I was glancing at the internets recently, wiling away my precious time on the way to the grave, when I came across a video of Peter Stampfel, he of Holy Modal Rounders fame, listing off his advice to musicians.
I don’t usually take to people prescribing best practices about music — you gotta find your own way to go, baby! — but I found his advice to be particularly apt. And so I decided to throw my own advice in, just to muddy the waters of international advice-giving a little. I’m a musician with decades of experience in the biz — I have something to say, too!
This will be a living list; I’m going to add to it as more things occur to me. Some of these things I have practiced myself; many of them I only learned after doing the opposite. Some of them are aspirational — I still struggle to follow them to this day!
Without further ado, here they are:
Colin Meloy’s Ideals For Living (As a Musician)
Don’t be a dick.
This one is pretty straightforward. It’s one that I aspire to, but I may not have always followed it. We are all human; working in music can sometimes be a very high-pressure environment. So I’m going to edit this one to:
Strive to be a non-dick.
Everyone is an asshole sometimes; but you can try not to be one. Forgive others their dickishness, but do not suffer a dick who remains dickish for too long. Know when to move on. Which should really be rule #3.
Don’t suffer dicks.
See rule #2.
Find your people.
Bandmates are family members and business partners as much as they are creative collaborators. Choose them wisely. Find the people with whom you can imagine spending untold hours riding in vans and buses together, sleeping on floors and sharing motel beds with. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, though. Sometimes difficult relationships can foster powerful art. But difficult relationships are by nature not typically sustainable, so keep your eye on things if this is the dynamic in your creative partnerships. Don’t hesitate to move on.
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Hold your liquor.
Because musicians and artists are often childlike hedonists, alcohol and drugs can be a scourge. Can be a scourge. It’s my opinion that 90% of the time, drinking and drug-taking is a net positive in the world of music and art. It’s just that 10% you have to look out for. Check in with yourself; scrutinize your own intake and behavior. Keep a not-too-nosy eye on your bandmates’. Refer to rules #2 and #3 if there is some concern.
Don’t be afraid of benevolent dictatorships.
This is a band, not a government, after all. You’re not regulating a community’s environmental quality or health care or human rights; you’re deciding on album covers and t-shirt designs and song sequences. Making art by committee is certainly a tack one can take, but it’s often not the truest or most efficient way. Sometimes it’s best to fall into the slipstream of the most adamant member. At least you’ll get somewhere. Benevolent is the important word, here, however. If things are getting a bit too autocratic, refer to rule #3.
Don’t expect to be forever satisfied with your band name.
Don’t hurt your head over it. I don’t know anyone who, twenty years on, loves their band name. Even if it’s the best band name ever, you will, at best, come to be indifferent to it. You’ll likely loathe it. However: Be circumspect when landing on a silly or ironic name. It might be hee-larious at the time, but when you come to be sick of it (and again, you will become sick of it) it will haunt you to your grave. Even if your fans love it to death. I’m thinking now of the band Diarrhea Planet, who made such great songs, but, I’ve heard, had been given occasion to regret the name choice. Which is not to say you should not name your band something gross or funny — just prepare yourself to lie in the bed you’ve made.
Listen to music.
You might be surprised to learn that, in my opinion, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. I have met musicians — musicians I admire! — who do not really listen to music other than the music they make. But I’m not that sort of person, and I can’t imagine being one. Some of my moments of greatest growth have come from listening and internalizing other peoples’ music. Learn other peoples’ songs — figure out how they work, take note of where they succeed and where you think they pass up opportunities. Inevitably, these lessons will find their way into your own work.
Write on different instruments.
This one is a nifty trick particularly if you find yourself in a jam or a rut — but even if you haven’t hit writer’s block on your little 6-string archtop, you’ll be surprised at the fresh perspective that can be gained from playing on an instrument that is new or unfamiliar to you. I’m not recommending you pick up the zither, here — even something like switching from a 6-string guitar to a 12-string guitar can trick your brain into following different threads and pathways. For instance, back in 2005 I, myself, was feeling somewhat blocked (shocker!) and I bought two instruments that were fairly alien to me: a bouzouki and a mountain dulcimer. I figured I’d see what sort of songs could be wrung from them. For both of them, I had to learn new chord shapes — but the songs came quick: After learning two chords on the bouzouki, I wrote a song. Learning a third chord called down another song. On the other hand, the mountain dulcimer did nothing for me — so, diversify!
Be kind to your peers in the press.
This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it can be tough in the moment. I think we all grow from our roots as People With Opinions About Music, the sorts of opinions you can share with your friends in dismissive tones. But when you become a professional musician, should you arrive there, it’s easy to get blindsided and find yourself slipping back into your old music-snob self. Remember that people are listening — and sometimes the people who you are criticizing are listening too. Be kind. Be gracious. Be thoughtful. I’m saying this as someone who, early in my career, sometimes did not follow this bit of advice — to my eternal regret!
On that note: don’t believe your press, good or bad.
I’m not one to advise you to *not* read your press — I think it’s often very helpful to see how you’re perceived out there, and sometimes it can be quite flattering. We all need a little ego-stroking from time to time. But remember, as your eyes flit down that bit of newsprint, that there are pitfalls awaiting you: spike traps and falling boulders. If you’re like me, the smallest bit of harsh criticism from the lowliest of regional ArtBeat writers will remain with you for the rest of your days, lodged in your soul like a thorn in the webbing between your toes. The best advice I can give is to go for it — read your reviews, take it all in, the good and the bad. But don’t believe a word of it.
I still have the best band name that I have yet to use. As I get older, it becomes more and more apt. But, I'm coming to the realization that I'll probably never get around to using it.
The Hip Replacements
My wish is for all of humanity to adhere to rules 2 and 3.