Odds are, you may one day face this situation. Whether through artistic differences, differing musical skill or personality clash, you may face the realization that it’s time to cut a band member loose.
While conflicting emotions and personal discomfort often forestall such decisions, when it’s time to drop the axe, I can tell you from firsthand experience that there are right and wrong ways to do it. And I’ll be frank about the wrong way. Unless you want people to remember you for years in a negative way, the last thing you want to do is let someone walk into a pit.
This appropriate metaphor comes from a form of animal trap where a hunter digs a deep pit in the ground, overlays it with a lattice of branches covered in leaves and sets some bait in the middle of the covering. Unlike leg-hold traps and other active trap mechanisms, the pit trap (from which we get the word “pitfall”) works passively. Once the trap is set, a hunter doesn’t need to do anything other than leave the bait to attract an animal onto the camouflaged latticework. Once there, the lattice gives way under the weight of the animal and drops the animal into the pit, where the animal can’t escape until either the hunter returns to kill it or the animal dies of starvation, stress or injuries sustained from the fall.
Similarly, bands often set such traps to axe band members because they accomplish the kill passively. Bands only need to set them and let victims walk into them. Here’s what I mean:
As a young musician in the mid-1980s, I spent about a year as lead vocalist for a cover band, and we played a lot of great shows. Eventually, the band decided to book studio time to record a few demos for concert promoters. So I got to work, heading to the studio over the course of a few weeks to lay down vocal tracks, until the day I walked in to discover another vocalist in my place.
Now I’m not one who commonly gets angry. Things happen that you can’t control, and you can either roll with them or carry anger around like luggage. Yet on that day, I got pretty pissed off.
Throughout the recording sessions, the band had given little indication that they wanted another vocalist, and on the day they decided to make the change, they didn’t say a word to me. Rather, they let me walk right into the studio to see another singer standing in the vocal booth.
In other words, the band had decided to dig a pit and let me walk into it.
Once there, I think someone mumbled something like, “We were going to tell you.” But as Gord Downie pointed out in “Wheat Kings,” nobody is interested in something you didn’t do.
After that, they just left me to my wounds. So, I left with all the dignity I could muster, and I admit. If social media had been invented at the time, I may have gone off in the heat of the moment and tweeted the f-bomb like throwing confetti.
It wasn’t being let go from a cover band that specifically ticked me off. I’d been getting a bit tired of playing other people’s songs and the band didn’t appear to have a goal beyond remaining a cover band. What ticked me off was how they’d lacked the guts to be straight with me—to at least acknowledge some value for the work I’d done for them by sitting down with me (just like an employer would do in a layoff situation) and saying something like, “Hey, man. The band has decided to go in another direction, but we really want to thank you for everything you’ve done.”
I could have welcomed that. That would have at least let me walk free from their trap with some sense that I was worthy of respect…
…and thankfully, someone eventually gave me that.
To protect his privacy, I’ll call him Steve, who’d joined the band as lead guitarist shortly before the recording sessions. Having quietly observed things as they went down in the studio, he called me at home to apologize for the trap that the others had set. He let me know how wrong that had been and both thanked me for the work I’d done and wished me all the best in the future. And I was honest in telling him how much I appreciated his call.
To say it another way: As a guitarist who’d played for years in many bands, Steve understood that music was a profession and fellow musicians were colleagues to be treated with the same courtesy and respect as anyone in any profession would treat colleagues in any workplace.
To this day, I admire and thank Steve for giving me the gift of that phone call, which quelled my anger and reminded me of my self-worth, and I would encourage you to do the same if you have to let a band member go. Treat them squarely. Offer a handshake as you see them to the door. Treat them as a colleague, because you would undoubtedly hope for the same.
Sure. Some people don’t see it as their responsibility to observe equality and fairness. Some like to rinse themselves of accountability by saying things like, “You have to have a thick skin to survive,” and that’s certainly part of the equation in any occupation. Yet to the greater service of an industry with a long history of being a vicious game (to coin April Wine), it’s to the betterment of musicians everywhere to at least consider not being one more set of gnashing teeth in a machine stained with a criminal record of chewing people up and spitting them out.
Such actions are, of course, human actions, and the good news in all of this is that music is not a human. As an entity that bestows its grace upon anyone regardless of age, gender, income, race, nationality or anything, music independently governs its own sense of action and tends to keep the scales level…
…meaning, if you’re the one cut from a band, it’s not the end of world.
After I was cut, I went on to play with other musicians and write and record my own songs, and I happily continue writing today. As for that cover band, they eventually fell apart, and none of them ever found the success they sought, with the exception of Steve. He eventually wound up with a band who signed with a major label and released an album, and I still like to believe that, as someone who may or may not have used the word karma, his observance of respect and courage was rewarded.
Written by Xristopher Bland