Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Price of Leadership

I fired someone today. The woman who had been singing in my band for the past six months. We had a gig a couple of Saturdays ago and it became extremely clear to both the audience and to us that she was not ready to do live gigs anytime soon, much less paid gigs. I had a long talk with her on the phone today, and I was struck by how people react when their singing voice is involved in a critique - any peripheral issues look just like the vocal quality to them. I told her several times that her voice had a lot of promise, but she kept thinking that we were asking her to leave because of her voice. It's a crazy instrument.

What this entire experience got me thinking about is the strange brew of community that is a rock band, especially one that intends to be paid to play. Professionalism means a lot of things, such as living up to what you and your employer have agreed are the terms of your hiring. You promise to do a certain job, they promise to pay you. In a music situation, very few people in the population have ever been paid to perform music, at least directly, and most of the experience is in amateur choirs or impromptu music groups. In those, the sense of family and trust in the leadership and each other is what is important. When you throw money into the mix, as has happened with me singing as a "ringer" or paid singer in choirs, things change. 

For one thing, you are on time. To every rehearsal, to every performance. Showing up after call time drives directors crazy and will probably result in you not being asked back for the next cycle unless you are *very* good. While you can negotiate in advance if you think the schedule is too onerous (such as showing up for two rehearsals per week), you don't get to just change your mind later on and stop going to one of them. When the director picks someone to be the soloist and it isn't you, and you think they've made a grave error (I've been there), you can't complain although you can ask why they made that particular choice. In other words, things change. 

In a rock band, everyone is a paid singer in a choir, but everyone still treats it like they're amateurs. People show up for rehearsal late all the time. People don't carry their weight in setting up or tearing down. People decide they can't make a particular gig because their SO decided they were going on vacation instead and they didn't have the cohones to let the band know in advance. These people are called "flakes" and I avoid them like the plague. It's difficult to do in rock and roll, but it is possible. 

In a rock band, the ultimate goal (for me at least) is to have fun playing music in front of people who are enjoying the experience. To do that, I have to behave like a professional and hope that the by-product (fun for the band) of what we've been hired to do (in a bar band, attract people to the bar and encourage them to drink by providing a dance environment) somehow happens. The amazing thing is that there's such a strong convergence between those two goals. However, the band still needs to behave in a professional manner. You take the agreed upon breaks. If the owner hates a particular song, you don't play it. You honor the contract. You pay for your drinks if they aren't part of the deal. You don't encourage people to fight (I've seen bands do this - it's amazingly stupid when you consider that a possible side-effect could be someone landing on your PA or drumset). 

At the same time, people play in rock bands because they love doing it. Me, I could care less if I got paid, but I have to be because a) if I am not paid, my "product" is somehow considered inferior, and b) if I'm not paid, I am taking money out of the mouths of people who do this for a living. In other words, by doing something like this for free, I devalue the skills of everyone who is a musician. I never work for free unless I'm doing something as a gift for a friend or relative, usually a wedding or class reunion, and then I insist that the band is paid, but I don't accept compensation personally. I would absolutely play for free were these conditions not a part of living in a capitalist society. On the other hand, I have a talent and skill set that are not shared by 99% of the population, yet I would almost surely starve were I to rely upon it for survival. Thank you, radio, for hiding the value of popular art in advertising costs. 

When  you're in a band, you also have to be able to trust the other members. Things as simple as stepping on someone else's solo or vocal line are rampant in some bands, simply because one person has most of the attention and someone else is jealous. I've been in a band where the guy running the PA thought it was hilarious to delay the mic signal of someone sitting in with the band on a tune, making it sound like they had terribly timing. Ha ha. Another person I won't play with in the future. Musicians and actors are notoriously both self-absorbed and certain they don't measure up, so they engage in all sorts of messed up behavior to try to compensate, thinking that by winning some sort of mind game that they are in fact becoming better artists. 

So when I find a band where I feel the professionalism and musicianship are equivalent to the amount of trust required, I feel pretty fortunate. Having to fire someone to get there is no fun, especially when the person should never have been hired on in the first place. It's also no fun when the person has no idea of what it really means to be in a band. It's hard work, the industry is cruel, the participants are socially maladjusted, you have no guarantee that your ultimate goal (a good gig with a good audience with good pay) will be the final result, and then the whole thing comes crashing down when someone gets transferred to Orlando. 

Yet we keep doing it. We do it because we must. We do it because if we don't, we feel as though there is a gaping hole in the earth right below our feet that we can't see. We do it because the feedback loop between a good performer and the audience is like no other experience in the world, and there is no musical experience as visceral and direct as rock and roll. It's like tapping into the power line coming off of Hoover Dam. I suspect that what I experience is very similar to prayer, a connection to the Divine through the joy and power of music performed well. If I do it right, everyone gets in on it, and that's even better. 

So I'm willing to fire someone who was in over their head, who should never have been hired to do the job we were looking for. Of everyone in the band, I was the one looking out for her best interests from the start, and I was the person who had the guts to tell her what needed to be said. She didn't understand what we meant by "professional" in the context of a rock band - it's that your family can cast you out at any time if you aren't considered to be up to snuff. It is a task I take very seriously, and a task I hate to do, but I do it and I will do it again because sometimes the art demands it. 

Funny that I should think of a rock cover band (one that plays popular music by other people) as art, I know. It is. It's not as complex harmonically as classical music (some, anyway) or jazz, it's not as rhythmically complex as some other forms, but as with all things, the art is in how it's done, not what is done. When it all comes together, when you've put a piece of your soul in the final result, it's art. I'd go so far as to say that it's love as well. It completely and totally sucks that there must be a cost to get there, worse to be the guy with the bulldozer. For me, I'm not completely sure that I have an actual choice in the matter, but at the same time I will endure part of the cost to make sure that firing someone is done right. 

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