Signs Your Band Is Failing

By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)

A band is like a team.  You may win some awesome gigs or lose some valuable gear.  But many bands continue gigging way past the time when they ought to have packed it up and quit. Some of the best bands become more like a family than a team of players.  Others may live together and share everything but become as dysfunctional as a soap opera family. Sometimes that makes for great music, but just like a lot of families, sometimes it makes for a nightmare. Based on our observations, there are a few telltale signs that the band isn’t doing well.

Now just because your band falls into one or more of these categories, doesn’t mean you should up and quit right away.  It may be that only one band member needs to be replaced, or that everyone needs a break from each other for a few months, or maybe you just all need to sit down and write some new music that really gets everyone excited again.  If your band can get through the tough times and continue on improving and making great music, you may come out of it better, tighter and more like a family than a team.

Here are the signs, we will discuss each one in detail below:

  • Attendance at your gigs is falling
  • Booking gigs is getting harder and harder
  • Disagreements within the band are becoming more common and bigger
  • There’s not much new music coming out of your band
  • One or more band members shows an increasing lack of commitment to the band

Attendance at your gigs is falling:

As a band improves the attendance should grow, so if fewer and fewer people are coming to your shows, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong.  Now don’t take it as a trend after a couple of bad gigs.  Take into account things like weather, holidays, and competing events.  Sometimes bad gigs come in clusters and you just have to slog through them until the better gigs come along.

Now, that said, if your band really does suck, then it will be harder and harder to bring out a good crowd.  We’ve seen it in real life where a brand new band brings 200 or more people to their first-ever gig, but they weren’t a very good band, so the next gig was 100 or so and the one after that was 50  and the next one ended up being the last one they played at their favorite venue.

What can you do about it?
If you’re seeing that kind of a trend, you know there’s something wrong.  People came to see your band once or twice and then stopped coming.  It could be as simple as you’re over-playing the market.  Who can really come to see your band every weekend? You will need to play less often in that market, maybe spend some time in neighboring towns/markets.  Or maybe the music isn’t very good and you need to go back to the woodshed and practice the songs more as a band.  If it’s just one member of the band, then the others will likely be aware and should sit that guy down and let him know that he’s holding the band back.  He will either need to improve, maybe take some lessons, or it might be appropriate to simply replace him.  If, as we’ve seen many times, this is the guy who put the band together in the first place or the guy who does all the booking and promotion work, then maybe everyone should quit the band and let him try again with another crew or try to “promote” him up to the Manager position where he will do the most good for the band.

Booking gigs is harder:

If gigs were easy to come by when your band started out, but now those same venues don’t want to hire your act anymore, it may be because of the same reasons we just discussed above.  People aren’t coming to your shows anymore.  The only other reason venues might have to not book you would be professionalism.  If your band routinely pisses off the wait staff, the bartenders or security guys, the booking person will listen to them and unless you are bringing in huge crowds he/she won’t want to bother with you.

You will know that venues don’t want to book you anymore when they stop returning your phone calls, emails, etc.  It’s much easier for them to say nothing than to call you up and tell you that your band sucks.

Remember, booking people know each other and talk to one another.  If you’ve been a “no show, no call” band a couple of times, word will get around and it may be harder to get those gigs.

What can you do about it?
Play another market. For some reason, many bands have a hard time in their own market but are quite successful on the road.  Maybe your genre of band will do better in the next city over.  Those booking folks are less likely to know the ones in your home town and there’s a certain cachet about touring acts.  There’s more expected from them and so your signature squeal might be seen as a cool new creative twist instead of an annoying song killing nuisance the way it might come across at home.

And also pay attention to the stuff we said in the above section on attendance.

Disagreements within the band:

Does your band spend more time arguing than practicing? Does one guy want to write only rock-a-billy songs while the others want to write punk? Did your drummer sleep with the bass player’s girl? Did your lead guitar player sleep with the drummer? Have there been fist-fights on stage? If any one or all of these things or similar is happening, you’ve got a problem and it’s likely affecting the band’s performance or soon will.

We’ve seen bands that spend three weeks on the road and then break up as soon as they get back to town.  Touring is the quickest way to break up a band or bond them together forever. Unfortunately, the only way to figure out which way things will go is to tour.  Some guys realize they just can’t stand to be away from home for more than a couple of days and will resign from the band. Others just can’t handle the stress of not knowing if the next gig will pay enough to buy gas for the van or not. Some guys love sleeping on floors or with random girls who take pity on the touring band and some don’t mind not showering for days on end. Mix them all together in a van and problems are likely to arise.

What can you do about it?
A band is like a family.  You may hate each other one day and love each other the next.  It’s best if you can find a way to work through your problems before they become out of control. The non-involved members of the band should sit the others down and make them talk it out.  Maybe a team-building exercise would help. Or, maybe you should just fire that drummer before he boinks your girl, too.

Lack of new material:

If the band has not written any new songs for a year or more, serious consideration should be given to breaking up.  If you’re a cover band, then the question should be: Have you learned any new songs lately?  Lack of new material to play means the band has gotten used to playing the same old stuff over and over an has become complacent.  Hopefully, this happens when you are in a very successful period.  Gigs are coming easily and the venues are always packed. With no new material, you’ve got no new CDs (or whatever) to sell, and probably not much new in the merch area either. Sales may be going through the roof, but if you’re not preparing something new for the future, eventually the gravy train is going to come to an end.

We’ve seen this most commonly in bands that have peaked out.  They are so busy playing gigs and making money that they don’t even bother rehearsing anymore.  Then some new band comes along and next thing you know, you’re bumped down to an opening slot at a venue you’ve headlined for years.  If the ride lasts long enough, your fans may simply get older and start settling down, getting serious jobs and having babies.  That’s when they stop going out as often and don’t want to party all night, the way they used to.

What can you do about it?
Break up and start an exciting new band with mostly the same guys and a whole lot of new material.  For cover bands, it’s easier: Just learn some new songs.  Original bands will have to get together and hammer out some new stuff.  Hopefully, someone in the band has been writing material all along and is now ready to show it off.  Otherwise, schedule some time off from gigging and get busy!

Lack of commitment from band members:

You will recognize this when guys stop showing up for rehearsal or, worse, gigs.  You may also notice that one or more band members have started up a side project.  If that project becomes more successful than the band you’re in now, guess who’s gonna quit or at least be unavailable for gigs? 

What can you do about it?
Fire that lazy bastard!  Or better, yet, sit him/her down and discuss priorities.  If they are just too busy with the day job or wife and kids, then maybe it’s time to look for another person to play that instrument.  If it’s a side project, at least get a clear indication as to which project is going to take precedence and work around him/her.  We’ve seen well-established bands that hit their peak and then as things slide down, every one of the members steps out into other projects.  The original band becomes a side project that only plays when the money is too good to pass up or when they can squeeze in a gig between all the side projects.

Sometimes it may be appropriate to send the band on hiatus for a while.  After six months or a year, a reunion gig might be worthwhile and the band could rediscover the magic that brought them together in the first place.

 failing band