The Beatles, being in a band, and what it taught me about communications.
— December 3rd, 2020
Who would have thought you could learn invaluable communications insight from being in a teen band?
Well, I’ve been there, done that, got the comms T-shirt – and thought it might be good to share the painful learnings. Because they were good learnings!
For example, my first gig was as a sassy 16-year-old in a boy-girl pop band with a name that only provocative teenagers could come up with: Up4iT.
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We thought we were the bee's knees, the cat’s pajamas. The bomb. But puffing self-confidence was hit by sobering reality at our first gig.
It was in a field. On a wet and miserable day. A small field outside Leap, a little village in West Cork on Ireland’s south coast. (Well, you have to start somewhere, don't you – and didn’t The Beatles start out playing in a small bar, back in the day?!!)
Anyway, we were ready to share our message with the world. The only problem was the world wasn’t there to hear us. In fact, nobody was. We stood on stage performing to four people. Two of whom were family.
So, that was the day my first communication lesson struck a chord – if you'll pardon the pun – and I haven’t forgotten it since:
#1 It doesn’t matter how good your message is if nobody hears it.
Unfazed by our mud carpet debut in a soggy West Cork field, we graduated to the heights of an urban shopping mall.
But at the start of our grand “Tour of Ireland”, we came up against a problem we hadn’t thought about, in the shape of one of our new original songs with lyrics that included “if you want it, here it is, come and get it....”.
This, remember, from a teenage band called Up4iT with short crop tops and big attitude.
No surprise, then, that we quickly learned about audience relevance. Before you could say ‘shake your booty at the bagel counter’, the local radio station was being flooded with complaints about the pouty teen band blasting outrageous music at the local mall.
No surprise either that we quickly got the boot. Out the door, to sideways looks from huffy older shoppers who clearly weren’t up for anything we had to offer. So, second communication lesson learned the hard way:
#2 Know your audience.
But, as you do when you’re a teenager, we grew up, and so did our music. I graduated from singing to backing tracks, to a live rock and blues band called The Misdemeanours. But, of course, bringing together musicians with different backgrounds and styles had its own challenges.
Most people have been to at least one gig where one of the band members was way louder than all the others. My guitarist was that guy. At one gig he cranked up the volume so high that nobody could hear much of anything.
I did my best to keep on singing as, one by one, the audience drifted away to the bar, or out of the room completely. Of course, in time we found the right balance across drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and vocal, but it took a while.
Those hairy gigs, because that’s the only way to describe them, taught me another valuable lesson about communication:
#3 You have to get the balance right or people will stop listening. We kept on gigging and adjusting, and found the right mix in the end.
My final gig, before I temporarily hung up the mic for new motherhood, was small, cool, and very intimate. But as a four-piece, we struggled to agree who would play on the night because there was only room for three of us on stage – and definitely no space for a drum kit.
In the lead-up we tried everything, including the re-introduction of backing tracks, to fill the music space without taking up physical space. Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully in the end and we performed one of my all-time favorite gigs that night, with vocals, an acoustic guitar, and a Cajón (a small box drum).
People knew we were there and came to listen, the set was the perfect mix of covers and original music, and the balance among the three of us was just right.
I finished the gig happy as could be, and had learned my fourth communication lesson:
#4 Know the instruments (or channels) that are foundational to the delivery of your message; they are the channels that need to be included no matter how big or small the audience is.
So there you go, communication lessons learned from the unlikeliest of circumstances. Hard to know, though, if The Beatles learned anything similar.
Then again, they never played in an empty field outside Leap!