Dealing with Band Member Turnover

Alex Navarro is part of Harmonix's publicity team, a former professional game critic, a decidedly non-professional music critic, a drummer with varying degrees of professionalism, and a generous lover.

When one enters into the unholy cabal that is a “band,” there are a number of unfortunate realities one must wrestle with at some juncture or another. Be it lousy record deals, even lousier royalty rates, grueling tour schedules, addictions of varying degrees of severity, or just the usual ego-tripping from your so-called "bandmates," if you manage to get your band to some measurable level of success, you're guaranteed to run into one, a few, or all of these situations. And there will be casualties...

I don't care if your band is made up of the cast of one of those creepy 1950s sitcoms where everybody's a smiling plasticine caricature of idyllic humanity, at some point down the road, little Opie's going to develop a taste for smack and start forgetting to show up for shows, or Donna Reed is going to decide you're all holding her back and start up a solo career. Bands do not maintain original lineups forever. Well, some do, but those are the freakishly successful ones where it would probably cost them more money and notoriety to break up or lose members than it would just to stay together and silently hate each other. You're not in one of those bands; otherwise you wouldn't be reading this.

So with this in mind, I offer some advice on avoiding situations that could lead to messy departures, and barring such avoidance, dealing with messy exits. Why am I qualified to dispense advice on this subject? Well, for starters, I've never been in a band that maintained a steady lineup for longer than a year. In fact, over the course of one five year stint with a band, we went through something like 25 different members. Hell, even I departed the group. Twice! Suffice it to say, I've been there.

One of the most frequent problems bands run into early on is the realization of how absurdly complicated the whole process can be. Unless your only goal is to play local teen centers for small cadres of teenage skate punks who are only there because their parents needed a night to work on their loveless marriage, you're going to be working your ass off to make your band into something. Surprise surprise, this realization often does not jive with everyone in your band's life goals, and it's best if you identify and weed out these problem people early on, lest the complicated become the impossible.

For starters, there are the career types. Letting people into your band who are already neck deep in the “career” stage of their life is never a good way to promote long-term band relationships. I'm not talking about your crappy day job selling guitars to 13-year-olds, I'm talking about lawyers, doctors, business professional types. People graduate college, set off on some manner of life path, then quickly realize they never achieved that dream they had when they were a teenager to be a rock star, promptly join a band, get way into it for a few months, then seize up the second the word “touring” is mentioned. These are weekend warriors, not reliable band members. Yeah, I'm profiling here, but if your bandmate makes more than $60,000 a year, and they don't work at Harmonix, you should probably prod the living hell out of them to ensure they really want to commit to this whole endeavor, and aren't just looking to fulfill a passing fancy.

On the plus side, if they are one of those rare, legit types, they'll probably be down to pay for pressing CDs and merchandise. Milk that cow for all she's worth.

It's not just the career types that flip out about the various complications of being in a band. Let's face it; some people are just born lazy, inept, and generally unmotivated. Some of these people are competent musicians, but the second any modicum of responsibility is thrust in their general direction, the whole thing comes unfurled. You'll often find that these types aren't terribly interested in playing shows outside of a 10 mile radius of your practice space, and can't be trusted to do any of the grunt work required to promote shows, albums, or anything else you might be doing. Identifying them up front can be tough. It's best to just throw as many worst case scenarios at applicants from the get-go. Say you want to do a six week tour as soon as possible, say you want to spend all weekend locked in a room writing songs, with only a few breaks to go print up fliers for shows at the local Kinkos, and see how they react. If they balk, you know what you're up against.

It's also worth establishing early on what responsibilities in a band are going to be. Every band has a leader. Sometimes it's multiple leaders, but there are always those at the forefront, and those that are more like role players. That doesn't make you any less a part of the band if you're not a leader, but understanding yours and everybody else's role in the band from the get-go is incredibly important. And you know, some people just might not take too kindly to not being at the forefront. Some people like to be the center of attention, even when their talent level doesn't really warrant it. Some people might start making up nonsense titles for themselves, like “internal band manager,” just to pretend they're doing something more important than playing the bass and boinking the merch girl.

If you see this happening with anyone in your band, do not humor them. Stop this immediately. Even if it leads to a messy blow-up, you'll be better off in the long run getting it taken care of immediately, as opposed to months down the road after gallons of resentment have built up among those who actually do all the work, and those who don't like being bossed around by those who don't do all the work, but like to pretend they do. Not that I'm speaking from personal experience or anything...

Unless you're planning on time-traveling back to Los Angeles circa 1986, it's probably best to leave the party hearty types out of the equation.

Next up: Party People. Unless you're planning on time-traveling back to Los Angeles circa 1986, it's probably best to leave the party hearty types out of the equation. I'm not suggesting every band should be made up of stoic intellectuals who only care about making "great" and "important" music (that has its own set of perils--most of them incredibly boring), but going out on the road or trying to write music with alcoholics, pill poppers, coke fiends, smack monkeys, or whatever else is not the most productive of methodologies. As HMXHellion has widely documented, going out on the road and playing shows is supposed to be a great time. But there is a fine line between having some beers and rocking out and trying to wrangle a speed-addled drummer who now thinks all your songs are 60 beats-per-minute faster than they used to be, or your sloppy bass player who has to lean against his amp just to stay upright because he's been slamming 40s of Old English since two in the afternoon. If you think this sounds like hyperbole, think again. To quote the great 20th century poet laureate Ernie Hudson, “I have seen s#&@ that will turn you white.”

Rooting out this class of character early is tough, since one never really knows how someone is going to act on the road until they get out there. Also, would-be band members rarely come with a resume and a lengthy list of references. Just keep an eye out during practices. Unless your band is called Mickey and the Bigmouths, your bandmates probably shouldn't be drunk through every single rehearsal.

Other scenarios you simply won't be able to weed out ahead of time. Certainly you can judge early on whether or not someone is a good fit musically or personality wise, but over time people change. Once a band starts to make some moves and really start putting itself out there, all it takes is one off-color insult, one moment of inflated ego, and suddenly you're the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It doesn't take long for songwriters or front men/women to start garnering a lot of praise, and the fact is, if you're not one of the two (or both), at some point someone might get it in their head that you're fully replaceable if you're not meeting their “expectations.”

If a band starts to do well, but stagnates in any way, sometimes the members in charge start to wonder what might be going wrong. Hmm, maybe the bass lines aren't interesting enough. You know, the guitar sounds good, but not great. I'm writing all these great lyrics, but the vocalist just isn't cutting it with the melodies.

And god help you if a label ever gets involved. It's been my experience that labels tend to latch onto certain members of a band. Specifically, whoever writes all the songs, whoever is at the forefront of the stage show (lead singer, lead guitar player, etc.), and whoever is attractive enough that no matter how useless they are in the overall band dynamic, they know they'll be "marketable." That doesn't mean that they'll suddenly start telling your lead singer to fire the rest of you right off the bat, but it does mean that the tolerance for any kind of sub-par performance mentioned above just dropped exponentially. What's that? Your drummer is having trouble playing to a click track on these demos? That's cool. We'll just use a drum machine, or hire a studio guy for a day. Oh, wait, you mean that studio guy just joined the band? But how can we have two drummers? That doesn't...oh...

On the flipside to the coin, if you're in a place where you're working with labels, it's probably best to make sure you're really fond of your current lineup before you start showcasing. Because if your singer is a pompous ass that you secretly want to murder in his sleep, you're going to want to fix it before the labels see you. Odds are, a label rep is going to view that singer as an integral part of the band. Getting together after the fact and deciding to fire said member after labels have shown an interest is a total kiss of death. As someone who has managed to bork up something like three different label deals over the years, understand I speak from experience when I say that this is of the utmost importance.

Also, never name your band after someone in your band. You are effectively calling that person irreplaceable if you do that. Unless you want to turn into Rod Torfulson's Armada featuring Herman Menderchuk, you'll do well to heed this advice.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly is the subject of intra-band relationships. These are a colossally bad idea. I'm talking "Oh, hey, I wonder if I should pet this hungry wolverine on the head" bad idea. One of the primary reasons my old band went through so many different members was that close to half of them happened to be sleeping with one another at various points in time. For more on the pitfalls of cozying up to your bandmates, check out Allen’s article. Seriously, don't boink your band members.

Unless you're in Mates of State. Then it's okay.

Anyway, with all this advice in hand, you'll probably be in a decent enough spot to avoid early troubles and exits, but the fact is, no matter how well prepared you are, people are gonna quit, or get fired, or randomly disappear one day and show up a decade later working the Tilt-a-Whirl at the county fair while sauced up on Fuzzy Navel. In those situations, you have no choice but to buck up, get it together and move on. A good, strong band can soldier on with a couple of member changes over the years.

Just try to keep that number of changes out of the double digits.