Words by Jasmine Bourgeois
Photo by Kia-Hartelius
The Clash, the Pixies, the Smiths, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Oasis—the list of bands that have had messy or downright ugly breakups is substantial. That’s because being in a band is a special kind of relationship, and even the healthiest of relationships need unpacking and patching up sometimes. Think of it, Brian Ritchie and Gordon Gano could’ve used someone to help them deliberate business deals, and Noel and Liam Gallagher really would have benefitted from some talk therapy.
Building a healthy and happy group dynamic requires constant communication, negotiation, and renegotiation—skills that don’t always come intuitively. We know we can go to counselors for issues in our personal lives, but how do you keep a whole band afloat amidst the intense workload and day-to-day drama and stress of recording and touring?
Signe Tobiassen plays bass in the Danish indie rock trio Nelson Can. She’s also a band therapist—or band coach, as she calls it. Her job involves building connections with people, understanding the nuances of bandmates’ relationships, and helping people work through the complexities of being a working musician. At its simplest, she’s a mediator. She helps people in bands work through any interpersonal issues and develop the skills necessary to be successful in the music industry. In practice though, her work can take a lot of forms, not all of which fit neatly into the traditional idea of “coaching” or “therapy.”
“Bands can hire me to come and help them out with planning a release, a tour, a special concert. Besides working on the actual project, I also like to work with them on their group dynamics: Does everyone feel happy about the way the workload is shared? Does everyone feel comfortable participating? The most important thing about project management is the process, not the product. And the most important thing about being in a band, if you ask me, is to have a good time,” explains Tobiassen.
Like most musicians, she started off in local DIY scenes. Between intra-community issues, financial struggles, and insecure venues, it makes sense that learning to navigate a small scene would translate into band coaching. She fell into it by luck mostly; and a lot of networking. Before Nelson Can made it big, Tobiassen was “making every possible mistake,” she says. As her career progressed, she started teaching classes at the Danish Musician’s Union (DMF) where someone asked her for advice on working in the DIY scene. Being someone who likes to help, the rest unfolded naturally. “If I can help people avoid just one of the mistakes I made, then it’s worth it,” she says. “I just help everyone get the best possible tools to make it in the industry. If I have something they can use, it’s up for grabs.”
She doesn’t just help people work through fights or disagreements. She also offers advice on promoting oneself and strategizing career-boosting plans. One recent example was with Copenhagen pianist Jonas Colstrup. Struggling to gain recognition as a classical pianist in popular music today, he reached out to Tobiassen to help him develop a strategy to advance his career. Together, they translated his skills and passion into tangible goals to release work and get his name out, and “within two months, he had over 350,000 streams on Spotify alone and placements on some prominent playlists,” she reports. “If he keeps on doing what he does, I am sure he will be very successful.” Imagine music today if Frank Black and Kim Deal had someone like Tobiassen around in the early years? Tobiassen’s role has larger consequences in the grand scheme of things. By helping musicians, she’s shaping what we listen to.
Tobiassen knows first-hand that being a musician isn’t always fun. But for her, mistakes were just catalysts that made her a better band member, teacher, mediator, listener, and source of support for others. But being successful as a band coach takes a lot of work and a little bit of chance. “I don’t have any secrets, [and I] don’t have a certain [golden] strategy,” she says. “The key to success in the music industry is two types of work: network and hard work combined with passion and talent. Some people even make it without the talent.”
This was originally published in Tom Tom’s Spring issue. Read the full version here.