No matter what kind of event you’re planning, there are some marvellous musicians out there who, for a relatively modest fee, can bring your occasion to life. Unfortunately, finding those musicians is not always straightforward. Obviously, if you’re reading this and you live in the southeastern part of Australia, I’d love to be able to help you personally, but for everyone else, I thought I’d share some ideas that might help you connect with exactly the sort of music you’re looking for (even if you’re not sure what that is).
A place for entertainment agents
A lot of people begin their quest for the right band by staring confounded at a blank screen, and those people often end up calling on an entertainment agent. It’s not hard to see why. Most agents have a website with a big list of bands, and they can offer some advice over the phone. If an agent recommends a band (the theory goes) the band must be good, and having all those bands in one place can save you a lot of Google searching.
If, for example, you own a venue, and you want to start a regular live music night with bands on a rotation, then an agent can save you a lot of trouble. You only have to deal with one person, and one invoice, and if you don’t like one of the bands you can replace them without having to risk a fistfight. Similarly, if you’re running a huge family event and you need some giant inflatable stiltwalkers, one or two facepainters, a roving trio and a Dorothy the Dinosaur, then an agent might be a godsend.
A place for browser-bashing
But if you’re planning a wedding, or if you’ve landed the job of organising live music for the office Christmas party, then using an agent doesn’t save you a great deal of effort, and it costs you extra money. In the pre-internet world, you might have needed an agent as a kind of self-contained search engine, but these days, the web is your friend. All bands who do this kind of work, and who take themselves seriously (an important qualifier), have a presence online, generally with a greater abundance of audio and video than you’ll tend to get on an agency site. If you spend a bit of time with some well-chosen search terms and a critical eye and ear, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s available.
The live show
Obviously, it’s great to go to different venues and hear bands play live, at any time and for any reason. When you do, though, you should be aware of a couple of things. Firstly, a band playing in a live venue is doing a very different job from a band playing for a wedding or a function. They may sound fantastic in a pub or a club, and they may also sound fantastic in a reception centre, but not every band who sounds great in a live venue will have the versatility (or the inclination) to, for example, play quietly for dinner music. To find out whether they can and will, you need to speak with them about it, and use some intuition, much as you would if you found them online. If they seem to be scoffing at the idea of playing over main course or accompanying your chief bridesmaid’s rendition of Wind Beneath My Wings, then you might like to look at other options.
Also, you should be aware that lots of great bands don’t play at these kinds of public shows very often. Not many live venues have the same needs (or the same budget) as a typical private function.
Some wedding-focused bands play showcases every month or so, where couples can come and check the band out. If you have the chance to go to one, I think you should. If you do, just be aware that there are some economics involved. Good musicians are busy, and if they’re donating their time for this kinds of promotional exercise, they’re probably expecting it to be worth their while in the long term. In other words, if you go ahead and hire the band, you should expect to be paying more. If the band does a showcase and they seem cheap, then it probably means the musicians aren’t that busy.
Personally, I prefer to keep the costs down by offering as much audio and video as I can, for people to watch online. This has the benefit of being free, and it lets you see the band in authentic situations, rather than the more artificial showcase environment. If clients are particularly keen to see the musicians face to face, I generally invite them to a rehearsal, which I combine with a recording to make the most out of every second.
A personal connection
A big advantage to Google-shopping or venue-hopping is that you’ll (probably) be dealing directly with the musicians themselves. Most of us are, surprisingly enough, very friendly (at least those who
are silly enough to anoint ourselves as bandleaders). You shouldn’t necessarily expect five-star customer service – after all, you hope that your musicians have spent more time in the practice room than in hospitality training – but you should get the impression that whoever you’re talking to actually cares about you and your occasion, and that they’re glad to be involved. If the bandleader is slow to get back to you, or doesn’t seem to be interested in talking about your needs, then it may be a good idea to consider other options. If the music sounds good on the website, and you feel that you’re dealing with someone who listens and responds to you, then you can be confident that you’re on the right track. When the musicians show up on the day, you’ll already feel that you share an understanding about the event and exactly how you want the music to enrich it. No worrying about whether an agent has passed on an important message, no anxiety about the anonymous faces walking in the door. For most events, there’s only one chance to get it right, and you should trust your own intuitions over those of a broker who may well be elsewhere with her phone turned off as the band plays its first bars.
Word of mouth
As in most things, a word-of-mouth recommendation is worth something, particularly if it comes from someone who has the chance to compare different offerings. If you’re getting married, for example, then the people who work in your reception venue probably hear their fair share of live music, good and bad. Likewise celebrants and photographers and unusually dedicated florists. And also musicians. Perhaps a bandleader can’t help you, because of budget or availability or whatever, but he or she may still be happy to pass on other contacts (although you should be a little wary of those who want to charge a fee for doing so). It doesn’t hurt to ask.
When you’re onto a good thing
If you’ve hired a band for an event, and it’s gone well, don’t be frightened to keep them in mind for next time (well, ok, second weddings aside). Good bands are always growing and changing and keeping their repertoire fresh. If you book them for an annual celebration, they can become an important part of the tradition. And it can fun to see what songs they’ve written or learned since last year.
Keep an open mind
Some people have a very clear idea of what they’re looking for in terms of live music, while others have only the haziest notion. As you’re ringing around or emailing bands, it’s a good idea to describe your event in some detail, and ask what they can offer, rather than dictate too strictly what you’re after. Some bands only do one thing, and it may or may not be just what you want, but others have a range of ideas, some of which you might not have thought of.
Trust the experts
If you have special requests, a good bandleader will listen to them and try to give you what you’re looking for, within reason. It’s great to be able to add a personal touch to the music like this. But it’s also worth remembering that the musicians (assuming you’ve chosen wisely) are very experienced in what they do. Part of the reason why it’s worth spending the money on a good band is that they’re much more reliable than an iPod shuffle in determining what songs to play at what moment, at what volume and tempo. You might be an unusually passionate playlist sheriff when it comes to your home stereo, and you should absolutely feel free to hand the bandleader a list of requests, but you should probably resist the instinct to treat the band as a living breathing jukebox. If you’ve been clear about how you want your event to progress, and what effect you’re looking for from the musicians at various times, and if you’re dealing with someone who has earned your trust, then you can safely leave the moment-to-moment musical decisions up to them.