Auditioning Musicians

Scott's Guitar Space

Auditioning Musicians

Before we discuss some of the more memorable experiences I have had with such endeavours, and perhaps an interesting audition or two I had been to myself, let me say that it is a very good idea to know exactly what you want to achieve with the project, show or act you are putting together, and what your expectations are of others who will be involved.

This will save you much grief.

As I mentioned in another post, I am an ENFP personality type. I like to be everyone’s friend, and I like everyone to be happy and smiling. I don’t like saying to others ‘No’ when they have put themselves out there.

I first auditioned people when I put my first band together. I was in my early 20s, and I knew what I wanted form a band, but I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. I’d played in bands and with other musicians, but I had always been asked to do so up to that time.

So I advertised. I put up flyers in the local music shops, I paid for some ads in the paper, and even tried out this new thing called the ‘internet’ and posted on some forums. 

I had some very specific views for what I wanted to play and wanted to achieve. At the time I was very much obsessed with blues, funk, soul, and jazz with some elements of rock thrown in…I pretty much wanted to sound like Robben Ford. 

And I put this in the ads and flyers. I also specified I only wanted experienced and committed people; even though I was only young I had already played a lot of gigs and had a pretty good idea of how to run rehearsals and the like. 

But when it came to auditioning, well that was quite an eye-opener.

There was the woman who called me and her first question was ‘When do we start touring, because I can only go every second week?’.

Then there was the guy who told me he was very keen to sing because his mates told him he was great. When asked what his experiences had been, he told me he’d only ever sung at karaoke nights with the footy club when he, to quote him exactly, had ‘a gut full of piss to make him sound better’. He said that he really needed an opportunity, but that no-one would give him one. I put him on the spot and asked him to sing over the phone. He started screaming ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ back at me. 

So I thanked him and said that I didn’t think he was quite what I was after. He begged me for an opportunity to sing. It was hard, but I said no.

There was the girl who wanted to show me how she could sing like my Mariah Carey and launched into ‘Emotions’ over the phone with no provocation. That was special. 

I’m not sure what it is with people who cannot sing very well picking ballads by Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera or Bette Middler at karaoke nights. This is exactly what I heard as this girl sang to me. 

And then there was the guy who called and rambled in a message for 10 minutes about what we wanted to do and how good he was. He sounded like someone to avoid.

But then he called back. And he called back again. And a few hours later he called back again. 

I was actually in a recording studio that day working for someone else, and had left my phone in the car. When I heard his messages I knew he wasn’t someone to work with, and  would call him back and thank him but say no thank you. I left the studio in the evening and had a 90 minute drive home, and I’d be going back in the morning…and I just thought I could return his call in a day or two. 

Well the next night I went back out to my car and found more messages from this caller. This time I called him back then and there to say I don’t think so, but thanks for making contact. He answered and I identified myself, at which point he launched into a flurry of words about how keen he was to join the band, how he was a professional musician wth fantastic gear, and had lots of great ideas for how we could make this thing a success. I tried to say a word here and there, but he was having none of it. 

Eventually I was able to speak, and so asked him to further detail his professional experience. He informed me that he liked to sing in the garage with his brothers every weekend; that they owned what he described as a ‘professional PA’ and…I have never heard this expressed in quite this fashion…in his heart he was a professional. 

I tried to suggest that professional means something different, but no, he wouldn’t hear of it. I then tried to wrap up the call and I thanked him for his time, but he wasn’t what I was looking for.

He kept trying to talk, but I had to be a bit firmer and thank him once more before cutting him off to say goodbye. 

Two days later there were several messages left on my phone from guess who? He wanted to know what songs he needed to learn for the audition, and what time he would get to do so. I felt trapped, so at that time decided the only way to move him on was to let him audition. 

That was a mistake on my part. 

I gave him a time and an address for the location. There were 4 others auditioning that night too, so I slotted him in between the 1st and 3rd singers coming along. 

The following Wednesday night I picked up the other guitarist and we drove to the church hall I had hired to use that night. We arrived about 30 minutes before and there was a lone figure sitting on the steps of the hall, but no car to be seen. 

When we pulled up he walked up to the car and asked who we were, and then introduced himself as the singer who had been so keen to speak to me on the phone. I said to him that he was pretty early, and asked how he arrived as there was no car anywhere. He told me he’d been in a crash the day before, so walked so as not to miss out. I had an idea of the area where he lived…he’d walked about 15 kms to be there. 

I said to him he should have just canceled, but no, he would have none of that.

We excused ourselves and went to setup, the first singer arrived and left; she was okay, but not quite what we were looking for. And then it was finally his turn. Said singer came in, picked up the mic, we went into the first song…and about 30 seconds in he doubled over as though in pain and started to scream into the mic. I stopped the band and asked if he was okay. He assured me he was, that this is how blues singers did it. Okay then! 

We played through the 3 songs I had asked him to learn. He had walked all that way, I wasn’t going to send him off after 30 seconds.

We played the 3 songs, he was terrible, and I thought that was it. But no, there was more to come!

As we finished the last song he said ‘Right, we’re going to play Message In a Bottle by The Police now and clicked a tempo with his fingers. I said no we, we’ve heard you sing and thanked him for coming, but that everyone was getting 3 songs and we’d discuss who we wanted back for a longer session. He informed me that he was now in the band because he’d done the audition, and that he wanted to play some songs by The Police. I said that wasn’t what we were doing, but he just started talking over the top of me. I then tried to ask him to leave as someone else was abut to come in, but as he had walked so far I would offer him a lift home as the least that I could do. He replied that I should just call and cancel the next person coming in, because he was in the band. I told him no, we would be giving everyone the same courtesy as we had given him, and they would be allowed to sing. He started mumbling and walking in circles and I said once more that he was welcome to wait outside but we needed to keep going.

He then unloaded on me. He started by saying my ego was unbelievable, before going into some sort of indecipherable rant punctuated by a mix of ‘f’ and ‘c’ bombs that were clearly decipherable.

He then stormed off…and about 2 hours later as I was driving the guitarist home we passed a lonely figure walking along the freeway in the dark. People aren’t meant to be there! As we saw recognised him the guitarist said to me ‘I know what you’re thinking, and if you try and pull over and offer him a lift I’ll kill you myself. He is insane and you don’t know what he will do to us, well especially you!’. 

Things are a little easier now. I request people to send me demo material and a bio (preferably with a live video) to an email address and advise them upfront I will contact them if interested. 

I also see if anyone knows of them and how they have found them to work with…someone can always improve on their instrument, but they might not find it as easy to improve their personality. 

If that goes well, we then have a chat abut their expectations and goals. Discussing money straight up can also be a good thing to get sorted. Some people expect 50% of everything but do no help with setup, pack up, or any ongoing expenses. I’ve had one singer tell me he wanted 70% of all pay as he was the one doing all the hard work, yet he did nothing else but sing. He wouldn’t even roll a lead at the end of night!

I also like to discuss personal habits. Do they do drugs? Do they drink at gigs? What people do in their private life is their business, but I don’t need their habits to cause me any trouble. 

I’ve been in rehearsal studios where a band member has flipped out because they took something before turning up…and that’s just been a waste of everyone’s time and money as we’ve paid for the studio time. 

I’ve also lost a couple of regular gigs because someone has gotten drunk during the gig and not been the charming individual they believe they are when intoxicated, but rather obnoxious jerks to staff and patrons. With OH&S, responsible service of alcohol laws in force and public liability being the way it is now, venues can’t afford to be lenient with any of this. 

If that is all good, I then try and get out and play with them as soon as possible, because that is the litmus test. 

Playing with the right people can be invigorating. Playing with the wrong ones can be painful.

It’s also important we show prospective musicians respect we are auditioning. Don’t waste their time. I called up once for a band looking for a lead guitarist. Over the phone they asked me the pertinent questions; my influences, playing experience, and expectations. All seemed good, so they asked me to come up and play with them. It was a 90 minute drive. I turned up at the designated time, took my gear in, opened the case of my guitar and one of them said ‘Oh you have a Strat. We don’t need to hear you play, because you’ll be one of those guitar wankers that want to solo all the time’. I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. I couldn’t believe it.


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