone has their role to play. We need Joe as much as he needs us.