Can A Band Survive As A Democracy?

Music is about freedom. Nobody joins a band planning to conform or be bossed around. If anything, knocking out high-volume tunes with like-minded musicians is an outlet for independence, a chance to bring your best, be heard, and let your freak flag fly.

So it won’t come as welcome news that not every voice in a band can be equal. Not every opinion can matter. The democratic notion that there should be a communal vote on issues and that each player’s vote should hold the same weight sounds good in theory, but in creative ventures, it has the makings of trouble if not a complete trainwreck.

The crux of the problem is that vision — an idea imagined at its full potential — is highly individual. Though it can take a bunch of people to actualize the vision, at the first spark, it’s very personal and protected. One person has vision. Five people have arguments. Or, worse yet, they don’t have arguments and everyone concedes a little bit. Bending, making concessions, meeting halfway — all of that is just swell for conflict resolution, but it’s lousy for ideas.

Creativity by committee is tough. The biggest risk is that ideas will get diluted. If you’ve ever had a very clear concept for a song but then accepted some musical input that didn’t really work — and you let it stand to preserve the peace — you understand how this watering-down occurs. If you’ve ever heard a band with multiple lead vocalists and songwriters, you know the problem isn’t that the band lacks a sound but that it has about five sounds. Obvious exceptions like The Beatles and The Band aside, multiple-singer groups risk losing their voice and direction, which amounts to losing audience interest. It’s hard for a band to move forward when it's pulled in all directions.

Reality check: Not everyone’s original songs will be right for the band. Not everyone can cut it on lead vocals. Not everyone has a good sense of arranging a tune or planning a set list. Not every song needs a viola part just because the band has a viola player. It sounds cold. It is cold. But if your plan is to make a real go at being a professional band, there will be some chilly moments.

Majority rule isn’t a reliable system either, by the way. Either someone is always in the minority, which fosters resentment, or the makeup of players in the majority is always shifting, which results in a lack of consistency in the music produced. It seems better by far to have a benevolent dictator governing band decisions. That system is hinged on mutual respect all around, from every corner of the rehearsal space, and a shared confidence that the leader will make good choices for the band. Ultimately that leader takes responsibility and the knocks that sometimes come with it, and shares the wealth whether it comes in the form of musical accomplishment, accolades or actual dollars.

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Sure, there are band democracies that have worked. Sometimes good things even come of the push-and-pull between strong personalities. We probably wouldn’t have all those classic performances by Oasis, Guns ‘N Roses, The Who or Van Halen if bickering bandmembers hadn’t spent a good deal of time punching each other in the face. But they were lucky enough to be miserable with exactly the right people. To make those kinds of headaches worthwhile, the band’s chemistry (or the band’s bank account) has to be undeniable.

One person has to lead. Someone’s vote has to count a little more than the rest. Someone needs veto power. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, baddest musician in the group, either. In fact, a really effective band leader finds the right bandmates and allows them room to be their best. There’s a saying in business about that: A good boss hires talented people and then gets out of their way. Bands are about collaborative creativity, and they require plenty of lateral for experimentation. But it still takes one conductor at the center to get all of the pieces playing together.

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