These days, there is no magic number of band members or magic combination of instruments that makes up a successful band. There are bands that make it work with just two people and bands that make a success out of touring with entire ensembles and diverse orchestration.
It comes down to what you require to present a compelling live show. There are several things to take into consideration and we'll cover them below.
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The Difference Between Hiring A Band and Playing In A Band
Generally, bands fall under two categories: hired bands and collective bands. I have been playing as the primary artist for a couple years now, hiring my band members for the studio, tours, and one-off gigs. I have also been in a collective band that toured heavily.
Solo artists (or sometimes duos or trios that write and produce together) will usually hire their bands. Their band members will have no stake in the actual business, but will instead be paid a flat rate per show, per tour, per rehearsal, per studio day, etc.
This has advantages and disadvantages. In this situation, the primary artist gets to collect all the income themselves. They do not need to split income from songwriting royalties or even from shows. They simply must pay the flat rate that the side musicians agreed to.
This also makes the creative relationship simple. The primary artist is the ultimate arbiter of the creative choices and vision for the group. If someone has an idea, it is ultimately the artist’s decision to keep that idea.
That said, when you are just starting out, hiring a band can be difficult, frustrating and expensive. This has been my situation for the last two years, and frankly, most of my full-band shows have resulted in me paying the band, covering expenses, and having everyone making money except me.
This can be discouraging! It can also be discouraging if your band members are just showing up for the paycheck, and not putting their all into the music. This was not the case for me. I love my band and wouldn’t change it, but it can be expensive.
On the other hand, bands that operate as a collective have an advantage when they are starting. Everyone has a relatively equal say, and everyone has a relatively equal stake. This means all expenses and income is split evenly. When the band makes money, everyone makes money! When there are expenses, they are split evenly.
Being in a collective band when I was starting out was great – we all learned industry skills together, wrote, rehearsed, recorded, and toured together. Our successes and failures were all shared.
That said, everyone having an equal say eventually broke up the band. When we stopped agreeing on musical decisions, the band disbanded.
At the outset, create a vision for your project and discuss it with the band members. How involved should they be in creative decisions? How involved in business decisions? Are they full members of the band or hired? This is important!
The Fewer People In The Band, The Easier It Is To Tour
The first thing to keep in mind is that the fewer people in the band, the easier it is to tour, rehearse, plan, organize, and perhaps most importantly – it's easier to pay everyone fairly.
That's why you see so many bands heading out on tour with tight setups. Many bands consist of fewer individuals, playing more instruments.
Much of the time, this is a practical consideration. Personally, I toured with a trio across Canada, but whenever I play festivals our hometown shows, I hire my full six-person band.
It is simply not feasible for me to tour with a six-person band at this point. It is too expensive to feed and house six people every night.
Three people is easy – we fit in a regular-sized van, share one hotel room (or floor), and are easily fed and paid.
I believe that you should have as many people in your band as it takes to realize your creative vision. However, you need to be realistic.
If you can put on a good show with fewer members, less is more.
What About Using Pre-Recorded Tracks?
Many, many artists use pre-recorded tracks (usually just referred to as tracks) in their live shows. This serves two purposes: to cut down on the members needed to achieve a full sound and to achieve certain sounds that are difficult to attain with a traditional live band setup.
As a sideman, I have done work in the pop-country world, and I will tell you right now that 90% of high-level pop-country acts are using tracks in their live show.
First and foremost, this is because it does not make sense to hire two to four extra members to play extra acoustic guitar parts, synth parts, pads, banjos, backing vocals, percussion, etc. For most acts, it is easier to just program the parts and have one of the band members running tracks.
Once the tracks are set up, artists use them to achieve sounds they cannot always achieve with a live setup. Sometimes, artists will use pre-recorded 808 kick and snare samples, pre-recorded bass and synth parts, and more to make their sound truly larger than life.
There is nothing wrong with using tracks, and if you think that would make your show better or more financially viable, then you should attempt to do it.
Here is a little bit of advice on using tracks: less is more and make sure they work in your genre.
Using too many tracks can result in a show that feels disconnected and unbelievable. Ideally, the audience should not realize that you are using tracks. In general, I prefer when tracks are supporting the instruments and players on stage, not replacing them.
Make sure that using tracks makes sense for the gigs you are playing and the genre you are playing in. Using tracks in a blues or folk/singer-songwriter show would be weird, and fans might not like it.
On the other hand, if you perform rap or hip-hop, you can perform with just a DJ or perform entirely to backing tracks, and most fans will not blink an eye.
You Need To Balance Creative Vision With Practical Considerations
The Tedeschi Trucks Band is an incredible live band; they often have 11-12 members. This includes two live drummers, a multi-instrumentalist keyboard player, background vocalists, two front people, and more.
This works for the band, because it is the realization of the band’s creative vision. It takes that many members for the band to create the sound they want.
It also works because the band is well-known and gets paid enough to feed, house, and transport all 11 members. This is the reality – if this band were starting out, they would have a hard time touring!
Check out Tedeschi Trucks Band performing “Midnight in Harlem” and see how it all comes together.
Then, check out a local favorite of mine, Rayannah, performing her set completely solo, but pulling off some amazing sounds.
Rayannah achieves this by using some tracks, layering multiple instruments over top of each other, using synths and drum machines creatively, but most importantly, she is a talented and practiced multi-instrumentalist who has figured out how to do this.
It takes time and vision to execute a live show well! Sure, sometimes everything lines up and your band is wicked right out of the gate, but that is the exception, not the rule.
Do not be afraid to experiment and try different things. You’ll know when the live show feels good.
The goal is to balance your creative vision with the realities of touring and playing shows. You need to be financially solvent to put on a good show, so do not break your bank trying to fit everyone into a big van!
The Benefits Of A Strong Solo Show
If you are the primary artist in your band, you should have a strong solo show.
I know, solo shows are hard, scary, and they can totally suck. It is not easy to get out in front of an audience and kill it all by yourself!
That said, having a strong solo show will make touring more viable. If you get a good opportunity, but that opportunity does not come with much money, you can go solo, break even, and still take advantage of the opportunity.
Playing solo opens a ton of doors for promotion, gigging, opening slots, festival tweener appearances, and more.
Practice playing on your own until you feel confident – you won’t regret having a solid solo show.
How Many People Should Be In Your Band; Final Thoughts
To decide how many people will be in your band, you need to focus on two things: whether you are the primary artist hiring the band, or if your band is a collective group.
If you are the primary artist, then you need to balance your creative vision with the practical realities of playing shows.
Your live show needs to be awesome, but you also need to be able to pay bills and stay afloat. Figure out how to make that work – whether you are using tracks, playing multiple instruments, playing solo – whatever.
If you are a collective, you need to make sure you are all on the same page, but otherwise, you can hire the amount of people it takes to create the sound you want.
A collective has an advantage here, because assuming everyone is committed, you can share goals, share work, share expenses, and share income. Make sure you have expense and income splitting worked out in advance, as when you begin to make real money, it will be important.