If you perform, it’s pretty likely that someday you will be asked to do a “casual.” This is one term used for performing for an event, whether that be a private wedding, a corporate party or a supermarket opening. These types of gigs differ from concerts, bars or coffeehouses. Casuals usually have music as one ingredient in an event, not the full focus of the event. You may be playing the hammer dulcimer while folks peruse an art opening. You may be serenading the populace at a flea market with your tenor banjo. There are very specific duties entailed in playing a casual gig, but with lots of differences depending on the event.
First of all, you get the gig. This may be from an agent who will take percentage of what is being paid for getting you the job and dealing with the employer. Or you may be approached at a coffeehouse gig and asked to play a wedding reception. One way or another, you have to be at so and so place at so and so time on so and so date. It’s very important that you keep a good calendar, whether it’s electronic or plain old slick paper and a picture of Miss March. Double booking or forgetting a gig is not a way to obtain another, and yet I’ve had it happen myself when I forgot to write something down. There’s no way to be in two places at once, and if you find yourself is such a dilemma, bear in mind that you have the responsibility to rectify the situation. It can be very daunting finding a replacement and hoping your employer doesn’t get too angry. You may end up paying your replacement more than you were being paid for the gig. A better plan is to keep track of your engagements, along with your real life responsibilities. That great gig at the wet tee shirt contest may lose all of its appeal when you remember that it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary or your mom’s 93rd birthday.
So you’ve got it on your calendar. You’ve been told or negotiated a price for your compensation. You may have already discussed some of the peripherals, like whether they want amplified sound or if you can join the party for dinner. These items may not seem important when booking, but can be very important later. Are you a band? Do you need confirmation from your band mates? Are you capable of finding suitable replacements if a regular band member can’t make it?
So you got the gig, you know what (and when) you’ll be paid. You’ve got your backing musicians lined up. You know where you can park, you know who to ask for when you or your band mates show up. You know you’re comped for dinner and one drink at the bar. But it’s 107 degrees and you’re supposed to perform in an asphalt parking lot without a shade cover. Ooops. Contracts are a nice way to try to hammer out all the details and make sure no one is disappointed by something controllable. I’m not talking about asking for all the brown M&Ms to be picked out. I’m talking about making sure that if the weather is inclement there is a shade or rain structure. And suitable power for the sound system, an almost constant problem. Is there a restroom nearby that the musicians are allowed to use? Any desire for an early arrival? Make sure not only all your needs are listed (within reason: pick out the brown M&Ms yourself) but make sure your employer is getting what they want. Obviously you wouldn’t play Louie Louie at a bluegrass gig, but if the birthday boy wants to hear it, it’s good to know in advance so you can do some research and pull it off. Don’t expect your employer to know everything they may want or be articulate enough to convey what it is that they expect. Quite often employers expect the musicians to also serve as emcees, or to work the sound system while the head of the board of the organization gives his speech. Make sure this is all down in black and white, or that lucrative gig you took may turn into one that is way too lowly paid for the amount of time and effort.
One would think it goes without saying, but be polite to your employers and their guests. I did a casual years ago at a small mansion overlooking the sea, working for some friends of folks that had hired me several times for very profitable casual gigs. But on this day, one of the band members started getting upset that no one was paying attention to the band. He improvised some rather cutting lyrics to a few tunes, and by virtue of having never been asked back to play at any of these folks’ events ever again, I think he was wrong. Someone was paying attention. Word to the wise: if you’re playing for a new furniture store opening and the guy in the stuffed panda suit is getting more attention than your hot Celtic trio, get over it. You’re an employee, and he’s an employee. And it’s hot in those damn suits.
Of course, no one makes you play casuals. I know quite a few artists that just don’t enjoy casuals, or want to focus on concerts or perhaps feel that casuals are beneath them. To each his own. But in today’s world, some very major musicians are playing high paying casuals whether you are aware of it or not. Corporate events can be very financially appealing. But singing your heart out to a room of barbeque buffet chompers may not be your performance dream. But the reality is that buffet gig may pay as much as ten coffeehouse gigs or twenty times the compensation for that opening act you booked at your local touring artist venue. But if money is your only motivator, you may find yourself rather unhappy. Very few musicians like being ignored, but if your band is playing near the finish line of that big charity 5K run, chances are that most people will not be totally engaged with your music. If being the center of attention is totally your thing, stay home.
But if you can navigate through the various mazes often presented in playing casuals, they can be fulfilling. Concert audiences can be great, but it’s hard to beat watching a dozen toddlers dancing in front of your stage at the county fair, or having someone at the supermarket opening stick around for a few numbers, and then saying with conviction “You guys are really good. Do you play around here anywhere?” And how often do you have a co-worker in a panda suit?
So play live music, support live music. Watch that podcast, but don’t let it take the place of face to face. Tip your wait staff and musicians, and wipe your feet before you even think of coming in this house, if you know what’s good for you.
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.