Rock ‘n’ roll: not sex or drugs but job skills

Photo credit: Britt Gilmer

When I was in grade 7, I started playing guitar, and my brother, who was in grade 6, started playing bass. As our ability with those musical instruments grew, we decided we wanted to start a band. There weren’t a lot of girls who would play in bands at the local concerts; instead they would just swoon over the male musicians. I wanted to change that.

I told my mom, “This band is going to be big.” My mom, once a jazz singer, laughed and said we had work to do before we became a professional band. It was true. I had no idea how much work I was getting into and most people have no idea what it takes to be in a band that regularly gets gigs.

The skills gained from playing in a band can cross over into other areas of work and show an entrepreneurial attitude, as most independent bands self-manage.

Once I was in grade ten, I really wanted to take it seriously. I recorded demo tapes in my house with my brother and got some other members on board. Then I networked.

Before I even started playing shows, I made friends with some people in the local scene so that they would know the name of our band, The Big Man Himself, including people who ran skazines in Toronto and Europe. I knew right away the way bands were hired to play shows in this community of musicians was through networking; the more bands who thought you were professional, the more shows you would get.

We recorded our first release, Packing the Heat in 2005. Earlier that year, I ran my first show. Along with merchandise, like the CDs, the T-shirts, patches, pins, zines and promoting shows came a new skill that is at the heart of many bands and spoken about the least: finances.

When forming a band, everything costs money. Merchandise, even if self-designed, like most of our merch was. Websites (both for the domain and to get designed), travel to shows, flyers to advertise. In order to be even a semi-successful band, you need to be able to have a proper turn-around financially. Otherwise, it just becomes too expensive.

At a certain point, bands need to know how much money to ask for per performance, when to ask for that money and how to negotiate properly. When a band first starts, like any business, it’s going to have to invest money into itself. This includes playing for free the first few times until they build up a following or shelling out money to make CDs without knowing how much they will get back. It’s a risk that every entrepreneur has to face.

The further a band goes and the longer they are together, the more they learn about promotion, networking, and management. I have been working with The Big Man Himself for almost five years and they are now working on their third release. As the primary manager for four of those years, I learned how to be a leader, work with a large group of people (there are now eight of us), design, balancing finances, web design, promotion and, more recently, copyrights, grants and legalities surrounding making music in Canada.

With this knowledge, my brother and I put together an independent label, Dead Tree Records. The best part is, all of these are transferable skills I can take to another job.

The Big Man Himself is touring across southern Ontario (and in Montreal) this summer. Check out the band’s MySpace profile to see if they’re playing near you.

About the author

Jess Taylor is a third-year creative writing student at York University who is pursuing a minor in science and technology studies. She would like to become a fiction writer and a non-fiction science writer. Over the past four years, she has managed and played in a ska/punk band called The Big Man Himself, started her own label, run a zine and much more.