A good friend was recently hired to sing at an upscale dinner for a small group of wealthy arts patrons. She and her pianist, Irene, began the evening with a 40-minute set as guests mingled and then took their seats for dinner.
As their last song came to a close, they received a generous applause, some warm smiles, and were guided down two long flights of stairs to the basement. They remained in the basement for 90 minutes until required to return for their second set. They were served dinner, and dietary restrictions were generously observed.
The irony of this story is that this particular event was all about raising money for a performing arts organization. And what makes a performing arts organization different from any other organization? You guessed it: the performers!
The event planner missed a golden opportunity here to make this dinner truly memorable for the guests. Here were two engaging, talented musicians hired for a fairly generous fee who were shuttled away into oblivion during the most important part of the night.
A better option for the artists and the guests would have been to seat my friend and her pianist at two of the dinner tables. Here, they could have interacted with patrons, shared stories of their artistry, and become part of the experience, rather than merely decoration or background noise.
As a working musician who also runs a special events company, I am in a unique position to see both the event planner’s and the musician’s point of view when it comes to hiring entertainment for an event. I think there is a way for both sides to understand each other better and make this relationship much more mutually beneficial. So, in the spirit of musicians’ love for what we do, and for event planners’ love for how live music can elevate an event, I have compiled this list of 10 tips for how to make sure musicians and event planners can work together to make it a seamless, stress-free experience for everyone.
Please provide a bathroom for your musicians. No, not a port-a-potty. An actual bathroom. These are professionals who want a private place to “go,” which includes running water, soap, hand towels, and a bit of privacy.
Please provide water, coffee or soft drinks, and some light snacks at a minimum. This won't add much to your costs, and it is very much appreciated. Remember: hungry musicians won't play as well :) If you have vocalists performing, water is extremely important. A little goes a long way to make your performers feel welcomed and appreciated.
Provide a room with decent lighting. You want us to look good, and we want to look good, also. Putting on makeup under one fluorescent bulb ain’t easy, and it’s not likely to produce the best results. Natural lighting (during the day) or generous lighting will help us look our best and keep us feeling refreshed.
Tips are really appreciated. Sure, we’ve negotiated a contract with you, and we feel that we’re being appropriately compensated. However, a tip jar is a lovely gesture of appreciation for the incredibly hard work we put in, much of which guests don’t see.
Please provide easy load-in and load-out. A string quartet doesn’t need all that much help loading in their gear but a band that consists of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and singer, all of whom need amplification… well, you see where I’m going. If possible, provide easy access from the parking area, a ramp to the stage, and an extra pair of hands to help lift and carry equipment.
Understand the worth of a pro musician. Being a working musician is not easy. They spend most of their time auditioning for the next job, money is sporadic and often insufficient, and the benefits of a “real” job, such as health insurance, a 401K plan, and paid holidays are just not part of the deal. Between college, graduate school, summer programs, apprenticeships, and real life experience, most musicians have spent at least as much time studying and honing their craft as most doctors, lawyers, and engineers. A budget for hiring musicians needs to reflect the musicians’ experience and also the time they will spend rehearsing prior to your event to make sure they’re bringing you their very best performances.
Talk to the musicians. They’re human, usually very nice, and they want to please you. If you notice something is wrong, or that they are not performing to your satisfaction, please let them know -- and not by leaving a scathing review on Yelp. Calmly pull one of the band members aside and let them know what’s going on. Perhaps they misunderstood a request or someone has fallen ill in the band, and they've had to replace them at the last minute. Be kind, courteous, honest, and flexible, and the band will be the same to you.
Don’t ask for “extra time” unless you plan to pay for it. If you went to see your lawyer and used up more than your allotted hour, you can be sure you’d see it on your next bill. If you’ve contracted musicians for a two-hour performance, that’s what you’ll get. One or two extra songs… sure, that’s probably not going to be a problem. But if you want the musicians to stick around, please have them to one side, speak with the lead musician or band manager, and discuss the details.
Set wardrobe expectations ahead of time. If you need your musicians to dress in something other than what they'd typically have in their closets, please be ready to provide the costumes or clothing, or to provide a stipend to be paid ahead of time for the musicians to acquire the necessary items themselves.
Treat them like professionals. This is a no-brainer, but it is absolutely shocking how terribly many musicians are treated. Yes, we are “hired help,” as are the cooks and bartenders and cleaning staff and event planners, so I guess what I mean is, be nice to all of us. We’re all human, most of us have college, graduate, and post-graduate degrees, speak several languages, have children and homes and responsibilities just like the people for whom we are performing.
Following these ten tips will not only enhance your relationship with your hired musicians, but will help ensure that they give the best live performance possible at your event - which is what we all want.