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.
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