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8 Things Singer/Songwriters Need To Know About Hiring Freelance Musicians

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I just released my new record at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood with a 9 piece band. Over the course of my 600 shows I’ve hired 7 drummers, 7 bassists, 6 guitarists, 3 keyboardists, 5 singers, 3 trumpet players, 2 cellists and 3 violinists. Not to mention the various session players for recordings.

I’ve also been hired as a trumpet player on a few gigs. I’ve seen both sides. But as a singer/songwriter, I’ve primarily been the employer.

Here are some tips to help you get your band together:

1. Freelance musicians aren’t playing your music for fun.

Sure, all musicians love the art. Love the craft. Have a passion that bleeds out of their eyeballs. It’s the only reason they chose such an unstable career.

But musicians, like all other humans, need to eat. Just because they’re holding a guitar instead of a hammer, you shouldn’t treat their craft any less valuably. Just like a construction worker isn’t going to build your fence for the love of the craft, don’t expect a professional freelance musician to play your gig for free either.

Young musicians will tend to take gigs for free, however. For experience. Some friends might even agree to play your gig as a favor. Or because they believe in you. They may even say “for fun.” But be very cautious about getting a volunteer band together. If they get offered a last minute paid gig the same night as your show, you may be left without a drummer hours before you hit the stage.

By paying your musicians (regardless of the amount), you can demand (politely) a level of professionalism. If they’re playing ‘for fun’ or as a favor, prepare yourself for flakiness.

However, “sitting in” is an honored tradition and many artists sit in with friends all the time – for, of course, no pay. If you want your singer/songwriter friend to sing backup vocals on a couple songs for free, that’s totally kosher. Just make sure to plug her from the stage.

 

2. Discuss all details up front

You can’t just ask someone to play the gig for $100 and then spring 3 rehearsals on them the week of the show and assume they’ll be ok with this. Make sure you discuss all details up front: rate, rehearsals, show date(s), per diems and sleeping arrangements (if it’s a tour), how many songs you want them to learn, rehearsal length (2-3 hours is typical), show length, and anything else you’d like from your musicians.

3. Get The Scene’s Going Rate

In LA, the typical going rate is $100 for the gig and about $50 per rehearsal. This varies depending on the musician’s demand and experience. Some ask for more and some will accept less. If you’ve never hired musicians before, ask other singer/songwriters in your scene what they pay their players.

Don’t be afraid to ask what their rate is. But their “typical rate” might actually be their “ideal rate” and would accept less. Make sure you set your own budget before getting into these discussions.

And remember, just like every contract agreement, you can always negotiate. But be respectful. If you ask them to play the gig and two rehearsals for $50 and they reply saying they need $150 for that, try to make it work, or pass. Don’t tell him his mother only goes for half that.

4. Send songs as Soundcloud files and mp3 downloads.

I hate downloading music. When I freelance, I want practice tracks sent as streamable links. Preferably on Soundcloud. I want to listen to them when I’m driving. I want to dedicate a few minutes here and there to run them in my home studio. I DON’T want to spend 15 minutes downloading, importing, labeling and syncing to my iPhone.

Give your players options. Send mp3s, Dropbox download links and Soundcloud links.

5. Be a leader

You need to lead your rehearsals. Your players have agreed to play YOUR gig with YOUR name on the bill. They may be the lead songwriter and front person of their main project, but for this gig, they defer to you.

Make sure you show up to rehearsals prepared. Know what songs you want to rehearse in the order you want to rehearse them. Don’t spend 10 minutes in between each song deliberating over the setlist. This is your responsibility. You can ask their opinions if you want, but you know your audience, act and songs best.

You should be familiar with every player’s part. Be able to answer every player’s question decidedly. Confidently. Don’t say “I don’t know. Do whatever you think.” Yes, you can trust their talent, expertise and craft, but it’s your gig and your songs. Know your songs and know your show.

6. Set expectations

In addition to discussing all details up front, make sure you let your players know what you expect from them. Will you have charts available or do you want them to learn the parts on their own?

It’s your responsibility to lock in a rehearsal space, but feel free to ask if they have suggestions.

Are you religiously against alcohol? Make it known that the tour will be dry. Don’t wait for show #3 on a 50 date tour to bring that up.

Discussing everything up front will save you a lot of stress down the line.

7. Have the check at the gig

This is the #1 rule. Don’t make them hunt this down from you. If you become known as someone who never pays (or delays payment), you’re going to have a very difficult time finding players. Hand them the check BEFORE they hit the stage.

8. If you can’t afford to hire a band, you can’t afford to have a band

I never recommend singer/songwriters split the door with their freelance players because it’s a slippery slope. If you somehow get your musicians to agree to split the shitty door cuts with you, they’re going to expect the same when you get the huge check.

It’s your name. Your image. Your reputation. You are making all of the management decisions and you are setting the shows up. If you get a $2,000 check then you should pay your players a fair wage, and then invest the rest into the career. If you get a $100 check, then you take a loss and pay your players the same, fair wage.

You’re the entrepreneur. It’s your project. And your career.

Early on, your gigs will not pay for your band and you’ll have to take losses. But those early investments into your career will payoff when you’re selling out venues with the same players who have felt respected and cherished from day one.

Photo taken by Chris Pan and used with permission

Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of Ari’s Take. Listen to his new record, Brave Enough, on Spotify or download on BandCamp. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

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Comments (46)
  1. Nathan

    Indeed.

    It’s always a little shock your band-mates you go to battle with don’t really give a cramp about your project.


    Reply
  2. good points

    All good points. Just something that is nagging at me as a regular reader-as a sound engineer, I’d like to see this author and Digital Music News take the same respectful approach to our craft.


    Reply
    1. Piano player

      Well said


      Reply
  3. Stupid

    Who is this article for? Be a leader?

    These articles with top ten are like letterman lists. Not really funny or useful. Just a waste of time. Better off without content like this. Digital music news or beginning musician news? Really lame.


    Reply
    1. ha

      “If you ask them to play the gig and two rehearsals for $50 and they reply saying they need $150 for that, try to make it work, or pass. Don’t tell him his mother only goes for half that.”

      lmao


      Reply
    2. Anthony

      Letterman lists are pretty funny


      Reply
  4. Daniel

    If rule #7 is the #1 rule, why is it #7?


    Reply
    1. Marion

      *snort*


      Reply
  5. Otis D. Sideman

    Hire players that can at least read chord charts., if not standard notation. This is especially true for larger groups. Much rehearsal time can be saved that way.


    Reply
  6. audron

    this is great- nice to know it’s the same thing everywhere


    Reply
    1. Kev

      Not to sound brusque but your first comment is idiotic. As some on who is going to be paying off their student loans for a degree in Sax Performance and education for a very long time I can attest that I love Music more then anything in the world, but you are paying for my time and my countless hours I have put into my craft when I show up to a gig.


      Reply
  7. Jon

    1. Why aren’t the playing the music for fun? if you’re there for just the cheque, most likely you lack passion. I get it we all need to get paid. Chances are if the singer/songwriter is not getting paid, then you won’t be either. Do you know how many gigs singers do on their own and NOT get paid? Last time a bunch of guys got together in a room to play music just for FUN they became one of the best bands in the world other known as NIRVANA.

    2. Agree with this completely, always. Other details however, tend to roll out as they come from the booker/venue. So don’t blame the singer/artist for this.

    3. This is subject to what city you’re in and honestly, how much of a crowd you can draw.

    4. Yes, links, mp3’s all of them are helpful. As an artist, you know how many times I’ve given a track to someone and they come to rehearsal and they don’t play it properly and ask you to constantly keep playing it DURING your rehearsal. Honestly, if you’re not good enough to pick it up after a few listens, then you’re obviously not that good.

    5. Yes always be a leader. Know your role.

    6. Agreed.

    7. Yes, I agree, always have the check at the gig. Unless you do a corporate gig and you get paid days later. Legally, when you’re doing corporate gigs, your check doesn’t have to be paid out for 30 days where i’m from.

    8. I agree. That’s why most artists have minimal bands, play with a dj/backtrack, acoustic or a loop pedal – really the future of live shows. The bands with a lot of players aren’t getting paid diddly squat. Musicians always feel so entitled. Sorry the music and the show goes on with or without you and it has and it will.

    For the artists however, the countless hours they spend writing, recording, practicing, to create music that hopefully musicians will have the opportunity to play and not get PAID A SINGLE DIME. If only all musicians could understand that struggle. Cause for them, they go to school, they get an education in music, they go out and expect paid gigs right away. Well life is a school, this is your education and the ones that were willing to sacrifice everything for it, are the ones on tour getting paid well with their gigs.


    Reply
    1. Stimperino

      Jon, this list is for Singer/Songwriters who are looking to hire sidemen. And it’s a GREAT list, totally accurate. It’s not a list of rules for running a band. The difference is, in a band situation (like Nirvana) the individual members are equally invested, and have some creative control over what they are playing. This is not the situation when working as a sideman.

      Believe it or not, musicians who are skilled enough to find regular work as sidemen, have their own interests and projects that they are working on. They are not sitting around waiting for brilliance to drop from the sky in the form of some Singer/Songwriter with a bunch of his Oh so original, and thrillingly new songs to learn. The ‘offer’ of an unpaid gig where you are expected to learn a bunch of some guys crappy tunes (Oh I know that they are really great tunes, I just most likely lack passion), is a dubious one at best.

      You talk about artists spending countless hours writing music that musicians will ‘hopefully have the opportunity to play’. Hopefully for who? The artist is the lucky one, to be getting skilled musicians to play his music for free, NOT the other way around. The arrogance of your attitude is so typical of certain Singer/Songwriters out there, and as a sideman, guys like you are the bane of my existence. I get a few of these kind of calls every year from jokers who are all:

      “Hey I got your number from buddy, and he’s says you are awesome at playing the Electric Supermophone! Well I got a gig out of town, my buddy is the bartender at this really awesome place, it’s totally intimate, we are playing for the door, but it will be really good exposure for you! Do you got a car? All the tunes are on my MySpace page, are you down or what?” No, I’m not ‘down’. GO TO HELL AND DIE. I’m sure other sidemen can relate.


      Reply
      1. Sean

        lmbo. Great response!


        Reply
    2. Han Schlomo

      “Legally, when you’re doing corporate gigs, your check doesn’t have to be paid out for 30 days where i’m from.”

      this is the kind of flat out made up facts that come out of the mouths of amateurs who pretend they know anything about music business. There are no laws about 30 days Net Payments. It’s just someone’s company policy. 30 days is the amount of time your contract states. But hey you’re playing corporate gigs so we already know you’re not intelligent or really in to music.


      Reply
    3. Tacos4me

      Um, I play 250 paid gigs a year as a sideman. I’m passionate as fuck about music. I play another 50 gigs a year in my own project, so I don’t NEED your unpaid gigs. If as a leader, you’re not making any money, then you can’t afford to have qualified sidemen. It can’t be stated any simpler. Your attitude is EXACTLY the reason most pro musicians roll their eyes when they here the term “singer/songwriter.”


      Reply
    4. Toby

      There is a very big difference between being in a band and being a professional musician for hire. It is easy to throw an amateur band together, write some songs, and book local gigs, but that does not make you a technically proficient player unless you have also invested thousands of hours of practice honing your craft. With professionally trained musicians, they spend years in school training to attain a standard level of skill, understanding, and consistency that demands adequate payment for their contributions to a performance.

      And, Nirvana was certainly not the last bunch of guys to get in a room to play music together. For every rock band to achieve their level of fame, countless thousands of bands have tried and failed to break. The odds of that happening to anyone else at any given time are like playing the lottery. Going to school for music performance means entering the world as someone with marketable skills that can generate a modest income. It’s a trade just like any other career that demands a high level of skill.


      Reply
  8. Jon Wolske

    Great list!

    I don’t think that if you are playing for money that you can’t have passion. I have friends who are full-time sidemen and they are some of the most passionate musicians I know. They get to play to pay their bills. Just because that means they HAVE TO get gigs to pay the bills doesn’t mean they have any less passion than the kid playing in the coffee shop for his first show.

    I’ve mostly been in band situations (which, as mentioned, are a totally different beast with each person pulling his/her own weight in different ways to make stuff happen) but I’ve been hired plenty of times as a bass player or rhythm guitar player. All the points above are very good for this situation.

    I should be able to get your music easily (especially true for the songwriter who is playing a set that is mostly originals or split with covers and originals),

    I should be made aware of all time obligations (‘Hey man, can we get together and jam on Thursday?’ is no good if its late on Wednesday and you’ve been booked for a show 3 weeks in advance.)

    I should know what I’m getting paid (for all time commitments) and the day of the show, I should get paid for everything or all that I have yet to be paid for. This also makes it easy if you didn’t really care for a player once the gig got going, if you’ve paid them for their time and their skill, you don’t have to call them ever again if you don’t want to… I’ve had to chase people down and end up at their house 2 weeks after a gig – a gig I know they were paid in cash for that night and I had been a totally last minute call and saved their asses… just sayin’. Never again.


    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    to hell with downloading & mp3 files. get your charts done! have them legible & ready to be played.


    Reply
    1. Hammond

      Yes! If you are hiring musicians, you should already have charts…. good charts. I like to think of dropbox files as “inspiring” the muse. The files should accurately reflect the charts too, unless noted.


      Reply
  10. Wilton Said...

    Great article and very true. I’ve hired a variety of musicians in the past and have know that I need to be super organized with information, rehearsals and the gig. Decent charts and mp3’s are the way to go so the musicians can get a fuller picture of what’s involved. The first time I hired musicians, the drummer was very up front and said that he liked to be paid the day of the gig before hitting the stage. Makes sense so that both parties get the security they need. The hiring musician has security that the hired gun will show up for the gig, and the hired gun has security that they’ll get paid or else they won’t play.


    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    I got hired to play bass on a songwriter’s album one time. I spent a BUNCH of time learning the songs, and we even did a gig or two on the material. (Mind you, I had a full-time job AND 2 bands of my own; time was scarce.) Then, nothing…. Later on I found out she made the album without me. Never said a word about it.

    Lesson learned. I’ll NEVER do that again.


    Reply
    1. Stephen D.

      Why?


      Reply
  12. Alex

    I think the amount you pay matters (referring to rule one)
    I wouldn’t play a gig that was 8 weekends in the summer for $150 per show. That’s just not enough money.
    I pay bills too.


    Reply
  13. Ralph

    Great article! What some singer songwriters fail to grasp is that as a sideman it doesn’t matter whether I’m playing their “original” song or some overplayed cover tune….I don’t have a personal connection to either. Odds are I’ll be given no creative license in terms of interpreting their material, thus taking away any musical fulfillment I might have otherwise had from playing their songs so at the end of the day I just simply want to be compensated fairly for my time and the musical skills that I bring to the gig that help their make their songs sound good. Oh, and please spare me the excuse that you don’t have money to pay your live band because you spent X amount of dollars on the famous producer and top gun session musicians you used to record the album. Only young & inexperienced musicians play for free…it really is a false economy relying on musicians of that caliber to back you up on stage. And as we all know, “exposure” doesn’t pay the bills…..you can die from “exposure” or even worse end up having to work a day job at Guitar Center.


    Reply
    1. Han Schlomo

      “Only young & inexperienced musicians play for free”

      again more made up facts and exaggerated claims. I have the ability and liberty to play for free when I want and with whom I want. If I like your music / you I may play a gig(s) with you and even take losses (time, gas, new equipment etc) because I WANT to. If I agree to do something my word is my bond and barring any real emergencies I treat it like a paying job regardless. Why can’t singer/songwriters find people like me more often….cause they are awful songwriters who nobody wants to play for free for. When I see paid monkeys playing with atrocious artists I laugh at them. Sometimes (rarely) I’ll cry when they show me how much money they made. :)


      Reply
      1. Tacos4me

        When I see good sidemen play unpaid, shit gigs, I wonder how many times they were dropped on their heads as babies


        Reply
  14. Steve

    Excellent article.


    Reply
  15. Alan Warrick

    Hello,

    I like to have the option of being able to add it as a project file. That way if I want practice it I can.


    Reply
  16. Ryan Love

    Yeah…imagine where Mary Lambert would be had she not been asked to lay down her vocals for free with Macklemore’s underfunded project.


    Reply
    1. Lee Michaels

      Macklemore= takes home an undeserved Grammy for “creating beats” on a laptop..Hes not a musician..He lacks talent..Hes Vanilla Ice,Milli Vanilli,etc.


      Reply
      1. Han Schlomo

        “Macklemore= takes home an undeserved Grammy for “creating beats” on a laptop”

        your subjective opinion of this artist doesnt negate the FACT that his “beats” are complete songs regardless of your opinion of them. Let us know when you graduate from middle school and beat everyone in the battle of the bands cause only you are the champion of “real music”.

        dick


        Reply
        1. Nut jinglist

          Everyone knows Kendrick deserved the Grammy. Macklemore is trash.


          Reply
  17. Kerry

    Let’s be honest though…. What is the reality of a singer/songwriter breaking even after all is said and done? This may be a negative statement, but when you consider the costs of hiring pro musicians to record, perform, rehearse? singer songwriters are musicians too you know and it is kind of funny to hear this list being written as if the singer songwriter is a different animal than the drummer or the bassist they’re playing with. If you’re taking about the dude who works at Microsoft and writes songs on the side, yeah, then he should pay up, but where the hell is the average singer songwriter going to get the cash to fund this project? Kickstarter, sure. That’s about it, and do they already have the fan base to get funded? Then they must already have a band, or a profitable solo career playing in coffee houses? And if you’re a singer songwriter who is represented by a label or has side funding, then, duh, sure you pay. But singer songwriters without that?? Explain where they get the cash? It just seems like pointless article written to the no talent a hole with a dream to be a star who expects pro musicians to play for free. But not to the actual talented songwriter who let’s face it, don’t have nooooo money friends unless they already got people who believe in them and offered their help for free and that snowballed into some success that made money. The article seems like it was written by a whiney bassist who needs to pay rent. Join the club dude.


    Reply
    1. Johnny C

      Kerry, I think you are missing the point. I have been in bands, and been a sideman. The difference is very simple, if you are in a band, it’s a collective endeavor. If you are working as a sideman it is as a hired hand. Where I come from, hired hands get paid. There is a huge difference in working for free vs working for $$, and since professional musicians by definition earn their living playing music, they treat performing as their job.
      The article wasn’t written by a whiny bassist, it was written by a talented musician that people pay because he makes their music sound better. Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for


      Reply
    2. Tacos4me

      Here’s how it works: if you’re an aspiring singer/songwriter and you’re a great singer/instrumentalist, experienced pro musicians will take notice and will want you as a side person. Pay your dues working in their projects while continuing to develop your own material. Once you’ve gotten your foot in the door at the good venues with good guarantees, you have probably made allies with other top notch musicians and can use that as clout to negotiate good gigs that YOU head and orchestrate. Paid opportunities will start to snowball.

      If you’re an aspiring singer/songwriter and you suck, no one will ever want to use you as a side person, let alone PAY you to headline a gig.


      Reply
      1. Hammond

        Well that’s interesting because the majority of the best singer/songwriters that I have ever worked with never where good enough at their individual instruments to be a sideman. I mean, would you hire Bob Dylan to play lead guitar in your band? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t want him singing background vocals either. I agree with your general point that you have to get your foot in the door of good venues, and get to know the good musicians in town. But Kerry makes a good point. It costs $$$$ to make an album and hire sidemen. Allot of the best musicians I know teach music or have tech jobs. “Inexpensive” recorded music has made it necessary for good local musicians to spend the majority of their day running around scraping up a living and not practicing their instrument. I think that the singer/songwriters have it worse, because they face this mountain of capital that they must raise before performing in front of anybody.


        Reply
  18. Jordan Brown

    Disclaimer: this doesn’t apply to the artists I am producing or choose to work with because I believe in what we’re doing together.

    Earlier today I posted this article on my FB page. A very good mate of mine (an unbelievable artist himself with whom I had the honour and the pleasure to work with) rightfully made a few good points about it, so I answered with these few thoughts I am sharing with you in hope to spark a positive discussion about it.

    …”I suppose with a couple of guys I’ve worked with what I didn’t see happening was transparence.
    I have NEVER heard (at least on this side of the pond) “hey there is little or no money in this, can you please help me? I value your input as a muso”. (I’m in London)
    I am the first to support indipendent songwriters by applying discounted fees on arrangement work (my first question is always”do you have a label with a budget” because I know how hard it is) or I’m happy, if I’m not busy, to come around and lend a hand with a gig.
    BUT.
    Sometimes it’s a slippery slope because, and it happens lots, the artist starts making too many requests that go waaay past bona fide and courtesy. And I do understand that when you work on music you develop a kind of bond, but sometimes it feels like the people you work with start growing an unhealty sense of entitlement as if you had to drop everything you do and follow them. Meaning gigging for free, giving extra services (oh while you’re at it can you write an hammond organ part,plz? Oh yeah, and I did not like that string quartet arrangement you wrote. For free.That’s a true story BTW) and all the stuff the author of the article was outlining. Now I agree it’s partly my fault as I should be more business oriented and learn to say no.


    Reply
  19. Ron

    I was a band leader for almost 20 years on the Canadian circuit of country music. And no matter where i went or who was with me..i lived by a simple rule..without each band being there i’m only one guy on stage holding his guitar. It takes more than one to make a band and everyone is just as important as the other.So with that said no matter how much or how little I got paid.we all got a equal pay. So i’m happy i can lay my head at night and know that on a 3 night gig when i would get paid 2500..every guy made over 500 dollars..we can’t forget to give the old booking agent his 10 or 15 %…don’t even get me started on that subject..lol


    Reply
  20. KQ

    All seem like valid points if you’re gunslingin smoke and mirrors at the far end of a plastic hallway.


    Reply
    1. Stephen D.

      What’s this mean? Do you know of a great list regarding hiring freelance musicians?


      Reply
  21. christo

    I’m so glad you gave these “tips for whores and children”


    Reply
    1. Stephen D.

      So, you’re saying real professional have a different list? What would that be? Thank you.


      Reply
  22. Phil Savage

    I will tell who this list is for (ME) . I am a singer/songwriter/rhythm/ lead guitar player. It is for the professional musician and singer/songwriter who has had constant problems keeping the right band together because of peoples drug addictions, alcoholism. creative differences and life entering into a band situation. Sometimes it is just better to get people you can pay and count on than to put up with endless hours of the wrong musicians. No matter what caliber of singer/songwriter or musician you are no one likes having their time wasted. These are some great pointers for someone who has drive,ambition, talent and does not want to be a one man band. No one can do it alone live, unless you want to lip sync or play to recorded tracks and loops. Great information for struggling artists that need help. I applaude Digital Music News for trying to help struggling singer/songwriters. Thanks, Phil Savage Warpath X


    Reply

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