Personnel changes in your band

In the previous column, I attempted to put the important steps any new band has to take into some kind of logical order. It’s not my intention to cover each one of these step-by-step, which is probably a good thing because I’m just not that organized. However, I did want to address one issue that I conveniently glossed over last week, which I had down as item #3 on my list. It read: “Fire the mandolin player because he’s a nutbar and may have a criminal record.”

This was probably not the most sensitive way to introduce the concept of band personnel changes, and the mandolin player referred to was simply a hypothetical example. It is true, however, that if one of your band members is completely off his/her rocker, the statistical odds are that person will play an instrument that’s tuned in 5ths. I cite the New England Journal of Medicine article of April, 1997 by Dr. Barry Throness entitled: “Stringed Instruments Tuned in 5ths and Sociopathic Tendencies: Why Johnny Should Take Up the Bassoon.” To be fair, a later study conducted at Johns Hopkins University showed that guitar and banjo players also had a higher-than-average tendency toward unstable behavior and “just plain nuttiness,” according to Dr. Gertrude Quackenbush. Dobro players need their own separate study, it seems, and the results aren’t in yet. They’re still trying to find a laboratory rat that can learn to play Foggy Mountain Rock.

I think the point to take away from this is that musicians can be quirky, and this can occasionally lead to band problems, large and small.

The whole concept of personnel changes is a misunderstood one by fans of bluegrass music, and by others on the outside of the inner workings of band business. I’ve had listener emails asking me why musicians leave bands so often to join other bands in what seem at best to be lateral career moves. It pains me to tell them the truth and shatter their image of the happy professional musician, so I don’t.

It’s understandable in a way that this would be puzzling to people who’ve never had professional involvement in the business. For one thing, and maybe this is admittedly a little naive, they accept the public statements about personnel changes at face value. If Musician A says that he’s leaving the band he had been with for 4 years to pursue “other career options” or “start my own band” or “enroll in cosmetology school,” it doesn’t occur to many fans that this is just putting a good face on the fact that he/she was just fired, possibly because he/she was driving the band leader and maybe the rest of the band crazy. Or perhaps it’s a cover story for the fact that Musician A quit because he/she was just plain sick of working with the other band members. This just doesn’t sound very good in a press release.

This isn’t to say that all statements made about band member departures are false. Some are true or have an element of truth to them (the “I’m leaving” part is almost always true), but the reasons given, if true, are usually only part of the story.

Perhaps if people insist on accepting these stories as literally true, we owe it to the public to be brutally honest. This would lead to admissions like: “The music was okay and everything, but the pay was lousy. This other band just offered me twice the money.” Or “We had to let him go because we found another guy who was a lot better. Plus we were getting kind of sick of his whining.” Or: “If I had to spend one more day going down the road with those guys, I was going to shoot myself.”

On the other hand, maybe the system of whitewashing we have now is still the best.

I notice that we’re all a lot more cynical when it comes to other professions. When someone resigns from the president’s cabinet to “spend more time at home,” we naturally assume this person was fired for bungling that toxic spill cleanup, or we at least figure there’s more to the story than we’re getting from the press secretary. Why we accept all statements by professional bluegrass musicians as literal truth I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because playing music professionally looks so fun. They all seem to be smiling while they’re racing through Molly and Tenbrooks, then they get paid at the end of it all. How could there possibly be interpersonal problems in that setting?

A big reason for the misunderstanding of personnel changes among outsiders is the fact that many people have no idea what it’s like to travel with the same group of people in confined spaces down the highways of North America and various foreign countries for 200 days a year or more. It’s in that environment that the little things start to seem pretty big, like the fact that the banjo player smells like cabbage, or the fiddle player keeps saying the same tedious thing over and over every single FREAKIN’ DAY!!!!! WILL SOMEBODY MAKE HIM STOP??!!  Sorry, I lost my composure there for a moment.

Perhaps the least understood part of the bluegrass professional life is that these people are out there doing this for far less money than fans of the music realize. Here again, many musicians don’t like to acknowledge how little they’re taking home every week, and if you knew what some of those amounts were (think triple A batboy salary), you wouldn’t blame them. True, some are living quite comfortably, but in most cases this just means that they’re making as much as an average member of their audience, and they’re spending that much more time out there on the road with the guy who smells like cabbage to make that money. Therefore, in the absence of strong financial incentive, musicians want to make sure they’re at least enjoying what they’re doing.

Getting back to band self-management, though, the subject of this series after all, personnel changes are likely to happen in your band at some point. Except in rare cases, it’s inevitable. If one of those changes involves having to let someone go against their will, and you’re convinced that’s the only solution, it’s best to take care of it earlier rather than later (and I’m not referring to the time of day; these things don’t hurt any less prior to 11:00 a.m.).

What’s the proper way to make this happen? Well, in bluegrass music, there are 4 common methods of firing someone:

  1. Kind but honest discussion with a mutually agreed-upon termination date (stop laughing!)
  2. The passive-aggressive squeeze play
  3. The mob hit style, leave-them-at-a-truckstop method
  4. The strength-in-numbers committee firing (some participants may be armed)

I’ll discuss these various methods and their pros and cons at length next week, but I think it’s important to say that though there may be no way to avoid personnel changes completely, there are at least ways to make them rare. Here are a few guidelines to live by:

For band leaders:

  • Treat your band members with respect. You were once in their shoes (if your feet are the same size, this could literally be true).
  • Encourage honest discussion of grievances, then try not to ignore them completely.
  • Don’t humiliate them on stage, unless it’s really funny.
  • Pay them.

For band members:

  • Respect the band leader and realize that it’s a difficult job. Then keep the ridiculing of him/her to a minimum, unless it’s really funny.
  • Learn the songs you’re supposed to be playing (you’d think this wouldn’t need to be said, but you’d be surprised).
  • Keep substance abuse where it belongs: in the home.
  • Avoid romances with band mates’ wives.
  • Avoid romances with band mates.
  • Don’t smell like cabbage.

This should cut down on the number of quittings and firings you’ll have to endure, and the insincere face-saving explanations you’ll be forced to give as a result.

Next week we’ll discuss the above methods of letting people go, plus we’ll touch on practical jokes to play on your former band mates, ways to make fun of the band leader that can actually earn you money, and ways to intimidate your band members so they play better.