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Why Do Some "Supergroups" Fail?

It's a sad day when a brilliant musician leaves the band that made them famous. The band is never the same. Some bands break up (Zeppelin, Nirvana), some bands keep marching on (Pink Floyd), but it's never the same.

But what of "Supergroups"? When you take the best members of multiple bands, why do some flourish and some fail? It's clearly not lack of talent, these supergroups are the MVPs of the music world. Stick the greatest guitarists on the planet together an you get a platinum record, right?

Not always.

So what is it?

What makes a band "magical" is the quality of their interactions as a group.

When dealing with projects alone (musical, school, business, etc), the only input is skill. Obviously, the skill of the individual is the primary input into this project so that's what determines success or failure.

But when we introduce group dynamics, the formula changes. Who writes the guitar part at the bridge? Do we add a five-minute drum solo? What is the song trying to say? These decisions are made as the result of negotiations between the band members. The term negotiation usually conjures up images of "playing hard ball" and the like, but almost every interaction is a negotiation of some sort. "Should we add a second vocal part to stress these syllables?" is a question that people skills determine the outcome of.

Musical talent and people skills are TWO VERY DIFFERENT SKILL SETS. Some people have one, some have the other but the truly intelligent musician takes the time to develop both skills.

I'd never be in a band with Yngwie Malmsteen, the guy seems like a wanker bent on showing off. Sure, he's got skills, but I'd argue with him just on the principle that he's so pretentious. There's a reason he's a solo artist.

Have you ever played with a guitarist who heard an idea and immediately said "I won't play that. End of discussion."? Aside from making your head want to explode, how do you think this guitarist's personality affects the quality of the music he'll end up writing in a group setting?

Jack White, on the other hand, happens to make great music with every project he touches. He's not the most technically insane guitarist on the planet, but he writes good songs with good musicians. He's able to deal with the people side of a project to get the best music possible.

If you want to make better music, you must work on both MUSIC and PEOPLE skills.

Learn to listen to your band mates and open yourself up to new ideas and directions. Read some books on management or organizational behavior. TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOUR BAND. You'll be rewarded, both in terms of a happier band and a better songwriting process.

(The new song we're currently practicing I had to be convinced to play initially, but now I love it. You only make progress in a band setting by learning how to best utilize your group.)


The Album is Marketing Material

Last weekend, the band and I sat down to hash out plans for our album release and the issue of album pricing came up.

For those of you who know me, I am never one to be a wuss about price. If you do hard work to create something amazing, you should be compensated properly so you can do it again. That's what it takes to be an artist who continues to create beauty for their fans. Naturally, I pushed to have our EP priced where we would get a decent margin on each sale.

My guitarist disagreed and chose a price about half what I wanted. While I was initially dismissive, I listened as he said this:

Bands don't make their money from their music any more. With the birth of Napster and the freedom of distribution afforded by the internet, the fundamental economics of music changed. Supply of music was no longer limited by physical CDs, anyone who wanted a song could get it fast, and easy, for free. At the same time, millions of new musicians spread to Myspace to spread the word of their art. In both cases, the supply of music became nearly infinite, and the price adjusted accordingly. People still loved music, but they were less willing to pay for it.

Where would the revenue needed to keep artists performing come from?


You can't download the feeling of being in a mosh pit. A limited edition concert shirt can't be heard on the radio. These real experiences, unlike MP3s, are scarce.

In the music business today, the money isn't in albums. It's in merch and touring. If you can create an experience that your fans are willing to pay for, you will be able to survive as an artist. (Assuming you're not an idiot with your finances, of course)

An album is a marketing tool that tells your fans We are an experience you want in your life.

(Props to my guitarist Tito for this idea. He's the sriracha to my leftover Chinese food.)


Rethinking Practice

With the album release AND graduation coming on strong, these next two months are going to be lighter on updates but I will try as hard as I can to make time to keep delivering quality content.

This weeks I've got two great articles on how to practice/study more effectively. With as hard as it is to squeeze in practice time, getting the most out of this time is important to every musician. 

From Jonah Lehrer:

"A great deal of previous work has shown that simply presenting the stimuli to the participant is usually not enough. They actually have to do the task. This is where our group comes in. Basically, what we say is, yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main result is that if you practice for 20 minutes, and then you are passively exposed to stimuli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been practicing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same benefit. This finding could be important for clinical training programs, such as the ones that attempt to treat language-based learning disorders."

From NPR's Piece:

Test yourself: Doing practice quizzes can help you retrieve information on test day. "Tests have a very bad rap as a measurement tool," Carey says.  But psychologists have found self-tests slow down the forgetting of material you've studied. "If you study something once, and then you test yourself on it," Carey says, "you do better than if you study it two times over." (Practice playing your parts unaccompanied, then try writing out the tabs/notation of the part without touching your instrument, mentally rehearse fingerings when you're bored waiting in traffic. I practice right hand dexterity drills using a the side of a pen to mimic my strings)
Move around: Changing up where you study can help you retain more information. "If you move around and study the same material in several places," he says, "you may be forming ... multiple associations for the same material, the same words and so on.  So it's better anchored in your brain, and you can pull it out easier."
Mix it up: Think about a football player who does strength training, speed training and drills. Carey says alternating between different facets of a subject in a single sitting can "leave a deeper impression on the brain." For example, when studying French, do some verbs, some speaking and some reading. Spending your time in deep concentration on just verbs, say, isn't as effective.  (For musicians, practice scales, warmups, technical exercises, soloing, improv, music writing etc to keep your skills well rounded.)
Space it out: Information learned in a hurry is lost just as fast. Carey likens cramming your brain to speed-packing a cheap suitcase — it all falls out. So if you really want to learn, space out shorter, hourlong study sessions. "There's no doubt you can cram your way through an exam," Carey says. The problem is that it's so easy to forget what you just crammed — and once it's gone, Carey says, "It's gone. You're not getting it back."  (One 3 hour practice session a week is nice, but not as long-term effective as six 30-minute practice sessions.)