Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The "It" Factor

The essay below is a lightly edited version of a column of mine that appeared on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association's web site.

What makes some bands work while others fall to the sidelines or putter along getting dates and making some money, but never rising to the top?  Why is it that certain groups with impeccable musical credentials and capable of making marvelous music are relatively unrecognized while other whose work is objectively inferior achieve greater success?  What constitutes the “It” factor that causes some bands to achieve fame and a relative degree of fortune, while bands lacking “It” toil on, never quite understanding what's holding them back?  The answer to these questions lies in identifying a set of sub-factors and working to build upon them while eliminating other factors that reduce the chances of success.  This takes huge amounts of work and a great deal of thought and development. One thing's for certain, though. It's not “all about the music.”

Becoming a fine bluegrass band begins with musicianship, but certainly doesn't end there.  For the most part, it can be said that most players in professional bluegrass bands play their instruments at a professional level.  Individual musicians need to be able to blend together within the group to become a unified and complementary ensemble. Making bluegrass music is a highly competitive enterprise, but doing it in a band means setting the bar high while working to create a sound, a vibe, that's bigger than any individual within the group.  Bands are also billed as acts.  The word “act” suggests a group of musicians should at least seem to be enjoying themselves and each other in what they're doing.  Making music should look difficult as well as eminently enjoyable.  The more a band acts as if it were together and having a great time, the more the audience and the musicians themselves will believe this to be true. 

Having great material that becomes immediately associated with the band is a crucial element in having “It.”  Great material means selecting songs well-suited to the sound and nature of the band and, better still, having fine songs come from band members themselves.  No matter how well a band presents songs by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, or the Stanley Brothers, they're still a cover band if they do more than about twenty percent of the traditional material in a fashion similar to that of the pioneers.  It's not necessary for a band to have song writers, but it sure is helpful.  It is necessary, however, for a band to select original material which tastefully represents the sound and image they wish to cultivate.  Highly successful bands develop such a recognizable sound that a listener to XM/Sirius radio or a personal player can identify them after three to five notes without looking at the radio's screen. The more material a band originates, the more recognizable they can become.

Honesty and authenticity really work for a band in helping it rise above the crowd.  Unfortunately, neither of these elements can be manufactured, although some artists seem to get away with fooling the audience longer than others do.  In the end, a manufactured image will show itself.  How are these very important elements of a successful band made apparent to an audience?  First, it's very important that members of the band enjoy each other and love making music together.  If there's an unhappy person in the band, no amount of showmanship or faked camaraderie can cover the difficulties forever.  Spontaneity is another element that works in many groups' favor.  A group that can authentically react to each other and to situations in a spontaneous fashion can more easily win and keep audience affection.  The banter between the Gibson Brothers, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, or Kenny & Amanda Smith endears them to audiences.  Similarly, Rhonda Vincent's ability to key in on a particular fan's request, even from the stage wins over many people.  Cynicism and hypocrisy are easily seen and annoy audiences no end.  Humor can work for a band, but silliness is less endearing.  Forced humor almost always falls flat.

Professionalism from a working band almost always works well in its favor. Professionalism never means being cold, distant, or unapproachable.  Rather it suggests a series of behaviors that communicate themselves to the audience.  A truly professional band can't show that it's disappointed when it takes the stage to a tent full of empty seats.  It comes out and performs at its to level all the time.  Professional bands perform with energy and commitment.  They dress with an eye to the image they wish to project, but no particular form of dress works for each group.  It's not necessary to come on stage wearing coats and ties or with shirts all tucked in, but a particular look contributes to a specific image.  I've heard band members scoff at the idea of developing a business plan and then sticking to it, but thoughtful and careful planning seems to really pay off for most bands who want to succeed in this difficult and competitive business. 

In the end, no band has “It” for every listener, but a surprising number of bands develop long and lasting appeal because they adhere to many, if not all, of the principles I've outlined above.  They have a good and solid work ethic, but their appeal reaches beyond hard work to creating a total package that's distinctive, identifiable, and long lasting.  Think about the bands that particularly appeal to you to see whether they reach these standards.  If you're a member of a band, apply the ideas here to see where you need to make some changes and what has worked for you.   Bands, and people, which find themselves stuck in unproductive behavior may make a splash for a while, but surely aren't going to succeed over the long haul.