Bluegrass band retention strategies

Chris JonesLast week I promised to give a few tips for band leaders on how to keep band members longer. Or, if that really isn’t a big priority for you (and for some band leaders it isn’t), a few suggestions on how to get rid of them faster.

I’ve been through times of fluctuating personnel and times of stability, and I’ll say that the biggest difference between the two periods was how much I was working, though I’d say I’ve learned to be a little more selective about hiring too. But first and foremost, as mentioned last week, you should get yourself as many gigs as possible.

New band leaders that book themselves may find themselves in a Catch-22 situation here, which can be frustrating. I believe that bluegrass is the only genre of music in which the promoters of shows will ask the artist, “who’ve you got in your band?” It’s a particularly funny question for events that are booking almost two years ahead, since the chances of almost any band showing up with the same people that far into the future are slim. Still, they ask the question, and you need to answer it, even if you don’t yet have a steady lineup because you haven’t booked any shows yet.

I suggest that new artists just make up some names: “Oh, I’ve still got Hank Derryberry with me on banjo. He’s a good’n!” The use of the word “still” also implies that your band has been together for years, even if you just formed two months ago, and he’s “still” with you eight weeks later.

Or, you could take a page from that long old studio joke (which I’ll tell you the next time I see you, if we have a lot of time on our hands):

You: “I’ve got Baucom playing banjo.”

Promoter: “Terry Baucom is playing banjo with you? That’s great!”

You: “Actually, it’s Phil Baucom. He’s a great picker. Been playing since he was six years old.”

If nothing else, you’ll have an entertaining exchange.

Once you’ve gotten yourself to the point where band members won’t drift off to a busier band at the first opportunity, you really have two primary strategies for holding on to them as long as possible:

  1. Treat them decently, foster a good working environment, and pay them as much as you can reasonably afford to.
  2. Intimidate them to the point that their self-esteem is crippled and they no longer believe they’re good enough to ever play in another band.

I would argue that method #1 makes for a better band and stage presentation, but you can be the judge. You may make more money, at least temporarily, with method #2.

Pay is handled different ways by different people, but even if they have no idea how much you were paid to play a specific gig, side musicians tend to know when they’re getting a very small percentage of the net. They also know when they’re working 200 dates a year and still can’t pay their rent (for that makeshift apartment in their parents’ garage).

I once played in a band in which I was paid a flat rate per date no matter what kind of show it was, but then one day on a percentage show, I was handed $13, with the explanation that it was a door gig that didn’t work out. I forget how I did it, but I figured out that the leader had taken half the pay then divided up the other 50% evenly with the band members, which worked out to $13 each. Not only was it lousy pay, it was clearly a double standard.

Don’t do this.

In another situation, I was on a weekly salary (with a band you’ve never heard of, so don’t be speculating!), and one night when a promoter wanted to tip the band to play a few extra songs, the leader pocketed all the tip money, justifying it by saying that we were salaried and therefore not entitled to anything extra, even if that was the promoter’s intent. I suppose that unlike the previous example, there is a kind of consistency in it, but it’s still petty, and a good way to lower morale.

Don’t do this either.

With money, it’s just good to be fair and consistent without shortchanging yourself. If you’re paying a flat rate, make it consistent, unless you decide ahead of time to differentiate between kinds of gigs (e,g, $200 for all festival dates and $13 and a can of Sprite for any percentage shows). If this is clearly discussed at the beginning, you’ll avoid misunderstandings later.

You can also go with an even split of profit system, no matter what the profit is. If you ask band members to accept the risk of percentage dates and play the occasional freebie, they need to also be getting more money when you make more. Then everyone has a stake in what’s going on and they’re also rewarded in better times. Band leaders may want to wait until members have shown some long term commitment (staying with you for the evening show, for example) before operating this way.

Treating band members “decently” and fostering a “good work environment” can be very subjective, but I think in a nutshell it just means showing appreciation for the good things they do, as opposed to riding down the road berating them for an hour after every show.

“A good work environment,” incidentally, was not intended to be a reference to the smell of the band vehicle; everyone has different standards in this area.

If you opt for method #2, berating them after every show is an essential part of your strategy.

It should be noted that if you do go the intimidation route of #2, you’ll need to hire musicians under 30 years old, and preferably under 21. Older pickers are immune to most of these ego-crushing tactics, and it just irritates them, eventually causing them to deliberately make mistakes on stage just for their own amusement. This is either because they’ve already developed some unshakable confidence and a sense of musical identity, or because their self-esteem was destroyed years ago but they know they can still get work in another band anyway.

If keeping a band together as long as possible isn’t a goal of yours at all, yet people tend to be sticking around anyway, there are lots of options available to you.

First you can simply fire them, whether or not they’re doing a good job (see a previous column of mine on firing techniques for some tips on how to do this). For a while there, in the upper echelons of the country music world, it became popular to just fire the whole band at the end of that year’s touring season, then start fresh with all new band members the following year. I think this was due to having mistaken the band for a set of tires.

If you’d rather not do this, but you still feel like hiring new band members for some reason, you’ll simply need to make their lives as miserable as possible, and eventually they’ll go.

In the previous column on firing band members, mentioned above, I also discussed the art of forcing band members to quit using passive-aggressive techniques, so I won’t tread too much over that ground again. I’ll just briefly point out that sometimes all that’s required is to give your band members highly unpleasant chores, like cleaning the band vehicle, driving the midnight to 6:00 a.m. shift across Nebraska, booking all the band’s travel for no extra pay, or kicking off a song in C#.

Finally, though it may not work with everybody, you can just stop paying them.