This is a continuation of the “Why Your Band Sucks” series, chronicling common reasons bands fail and what to do about them. Click here for part 1.
By rough count, Lennon & McCartney wrote 203 Beatles songs. With just over 140 of them being one of the two artists by themselves. There’s no doubt that each was a dominant personality and leader of the biggest band of all time.
And there’s also little doubt that the clash in their personalities killed the band.
Book after book has been written about the Beatles and their historic break up. The story doesn’t need to be told again. What is most important, is despite immense talent and fame, the dominating personalities could not co-exist for even a decade of super-stardom. And whether it’s the Beatles, or some group of teenagers fresh off playing one song at a talent show, personalities destroy bands all the time.
It’s not something most musicians think about. Personally, I’ve been in more bands than I can count on one hand where we gave up because of personality clashes. However, until quite recently I never thought of it any more than “that guitarist is a dick, I’m out.”
Today, I feel I have a better grasp on how different types of people can work together and the importance of the pecking order in a band. Being aware of this makes music a much more enjoyable activity and is really essential to getting anything done.
So while there are obviously so many complex personal interactions that take place in a band setting, let’s focus on the major archetypes that most people fit into.
Passive/Peace-maker (aka – the bassist1)
Most bands have someone who doesn’t like to cause trouble, doesn’t express a lot of opinions and tends to go toward the middle ground on everything. They want everyone to be happy, and put that above their own happiness. It’s tough to get them to make a decision because they often defer to “what do you guys think?”
Quite frankly, they’re a pain in the ass.
Try getting them in one-on-one situations. Don’t push them for opinions, but ask respectfully. They do have their own thoughts on this stuff, they just really don’t want to cause a stir.
If you are this person, try to take charge once in a while. If your band mates ask your opinion, just say what’s on your mind. Your ideas won’t always work, but you need to make yourself heard. And if you see trouble brewing, use your natural inclination to mediate. Talk to the disputing members individually and help them see the other side of the story.
On a personal note, I’ve been this person in a lot of bands. I always wanted the band to work so I’d go along with everything, even ideas I knew were terrible (“We should have Jay sing this song, who cares if he has the voice of a cat with its tail in a blender.”). It’s kinda weird because I’m the type of person who always wants to be right, but I think I’m too introverted at the same time and just don’t want confrontation.
I know I stayed in a lot of bands that were going nowhere for way too long because I didn’t want to be the one to end things. And I came home from practices or shows feeling miserable, but kept going back for more. It sounds really stupid in hindsight, and probably to anyone who doesn’t have this kind of personality. Thankfully I’ve learned there’s no harm in speaking your mind or even calling it quits.
The Loudmouth Troublemaker (aka – the drummer)
There’s often a high-energy personality out there who seems to stir up more trouble than anything else. Sports fans will relate this to Ron Artest. Or in the music world, Keith Moon would come to mind, based on what the public generally saw of him2
The biggest problem with these types of people, in my experience, is they stir up drama between band members. They’ll be out having a beer with the lead guitarist (let’s call him Joe), and if Joe says he wants to do more of the songwriting, the drummer will start supporting them to the point of saying that the other guys don’t respect Joe’s work. Suddenly, lead guitarist is upset with the singer. Next night they’ll go out with the singer and say the opposite.
I don’t think these people are intentionally trying to divide band members3 as much as they are just looking for companionship. Agreeing with whomever they’re talking to at the moment and building that person’s ego is a way of becoming better friends in their mind. They don’t realize the negative impact this can have. I’ve personally had one band broken up by this type of person, and they happened to be the drummer, so I have an extra strong sense of hate here.
If you are this person, you probably don’t realize it because you’re an obnoxious beast and there is no helping you. But on the off-chance I’m wrong, just watch out with getting people riled up. If someone is upset with another person in the band, try to play devil’s advocate once in a while rather than agreeing all the time and escalating the problem.
The Third Wheel (aka – the rhythm guitarist)
In the Beatles scenario from earlier, George would fit this role, even though he was generally the lead guitarist. But he was clearly outmatched by John & Paul.
George seemed to know his place. He contributed some great songs when he had the opportunity, but generally just added his input to what the main guys were doing.
A lot of folks in this position don’t react the same way.
This is generally the passive-aggressive band member who is always pissed that their songs don’t get played. They always think they should get solos or sing more often. They are like anyone but Jordan and Pippen on the 90’s Bulls, thinking they could step in and dominate if the coach would just give them a shot.
I take a tough stance on this type of person in the band. If you’ve got someone who is a great supporting actor but that’s their ceiling, don’t give them the lead role. Certainly give everyone an opportunity to contribute, but if there’s clearly more talented forces in the band, they shouldn’t be shut down just to make things fair. Every band needs people who are there to play a backup role, and as hard as it is, the people in that role need to understand their job. I’d sooner replace a person like this than let them destroy something good just to satisfy their ego.
The Creative Genius (aka – the lead guitarist)
Here’s where things start to get dicey. In the Rolling Stones, Keith would write all the music, then hand things over to Mick to do the lyrics. It worked because each person knew their strengths and played to them.
With the Eagles, Glenn Frey thought he was better than Henley and it destroyed the band.
Slash and Axl? Same deal. Liam and Noel? Yup. Mick Jones & Joe Strummer? Pretty much.
The list could go on, and on, and on, and… you get the idea.
This person wants to be the reason for all the success. They want everyone in the band to play their songs their way. And it’s always “my songs” not “our songs.”
I’ve confronted a lot of these people over the years. The biggest problem with them is they usually aren’t charismatic enough to lead a band into success. They may write great music, but they can’t inspire people or work a crowd. All too often, they are seen as jerks within the group. They’ll be the first to point out you’re playing your part wrong. Rarely do they commend you for doing something right.
The bottom line is, the “creative genius” is an alpha in the band. And if they aren’t alone in that role, things will often get messy. You can’t have two people competing for the #1 spot. One person has to concede and be a 2, or at least 1b. Usually that doesn’t happen.
We’ll get into this a little more after introducing…
The Frontman4 (aka – the singer)
What separates this person from the creative genius, is the frontman usually wants to be the public face of the band while the creative genius wants to call all the shots behind the scenes. But, they still both want to be in charge and get all the credit.
And really, they often are the reason a band is successful. They have that super powerful personality that the fans just gobble up. They inspire people around them. They demand attention.
They also don’t like their ego threatened.
So many bands end up with the dynamic of two top dogs fighting for supremacy. So how do they make it work?
As I mentioned, one person generally has to concede. Actually, both do. In the case of so many bands where the songwriting is handled similarly to the Stones example, the creative genius has to know that the frontman will get a ton of the notoriety amongst the everyday fans. Anyone can identify with a singer, but only people who have a deeper understanding of music will appreciate what the main songwriter is doing. The frontman has to know that the critics and other musicians will tend to favor the creative genius.
And if both parties can understand this, they can start playing to each others’ strengths. If the frontman has an awesome sense for melody but the creative genius is much better at song structure, they can work together to create amazing tunes. This of course means a lot of self-examination needs to take place. You need to seriously look what you’re good at and where you’re lacking a bit. Figure out what the other person does well also. Any places where a strength of one person is a weakness in the other, there’s a great opportunity for collaboration.
What if there’s two of the same person?
I think the Beatles or Eagles might be the go-to example here. Two dominant songwriters.
I don’t think any band has successfully sorted this out for a prolonged period of time (no band that’s achieved any major notoriety) . If I’m missing someone, let me know!
In the short-term, the competition with each other is a great thing. If John writes a hit song, Paul will want to bust his ass to write a better one. Amazing music will come out of this.
The problem is when you start talking about the direction of the band. Maybe one person wants to get into more experimental music (a la the Beatles, or Radiohead as a more modern example) and the other wants to stick to the sound the band has had for a while. Let’s face it, compromise isn’t an option when you have two intense personalities butting heads. This often ends with a lot of feuding and a breakup. In some rare cases, one person will back down and let the other lead the way, but there’s often some feelings of resentment that will lead to fighting later.
So in these cases, not much can be done. However, if you are willing to ride the waves for a while there can be some amazing results in the short-term (whether that’s one year or ten). But in the long-term, you’ll just have to recognize when you get to the point that you cannot work together anymore. Try to move on before you destroy a lifelong friendship.
Where do you fit in?
Like I said earlier, there are plenty more personal dynamics at play in a band, but I think this covers the major ones. Curious where you all think you fit?
- Before anyone flips out, I’m using specific band-members here because, as I said, these are archetypes. And it might help people identify which personality fits which member of their band. ↩
- I know that Keith was allegedly a big force for the Who, but he was famous for getting trashed and destroying hotel rooms. There are tons of musicians out there who just do the drunken destruction part without the contributions. ↩
- Most of the time at least, unless they’re a sadistic asshole. ↩
- Or woman ↩