Last night on UK television Pink was performing live on a chat show. Her ‘backing band’ seemed to be a collection of random musician stereotypes: middle aged punk rocker drummer, young Siouxsie Sioux-esque female bassist, long haired stubbled lead guitarist and two black backing singers.
It got me wondering about 2 things:
1- are these musicians actually playing the music or are they just doing the musical instrument equivalent of miming? I’m sure I’ve seen drummers playing along in the back of performances of songs that are clearly using a drum machine
2- do these people travel with the singer or are they just hired locally wherever the singer is playing? I mean if it’s a band it’s pretty self explanatory but for a solo pop musician do they have a band they bring with them to the TV studio or do they just hire local session musicians to cobble together a phony band for the show?
It depends, but I’d say in most cases the singer has a regular band. If the “band” is only needed for appearances then they may just use hired session musicians, but usually you can spot the same musicians playing with a given singer wherever they perform.
Quite often, songs that use drum machines for the recorded version use a live drummer for live performances. I was watching Emeli Sandé on TV last night singing Read All About It which I’m pretty sure uses a drum machine on the record, but she had a live drummer and percussionist which (IMHO) sounded a lot better.
Of course, that was on Jools Holland where everyone performs live and no miming is allowed. On many TV chat shows etc, singers just mime along to the record. Presumably in this case they shut down all the microphones fro the duration of the song as otherwise the drummer “miming” (but actually hitting the kit, of course) would add lots of extraneous sound?
I’ve worked with artists before like Pink that were singer/songwriters. They often work with a rotating cast of musicians when writing music, there often isn’t a set band, m ore a handful of people they are comfortable working with.
These artists also usually only do TV when promoting an album and touring, so for the tour they may work with some of the people who they wrote the music with, or entirely new session people they’ve hired for the tour. This put-together band will usually practice for a couple weeks before touring and doing publicity, and will know the music thoroughly. Whether they’re actually playing at any set gig depends on what is required. Sometimes there might be 2-3 different press events (TV, radio, interviews etc) in a day with just the singer/songwriter and/or the backing band, then an actual full show that night.
Include solo country singers in this as well. Most “solo artists”, from what I’ve seen, have a regular “road band”, but they probably aren’t the same musicians who played on the record. Record companies like to use proven studio musicians on recordings, and you’ll find the same musicians playing on a whole lot of different artists’ records. But many studio musicians aren’t interested in touring, and in any case the record companies want them available to keep playing on records.
So when the solo artist goes on tour, they and their handlers audition band members and put together a backing band that is both capable of accurately reproducing the recorded songs in a live setting, and who can also fit in with the “image” of the artist. If this group works well together, they’re often retained as the artist’s “permanent” touring band. An indication that these bands aren’t simply the musicians the artists played with before they were “discovered” is the way that, at every “solo artist” concert (mostly country music, but some pop) I’ve attended, at some point the artist introduces his/her band by giving each member’s name and the name of their hometown. That tells me that these were musicians who were probably hired in Nashville/Los Angeles/New York, but had traveled there from all over the country looking for work in the music business. And now they’ve got their gig.
There are exceptions - George Strait’s “Ace in the Hole Band” is the same bunch of guys he played with in bars, they play on his albums, and they tour with him. I also heard of another country singer (can’t remember his name now) who got in a bit of an argument with his record company when it came time to record his 4th or 5th album. The record company wanted to do the usual thing with proven studio musicians, but the artist, having played with his “road band” for three or four tours, wanted to record the album with them. He won the argument, of course, which is why he was talking about it.
It’s common on TV appearances for the singer to have a live mic while the rest of the band mimes to a backing track. The funniest example of this I ever saw was a Steppenwolf appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show from the '60s. John Kay was singing live, but it wasn’t over a backing track–it was over the actual record, so you could hear both his live vocal and the original recorded vocal at the same time!
Wouldn’t the drums bleed through onto the singer’s mic though? Even “miming”, the drummer is usually hitting the drums pretty hard. I think sometimes I’ve seen pads over the drum heads but only rarely.