Bands need Songs

In past musical things I’ve done, song picking for the band was almost always my least favorite part.  It can be such a drag.  Do you know what the issue is?  It’s all the other damn band members!  🙂  In a cover band setting, everyone has different ideas of what a good song is.  And of course you want to collaborate.  So song picking in many of these cases ends up being some kind of compromise.  When your band is really well aligned, you will all love (or at least like) the same stuff.  That makes this way easier.  

This post is Part 3 of a series:

I’ve learned that the the song selection cutting room floor should usually end up being a total freakin’ mess.  You should take time to try songs and after hours of fighting it, give it up.  It’s a painful process sometimes.  Especially when you chose a cover song because it was a favourite for you.  All of a sudden you’ve played the crap out of it only to realize in a sober moment that you’re better off to just…not.  A good thing to ask yourself is this:  If someone hears our version of this song, is there any chance it could become a favourite for them?  If you are pretty sure the answer is “no”, let it go.  Or at very least take it back to the drawing board and rework it.  

For many kinds of bands, you don’t get full choice of your songs.  A church band usually needs to play worship songs for instance.  A bar band might have to stick to the genre of the bars they play.  When I was in Jawbone Hill we had to do high energy top forty rock and pop.  It was fun enough for a while, but I don’t really listen much to top 40 music.  In that band I was sentenced to sometime play songs that were just ok for me.

As a general rule I don’t want my songs to be picked by my audience.  I’d like to be able to play the songs that are right for that particular band’s sound and I’d like to play songs that give me a voice.  There is the question of your audience though.  The reality for some bands is that your audience will play a big limiting factor in what songs you can pick.  For example, you might play primarily in a church or in a coffee shop.  Both of these places are going to probably want you to limit what kinds of songs you do.  Even if you don’t have someone telling you what to play, the fact is, you need to make sure you fit the bill.  Neither a church or a coffee shop will probably want you to show up with Marshall stacks and a Neil Peart kit and do a rousing version of your favourite death metal song.  Though I suppose that’s a stereotype.  If you are out there running a death metal church or a death metal coffee shop, all the power to you!  Go for it!  Change all our perceptions.  We need it!

In the end though, the point is that your audience plays a role here for most bands.  Being that I am not in a band, and considering that I’m writing this in part as a way to figure out what I’m going to invest my musical  time into next, I have the luxury of not needing to cater to an existing audience.  This is perhaps the greatest benefit of not actually having any fans!  No one expects anything from you.

So here is a good process to follow in my opinion.

  1. Start by picking good songs.  Know what makes a song good.  This is certainly a subjective area, but for me, I can make a list of things I look for.
  2. Next take your list of possible songs and ensure each of them can be justified for your band.  I have created my Song Justification Tips below that will help explain what I mean here.  It’s fine to have a good song from #1, but is it the right song for your band?  Can you pull it off?
  3. Finally group the good and justifiable songs into groups of songs that meet the Song List Rules.  If you pick songs that work well together you will be able to make great setlists for when you play for people.  A good show never hurts in helping to make the music satisfying for you.

Now I should say that these tips are not here as some kind of hard and fast rules.  As I mentioned, some of this is pretty subjective and so this is just how I’m thinking of things.  I’m trying to do what I can so that when I make a commitment to a band, I won’t get bored and uninterested.  I want to stay satisfied. Though I think there is some truth to why these rules matter, I don’t want to suggest there is anything wrong with any musician just kind of getting out there with no rules and no plan.  After all, that is what some people are after with their music.  They kind of want to rebel against structures and rules.  If you have a drive to do it like that, go for it.  I don’t disagree.  But then…you probably don’t care what I think, so…ya…

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Good Song Tips

A good song should meet one of more of the Good Song Tips below.  It’s not a perfect science but the framework is still there and its helpful I think.

  1. Songs need to provide some dynamic range within themselves.  Some parts up and some parts down.  Some fast, some slow.  Only a precious few songs should be one-dimensional in the area of dynamics.
  2. Songs should provide an emotional connection for the artist and the audience whenever possible, but especially for the artist.  Also, there are many emotions and all count here.
  3. Songs can explore all of life.  Not just themes about God, or just themes about love, or just themes about society.
  4. Songs don’t always have to showcase the band’s technical skill, but some probably should.  Others can showcase other skills.  A great song for a specific band will showcase lots of strengths of the band, but maybe in different sections.
  5. Songs should reflect the artist performing it.  Pick songs that give you a voice.  Try to allow yourself to accept you have your own voice as well.  You don’t always need to borrow someone else’s, even if you just LOVE their music.

Song Justification Tips

Sometimes a particular song just should not be done by a particular band because it just doesn’t work.  That’s not to say you couldn’t creatively find a way to make it work, but that process could take a LOT of work and the bottom line is that there are a lot of songs out there – both written and unwritten.  Why focus on a song that’s not working when so many others might be awesome for your particular band?

  1. Pick songs with an understanding of your sound. That is, you should be looking to make versions of songs using your sound as a guide. This could be original songs or cover songs, but typically we are talking about covers here.  Ideally you would be inventing a new way of making that particular song work. The entertainment value will be for people to see what you do with songs they know. If they don’t know the song, the song should still hold some interest because it works for your particular band.  This is the category you might be able to justify doing a favorite song in but I’d say if you are sounding too close to the original, it gets dangerous.  The reason is because it might end up looking and feeling like you are trying to do the original, but can’t.  So sometimes close-but-not-quite-there can be a bad thing.  Watch for that. If there is nothing special about the song (as that song relates to the band in question) it will make the song choice weak.  For cover songs, remember the test question: If someone hears your version of this song, is there any chance it could become a favourite for them?  If you are pretty sure the answer is “no”, let it go or at least rework it again and see what you can do with it.
  2. Original songs.  Originals are kind of always ok, but they should still be songs tailored to our sound.  There is a lot of freedom for a band that writes its own stuff.  Beware though, if you don’t treat song writing as a craft, the only freedom you might see is freedom from gigs, an audience, and fans.
  3. Learn some songs as a facsimile.  Or cover songs done to a ‘T’.  These songs should be entertaining because you are doing a song not just anyone could learn and do. The songs here are a special kind of showcase for the band.  The band can use their skill to make it a really good facsimile.  The band stresses being able to pull off the “hard parts” so when people here it, they are entertained/impressed by the fact that we tried a challenging song and pulled it off.  For some bands, this category doesn’t really ever apply.  You don’t have to use it.  1 and 2 cover most songs.

One comment about category 1.  This category kind of suggest you know what your band’s sound is.  If you aren’t in a band yet, you might not know your sound.  If you are letting the songs you have guide the band selection, you will have to hunt for the players matching the sound of the songs.  Alternatively you need to pick songs and taylor them to the players you have pulled together.  My experience is that I’m usually doing the latter.  I don’t think either way is really right or wrong though.

Song Selection Tips

The last aspect of song picking that I think is important (that I can think of right now) is the whole thing about creating sets of songs that are useful for the band.  Where songs are subjective, setlist are even more subjective.  Lots of song swapping can happen to make a set just right for an express purpose.  Trial and error is probably the only good way to know when a set is really good, but the below four tips I think will help.

  1. The selection of songs have to strike a balance between a message that takes you somewhere and music that takes you somewhere.
  2. The selection of songs should lend themselves to a show format that ultimately would provide entertainment or could take an audience on a journey.
  3. The songs should compliment the band’s abilities, but different songs should show different parts.  When you put a list together, make sure you are being diverse in your showcasing of abilities.
  4. The selection of songs should not suggest we are tribute to any other act, unless you are actually trying to be a tribute act.

Much more can be said about song and set selection, leave your comments and I’ll incorporate your ideas.  I might even give you some credit. 🙂

This post is Part 3 of a series: