College bands find challenges after graduation

  • Medill News Service
  • February 20, 2006 @ 5:57 AM
At his first gig, college senior Jon Echt didn't really know what he was getting into.

He was a materials science engineering major who happened to like drumming. On a Saturday night in January 2004, he remembers being crammed into the corner of an apartment near the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, about to perform at a theater fundraiser.

His band, The Foster-Walker Complex, rehearsed only four hours a week. Echt, usually a confident guy, worried that wasn't enough.

But when the rock quartet launched into a cover of the Black Crowes' "Hard to Handle," the 50 or so sweaty, tipsy college students packed into the living room didn't care about the group's lack of polish. They just wanted to dance.

"We had no idea what to expect, but it didn't turn out too bad," said Echt, now 23. "Now we have 100 times more confidence and are a lot more cohesive. Now it feels like a real band."

For college rockers, success also brings complications, The Foster-Walker Complex is learning.

Buddha's Belly, another band that got its start at Northwestern, started out on a similar path, transitioning from playing college parties for free to performing at respected music venues around Chicago and the Midwest.

As their bands grew more prominent, musicians from both groups found that balancing their day jobs with promoting and managing an act -- as well as making money -- often threatened the stability of a band after graduation. The current rise of The Foster-Walker Complex and the eventual demise of Buddha's Belly illustrate the life arc of countless other college bands.

Despite its success, the stress of touring and frustration of putting individual goals on hold became too much for Buddha's Belly. Members decided to call it quits in the spring of 2004, around the same time that The Foster-Walker Complex began gaining momentum.

Universities have long been a breeding ground for music acts. R.E.M. got its start at the University of Georgia; the Talking Heads originated at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the members of Guster found each other at Tufts University. Original members of Buddha's Belly lived in the same Northwestern residential hall during their freshman year.

Although guitarist Danny Leavitt found other musicians by sending out an e-mail on a campus listserv, the name of the resulting band, The Foster-Walker Complex, is a pun on the name of a dorm that has a reputation among students for being an isolated place.

About 20 bands out of Northwestern play regularly at Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston, said booker Jason Rosenbaum. On Thursdays the bar hosts an eclectic range of college performers, from spoken word artist Matt Sax to rockers The Ghost Family, in addition to singer-songwriters, electronica acts, jazz ensembles and punk bands.

"Any college band playing in a local bar is going to get a large crowd," Rosenbaum said. "But you can only ask your friends to come see your show so often, so the real challenge is moving on to building real fans."

Sometimes the college connection can work in a young band's favor, though.

"A lot of these clubs are selling alcohol, so it's definitely a plus when you can attract a college demographic," said Craig Tiede, an assistant talent buyer at the Metro. He added that a band's origin doesn't matter that much -- "It's more about the music and how well they promote themselves."

Both by nature and by context, college bands tend to be ephemeral. In the great tradition of garage bands, the bar to setting up an act is relatively low -- one just needs a few friends, the ability to bang out a song and a healthy dose of enthusiasm. Talent is an added bonus, but it's not required.

If a college band lasts past the initial gestation period, graduation is often the next key time in its life cycle, said Phil Simon, owner of Greenfield, Mass.-based Simon Says Booking.

"Graduation is a great time to attempt to transition from a college band to a more serious band," he said. "You're sitting on some graduation money, you're used to not having any money and you're less likely to have dependents."

After two years in its college cocoon, The Foster-Walker Complex is starting to get noticed in the Chicago music scene. In January the band released its full-length, self-titled debut album produced by Matt Allison, who has worked with the Alkaline Trio and Uncle Tupelo. It's searching for a professional manager. On Feb. 8 it headlined a show at the Double Door, and it has March 2 gig booked at the Abbey Pub.

After recording their first EP with a few microphones and a laptop equipped with Pro Tools music production software, band members dipped into their own pockets to produce their latest CD. Echt said it's also tougher to practice now that he works full-time and lives in Wicker Park. The other three members of The Foster-Walker Complex are still seniors at Northwestern.

Buddha's Belly started to take shape in 2000 during tenor saxophonist Evan Cobb's sophomore year at Northwestern. Originally it included a female singer and a different drummer, but when they quit, Buddha's Belly became an instrumental jam band. A producer labeled their sound as "Crime Jazz" -- a mixture of jazz, rock and funk.

After graduation, three of the four members of Buddha's Belly moved into a house in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood and bought an old church van that became their tour bus. Cobb, 24, worked part-time at a variety of jobs to make enough money to cover rent and pay band expenses.

"I wouldn't say we were living in squalor," he said, "but it was tough at times -- not just financially, but mentally, because we saw each other all the time. When friends called, they always asked, 'What are you guys doing?' We lost a lot of individualism."

The journey to success is often long and arduous, and it's almost guaranteed that bands will not last. Simon said that the building process for a band to become "financially solvent" can take from one to 10 years, and that most musicians underestimate the time and the costs involved.

In 2004 Buddha's Belly played 106 shows, including two week-long tours, but that essentially meant that the band traveled almost every weekend to gigs as far away as Madison, Wis., and St. Louis. Cobb said the band typically took in $500 for each show on the road, but half of that went into a general fund to cover expenses like gas and promotions materials. Each musician received about $60 a show.

"It was an unhealthy lifestyle, eating junk food on the road and drinking after shows," Cobb said. "We all got to the point where we felt rundown. I was tired of not being able to keep a dollar in my pocket. We'd all put so much time toward this one entity and put our personal goals on hold."

Buddha's Belly often was lucky to break even, Simon said, remembering the days when he made free-lance bookings for the band around the country.

"They got to the point where they were touring nationally, but they were still on the rim [of success]," Simon said. "It's impressive how much money it takes."

Buddha's Belly had already decided to disband months before the Chicago Music Awards nominated it for Best New Entertainer in January 2005. Its last performance was at the House of Blues that September.

Cobb now works as a copy editor for a consumer guide publisher and is applying to music graduate schools. Guitarist Dan Golden works in Internet search marketing, drummer Jason Hanggi is a Web designer and bassist Pete Wojtowicz is an architecture graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"It was an amicable parting," Cobb said. "Somewhere down the road, when we're all more financially stable, I'd love to do it again."

Already familiar with the challenges of starting a band, The Foster-Walker Complex is ready to take a shot at the next stage of evolution. Echt now works full-time as a product designer for the telecommunications company Talk-A-Phone. The other three members of The Foster-Walker Complex will soon have to determine how they will support themselves and the band.

"They're running up against the decision of what to do after college: find a job, or not find a job and focus on the band," Echt said. "So far, everyone is staying in Chicago."

Cobb offers this advice: "Don't give yourself any fallbacks -- because you'll use them."