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Guide to Starting a Band Overseas

Music + Nightlife
by Joe Henley Jul 6, 2009
The plan is to make the move overseas to some exotic locale, not for a few rambling weeks or months, but for an extended commitment of a year or perhaps more of work or study.

Along with a backpack full of your worldly possessions and a local phrasebook, you’ve also toted your guitar, your drumsticks, your oboe, or whichever instrument with which you can’t possibly bear to part. Your plan is to bring something new to the ears of your newly-adopted homeland and blow the minds of the locals with a style completely unheard of in their musical hinterland.

Not so fast.

I should know. Four years ago I was going to introduce punk rock to Taiwan. Was it naïve? Incredibly. Punk had arrived on the island long before I did, much to my ignorant amazement. So I did what any punk enthusiast in my position would do, I joined a death metal band.

Along the way I picked up a thing or two about the trials of being a foreign man in a local band. If you also plan on bringing your musical stylings to foreign shores, here are a few things you should keep in mind.

Form a Band with Locals

Expats tend to come and go, so keeping a band comprised entirely of expats going for an extended period of time can be a frustrating and completely counterproductive experience when you have to teach a new lineup your entire repertoire of songs every few months.

Avoid this by forming a band with locals. Unless they, like you, have aspirations of overseas travel, they’ll probably be around a lot longer than your average expat. This will also enhance your experience in the country, as in collaborating with local musicians, you’ll likely develop a deep, long lasting connection with them and the music scene in your new surroundings, provided you don’t pull an Axl Rose on them.

To get started, head out to a few shows and feel out the scene. If you see someone who digs one of the bands as much as you do, strike up a conversation with them. Find out if they play an instrument; see what their influences are.

Even if they can’t play a note, chances are they know someone who can. Once you gain some initial contacts within the scene, the possibilities are endless. Everyone knows a guy who knows a girl who has a bro who is looking to put a band together. Of course, this might pose a significant challenge unless you follow through on the next point.

Learn to Communicate in the Local Language

This obviously goes for everyone staying in a new country long term, but it goes double for anyone with dreams of being a musician overseas.

Making music collaboratively can be stressful in optimal circumstances, as everyone always has their own vision of what they want the band to be. Communication between band mates is paramount. How can you tell your drummer to slow it down to half time when all you can do is stumble through guiding a taxi home or order the local breakfast staple every morning?

Learn at least enough of the local the music terminology to help keep the creative ship righted, and avoid the communication blunders that have led to the demise of many a juggernaut ensemble. Even bands comprised of members who speak the same language can implode due to too little, or too much communication (just look at Oasis).

Learning the language will also help you avoid a potentially embarrassing pitfall – communicating with a local audience that doesn’t understand English. Take it from me, there’s nothing worse than giving a high-intensity opening tirade following the first song of the night to rile up the crowd only to be met by confused, blank stares.

Start by learning the local equivalent of “Good evening, you crazy sons of bitches,” and go from there.

A Serious Band Requires Serious Commitment

If you’re just planning on staying in a country for set amount of time and then heading off somewhere new, you need to be upfront about your plans with your new band mates. If they are serious about the music, and are asking for a long term commitment, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver.

If they’re just looking to have some fun, play some gigs, do some cover tunes and maybe even have a beer or two along the way, then by all means enjoy the ride. But if they’re looking to write originals, conquer the local scene and take the act around the world (as improbable as that is for any band), be honest and let them know you might not be the best person for the job, unless your stay has no expiration date.

Remember, Performing as a Foreigner Could Technically be Illegal

Being a rock god or goddess is notoriously difficult to get a work permit for. In countries with open work permits (which have the unfortunate side effect of requiring one to obtain suitable employment, or worse yet, get married) this isn’t a problem.

In the majority of countries, one must obtain a performance visa in order to rock out in public. These are usually quite easy to apply for, but incredibly difficult to obtain. Often, along with many other pertinent details, you must prove that you are actually a musician by providing some evidence, such as a recording you have released, or a video of one of your past performances (obviously in another country, so as not to incriminate yourself).

Unless you’re already an established virtuoso, chances are your application will be denied. With that in mind, many countries often turn a blind eye to foreign musicians plying their trade from time to time, as the police presumably have better things to do than charge you with aggravated ear drum abuse. If the cops do decide one day to crack down on foreign musicians performing illegally and raid the dingy, smoky basement club on a night you happen to be behind the mic, it could be grounds for deportation.

If you really don’t want to jeopardize your residency, try to do things as legitimately as possible. Check with the local council of labor affairs or the equivalent government office for details, get your permit, and let the revolution begin.

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