By Ted Hewett, Culture Consultant at Totem
Of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do in my life, the thing that conjures the strongest memories is hands down my time spent trying to “make it” in a band.
For context, I was in my early twenties, and playing drums in a Death Metal band with my best mate and a group of guys we found through local ads. What followed was the most intense three and a half years of my life; a labour of love that was driven by ambition and a passion for playing live to anyone who would take the time to check us out.
It’s not all glitz
I’ll start off by busting some myths about band life; there’s no glamour in driving three hours to Kent in cars that are barely roadworthy, to hang around all day at a small festival you would never normally attend, to play a twenty-minute set. The rock-and-roll lifestyle is a bit of a fallacy in that sense. And you DEFINITELY have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
But, as I reflect on my attempts to make waves on the music scene, there are a tonne of lessons that I learnt that I apply to my work now. There are also things I’ve brought with me to my grown-up job to help create the type of work culture that breeds success at every level.
A labour of love
As I’ve hinted at, but I’ll now make clear, you don’t get into a band for the money. If I did a calculation on it, I suspect the ROI is deeply negative. There’s a a saying that a musician is someone who takes:
And that’s fine, because I’m doing something I am passionate about.
You do it for the feeling you get when you play live. You do it because you love writing and recording songs. You do it because it facilitates a social lifestyle and rewards you the more you do it. You do it – for the love.
It was towards the end of this band that I started to realise that this IS work, and this is what work SHOULD feel like. At the time I also had a 9-5 job that I didn’t mind; but whilst it was paying the bills, it wasn’t giving me any sense of purpose or belonging at all. Why couldn’t a day job deliver this? Was I expecting too much?
So, I set out to find a professional role that would enable me to satisfy that need – and I was lucky enough to find one.
It feels like a bit of a cliché to say “follow your dreams” or “do something you love”, but I think there’s no better piece of advice than listening to your inner self.
What activities make me happy? What are the sorts of things that get me out of bed in the morning? What truly motivates me? To me, it was making things – across all levels. It’s what I love about music, it’s what I like doing in my spare time, and it’s a huge part of my role now. Really understanding the mechanics behind your passion will help you find a job with the sort of purpose that matched my own experience of playing live music, or at least identify when you’re in the wrong one for sure!
One of the best parts of being in a band is that it’s a social activity. You spend a tonne of time with a small group of friends as you go on a journey together. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that, during that time, I was as close with these guys as I was with my partner (if not closer). There is so much feeling, emotion, and care that went into building the band that it was almost all-consuming.
Such intense relationships have dark shadows as well as bright light, however. A small crack can become a fracture, and a small setback can spiral into what is commonly referred to as “musical differences”.
I quickly learned that being in a band was a crash course in team dynamics, from how to get the best out of people, how to manage a tricky conversation, through to ultimately how to help bring together different people with very different backgrounds, personalities and skills to create something amazing.
With the benefit of hindsight, I know I got more wrong than right, but nevertheless those lessons are a massive influence on how I manage my team today. Often, it’s subtle things like knowing which battles to fight and knowing when to back off, as well as being much more self-aware. The more I take stock and read the room, the more I learn about how to get the best out of the people around me. Individually we all are so different and are talented in different ways. However, together we create something much stronger than the sum of our parts.
New things breed new learnings
If you believe that being a successful band is just about writing great music, think again!
In today’s music industry, you’ve got to be brand marketers, online shop administrators, web developers, community curators, designers, logisticians and event organisers, A/V specialists, and on top of all that, fun to be around.
In our band, we assigned roles and responsibilities for each of us based on our strengths. For example, one would handle bookings and gig logistics, one would handle merch etc. and while it was a system that worked well. Often, we also mucked in to help each other and this worked well too!
What I found was that the more we shared, the more we did anything, the more ideas we had. For example, getting a gig in a new venue with a band you’ve not played with before, promoting THEIR merch and music on your page and adding more value to your following and, when they do the same, growing your fan base as their fans start to become yours too.
Since I moved to a small tech start-up I’ve learned this all over again. Thankfully, it’s much easier now and I’m much more open to it. Getting involved in many different things means you’re learning skills you would never have thought of and that, in turn, will benefit you in ways you’d never expect. As an example, I’m a bit of a whizz at video (and especially audio editing). This is a skill I picked up as part of my band’s music production and video delivery, and a very handy skill for social media, one that I use every single week to this day.
Overall, what I have really learned is more introspective than anything else. I have absolutely zero regrets about the time we spent trying to make it big – it’s made me into the person I am today. And it has left me with some of the most incredible friends you could ask for.
If there is one thing you could learn from my experience, I hope it’s that every experience you have is one you can and will learn from. It’s one that will come in handy one day, even if you do not realise it at the time. I hope you get to have some that you cherish as much as I do.