“Don’t be a nickel out here looking for a dime”-Lyfe Jennings
When my friends complain about their relationship status, I always give the same advice: the best way to attract the type of person you want to date is to WORK ON YOURSELF.
The same is true of recruiting kick-ass bandmates. You wanna play with the best? Well, you gotta bring something great to the table.
But don’t worry: it’s not nearly as disheartening as that might sound.
For example, the guys in my new project are super badasses. Collectively, they’ve played with serious talents like Victor Wooten & Larry Carlton, shared the stage with big name country acts like Jake Owen, have gear endorsements, been on TV kind of a lot, and spent years as first-call sidemen in top-tier event bands here in Chicago.
So what are they doing playing with little ol’ me? And more importantly, is this a one-off fluke that only worked for me, or is this something that you can implement as well?
Why Do People Take Gigs?
As the old saying goes: you can take a gig for the money, for the hang, or for the music.
Now I’m on the other side of that equation: I’m the one offering the gig. What reason do people have for taking the gig?
Is it the money? Not at first, though I’m committed to getting it there as soon as humanly possible.
Is it for the music? Well I don’t suck, but lemme be the first to tell you, I am a looooong way off from being Larry Carlton.
Is it for the hang? Maybe for one or two of the guys, but the other three I’d only met a handful of times.
So if the old adage of doing it for the money, the music, or the hang aren’t clear slam-dunks from the outset, how did I put together a powerhouse of talent?
The Three Overlapping Strategies
Strategy #1: The Scott Adams “Skill Stack”
Dilbert creator and professionally-annoying-guy-on-the-internet Scott Adams has a great theory. He says that he’s not world class at art, business, or comedy. But he is pretty good at all three, and the intersection of those three things is a rare and valuable thing (and what gave birth to the iconic and lucrative Dilbert franchise).
Naval Ravikant sums it up nicely here.
Strategy #2: Your Non-Musical Inventory
As legend has it, James Hetfield was none too impressed with Lars Ulrich’s drum skills. But when Lars flexed his business savvy and got the fledgling band a record deal, James quickly changed his tune.
Take a non-musical inventory of yourself. What skills and assets do you have? Are you good at web design? Are you super organized? Do you own studio gear or live sound equipment? Or have a rehearsal space? Do you have some helpful industry contacts? Or maybe you have some money saved to smooth out the inevitable road bumps?
Remember that—in keeping with Strategy #1—you don’t have to be world class in these areas, just pretty good.
Personally, I’m pretty good—but by no means world class—at guitar, business, organization, sales, creating systems, and leadership. I’m passable at web design, live sound, and managing a band’s finances. I have relationships with a ton of great players and industry people.
Strategy #3: Tent Poles
A “Tent Pole” is a great player with a positive reputation. And once one Tent Pole is onboard, everything else gets easier.
It doesn’t even have to be a musician—it could be an agent, manager, event planner, or investor.1
The main idea is that your project should legitimately seem like A Thing That Is Absolutely Going To Happen, not some fanciful wish. You’re not asking if they want to join some vague nebulous pipe dream led by another flaky musician. You’re saying, “hey, this train is about to pull out of the station, and we’d love it if you were onboard with us.”
Multiple Tent Poles are greater than the sum of their parts! Use one to get two, use two to get three, and it’s all downhill from there. It’s pretty freaking easy to get buy-in from someone when you can say, “hey I’m starting a band with these two musicians you love working with. Oh, and we have an agent lined up.”
To sum up: use your Skill Stack to get the first Tent Pole, and everything gets easier from there.
The Strategies In Action
Ok, with all this said, let’s look at exactly what I did to recruit the guys in my new project. To keep this from getting overly long, I’m gonna switch to bullet points here.
- ~6 years ago I did a tour where an a cappella band opened for us. One of the singers was also a guitar player, and we spent a bunch of time trading tunes backstage, on tour buses, and in hotel lobbies. A year or so after that, he moved to town.
- We’ve been gigging together for four years now. He’s my go-to singer for any and all things—sings his ass off, phenomenally versatile, easy to work with, professional, solid guitarist, and fun to hang out with.
- ~2 years ago, another singer friend called me to play in a new country band. I really loved working with the bassist, drummer, and fiddle/guitar player. But after a couple gigs, the singer got too busy with other things and the band sort of withered on the vine.
- So I called the country band singer, told him what I wanted to do. In effect, I didn’t want him to think I was sneaking around trying to poach2 “his” band. (He still plays in a tribute band with those same guys). I also asked him for their agent’s contact info—I knew it would be easier to manage schedules that way.
- From there, I contacted the bassist, drummer, and fiddler individually and pitched them my idea.34
- The fiddle player seemed the most receptive, so I started with him.
- I said something like, “Hey, clearly there was some chemistry onstage. Bummer that the singer had to bail. But I work with another singer who’s AMAZING. Come play a gig with us.”
- We did a low-key bar gig as a trio that was an absolute blast. Afterward, I told him about the band we were building, and asked if he was interested. I also mentioned that I want to use the great drummer & bassist we had worked with in the country band (that he still works with in the tribute band).5
- With the fiddle player firmly on board, I called the drummer and told him I was putting together a band with 1) the fiddle player he loves working with and 2) a really great singer I know. Was he interested? Sure was.
- With those two on board, I called the bassist. Think about how easy that is to say yes to: hey, wanna join a band with three guys you really enjoy playing with and one dude that I enthusiastically vouch for?
- From there, I contacted the agent. I said, “I got your info from [artist on your roster], I’m putting together a band that does [something interesting & salable], and we’re hoping to play someplace like [venue that’s reasonable for a new act]. Are you the right person to talk to about this? If not, is there someone you recommend?”
- (There was a little back-and-forth with the agent where we dialed in our offering. More on that process in a future post.)
- Once we were all on the same page in terms of concept, we asked very specifically what the agent needed in order to start shopping us around (website, photos, audio, video, etc).
- With that list in hand, we got to work creating those marketing pieces. There’s a difficult, expensive, time-consuming way to do this, and there’s the way we did it. More on that in a future post.
- As we fleshed out the concept of the band, we realized we needed a keyboard player. So I asked the guys in the band “what keyboardists do you like to work with?” We picked a guy from those suggestions. Again, think about how easy that is to say yes to: Wanna join a band with five great players you like working with? Oh, and we have an agent already.
Strategies In Action, Part Two
Ok, sure so this worked for me. But is it a repeatable process? Can other people do this? Can people who don’t live in major metro areas do this?
Enter Brandon. Brandon sings in the touring band that I play in. While that band does quite well, Brandon is looking to “diversify his musical portfolio” by forming a wedding & event band where he lives in Sarasota, Florida.
Since we’re building similar groups (and we spend a lot of time together in transit), we’ve been comparing notes, sharing strategies, and building systems together.
Brandon is relatively new to Sarasota, and didn’t know how he was going to find the right players for his band. But one local music friend is the badass drummer from an acclaimed 90s alternative band.
Since that band still tours (and because this drummer always has at least one esoteric side project going6), Brandon assumed he’d be unavailable, but was hoping to get a recommendation.
Instead his friend said “man, I wanna be in this band!” Then he suggested his favorite bassist in the area, who jumped at the chance to join the band. That bass player then gave Brandon the contact info for his first-call guitarist, who not only joined the band, but suggested a keyboard player.
Think about that through the lens of our three overlapping strategies.
- Brandon got his Skill Stack together 7
- He approached a Tent Pole drummer seeking a recommendation, but instead got the man himself.
- Tent Pole drummer got him the bassist.
- The bassist got him the guitarist.
- The guitarist got him the keyboardist.
Think about how easy this was to say yes to, and how much easier it got with each subsequent addition. In the span of a weekend, Brandon went from “I don’t know the right people in this town” to “I have an amazing band just rearing to go.”
While we’re on the subject of Brandon and his band, they use the same practice strategy as my new band. It makes rehearsal time 100x more effective, amplifies the feeling of momentum behind the band, gets you stage-ready in record time, and gives you a shortcut for promotional materials.
Do you want to hear about the practice strategy next? Or the details of getting an agent? How we refined the concept of the band into something that’s easiest for the agent to pitch? What systems we use to keep ourselves organized? Running a band’s finances? Vans? Headshots? Stage plots & sound design?
Just comment below and let me know.
- Caveat on tentpole players: avoid building your band around unicorns. I once had a band with three wildly talented multi-instrumentalists. One guy was masterful at (no lie) ten different instruments. Another (again, no lie) played three instruments at once. When one of them quit, the whole band was done.
- Know what the best players have in common? THEY’RE ALREADY IN BANDS. Is it “poaching” to call them up? Are you “stealing” talent from other bands? No, not hardly. Every good pro-level musician has a “portfolio” of different projects and bands. Some they’re in for the money, some for the hang, and some for the music. And they’re all looking to keep their portfolio “diversified.” For many, playing in a wedding band on Saturdays is how they afford to keep their original band(s) afloat. It doesn’t hurt to ask. And if they’re not interested, ask them who they recommend. Or maybe they’re super busy with the band they’re in. That’s ok too. Let them know that you love their playing and that you want to put something together someday. That’s what my friend Gina did. It took ten years for their availability to line up, but now they’re on an unstoppable tear. Do they still play with whoever calls? Damn straight.
- Important to note: any one of those guys could have said no. It’s key that I could’ve accepted that and tried my next picks. Musically, Chicago is an embarrassment of riches—there’s a dozen monster players for every instrument, and that’s just the people I know of. There are probably another dozen or two who aren’t yet part of my network. Your undiscovered network might not be quite as large, but it is larger than you assume. Start talking to people about your project—they’ll connect you.
- Also important to note: it wasn’t just the music. The key moment when I knew I wanted to use the drummer in this project is when we bonded over fatherhood. I can’t overstate how important the non-musical concerns are. Not just whether you get along, but also things like work ethic, willingness to do the homework, professionalism, and how they respond when things go a little sideways.
- I knew that once he got a taste, he would help convince the other two. Sure enough, at their next gig, completely unprompted, he started talking up how much he enjoyed playing with me & the singer.
- At a party at his house, he told me that he was playing drums in “a Hamburg-era Beatles tribute.” I told him he was squandering the greatest answer to “so what do you do?” ever: he should say that he plays Pete Best in a Beatles tribute band!
- (great singer, in one highly professional band already, runs sound, has a clear vision, has systems in place, etc)