When I first started playing in bands I was very young, 14 years old actually. All the rest of the guys were about 3 years older than me. I knew nothing about playing live rock-n-roll and was more than willing to have the older guys show me the ropes. The leader in my first band was the Bass player. He was a great leader and we never felt like we had a dictator at the helm. That band was such a great experience that I’m still playing today because of it.
Later on I decided to start my own band and I had this Utopian vision where everyone in the band would have equal input. I imagined that we’d all have to agree on a song before we played it and that all other band related decisions would be unanimous. Well, as you can imagine, that band never went anywhere. When I formed that band I told everyone my vision that it would be a Democracy when we first got together and the band proceeded to get stuck on every decision. We’d get together for practice and end up arguing for an hour about song selection. After we finally came to a decision on a song we were so worn out from arguing about it that we sure didn’t feel like practicing. I’m sure you can see how every obstacle led to a debate with that band. That band didn’t last because there was nobody that would say “This is how it will be.”
Now I want you to understand that picking a band leader doesn’t mean putting yourself at the mercy of a dictator. It simply means that when the band comes to an impasse on a decision that there is somebody that can make a final decision. Another reason for having a leader is to have someone be able to say “Enough is enough, we have to deal with this problem now and I will deal with it.” Many times it will fall on the leader to deal with problems with booking agents, club managers and irritating audience members. That doesn’t mean that the leader will handle all booking agents, club managers and irritating audience members personally. For example, one band member will usually deal with the booking agent. They’re the band liason between the band and the agent. If that agent becomes a problem or the band gets stiffed by the agent and the band member that works with the agent can’t resolve the problem, it would then fall on the Band Leader to call the agent and work out the problem. After the problem with the agent has been resolved then the member that works with the agent would resume their job working with the agent. The Band Leader in effect becomes the top level problem solver. It doesn’t mean the Band Leader should handle everything themselves. In fact, they should handle the least day-to-day workings of the band and mainly be the go-to guy for problems.
Some qualities of a good band leader are:
- A good leader will not dictate to the band. A band will die quicker under a dictator than it would as a pure democracy.
- A good leader will listen to all input from every member of the band before making a final decision.
- A good leader will listen more than they will speak.
- A good leader will step in when there is a problem and rescue the other band members from difficult situations.
- A good leader will make the other band members feel like they’re the leader.
- A good leader will work out problems one-on-one instead of in a group setting when feelings could get trampled.
In my opinion one of the greatest band leaders of all time was John Lennon of The Beatles. When you think about The Beatles you think about all 4 of them. They were all unique and had huge individual personalities. But when a hard decision had to be made, it was John Lennon saying “This is the way it will be.”. At the same time he let each individual member of The Beatles thrive. Many people argue that Paul McCartney was the true leader of The Beatles. You can easily argue that Paul McCartney was the most talented. I agree that Paul assumed a more leader-like role as The Beatles declined and then broke up. But that alone may be a testament to Paul’s skill as a band leader. The fact is, John led the Beatles at their most critical time which was during their rise to stardom.
If you want your band to have ultimate success, you need to pick somebody to lead it. You can always change leaders if it doesn’t work out. I’ve been in bands where the leadership role has changed several times and the band thrived each time. But you have to have a leader if you really want to be the best band that you can be.