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When you start a band, it's with every intention that you'll stick together through thick and thin. Every milestone you achieve will be done together—all for one, one for all. As with many things in life, however, the best-laid plans sometimes go awry, and you may find yourself dealing with a line-up change.
At best, line-up changes aren't due to drama, but simply creative differences or band members deciding they want to spend less time on the road or make a career change. Worst case, a line-up change is necessary due to acrimony, insurmountable personal disagreements or health problems.
American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham experienced one shocking worst-case scenario in February 2017: His entire band quit at the same time. After spending two weeks grieving the loss and questioning the future of the band—"I was pretty much like the alt-country Eeyore, just walking around the house feeling sorry for myself," he recalls—the songwriter picked himself up and decided to forge ahead.
"My wife reminded me, 'You're good at what you do; don't let them make the decision for you,'" Barham says. "And so I got right back up and got to the grindstone, and got to work, got to finding new members—and got to redefining myself as an artist, in this next chapter.
"Just because a chapter ends doesn't mean it's the end of the book," he adds. "You have to realize that things have an expiration date."
His advice holds true whether you've decided to replace the departing band member, go with a different band configuration—or simply move ahead on your own.
Four musicians who have navigated line-up shifts—Barham, The Regrettes frontwoman Lydia Night, The Devil Wears Prada vocalist/guitarist Mike Hranica, and The Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland—share what they learned from the experience.
Try to to keep emotions in check.
Change is hard for anyone to parse and react to, especially when it's a sudden change. However, Night—whose rock band recently switched drummers—cautions that it's important to hit pause before doing anything impulsive.
"Breathe," she says. "Don’t react immediately. It’s super-important to let your brain process everything in whatever way it needs to." By that same token, she adds that bands "should not make any big decisions right away. I know how easy it is to want to find a solution immediately, but it’s really important to give yourself a moment."
Hranica—whose metalcore band has lost three members over its decade-plus career—is more blunt about what not to do. "[Don’t] blow up," he says. "It is a natural, instinctual reaction, but I’d encourage against that."
Remember that departures aren’t a personal failure.
Two years ago, one-half of The Crystal Method, Ken Jordan, decided to retire from music and move to Costa Rica. Scott Kirkland opted to continue the electronic project as a solo act.
Kirkland wasn't necessarily surprised about Jordan's move, but "what did catch me off guard was the part about retiring," he admits. "But by the time he was done talking I knew his decision was final, and I felt a rush of great happiness for him."
Indeed, putting your own feelings aside also helps keep line-up changes amicable. "The first thing you shouldn’t do is make it about you,” Kirkland says. "This decision has probably been on a low simmer for a while, and they’ve probably had some time to think about what they’re going to say."
Of course, sometimes band member departures are due to personal reasons—or start off pleasant and then turn acrimonious over time. In that case, recognizing that creative and personal differences are a part of a band's natural lifespan go a long way to making the disagreement easier to take.
"Remember that if someone doesn’t want to be there, you will feel a difference when someone who does is around," Night says.
Lean on your team for advice.
Depending on how complicated your band's business dealings are—and the reasons behind the band member leaving—look to your lawyer, business manager, and maybe even a publicist for help navigating the line-up change. "Do not under-think management’s role in making the process smooth," Hranica says. "It is their job to help."
Make sure your commitments are covered.
The ways you deal with a line-up change might be affected by your band’s operating agreements, and how things such as musical credits and publishing are divvied up. For example, Barham is the sole songwriter in American Aquarium and owns all the publishing, which made things slightly easier for him when his entire band quit.
Still, there were legal dealings he and the former members had to work through. "American Aquarium was an LLC, so everybody was a member of that LLC," Barham explains. "So when everybody quit … it's just like a divorce. It was like, 'What do you think you're entitled to leaving this company?' It was about coming to a fair agreement that both sides agreed with. We all came to that. We all signed basically divorce papers. They walked away with their piece of the business; I walked away with mine."
Find the right fit.
"There’s a difference between a great musician and the right member," Night says, adding that new drummer Drew Thomsen is "not only an incredible drummer but also such an amazing human being. I feel so lucky to play with him and also know him."
Barham, who's played with 36 different musicians since 2006, echoes the importance of finding musicians on your wavelength. "Find people that have the same interests; find people that have the same sense of humor; find people that have the same daily schedule as you do," he says.
"When you live in such close quarters, like a bus or a van or hotel room, if you differ too much, those will be the most annoying things ever," he says. "And those little, tiny annoying things build up over the course of months, years, decades."
Cast a wide net for new members.
Sometimes when a band member leaves, they'll already have a recommended replacement lined up. If not, however, your network of musician and industry friends is an invaluable resource.
"It's asking friends, 'Who's your favorite bass player? Who's your favorite drummer? Who's your favorite guitar player?'" Barham says. "And trusting friends that know your music, that know your personality."
The Regrettes are living proof of this: After asking "everyone we could think of" for help finding a new drummer, Night says they found Thomsen via a friend who works at the studio where they record.
Casting a wide net online is another good option these days, Night suggests. "Look on YouTube for other bands who might not be together anymore, or just people who make videos of themselves and might be looking [for] a group. The internet and social media is such a great resource—and it never hurts to ask."
Stay focused on the future.
Once the shock of a line-up change wears off, it's human nature to want to look back and wonder whether you could've done something differently.
Kirkland found himself doing this after Jordan's decision to retire. "For a few floating moments, I found myself questioning decisions we made as a band and what impact his decision to eventually retire may have had," he says. "But what’s the point of that? None of that matters anymore, so I’ve really tried not to get distracted by the things I can’t control. You can’t change the past."
This same forward-thinking approach holds true when looking to add a new musician into the mix. Don't rush into replacing a member—and make sure any addition is done with an eye toward long-term harmony.
"You can't replace for a week tour; you can't replace for a month," Barham says. "You have to always keep in your mind that you're replacing for your career. Because if you settle for 'I can only do this for a year, I can only do this for two years,' you're going to put yourself back in that same spot, if not earlier, whenever they have to walk away."
Look for the silver lining.
Make no mistake, line-up changes are tough. Viewing them as just a temporary stumbling block—or even a blessing in disguise—can help ease the transition.
Things in your band might even be better than before. A year after Barham had to overhaul American Aquarium's line-up, for example, he says their "shows are getting bigger," among other proud milestones.
"You will find people that want to travel the country and play music for a living," Barham says. "That is what you have to remind yourself: that you are not some unicorn that has the dream of playing music for a living, and you're the only one in your area, because you're not.
"There's plenty of people out there that own guitars, drums, and bass, that want to play music for a living. You have to remind yourself that they're there—you just have to find them."