Peace of mind and money in your pocket
Forming a band, especially if you have pro ambitions, can be a frustrating experience. There's some great musicians out there, but, like members of the opposite sex, all the good ones are taken and you soon realise why the remainder weren't. They turn up late, if at all, they argue with you about what to play, they throw tantrums that would disgrace a three-year-old and they make all kinds of mistakes, assuming they remember to bring their instrument with them in the first place. Even if you do have great, reliable and loyal musicians, building a wide repertoire of songs can take an extremely long time and a lot of rehearsal studio money.
So, are there alternatives? Well yes there are, and the most effective, musically and financially, is to use backing tracks.
Some people, particularly in the rock and metal fraternities, think of backing tracks as somehow cheating, or not authentic. This, however is nonsense. Many massive acts use backing tracks at every gig. Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish, for instance, have used a full orchestra and choir on their last two albums. Do they take the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metro Voices Choir to every gig with them? Of course not, the orchestration is played on a backing track, linked to a metronome in the drummer's ear to keep everything in time. Do AC/DC bring a real church bell onto the stage and mic it up just to play Hell's Bells? No they don't (the bell they sometimes lower from the roof is a prop). Rush have been using MIDI backing tracks live pretty much ever since they were invented. Nobody accuses these bands of cheating; using a backing track allows these bands and countless others to enhance the audience experience.
At the other end of the scale are solo musicians and composers who want to get their music heard. For a solo songwriter or instrumentalist, getting a band together to play your material is a very difficult proposition. You are asking a great deal of your musicians you are asking them to play often quite basic music, with no chance to improvise or have any creative input into the material, and to never take the spotlight, just to play the parts you wrote and make you look good. Most musicians' egos won't tolerate that kind of thing for long, unless you pay them, and for most soloists and vocalists playing small gigs, that's just not a viable proposition financially. This is where a backing track can be a massive boon. If you are a virtuoso solo instrumentalist or vocalist, then the music you play will be all about your skill and the lead melodies you play. The audience won't be interested in what your drummer or bassist are playing, they've come to see you.
Even at the top level, when they play small gigs such as guitar shows and tuition events, guitarists such as Paul Gilbert and Yngwie Malmsteen will often play to a backing track and not bring a band with them. Some players, such as Gary Hoey play with backing tracks even at their biggest gigs. Gary Hoey knows that people don't go to his shows to watch his keyboard player play some chords, or his bassist plod out some root notes. They've come to see his virtuoso guitar playing and nothing else, and it makes both practical and financial sense for him to travel with a CD rather than a 4 or 5 piece rock band and all their gear for small gigs, and the audience doesn't feel cheated. They've seen and heard what they've come to see and hear, which is Gary and his playing.
Using a backing track in this way is very financially and practically liberating. You can get your playing to anyone, any time. All you need is your instrument, your amp, and an MP3 player to plug into a PA. That's it, you can take your entire touring equipment with you on the bus. You can take all the money you make yourself, rather than sharing it with a bunch of grumpy session musicians, yet your audience get an excellent experience your backing track, unlike a band, will always be on time to gigs, always sober, always in tune and in time and perfectly mixed and balanced.
Finally, the biggest financial advantages to you from backing tracks come from wedding and other function gigs. I've played these kind of gigs for decades, and I used to perform with a full band, and for the array of jazz, rock, latin, pop and funk numbers in the typical wedding repertoire, I needed a big band to cover all the instrumentation! Musicians being what they are, I started recording backing tracks for the band in case someone didn't turn up, which inevitably happened now and again. In fact, I was recording tracks for pretty much every permutation of musicians who might or might not have shown up, and with a repertoire of 150 songs, that's a lot of work!
These days I play to backing tracks alone, or with a vocalist. I can travel light, play anywhere with a PA, and not worry about other people being unreliable. I can play abroad at any notice for the price of a plane ticket. Much more importantly, I am making more money than I ever did with a full band! Wedding organisers often much prefer to work with one guy who they can put in a corner somewhere that an 8-piece jazz band that won't sound any better, needs a vast stage and is capable of drinking the bar dry before you can say I do!, especially during ceremonies and meals where space is at a premium. They are in fact prepared to pay a premium for that convenience, and I'm not splitting the money with other musicians, and therefore the financial rewards, as a musician, of playing with backing tracks make it a no-brainer if you're serious about making money from music.
Pete Hartley is a professional violinist, mandolinist and composer with a 30 year professional career in music. He runs musiciansbackingtracks.com, a site dedicated to providing pro quality backing tracks for performing musicians.