Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Become a Musician in South Africa Part 1: Starting a Band, Baby

The weekly column on South African bands and live shows.
 by Omri Ismail Cassiem

This is part one of an article set about becoming a professional musician in Johannesburg. I will concentrate on the Rock industry for this article because that is the industry I have been a part of for the past two years. I spoke to a number of sources from different bands that have gotten to the point where they are considered professionals for this article set, so I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to comment and share your opinions on the subject matter.

Like any other profession you need to know your trade before you can practice. Lawyers have to study for at least four years before they can complete their articles which takes another three years, and then they have to write and pass the BAR to actually practice. Music, despite what Justin Bieber and the Idols contests say, is also an industry that takes time to fully master. There are a few universal steps that are the same for all musicians and then there are a few more steps that are very difficult to describe clearly. I’ll start this article with the easier to describe concepts that you need to spend time learning and practicing before moving onto the more vague but just as important aspects. Below are your steps to starting a band.

The very first step to starting a band is learn to play an instrument, and vocals do count here. And when I say learn to play I mean in real life; Guitar Hero doesn’t count. There are a multitude of schools and private teachers for every instrument that you can imagine in South Africa; call one up and sign up for lessons. This particular skill is important because unless you want to become a pop star whose fame (not to mention career) lasts exactly as long as their song stays on the top 40 charts, you will be writing and performing hundreds of songs throughout your career. That means you need to make hundreds of songs that don’t sound the same and if you only know four or five notes or chords on your instrument you are in for a little trouble.

The second and very important step is: go get a musical education. This is different to just learning to play an instrument because it actually involves learning theory and understanding the different parts of a song and music composition. You do this by enrolling in a music academy; there are quite a few of them in South Africa and you can even study part time in many of them. You may ask: why do I need to know about Mozart and Bach to play indie music? Well, the idea is simple: Johannesburg indie is an eclectic mix of sounds taken from many musical sources from around the world. This means that you need to know more than just your radio songs to create an indie song. There is also the idea of soloing, and knowing exactly when is a good time to put a solo in your song. Oh, not to mention tempo changes; you know, the part of the song where the drummer and bassist play a different beat. All of these small things that have a huge impact on your music need to be understood. Unless you are really keen on fading from existence like The Wanted (Remember them? They were big two years ago). But if you legitimately would like to pursue music as a career choice (it is possible), you want to be able to write songs that are newer and better each time. You wouldn’t hire an accountant who has never studied accounting, would you? So what on earth would you think you can get away with being a musician without musical knowledge? The one hit wonder bands? Those are the exception here not the rule. Make it your goal to be more than a one hit wonder.

Okay, so now you can play your instrument with skill and you have an understanding of musical composition. What more do you need? Well, a band would be good, unless you want to be a solo acoustic artist, in which case skip this step and move on to the next one. How do you find a band? Well by now you should know a lot of people who are interested in music from the various classes you have been attending. Make friends with them, find a couple of band members and maybe write a song or two together and see how that feels. When finding a band there are two people who are very important and need to be charismatic, namely your leading figure and your drummer. Unfortunately for the other musicians they are pretty replaceable. You need a solid leading man/woman for performances because the crowd needs to be entertained. You can have all the knowledge and skill in the world, but if you aren’t entertaining enough to draw the crowd's interest you are pretty much out. Don’t worry though; that, just like learning a musical instrument, takes time and practice to learn. There is another important thing to look at when selecting band members, and that is your chemistry. You are going to be working with these guys for very long hours over many years, so if you can’t go and have a drink with them after band practice, what is the point of playing with them? If this is your chosen profession, you are going to be doing this for most of the rest of your life. Find people you wouldn’t mind actually spending that amount of time with. People you have fun with. Also, realise that you might not make it with your first band - I think the chances of that are about one in a million, so don’t be completely demoralised if your first band breaks up. And even if your first band makes it, there is a high likelihood that it will not be the same as when you started. Remember Ben Moody? He was the guitarist for Evanescence in their debut album Fallen. He was out of the band before the second album was recorded. The idea is to make those mistakes and learn from them.

Next thing you need to do is learn to perform on a stage in front of people. Why could this be important, I wonder? Well with the rise of torrenting and other forms of piracy, your income on a monthly basis will come from shows. So go and get used to playing in front of crowds. Start with your family, then go find an open mic event. Rumours Lounge has one every Tuesday and there are other places you can go to for an experience of what life in the music industry is like. There are also ‘battle of the bands’ type competitions that are running almost everywhere you can imagine in Johannesburg. The one I recommend is the emerging sounds contest. This event has been running for many years in South Africa and has been a platform for bands such as Shortstraw, Seether, The Parlotones, Freshly Ground and many more. Squire really runs a brilliant battle of the bands, with judges who give honest critiques in the opening rounds of the event and a need to self-promote when you make it further in the event. You really do benefit tremendously from entering such an event. Those events usually cost a small fee to be a part of but teach you more than you can imagine.

Still on the topic of shows, invite people like me who are critics to see your show. At the very least we have seen hundreds of bands playing every genre you can imagine and can give you some advice that we have gleaned from the industry. I can’t speak for other critics here but if you are really impressive I will give you a write up on that will give you some more exposure.

That's it for part 1. In the next article in this set, coming to you in around a month, I'll explain how to promote yourself in the music industry so that you have many fans coming to your gigs. Once again feel free to comment and share your experience of the music industry for other budding musicians to benefit from.

And as always follow me on twitter @Omri_Cassiem for updates on the wonderful world of Johannesburg music.