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9 ways to make band auditions better.

by Jimmy Mulvihill
Over 1,000+ bands have used our studios over the last 33 years, and between 40-50 of them have held auditions for new band members whilst we’ve worked here, since 2005. It’s impossible to see so many of them and to not learn something, especially when the bands have used us as a sounding board to see what our opinion of their potential new band mate is. “What do you think, mate, how do you think that they fit in with us?”
On one level it’s one of the hardest parts of being in a band: the most fundamental factor in a band's success is the people in it, and if you don’t get that right then no matter how much you rehearse, how much money you invest or how many connections you have, if the band doesn’t have the right band members then it’s not going on work. Every other aspect of the band can be compromised, songs can be re-recorded, you can come back and play a venue in the future when you're a better band, and so recording sessions and gigs don't have the same level of consequence when it comes to needing to get them right. By contrast you can't have a band member in the band that doesn't fit in with the other band members, and hope that it somehow improves in the future, that decision needs to be correct at the time it's made. If they're not the right band member now, they're not going to be the right band member next year. You can't incrementally improve your decision on how suitable a person is for your band. On another level there’s times when you just know that the person who walked into your studio is right, it just feels natural, and it’s hard to explain why, it just does. In that case choosing the right band mate is the easiest and most natural decision you’ll ever need to make in the band.

Here’s some things you should keep in mind when you’re either in a position of auditioning for a band, or some things to consider if you’re in a band that is auditioning a new band mate.

1) If you’re nervous about auditioning for a band, don’t worry about it. In most cases the band are nervous too. It’s very rare that a band will ever ask the person auditioning to arrive to the studios at the exact same time as the audition starts. The band will usually plan to get there at least half an hour beforehand to set up their equipment, chat with their other band mates and go through a few songs first to loosen themselves up. In the days before social distancing, pre-March 2020, we would usually be in the room with them setting up the PA system, and in most cases it was clear to see that the band were nervous, and understandably so. They could be about to meet the person they create music with, work with and socialize with for the next decade or so. They wouldn’t have planned the audition if they didn’t think that it had potential, so it’s perfectly natural for the band to also have nervous anticipation when meeting a new band member. The lack of any nerves at all would be a sign of apathetic ambivalence. The presence of nerves is healthy.

In most cases the person auditioning will be even more nervous, especially if they’re auditioning for an established band, and particularly if they’re a fan of their music. There’s extra factors that add to this, not least the fact that they’re outnumbered by the existing band members, and the fact that the decision as to whether they can join the band is out of their hands. I’ve spoken to auditionees as well who have said that if the band were to say, “sorry, it just didn’t click with us…..” then there’s not as much drama compared to the band saying, “we want you to join the band, welcome aboard…..”, only to have the person auditioning for them say, “actually, you know what, this isn’t for me, I think I’ll pass….” The logic of this is that the person auditioning should already know the bands music, so if they turn down the chance to be a part of the band, then it will likely be due to the personalities of the band members, which is a more personal reason than just saying that the musical style didn’t match up. The person auditioning will already know the style of the band, in which case it’s harder to give it as a reason as to why they can’t join, whereas the band have the diplomatic get-out-of-jail-free card of saying, “you’re a great musician, but the musical vibe just didn't click…..” Even simple things can throw someone who is about to audition, such as never having been to the rehearsal studios before, where the band may have rehearsed at for years, and not knowing what equipment they’ll be using, all of which can add to the nervous anticipation. If you’re auditioning for a band, none of this should phase you. Nerves are a natural part of the process, they’re useful, they’ll focus your mind, and they’re to be expected. If the band seems super relaxed when you get there, then you’ll likely be seeing a different side to them than we see when we’re setting up the studio, and just because they may be doing a great job to hide their nerves, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world if you can’t do the same. Showing nerves when turning up to your audition shows that you care, which is one of the most fundamental things that any band wants in a new band member. Trust me, as someone who has been in a room with loads of bands just before auditions, 95% of bands also have butterflies before they audition someone. If you have nerves then it’s not you, it’s just the process.
2) Be aware that you may be one of a few people that are auditioning that day. This is one of the common mistakes that we’ve seen over the years, where the people auditioning for the band don’t realise that they’d be one of many trying out that day, or where the band hasn’t made it clear to anyone coming to audition that this is the case. I’ve had occasions where two guitarists are trying out for the band within the same audition, and as I’ve shown the second guitarist into the studio, just as the first guitarist is finishing their audition, both of them have let out a surprised, “ohh……..” upon hearing of the existence of the other. There’s nothing wrong with auditioning more than one person in a session, it can actually allow the band to make a much better direct comparison between the different applicants, but at the same time the band should at least let them know that this is the case, for basic manners if not anything else. Put yourself in the position of the person being asked to audition: they may have recorded a video of themselves playing their instrument and sent it to the band upon hearing that a previous member had left, and suddenly the band is asking them to come to their next rehearsal session. In their mind the band sees them as a good fit, just the person to take over. Upon getting to the studio they’ve now learned that they’re just one of many, an “option”, as opposed to “a prime candidate.” Joining a band means committing a lot of time, money and emotional energy to your new band mates, so finding out at your audition that they’re keeping their options open is going to hurt. If you’re a band, and if it applies, then make sure that anyone coming to audition for your band understands that there are other people coming that day, and try to leave at least a 15 minute gap between different candidates, so that one guitarist is not packing up their equipment whilst the next one stands there, glaring at them, hard case in hand. If you’re the one auditioning to join the band then it should be taken for granted that other people will be auditioning that day, or at least in another session. It doesn’t reflect badly on you that the band is keeping their options open, especially if they’ve never met you before.

3) Maybe decide whether the first meeting with a potential band mate should happen in a rehearsal studio at all? The musical ability of a band mate is often just one of many factors that matter, and in the case of band members such as Meg White in ‘The White Stripes’, Bez in ‘The Happy Mondays’ or Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols, sometimes a band member will bring more to a band than can be measured by the notes that they play. Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Guns ‘n’ Roses lost important band members and had their pick of the finest musicians in the world to replace them, and in both cases they were able to pick amazing guitarists to fill the void that had been left by John Frusciante and Slash, yet it was still impossible to replicate the magic of the band member that they’d lost, since part of the magic came from the connection that those band mates had.
Even if a potential band member is an incredible musician, if they don’t click musically with the rest of the band then it’s just not going to work out. Even if they do click musically, if their personalities clash then sooner or later that’s going to become an issue, which could put at risk all of the progress that the band has made up until that point. Band members need to have enough common interests and to be on the same wavelength, and you don’t necessarily need to have a band rehearsal with them to work out of this is the case. As hard as this is for me to say, as someone who makes his living from people using rehearsal studios, meeting your potential band mate(s) down the pub and chatting to them for an hour may be a much better way to judge whether they’re a person that you feel that you can get on with, and whether they're the right candidate.

I remember one example in particular where we had a band that played very angular music, with staccato riffs, who wore white shirts and short black ties with immaculate hair, all of whom were in their early 20s, with them playing 2 minute songs with lyrics about politics and poets from the 1960s. They took their band very serious, and they were auditioning for a new band mate, adding a second guitarist to the band, but they had decided – against my advice – to not include a list of their musical influences in the advert, instead leaving notes about wanting someone “who could immerse themselves in the music, and who sees being in a band as part of their identity, and is able to connect with people on an intense level.” They were rehearsing in our studio 1, the furthest from the office, and when the guitarist who was auditioning for the band turned up, I instantly knew that this was going to be one of the most ‘interesting’ auditions we’d ever had. The guitarist was in his mid 40s, had bleached blonde peroxide hair that went past his shoulders, played a purple and yellow Jackson 7 string guitar with Floyd Rose bridge, wore a West Ham shirt and sunglasses, and brought with him a 6 pack of Stella Artois. As I led him from the office into the studio I asked him at least 2 or 3 times whether he was really auditioning for this band, and he confirmed that he was, and upon walking in the 4 existing members, who were stood in a circle drinking Roibos tea all turned to look at their new potential band member, looked him up and down, and it was clear that both the band and their potential new band-mate knew that this wasn’t going to work. Within 30 seconds you could see that their personalities clashed too much, and whilst the band was to be commended for trying to think outside the box in an effort to broaden the bands sound, at the same time it was clear that the audition was going to be a write off. The person auditioning for the band seemed like a lovely fella and a skilled guitarist, but 45 minutes later they were on their way home. Soon after one of the members of the band came around to the office, put the kettle on, and as it boiled he put his hands on the back of his neck, and let out the longest sigh you could imagine. “Ooooooohhhhh God, that was paaaaaaaaiiiinnnful!” It was clear that it had been an excruciating experience for everyone concerned, and one which could have been avoided if they had met each other in a less formal setting to make sure that their personalities meshed.
4) Make sure that your schedule and ambitions are in line with the other band members. There are also purely practical factors that need to be considered when auditioning for bands, such as the logistics involved in band practices. We once had a band who all had very busy lives who worked in the city, in banking/pr, and they were only available to rehearse for 6 hours on a Saturday, with them working late Monday to Friday and spending Sunday with their families. Upon finding a great bassist they learned that he had separated from his wife and that Saturday was always the day that he spent time with his daughter, a time which could not be moved. Everything else clicked, their personalities, their musical skills, their talent, but there was no way that they could make the logistics work. I’ve seen band mates who had to leave bands as they were moving away to a new area, yet they had joined the band 6 months earlier, at a time that they knew that they would be moving away soon. They’d never mentioned it to their band mates, and so when they left the band all of the progress made in those months was lost. I’ve seen bands want to get an album ready for the early spring, so that they could play as many music festivals in the summer as possible, to then have their band-mate of 3 months drop the bombshell that they usually spend 8 weeks of every summer back in their hometown in Sicily, making playing the UK festival circuit impossible.
I’ve seen a band that had 3 band members who worked in jobs they disliked as a means of survival until their musical career took off, who all had the attitude that they were willing to do ANYTHING to make the band a success so that they could finally leave the jobs that they hated. By contrast, the last band member had a building firm that they owned and loved, that also paid them a great income, and they were using the band to let their hair down in their free time. When the band was offered an opportunity to play about 20 gigs in a month supporting an established band, 3 quarters of the band was salivating at the thought, whereas when the last band member uttered the words, “….I’m not doing that, I’m scheduled to be doing a double story extension in Muswell Hill that month….”, it was clear that the band members had differing levels of commitment, and were looking to get different things from the band. It was an obstacle that was impossible to overcome, and it should have been anticipated.
One of the best things about being in a band is that each person can get out of it what they want. I grew up in a family with 3 sisters and no brothers, and whilst I had friends growing up, I always missed being part of a “gang”. I wasn’t very good at football, and so was always one of the last to be picked when teams were chosen, and knowing that the team was “stuck” with me, as opposed to "wanting" me wasn’t great for the ego. When I applied to join a band, and saw that the other band mates were really enthusiastic about my guitar playing and the ideas that I was able to bring to their music, suddenly I felt that I had 3 brothers, and I was an essential part of a team, finally. This was always the best part of being in a band for me, that feeling that you’re playing a really important role in a collective, that you’re an important cog in the machine, and there was no replacing that “us against the world” feeling. However, when push came to shove I wasn’t willing to do ANYTHING to make the band successful. I had clear limits, and for me being in the band was a reward in itself. If that had been talked about at an early meeting then it could have saved a lot of bother for us all since it was one of the factors that split us up in the end. Don’t make the same mistake, make sure that there are no factors that will cause problems further on down the line, or at least that if there are then the band knows that they’re on the horizon, and that they’ll need to be addressed at some point.
5) Actually listen to the music that the band plays ahead of time, and learn how to play it. Each song.

This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how much it is overlooked. If you listen to the band’s music, make sure that you don’t just listen to one or two songs, make sure that you listen to ALL of their music, and that you;re able to practice it before you meet them. If you need help with the chords then ask, don’t leave it until the audition to “work it out”, as not only is this likely to make you a lot more nervous when it’s time for you to impress, but you’re unlikely to make a great impression if you’re working out the basics of the song there and then. If they have 10 songs, and if you learn 8 of them, you can guarantee that ‘sods law’ will kick in and they’ll want to play one of the other two songs that you haven’t learned at the first rehearsal. If the band is worth auditioning fro then do it properly, and if they're not worth auditioning for then don't waste yours or their time. Make sure you learn all of the songs, so that you can make the best impression possible, as the reasons why you wouldn’t do this, like “I don’t have time”, can all be used as reasons to not accept you into the band.

6) Treading the line between putting your stamp on the music, and overstepping the mark.

If you’re already joining an original band that has a clearly defined musical style, you should always feel that you can put your musical stamp on the band, but this usually needs to be done in a way that is sympathetic to the style that the band has already developed. It needs to add to their style, not detract from it. If the band intends to keep the songs that they’ve written prior to auditioning a new band member, then they clearly see the band with the new band member as a continuation of how the band was before the new band member joined. Those songs are the whole identity of the band, without those songs the band is nothing, so the utmost respect needs to be made to them.

One of my most vivid memories when seeing a band recruiting a new band member, which in this case was a new bassist, was seeing a band that had a super stripped down approach, one guitarist doing simple barre chords, a drummer with just hi hats and a single crash ride, no rack toms, just sticking to the beat with no frills at all…. and then seeing the bassist who was auditioning for the band get his 6 string bass out, with a plethora of pedals, with him warming up with an exercise that involved playing about 8 notes a second, running up and down the fret-board with all 4 of the fingers on his right hand smacking the strings in turn. The bassist had said that he loved the bands songs, and wanted to “bring an extra dimension to them”, but in doing that he would be completely changing the minimalist style of the band. There was no way that he could bring his new style to the band without completely disregarding everything that had gone beforehand.

By all means, the band may be happy for you to take the musical style of the band in a new direction, but that should really be verified with them in advance, to make sure that the audition has any hope of being successful, and there should be a clear line in the sand drawn by both the band and the new member auditioning to them as to how much new musical direction the new member will be bringing to the band, or how much musical direction the band wants the new member to bring to them. Otherwise you’re auditioning for the band based on their musical style, whilst also wanting to change their musical style.
7) Pay attention not only to musical aspects of the band, but also their attitude. Whilst effort needs to be put in by both parties, if you're having to fight too hard to be taken seriously, then it’s probably not meant to be.

When you arrive to your rehearsal, act as you would if you had already been accepted into the band. If this means asking the band for their help in making you feel comfortable, then do so. There’ll always be that dynamic where the band gets to decide whether to accept you into their fold, and that balance of power can be intimidating, but at the same time there’s no point in joining a band that isn’t willing to do everything that they can to make sure that the new band member is able to perform at their best, and this is something that should never be taken for granted. Anyone auditioning to join a band should respect the dynamic of that band, sure, but the band should also respect the feelings of the new person trying out too. I remember one particularly unsavoury situation where we had a 4 piece band rehearsing at the studios, with a classic singer/ guitarist/ bassist/ drummer line up, who added a second guitarist to make them a 5 piece band. From the outside at least, it looked like they simply wanted a new band member as they’d hit a bit of a brick wall in terms of the personal dynamics within the band, and they reasoned that introducing a new band member was the easiest way to inject new energy and enthusiasm into it. The problem was that they had had an established line up for nearly half a decade, and as a result they felt very territorial when anyone actually came into the band. From their point of view as the new band member was “only playing barre chords”, any mistakes that they make were unforgivable. Over the next 6 months they must have gone through 5 or 6 different rhythm guitarists, with them reasoning that as the songs were already written, and as they didn’t need any creative input into their music since the set list was firmly established by now, this would give them a license to churn through guitarists who were seen as interchangeable, with them pushing them to their absolute limits, knowing that if the rhythm guitarist left the band, there would be another along soon who could replace them. It soon became clear that the 4 members were so tight, both musically and as friends, that they were almost using the revolving door of the 5th band member as a metaphorical punchbag, to vent the frustrations that they should have really been directing at each other, seeing the new band member as disposable, serving a purpose, and replaceable. I also suspected as well that the band didn’t actually want a fuller guitar sound, they just wanted to have a new member to mix-up the band dynamics, and that they reasoned that out of all of the band members the guitarist would be the easiest one to double-up on. From where I was looking it appeared that the guitarist resented the fact that his instrument was chosen to accommodate the new band member, and as a result the 5 or 6 new guitarists that went through the band, with pretty much all of them being lovely people, both male and female, were put through the emotional wringer as a result. This is an extreme example, but it tells a story: you don’t know what the dynamic of a band is when you audition for them, and you’re likely not going to be told what it is either when you audition, it will usually reveal itself over the coming weeks, so you should start to take notice of the dynamics of the band immediately, and the relationship between it's members. I’ve seen a band that had a band member die tragically young, and when they tried out new replacement members months later, they were unfairly harsh on the applicants from their own guilt at “replacing” the sadly deceased band member. In a way they were sabotaging themselves, knowing that finding the right replacement for the band would, in their eyes, mean that their friend had been replaced and would be forgotten. After going through 3 different replacements, all of whom were great musicians, they eventually replaced them all with a close friend of theirs who had already had a relationship with the departed band member, and who had also played music with them. Whilst they were not as good a musician as some of the others that had auditioned, the band was much happier as there was a feeling that the musical connection that the new guitarist had had with the previous band member meant that the band was able to be more of a continuation of how it was before their passing. Musicians are emotional, and when you get those musicians into a band then the emotions are multiplied. If you’re looking to audition for a band you should ask the band members the circumstances of how the position has become available, and feel welcome to probe those reasons. If the previous band member was kicked out due to a “lack of commitment to the band” ask them how much that level was, to make sure that you don’t fall into the same trap, and to know what their expectations are. If you’re in a band that is auditioning a new band member you should be careful that you do not push any emotions onto the new person that are left over from previous band members, and that you treat them fairly, If you’re a 5 piece band that asked a band member to leave, with the other 4 band members voting 3 to 1 to ask the 5th band member to leave the band, it’s easily possible that the band member that voted to keep the previous band member could feel antagonistic towards the new band member, whether they realize it or not. It’s not the fault of the new person applying to join the band that they’re replacing the previous band member, and so it’s unfair that they should suffer the burdens of the emotions built up from before they joined the band. The best way to counteract this is for both the band that is applying for a band member, and the new member that is applying to join the band, to be aware that such emotions exist in all bands, and to face them immediately.

8) Be on time, and know where the rehearsal studio is in advance.
A boring one, I know, but nothing makes a worse impression than turning up half an hour late, hot and flustered from trying to find the rehearsal studios, and now only having 30 minutes to impress the band instead of the 60 minutes you were meant to have. Saying to the band that you’re late as you couldn’t find the studios isn’t going to set the best impression, and yet I've seen it too many times. There’s nothing worse than an unreliable band member, so start as you mean to go on, set a good first impression, and get to the rehearsal studio early if you can, not least so that you can chat to the staff there to find out a bit more information about the band, to tune your guitar, choose which amplifier you want to use, and to gather your thoughts before before you start to rehearse.

9) Enjoy it, and keep things in perspective

Finally, life is hard enough as it is without taking as much joy out of the things you like best, and playing music that you love, with the people who you love, in front of the people who love it, is one of they best things ever. Even better, if it works out then someone may pay you for it. You should never lose sight of how amazing that is, so when things don't go to plan, don't take it to heart. Considering the potential payoff of being in a successful band, you just need to accept that there's going to be times when musicians aren't right for each other. It is how it is. There's no point in being a part of a band that you're not right for, so if the band doesn't feel that you're right for them then you should genuinely be happy that they're directing you towards another band that's better for you. If it's meant to be then it's meant to be.


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