Music as a System: Leading a Band


Last time on Music as a System, former president Dubyah examined band rapport and its importance in establishing and maintaining a musical career, or even just a positive presence within a music community. He compared the necessity for good rapport between bands and fans with his own experience as an educator relating to students in a fascinating discourse that can be viewed here.

To continue with the established theme, I offer here a comparison of my own experiences as a band leader with my weekend job: working with teenagers.

I’ve played in too many bands to count, mostly as a drummer. I’ve also done some gigs playing guitar or bass, and, on occasion, have provided vocals. Stylistically I usually play metal or rock, but I’ve worked with jazz groups, and even played in a funk band for several years. Never have I achieved any kind of commercial success or recognition outside of my home town, but I have enjoyed a rich and diverse musical experience.

Within the bands themselves I have performed a variety of roles, from sole band leader to simple fill-in session drummer, and anything else in between. All roles are important and enjoyable, but being the type of person that I am, I always find myself gravitating towards the leadership end of the spectrum — especially if I spend enough time with a group.

Almost two years ago I started working as a youth leader with a small group of teenagers, aged 12 – 17. It’s had its share of ups and downs, but I love the work enough that dealing with any issues that arise (and they do; trying to get parents to let their kids do things is like pulling teeth) doesn’t deter me from wanting to put in the time and effort to make the kids’ experience the best it can be.

Through my work as a youth leader I’ve learned a lot about dealing with people, and began to realize that, almost subconsciously, I was applying this knowledge to band situations, and it was working. Musicians and teenagers are very similar in many ways, and as the parallels between my youth work and my band began to become apparent to me, so did the advantages of approaching the situations similarly. Of course, not everything I’ve learned and done will be applicable to every band situation, but I will outline here a few of what I feel are the more important and universal points.

1. Musicians are like teenagers: They’re emotional, fragile, delicate little humans who aren’t sure of their place in the world, and they take things too personally. Musicians are presenting their work, their dedication, their art, to the world, and that’s a scary thing. A rejection of that art is a rejection of them as people. In the same way, teenagers are trying to figure out how to present themselves to the world so that they avoid rejection (everyone knows how scary it was to be the kid with no friends, whether it was for a day or for 12 years) and secure their popularity. Both groups of people are figuring out, essentially on a trial and error basis, what other people like and don’t like about them. Some people are better than others at dealing with negative response, but the effects still run deep.

“You have 80 years or so, maybe less, maybe more, to try and make some kind of sense of this random gift of life—this strange, cruel blip in time that is your life, your ego and your consciousness. Many years ago, I wrote an album called Signify for Porcupine Tree. The whole idea was to look at the ways we try to create some significance for our own life. So, even in my 20s, I was obsessed with that—the idea of making some kind of mark.” – Steven Wilson

Why is this meaningful? Knowing that a person or a group of people have a difficult time dealing with criticism allows you to explore avenues of communication that will draw out the best in them. Oft times people have been too much on the receiving end of negative comments or feedback, and are disinclined to present what might be a great idea or riff for fear of immediate, hurtful rejection. Teenagers and musicians, in my experience, want to be treated like they’re adults. They want the freedom to explore things they enjoy or find cool, and to know that someone else is willing to explore it with them and provide positive encouragement along the way. This is crucial when writing music. Being a good band leader means letting go of the control and encouraging your bandmates to contribute as much as possible. Having multiple voices contributing to the writing process means your music stays fresh and alive, and most times I’ve found that my bandmates write much better parts than I do. I now mostly act as a director, piecing together parts and guiding the music to become a song, which brings me to my next point.

2. These people need direction: That’s why you’re there. The kids in my youth group are bright, creative, energetic, fun, and funny, but they’re unsure of what they want to do with their lives. They don’t know enough about life and the world to be able to look at their situations and know how to deal with them — they simply lack the wisdom that comes with age and experience. While they could eventually figure it out on their own, having someone in their lives who can give them advice, guidance, and a push in the right direction every now and then can save them from a world of hurt and trouble. The same is true in a band setting. Musicians are often bright, creative people who produce a never-ending flow of music. However, unless they’re able to take a step back and critically analyze their own music, they often end up with a song that feels like a jumbled, directionless, mess of riffs. Individually, the riffs might have sounded cool, but in the context of a song the listener has great difficulty knowing what to grab onto. Sometimes this is deliberate (and can be quite effective), but it often feels accidental. Case in point:

I know I don’t have to try too hard to have everyone hate on Periphery, but compare that track to this one:

It’s like night and day. One is a mess of riffs, screaming, and general unfocused wankery, and the other one is a catchy, well written single. Hate the band if you will, but you can’t deny that the second tune is a much better song than the first.

Why is this meaningful? Being able to be the person who can step back and tell their bandmates, for example, “no, that part doesn’t work,” or, “can you play the same rhythm with less notes?” is indispensable. Musicians, much like teenagers, don’t have the experience to know when simplicity is best. You don’t often have to tell someone to make a part more complicated, but time and time again you’ll have to force someone to simplify a part, because it doesn’t make sense in the context of the music. There’s a time and place for complexity in music, and it’s not all the time. As a leader, you have to know when to make those calls; you need to be able to see the bigger picture, the vision of the song, and make the sacrifices necessary to bring that vision to fruition. Of course, most musicians are like teenagers (as I’ve noted), and so such control over their music (which they take very personally, of course) can be met with sadness, rejection, or even hostility. That’s why as a leader you need to inspire confidence and trust, as I will explore in my final point:

3. You need to create a safe place: People won’t listen to you criticize them if they don’t trust you. Teenagers will often distrust adults because they see them as being the enemy: people who treat them like kids and not like equals. We all remember how infuriating being patronized is, and dealing with band members is no different. If you do nothing but criticize and control and ignore everything I’ve said in the first point about allowing creative freedom, your band members won’t listen to your direction.

“I was feeling part of the scenery; I walked right of the machinery.” 

Why is this meaningful? Obviously, if your band members don’t trust you as a leader, you’re not going to be doing any kind of meaningful leading, regardless of how clear your vision is. You need to convey to your fellow musicians that their ideas are quality — they simply lack refinement. We’ve all seen bands whose members change on the regular due to control issues. It gets harder and harder to believe that the bands are the same each time old members leave and new members join, until you end up with a situation where none of the original band remains. It’s disappointing to see it happen to an established band; it’s impossible to keep up on an informal level. Local bands couldn’t survive constant lineup changes; eventually you’ll have tapped the entirety of people who ever wanted to be a part of your group. Creating a safe space for your band circumnavigates the entire issue. If your band members feel comfortable showing you a riff, you’ve successfully applied the first point. If you’re able to critique that riff in the context of a song without making the same member angry, you’ve successfully applied the second point. But nobody is going to show you a riff or a song, much less let you critique it, if you haven’t created that safe space.

So what do you think? Every situation is different, and you need to have the discernment to know how to approach your own, but I think the points I’ve outlined here are broad enough that anyone can apply the concepts to their unique circumstances. Is there anyone else with anything to add to being an effective band leader? Anyone who’s experienced anything different? These are my thoughts; what are yours?


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  • Further Down the Metal Hole

    This was quite insightful. Although I’ll never be in a band, various points here completely apply to teaching as well. I’m a Taekwon-Do instructor for kids and it changes your own way of thinking when you see how their minds approach problems and tasks. Your words on giving direction especially apply in this case.

    Great article!

    • Guacamole Jim

      Thanks very much! That must be a pretty cool job, teaching martial arts to kids. I wonder how the influence of physical activity would change the way in which you’d deal with them, as opposed to my experiences (games, discussion, etc.).

  • zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    sometimes life is unfair—
    911 was an inside job–

    music is the only hope for the world –in these post cyber times
    time for improvement–beyond previous known realms

    both at once—1st one muted

  • Max

    One thing I’ve observed is: If the band leader is also the main creative force, I’d say there has to be a real will to “let go” of total creative control and a real acceptance that the band will absolutely not match the artistic vision in one’s head – and to cooperate productively within that paradigm rather than trying to police it down to the last bassline, drum-fill, and onstage apparel of the other members.

    Plenty of famous band leaders in rock history have been the sort of people who would obviously prefer 3 or 4 clones of themselves; and it’s not surprising that such bands have a high personnel turnover or a lot of disquiet – if the main creative force or band leader is that particular about what s/he wants from everybody, it really would have been better off staying as a one-man bedroom project. Instead, it carries on for years as essentially a hired-hands affair; and its continuing success is reliant totally on the leader being able to keep coming up with the creative goods unless he finally drops his veto on others’ contributions or ideas. Otherwise, when he stagnates, that’s it.

    Iron Maiden is a good example of a band where obviously everybody was given a bit of creative stake. Steve Harris is the undisputed leader of that band – nobody would want it any other way – but plenty of Maiden’s best songs were written by the other members. In particular, Adrian Smith was a very good foil to Harris’s writing style.

    Contrast that with something like the Smashing Pumpkins. In the studio, that’s basically the drummer and Billy Corgan, playing everything else.

    Less relevant to the article, a few other things I’ve learnt about being in bands:

    1) Avoid joining or starting bands with people who are parents. Obviously this gets difficult as you get older, but I have found that band-members with children will be exponentially harder to get to commit to rehearsals and gigs – even infrequent ones.

    2) Musically, a rock band can only be as good as its weakest member, and if that’s the drummer or the rhythm guitarist, there is a limit as to how good that band will ever get.

    3) But musical ability has little to do with appreciation by local audiences; onstage charisma is a much bigger determinant of positive reception and growth. Shy frontmen – even ones with the excuse of hiding behind an instrument – are a one-way ticket to anonymity.

    4) A band which cannot get itself together enough to rehearse at least once a week (and preferably more) and play live at least once a month (and preferably more) is a waste of time no matter what level of success you’re aspiring to.

    5) There is no guarantee that members who claim to be influenced by demanding or skilled music will necessarily be able to handle playing demanding or skilled music themselves; so buyer beware at audition time. Anything really good they can do on their instrument at audition is often the only good thing they can do.

    6) If a prospective member is influenced by some bands you like and some bands you hate, chances are the material they contribute will be influenced more by the bands you hate. Do not start a band with such individuals on the “some common ground” promise.

    7) If two band members are in an intimate relationship, it is guaranteed that the severance of their relationship will either lead to line-up destabilization or total disbandment.

    • W.

      This was a great response. Regarding totalitarian band leaders: I’m curious about the future of the Faceless. It seems that Michael Keene will eventually either make it a one-man band with hired guns or that the band will completely collapse at some point.

      Also, I think Trent Reznor is a great example of a totalitarian leader who has done things right. NIN has always been his vision, so he’s never even attempted to put together a full band for studio and songwriting. He’ll have contributors and live performers, but I think other musicians have always known from the start that it’s his gig, and it works for him.

      • Cock ov Steele

        I heard I think it was Di’Anno equate Steve Harris to Hitler in terms of band leadership. It’s amazing their lineup has been as steady as it is.

      • Edward

        I actually thought of Michael Keene / The Faceless while reading this article! I was under the impression they were already at or near hired hand status with the number of announced turnovers.

        • Guacamole Jim

          I was actually thinking specifically of them whilst writing.

      • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

        I’d say both The Faceless and the Haarp Machine are gonna end up with session guys fulfilling one man’s vision. Also Death is a good example of getting such an arrangement to work.

      • RiotMax666

        It’s perhaps a little different when you’ve got a project like NIN or Bathory where the vision obviously revolves around one guy right from the start. (As a counter to that though, here’s an interesting factoid: The guy from Filter who wrote the hit song “Hey Man Nice Shot” used to be in NIN, and left NIN to start Filter specifically because Reznor didn’t want to use that song in the form he presented it. Had Reznor included it in the repetoire as is instead of just listening to the demo and saying “Yeah, cool, I might use the riffs someday”, that hit song would now be one of NIN’s biggest.)

        But perhaps what my comment could refer to are situations that start off more democratically but end up driven by one person as the years elapse. For example, Kerry King was always the most ambitious member of Slayer and one of the main creative forces, but nowadays, he plays everything in the studio except drums and vocals, and apparently does all of the music writing at this point, too. Guitar-wise, every Slayer record you’ve heard since 1990 is essentially a Kerry King record with guest leads by Hanneman. In retrospect, it’s difficult not to muse that Slayer’s creative decline can be measured by his emerging dominance of the creative process. Even just letting people play their own parts on the record – let alone contributing to the compositions – seems to be a factor in staving off these sorts of creative declines we see in a lot of bands.

    • Cock ov Steele

      Oh man, the common ground thing is a bitch, My guitarist and I are the two biggest metalheads ( I recommend he look at the toilet Tuesday articles for more metal) But my singer was a former scene kid who went through a huge grunge phase and now, actually, doesn’t seem to enjoy really listening to music as much as writing it. Kind of odd, I didn’t think it would rub off on me but I found that anything too thrashy or “metal” sounding does not work for our sound as well.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Totally. I was trying to place emphasis in my first and third points on how important it is, as a leader, to make sure you let go of total control (unless of course, as mentioned below, you’re a Trent Reznor and the project is a solo endeavour).

      Also, the general points you’ve made here are spot on. Some of them hit a bit close to home…. I had a relationship happen in my band, and both the members are no longer in the group.

    • I’d definitely love for my band dudes to take more initiative when coming up with stuff. I like the way I do stuff, but I rather have them come up with other stuff I couldn’t have imagined. I don’t wanna billy corgan my way into music.

  • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

    We goin’ live early today!

    • W.

      I have no idea what happened to the schedule. The rest of the posts should be up at regular time.

  • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

    Well written and a thoughtful article. You’d think most of this’d be clear but it ain’t, a job well done as they say!

    • Guacamole Jim

      Thanks, you loveable bear!!

  • Ellipsis

    Great read Jim.

    Having Periphery between Porcupine Tree and Peter Gabriel really highlights the advantage of focused songwriting.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Thanks!! Both the PT and PG songs are some of my favourite songs ever.

  • Edward

    I work with adults in an inpatient treatment center, they are oft times still essentially at a teenaged emotional level. I think several of these points would be valid if applied to that job. The goal is to create a safe environment, the patients need direction, they often see me as the enemy even though I am not lol. Generally they are good, well meaning, well intentioned people but every once in awhile I have one (of about fifty) that is a real pain in the butt. This is good shit!

    Guacamole Jim >>>>>>

    guacamole >>>>>>

    (I think this story went up early?)

    • Guacamole Jim


      That would be a hell of a job man, I respect you for doing that. I don’t know that I’d have the patience, especially if you’re unable to bring them into a place where they don’t see you as being the enemy any more.

      • Edward

        I don’t have hard statistics for you, but, I assume the majority of the people who darken our doors don’t stay sober. Lifetime? I’m guessing one out of ten if that. So, that’s also a thing to consider doing that work.

        I bet working with kids / teens can be tough sometimes too!

        • GuacamoleAct666

          Not in that kind of capacity. I mostly just play games and have discussions about life with them, and it’s usually really fun. It takes a man with a strong constitution to do your kind of work. Edward truly is >>>>>>>>>>>

  • Scrimm

    Hit this nail dead on dude. As both a musician and someone who worked with youth for years I can agree with all of this.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Thanks! You may have been better qualified to write about this than I…

  • Cock ov Steele

    I like Periphery’s riffs, I just don’t like the songs themselves.

    • My problem with periphery is the vocals.

      • Steve Smithwick

        You’re both wrong, there are literally no problems with Periphery at all. The riffs, vocals and songs- all fantastic.

        I’m going full fanboy savage here.

        • W.

          My problem with Periphery is Periphery. If you removed all of the members, added new guys, and had them rewrite all the songs, I might like Periphery.

          • Steve Smithwick

            WE CAN’T ALL BE RIGHT, W.

            (that’s how this works, right? If I yell the loudest, I’m the most correct. Fox News 101.)

          • W.

            I mean, if you yell loud enough I’ll probably back down.

          • Steve Smithwick

            Well, you and the folks upvoting you so far are now in my crosshairs. BATTLE TO THE DEATH, FOLKS!


          • I was going to listen to periphery, but I decided to drink a PSL instead.

          • Steve Smithwick




          • Guacamole Jim

            I actually really really like their drummer. He’s a beast.

          • Steve Smithwick

            Halpern! m/

          • Yea, it’s too bad he is a member of periphery.

        • Riotact666 M Shadows!

          Perifphery is more stupider than Avenged Sefenfold!…..wait

          • Steve Smithwick



          • Rondo’s head looks like a deformed alien phallus. Seriously don’t make jokes about Rose tearing his ACL. That’s not cool.

          • Steve Smithwick

            I actually like D-Rose, but seriously, even without injuries, Rondo is better. Better defender, better playmaker, better rebounder… worse shooter/scorer.

          • Maybe that was true a few years ago but not now. Rondo has almost no one to give the ball to. We should stop talking about this, I don’t want to piss off people by having a flaming sports debate lol.

          • Steve Smithwick

            TOO LATE, BRUH.

            Rondo has a LOT of people to pass to. Avery Bradley is shooting well again after repairing both of his shoulders surgically. Kelly Olynyk is a great spot-up shooter as a 5. Jared Sullinger is a pretty good pick-and-pop partner.

            And on the bench we have Evan Turner and microwave scorer Marcus Thornton. Not to mention beast rookie Marcus Smart who defends like a demon.

            The Celtics have no good defensive big men, but they actually have a pretty solid collection of role-playing offensive options. Rondo has a lot of dudes to pass to, just no true stars. Rondo is averaging 12.5 assists per game through the first 4 games this year!

          • Not having this discussion lol. I get too passionate about this shit.

          • Steve Smithwick

            Thank you for conceding and acknowledging Rondo’s superiority, have a nice day!

            I’m going out of my way to play the Bulls in my career mode, record the whupping, and sending it to you. Shots fired, bruh, shots fired.

      • LacertiliAct_666

        As someone else stated once, ‘their songs are good until the kid with the rooster hair starts yodelling’.

  • Death

    Best way to lead a band is to do exactly what Captain Beefheart did while he and his band were recording Trout Mask Replica.

    • Mr.CustodialArts

      His band would disagree-but you can’t argue with the results-unless you’re Captain Beefheart.

  • Steve Smithwick

    Periphery: The Best Band in Metal Today!


    Flush all you Hot Topic poser hacks down the Toilet OV HELL!!!!

    • W.

      I admire your gumption.

      • Steve Smithwick

        I’m paying homage to GodFather RiotAct, just pimping a better band 😉

        • Better than METALLICA?!

          Say it aint so!!

          *flushes this hot topic poser down the filthiest, stinkiest, stench-ridden, piranha-laden toilet ov hell straight through the sewer ov obskurity*

          Hail Lars the Danish Prophet!

          PULL THE PLUG

          • Edward

            Toilets w/o hungry piranhas = toilets for posers.

          • The piranhas offer assistance in moving that oh so heavy pool table on the dive bar tour!

    • PERIOD!

      • Steve Smithwick



        • (psst, it’s McNulty, i’m just trying to clog FFB up with clones)

          • RiotActEllipsis


          • Riot Act 666 (Death)

            RiotActs of the world, unite!

          • RiotActEllipsis

            Embrace the void…

          • The Satan Ov Hell


          • DeathRiotAct666

            Join us, gooble goo!

      • Jimmy, why you do this

        • W.

          Oh man, I was confused earlier. JJM said something, when I looked back, RiotAct was there

  • Mr.CustodialArts

    FLASH should really be on the drums-sick double bass, bruh.

  • Tyree

    Musicians are a bunch of fragile fucking lifelovers that need to be more like Seth Putnam.

    • Steve Smithwick


    • PagliAct is Riot666


  • Mr.CustodialArts

    I love this “working from home” shit. NO you’re NOT, you’re starting your weekend early, you fucks. At least I have the decency to get out of fucking bed, shower, get dressed, sit at my desk and APPEAR to be working. YOU JUST LIE TO OUR FUCKING FACES, sleep til’ noon, and check your work e-mail 2 or 3 times. Cunts. WE’RE ON TO YOU, YOU ARE FOOLING NO ONE.

    • Working from home is awesome for all of those reasons. It’s like a half-vacation day. You still have to PRETEND to care but for the most part it’s fuck around city.

      • Mr.CustodialArts

        Joe, running this fucking place is a 24/7 enterprise. I bet every other word out of your mouth is “TOILET.” When your girlfriend says something you don’t like, you probably just say “FLUSH.” I say this with the utmost appreciation for what you do. Also, BAN RANDALL.

        • W.

          I definitely find myself flushing things IRL.

          • Cock ov Steele

            I did that when flipping through radio stations the other day.

        • These things are true things.

        • PagliAct is Riot666


    • TrickleDownTacoRiff

      air quotes are mandatory when saying “working form home”

      • LacertiliAct_666

        But if you just say masturbating, you don’t need the quotes, right?

        • TrickleDownTacoRiff

          but of course!

  • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

    Why the heck is everyone going RiotAct666 now!!! Death, Jimmy The fakes… everyone!!!
    Maybe I’ll go too then!

    • Riot Act 666 (Death)

      It’s #RiotAct4ADay

    • RiotActEllipsis

      Join us friend… resistance is futile…

    • Riotact666 M Shadows!

      Riot Act is love, Riot act is life, periphery is strife.

    • Guest

      It’s just as the prophecy foretold!

    • ExtremophileAct666

      Embrace your inner Riot Act. Welcome the apocalypse.

    • Riotact ov Steele!


    • LacertiliAct_666

      Why not form a tribute to the almighty flusher of all things flushable?

  • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

    Also anybody got a clue what’s the thing with Ape of God????? What is the real one???

    • W.

      Apparently there are two parts of the album. Whatever the label distributed seems to be a synthesis of the two?

      • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

        That’s the thing, apparently there is a third version, which is completely fake. And was given to the media outlets. At least according to their official release. My head hurts now.

        • W.

          Right. The fake thing is what all of blogs got from the label. They’ve said it’s representative of the material on the album, which leads me to believe it’s a synthesis.

          • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

            Aha, ok. I’ll hold on to that for now.

          • My understanding is that they took tracks from the two ape of god albums and created the ape of god that profound released to the press. so what You guys reviewed is like a selection of tracks from the two ape of god albums.

          • W.

            Right, that’s generally what synthesis means.

          • Ah ok…i didn’t know what you meant in that context, but now i do.

          • W.

            S’okay, matey! You probably explained it better.

          • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

            This seems to be the case indeed, the pre-order page track listing says so. I am less confused now.

    • Pagliacci is RiotAct666

      RiotApe666 is the real one.

  • Pre-orders for OMG vinyl are live here:!!!!!

    Git yo Ape on, son!!

    • God

      How many fucking riotact’s are there???

      • Not enough

      • Pagliacci is RiotAct666

        RiotAct666 is my father. And my mother… my brother… my friend. He is you, and me. He is all of us.

  • Pagliacci is Kvlt

    So does this mean Batman is left handed?

  • FeelTheDarkness

    After playing in bands for almost 30 years with so many different people I came to the conclusion that most people are just dicks or maybe it’s just me.
    Yeah it’s me.

  • So should I learn to play drums before I clone myself or have my clone learn them afterwards?

    • Steve Smithwick

      Clone learn them afterwards, definitely.

  • riotaco_666

    Man, this was a great article Guacamole Jim. Actually really helps me in trying to figure out my own musical projects, so thanks.

    • Guacamole Jim

      Dude, I’m super glad that this helped you. It’s been invaluable to me over the past year or so, and W. inspired me to write about it.