The call comes in late Wednesday. Someone needs a band for a week from Saturday night. The pay is good, the location is good, and so you say yes. And then you call your band mates, who one by one tell you no, can’t make it. Now you remember that the bass player is on vacation, the drummer is at some convention and the harmonica player already has a gig with another band.
So what do you do? Concede defeat and call back with big apologies? Nah. It’s time to build a band. Remember that the pay is good: this makes a huge difference. Without decent compensation, the field of musicians becomes limited to friends, family or people who owe you. But decent funds means you have opened up more doors. Location is good, which is a relief. It’s hard to construct a band to play a gig a long distance from home, but it is possible. Who knows, you may be able to construct a band that’s better than the one you usually perform with.
Hopefully you have a network of musical associates who you’ve played with, met or admired from afar. Most long term bands end up with substitutes for all the positions. I recall a time when a local bluegrass band was popular enough that there might be two different bands performing with the same name on the same day, with possibly no actual members in either band. Networking is important; you don’t want to be risking a Craig’s List ad from a guy who says he’s the best drummer in town. For those of you who have followed that route, you know that 99.9% of the time you are not going to be happy with the first (or second or third) person who answers the ad. And it works both ways: the individual who answers the ad may be so good that it is intimidating. I recall a Craig’s List responder who turned out to be on the charts in a country band. He just needed more work…
So the way it’s supposed to go is that you contact folks you either know and have played with, or know someone who has played with them and can provide a recommendation. Hopefully this isn’t a showcase or all original material gig, because if it is, you’ll need to incorporate a practice before the gig. That cuts into the pay… But let’s say you’re a folk group that plays a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary and Kingston Trio stuff. Most of these tunes are fairly well known, or fairly easy to learn. Ideally your fill-in band mates are already familiar with the repertoire. If not, we live in the golden age for music education. Ten minutes on the internet and you should be able to provide the musicians with websites where the songs can be heard by the original artists, or on a site like YouTube, you can hear numerous versions of the songs by all levels of musicianship. Maybe even steal some arrangement ideas, or at least grab a few laughs. Amazing how many people’s confidence levels so vastly exceeds their competency level.
So you’ve rounded up the needed folks, emailed them the links so that the repertoire is covered. What else? Obviously the musicians want to know how much they will be paid, and in what matter. Cash is cash, but sometimes the check from the vendor may have to clear before you can pay the group, so make sure that’s known upfront. Do they need to dress in a particular way? I did a job once where I specifically asked about wardrobe and was told it was casual. Upon arrival I found that it was a semi-formal affair, and the rest of the band was suitably attired, while my jeans and work shirt looked totally out of place. I tried to stay to the rear of the stage as much as possible.
Little things like where to unload and where to park, or whether you’ll be fed are very important to fill in musicians. If the drummer wants to take the closest parking place, the one marked “CEO” or “Priest,” you will probably have a problem. You want the folks that hired you to enjoy themselves so they may use you again, and your instant band wants to have a good time too, so that this configuration (or one similar) can be used again in the future.
Also keep in mind that although this time you’re doing the hiring, if the job works out well you may find yourself getting a call from one of the musicians you hired wishing to hire YOU for a similar engagement.
The one sticky issue may be when asked to provide a business card for future engagements. You can hand your “real” band’s business card, but perhaps it’s best if you have your own card, since at least in theory they are asking for information for the band that is performing. Many casual gigs are so generic they really don’t care if John Q. Picker is on banjo or if it’s someone else, but there are exceptions where folks want the exact same musicians.
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun, and a great learning experience. So you’ve lined ‘em up and headed them out. Good job.
Now go enjoy some live music, and tip generously because what goes around comes around. Make sure the last one out turns off the lights.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.