Best Practices #1 “Division of Duties” By Nicholas James

Best Practices #1

“Division of Duties”

By Nicholas James

This is the first of a series of reports on “best practices” as performed by bands on New Age Records. The concept came to me long ago when someone mentioned “you [former band] should write a guide on how to be a band”. It was meant as flattery, but to be honest there is no compiled guide for DIY bands. Institutional knowledge on what works is normally carried by the most experienced member(s) of a band. If a band lacks an experienced member (meaning recording, booking, tour managing, etc), then that band must learn through trial and error the same lessons learned thousands of times before. Zoologists make the claim that the octopus has the potential to be the dominant species on earth, if only they could achieve institutional knowledge. The same could be said for DIY bands and hometown scenes. 

This first installment, “Division of Duties”, was chosen because it is not covered much in articles and interviews. One must rely on social media comments. The importance of shared responsibility is as follows (based on my own experiences): 

  1. Shared workload means shared buy-in. It is “our” band, not “their band”. For a band to retain members, it is important for them to have ownership. (note: there are many arguments to the contrary, as well)
  2. Shared workload diffuses burnout and despisal. Often, one person can burden the lion’s share of the work, but we all have limits. 
  3. Shared workload also brings a wider source of ideas and input.  

Here are comments and insight from bands on how they divide up duties and why. 

Rich Thurston (Treason)
When the band started it was just Chris {Alsip} and I. I wrote all the music and Chris handled the vocals. Then when we got a full band I still did it all.  I came up with shirt ideas and the release layouts. I wrote the music and recorded it. Chris definitely got us on some good shows. We shared that duty I would say. This next record I wanted everyone to contribute. Everyone has brought riffs and stuff. While I still will handle the merch and release layouts it's definitely much more of a group effort. I think bands need one person to really take charge. Most band dynamics have one or two people that really keep it all together.

Nicholas (Redbait)
We have a planning retreat every December for the upcoming year. We set goals and action steps, as well as assign roles that stay in effect until the next years’ retreat (unless we suffer a lineup change). B {guitar} is “merch captain”, making sure that we are always keeping up with shirts and records, as well as taking the lead on shipping mail orders. B and Madeline {vox} are usually the ones in charge of getting merch to the shows, including stocking the drawer with singles and setting up a table.  I am the “gear captain”, making sure that all the gear is in working order and that it gets to the show. Really, the transportation of the gear involves making sure there is a load in/out crew, and double checking that all gear is accounted for, but it does involve repairs and the occasional requisition. All photography is captained by Rebecca {vox}, but we all help out with pics for social media. We had a “press captain”, but that is currently held by committee. It’s cool that everyone helps out with social media, but every band should have someone coordinating comms. Art (flyers, shirts, posters, stickers, buttons, etc) is done by Madeline and myself doing our best to take turns. Everyone has access to the money, but all expenditures for projects or merch or gear must be proposed to the group first. When it comes to writing, it’s a multi-stage group effort with everyone contributing. Normally, B and I write the bones of songs together; then we show it to Davo {drums} and Richard {bass} to flesh it out; and then Madeline and Rebecca write the vocals and finishing dynamics. For interviews and press, it is always Madeline and Rebecca up front, but most of the interviews are done as “family style” where we all weigh in. When we book shows, we do so as a committee and volunteer for roles (ie: who draws the flyer, who sets up the PA, who works the door, who handles problems, who brings the food, etc). Richard had taken part in our “show committees” even before he was even in the band. In an attempt to summarize how we do things: when a band member wants to do anything, they propose it to the group; after getting buy-in, a “work group” is formed to make it happen.  

Vince Averill (Cross Control)
Upon contemplating the question, I realized that in Cross Control we all seem to handle everything. It could almost be considered odd but I can't think of a decision or an idea or a song that we didn't all workshop and chip in on. There have been times where somebody was assigned to reachout or be the point of contact on something, but that's about it.

Flint Beard (Vanguard)
As a band, Vanguard keeps a running dialogue (via the almighty Group Chat, of course) that acts as a floor on which any member can raise any issue, address any concern, etc. This decision making process by committee keeps the litany of large and small decisions (that every working/active band has to make on a nearly daily basis) much easier to deal with and it keeps everyone’s input/opinions on an equitable level. A few examples of such decisions we’ve made in Vanguard using this technique are: band name, final song titles, EP title, EP art, merch designs, song structure edits, vinyl colors, and many more. Basically any decision that needs to be made for the band is handled this way, outside of writing the music itself. We’ve had luck so far in this regard, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! 

As far as the creative process for actually writing our material goes, so far it’s followed a framework something like this for every track we currently have: 

  • Josh shows the rest of the band a “foundational riff”, or maybe a small collection of them, on which he wants to build a new song. 
  • Upon resounding praise of the “foundational riff” (which always happens without fail, Josh is a creative genius), we each offer small pieces of criticism or advice, if any. 
  • Josh goes back to the drawing board and finishes out the base structure of the song, even going so far as to nearly full conceptualization of what the bass and drum parts will be as well, and then brings it back to the committee for final approval. 
  • Once the track is written, musically, I then start the process of writing lyrics that I feel fit the “mood” of the song. Usually this is dependent on the overall tone and feeling I get from hearing it (spoiler: it’s basically always some permutation of “rage”, but in a good way, hahaha). 
  • I come up with an overarching “concept”, usually this concept is what the song is named for, and bounce it off the committee. With everyone’s approval of the idea, I work out lyrics that effectively get whatever message I have across, while fitting into the framework of the track itself, and this is where I think this project differs greatly from others I’ve done in the past (and am doing currently). I’ve usually kept a backlog of pre-written lyrics, poems, letters, etc, and when a new song is needed I rifle through the stack and find one that will work. That’s not been the case with Vanguard, each song’s lyrical content is “tailor made” for that given track, and I believe that because of this, the vocals of each track more clearly mesh with the music, as opposed to “sitting on top” of an already written instrumental portion. 

  • Anything else that falls outside the scope of what’s mentioned above (networking with outside parties, logistics, media editing, etc.) we stick to the “from each according to his ability” mentality. Some of us are better with people and coordinating with outside parties, some of us are better graphics designers, some of us are better video editors, some of us are better at social media, etc. All of those duties get handled by first being brought up in the committee group chat and then being either claimed or doled out accordingly. 

    As I write all this out, it seems very cold and business-like, and I promise that’s not always the case, we definitely tend to do more talking about nerdy shit and vegan food in the GC than anything else to be totally honest, but I can say that I am very proud of the band for the way we handle what needs to be handled, especially during an era as strange as that of the Covid quarantine of 2020. Thanks for reading! 

    Mad Matt Fletcher (Life Force)
    The division of duties within Life Force, up to now, has been me writing the music primarily, and then arranging the songs with our drummer John in his sweltering or freezing garage (depending on the season), and then supplying Flint a blown out cell phone recording for him to solidify his vocal placements. I had a handful of songs, and a plethora of riffs before we had a full line up, so we have concentrated on those for the demo, first 7 inch, and our 12 inch for New Age Records. That being said, the other members typically give suggestions (make this part shorter, take this part out and save it for another song, that part is too metal, the song is too long, dive bombs aren't allowed), and we're also incorporating their material into our music moving forward.

    Flint and I usually have a few passes on the vocal placements, usually butting heads over when to start and stop. The majority of the rhythms are his, though I often have fairly specific ideas for vocals in certain places. Flint has heard me say many times something like, “This part right here is like the biggest part of the song, and  has to have the pile-up, sing along line that we print on the back of the t-shirt.” Also, I'm from the Earth Crisis school of having vocals over every part of the damn song (which isn't always good or necessary), and I'm always saying, “Nothing that we're playing is so awesome that it can't have vocals over it. It's just power chords.” Flint tends to want to have a chance to actually breathe every now and then, and I think, how hard can it be? All you're doing is yelling (in a letterman jacket, mind you). Overall, I try to let him do his thing, and if he does something that is completely different than the way I hear it, but is still cool in its own way, then let it stand.

    As far as the business side of everything Life Force, it mostly goes through Flint (and sometimes me) for the label and recording arrangements. But, we're spread out over a few cities, so when it comes to booking “local” shows we rely on our individual relationships in our respective areas. Davis, our bass player is a good connection for when we play in his city, Dallas. He also heads our merch store (which is a box of shirts, pins, stickers, and sometimes records and tapes), so if you have ordered anything directly from us, he has touched it. For the most part this is all Flint territory, and now we have a little more direction working with New Age. But, who really cares about all this boring stuff? Let's talk about cool shit like artwork!!!

    We knew the artwork was going to emulate classic youth crew and NYHC, black and white style with the bold lettering, and lots of live photos (basically like all those jock bands we like). In the embryonic stages, probably before any song structures were solidified, we all agreed on that much. I remember us saying that we wanted the aesthetic to be very recognizably hardcore (whatever that means to anyone, and probably sounds boring to a lot of people). Flint doesn't like skulls, and I don't like tiny logos right in the middle of the chest. When it comes to artwork, whether for our releases or merch, if it's beyond our capabilities (which it usually is), then one of us  makes a shitty mockup of the design and we hand it off to people that can hold it down. My friend Ed Dycus made our Enforcer guy for the cover of the first 7 inch, The Impact. I love that character, or mascot, and Ed's sinister shadow effect. I want to see that all over shirts, skateboards, beer koozies, or whatever. For the most part everyone has design ideas, mainly just us trying to figure out how to rip off some other band's awesome look without making it obvious. Then everyone else has their input, and we all fight over it through text (except John who is extremely agreeable, and thinks everything looks “rad”).

    The best advice I can give to a band is that most of this will fall into place naturally, and that people should focus on their strengths. Some bands really luck out, and have members that are experts at recording, art, where songwriting and ideas are evenly distributed, and everyone is on the same page with great input. However, that's very rare. For some members it just means showing up, having gear, and knowing the songs, and letting the creative core do their thing.

    Casey (The Dividing Line)
    Who Writes: All of us. Ian {guitar} writes riffs, I write lyrics and think of where his riffs can fit., and everyone else adds in the “what makes sense here” segments. 

    Who Handles Art: We scramble for art and reach out to our design-inclined friends for anything we need. Sometimes, I’ll take live shots of us and put them on promo flyers or just gather them for future use on records. 

    Who Books Shows: Mostly Ian and myself. Most of the offers come to either of us and then we figure out when we can all play. We try not to play too much because (when the world isn’t shut down) there are usually tons of shows/bands playing every single weekend. I can’t even imagine what shows will be like in 2024 when President Eric Andre declares that the pandemic is finally over. 

    How we decide who does what: We literally just wing it. 

    Regrets: Maybe missing awesome shows because life gets in the way. Otherwise, nah. 

    Mike Hartsfield (Outspoken) 
    Outspoken was pretty much Dennis {Remsing} and I handling a majority of the workload since the other guys had jobs outside of running the label the band was on. It was easier for the two of us to work on things. Shows were more collaborative than a singular members’ duty. We would just hear about things being set up or someone would call. John {Coyle} had written all the music & lyrics initially but as we developed I began writing a majority of the music with John continuing with all the lyrics. Jae {Hansel} and Travis {Guichard} helped in ways that were invaluable in the writing process. They added so many nuances that gave us the unique style we ended up with on the final recordings.

    - - -

    If I could give some advice here, it would be to consider Marx’s dialectics of materialism when it comes to band work: adjust to the circumstances. Outside of the band, all of us are humans with different living conditions. Those conditions change sporadically, so needs change sporadically. Pay more attention to the needs, and less to the wants. The person who always packs the orders (for example) might have to work a ton of overtime, so pick up the slack if you are able to do so. If you notice that it has been a long time since you contributed outside of practice, then it's time you asked the others if they need help. 

    I would also recommend that you take notice of your band’s capacity (popularity) and regularly revisit what level of work needs done, and adjust accordingly. For example, if you have a member who packs the orders, and you have a ton of preorders piled up; everyone needs to chip in when the pre-ordered vinyl arrives from the label. It is absolutely fucked to shrug and say “sarge has it handled!”. Set up a “work party” to share in the work. Order pizza and soda, tell jokes, and use the time to plan the next thing, collectively. There may come a time when you grow (in popularity) and your abilities become hyperextended. You may have to hire a *shudder* booking agent, contract with a merch company, artist, or press agent someday. Until that day, do as much yourselves as you can. Cross-train each other (“each one, teach one”), and you will be stronger for it.   

    Years ago, I made a serious mistake with a band I took very seriously and loved. Without my noticing, the duties had slid mostly onto my plate. The booking, artwork, PR, merch, and music writing had metamorphosed into my responsibilities, almost exclusively. My contempt toward the others grew, and that contempt became reciprocal. The band broke up with us despising each other, and in reality it was my fault for not making any attempts to include them in imperative (and fun) work. There are personality types, and mine is the variety with the farcical misperception that “I already know how to do this, so why wait for someone else to learn?”. After the split, my former bandmates all went on to have other bands where they were the creative force, and with some success! We are all friends again, but that was a hard lesson learned.   

    Keep processes that work; replace processes that do not; and never stop making efforts to improve how your internal gears mesh. Staying power helps build the hardcore community we love.