How to Hire a Band

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.

The showcase

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.

Wedding forum answers: Band vs DJ

For my sins, I read bridal forums.

No, it’s nothing kinky. For me, it’s a way of trying to understand some of the concerns that people might have when they’re thinking about hiring a band (or not hiring one). For musicians like me, it can be easy to forget that many people have no experience whatsoever with our business. We’ve played for hundreds of weddings, but for a bride and groom, we’re likely to be the first band they’ve ever hired. There may be all sorts of questions and concerns running through their mind which I wouldn’t otherwise think to address, and which they might be too shy to ask. So, enter the bridal forums.

I thought I’d choose a forum post now and then, and post my answer here for other people to read. So here’s today’s question, and it’s a pretty basic one. On the Australian Bridal Directory forum, Julie asks:

I was wondering what would be better?
A Band or a DJ?

Here are a few responses. First from repgirl04:

My way of thinking is that a band may not play the songs the way they are meant to be, whereas if you get a DJ they are basically playing the song off a track.

From Jill:

from our experiences, good live band is better than dj that plays all your wedding favourites.we went to a few band on open days and won’t sway live band for dj, having said that, live of course is more expensive than dj.

From Stacey:

The upside to a DJ is that they can play absolutely anything you want. A live band can only play what they know.

And from Rosa:

I think a band gives more Atmosphere

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that I think a wedding should have live music, of some kind. Generally, I think a great reception deserves a great band of some kind, bearing in mind that live music comes in lots of different formats to suit the size of the venue, and to fit within the budget of the wedding. Ok, but why?

Firstly, because live music is unique and distinctive. A wedding is often the biggest day in a person’s life, and I think it deserves to be marked with music that is out of the ordinary. When a DJ plays music for you, he or she is (usually) playing the music off the same CD that you have at home or on your iPod. It will sound much the same. From the point of view of repgirl04 and Stacey above, of course, that’s a good thing. To me, though, it represents a wasted opportunity. Hearing a recording for the hundredth time, no matter much you love the song, is never going to have the impact of hearing the song interpreted just for you, by a living breathing musician standing right in front of you. That performance becomes a unique and special part of your celebration in a way that a recording never could. If it’s done right, you should hear it as if for the first time. Nothing could be more romantic.

Secondly, because a band symbolises the importance of the occasion. You might really love pot and parma night at the local pub (and rightly so), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what you should be eating and drinking at your wedding. You can hear a DJ spinning hit songs from the last 30 years on any night of the week. You hear it every time you turn on your radio. Like the pot and parma, it’s easy and familiar and safe and cheap, but it’s not very special. To walk into a room, the music swelling to greet you as the crowd rises to its feet and cheers: that’s an experience that you’ll probably never have again, unless you win an Oscar. You should make it count.

In a related point to that, Rosa is right. Live music provides an energy that recorded music can’t. There’s a reason why people still go to the theatre even when a play is available on Blu-Ray. Being entertained by humans is fundamentally different to being entertained by machines. It’s hard to put your finger on, but something about being in the same space, breathing the same air, connects you with the performers. It puts you in an emotionally heightened state that makes you feel everything more intensely. At a wedding, where you and your guests are hopefully going to be happy and excited to begin with, that’s a good thing.

Fourthly, live music is easier than you think. Big wedding, small wedding, big budget, small budget, big venue, small venue, there’s always a way that you can use live music to make the occasion something extraordinary. Maybe not a big band, maybe not for the whole night, maybe just for the ceremony, or between the ceremony and reception. There is no template that you have to adhere to. There are lots of possibilities, some of which you probably haven’t thought of. If you’re in doubt, just call me, and we’ll talk about it. Seriously, right now, call me.

And lastly, you don’t have to choose between having a live band or hearing your favourite recordings. I’ve played at lots of weddings which have both a band and a DJ. Dancing to your recorded music with your friends can be quite a sweet way to finish off the night, when everyone’s tired and merry and a little disinhibited. In fact, if you want to do that, you don’t even have to hire a DJ. If you hire The Mood Merchants, you can pay a small extra fee, give me a list of your favourite dance tunes, and I will mix a good, continuous, level-adjusted, mood-appropriate track for your last hour or so, to be played autonomously through our PA system. If you can live without a guy in a baseball cap and sunglasses, twiddling knobs behind a comically oversized subwoofer, it works remarkably well.

Have I left anything out?

The Mood Merchants and the bands of myth

It’s been a tricky enterprise, figuring out how to present The Mood Merchants in a way that is easy to understand.

On the one hand, The Mood Merchants is a band, in much the same sense that other jazz bands are bands. Yes, it has several different possible formats, but so do most jazz bands. Yes, it really consists of a single leader and a pool of musicians to be drawn from according to the needs of the job, but most jazz bands actually operate in a similar way (even most of those that would prefer to think of themselves as a band of myth, with a stable set of members and a shared Kombi van).

On the other hand, the idea of a band is really too small to encompass everything that I’m offering. What I’m really offering is myself, as a professional musician with an unusually broad level of experience and an unusually diverse skill-set including good communication skills, the benefits of my contacts with potentially hundreds of great musicians in this great music city, and my capacity to arrange it all (in both the administrative and musical sense) into something that perfectly suits the needs of a particular client for a particular job.

I don’t think there’s a commonly-understood category that I can put all this into, though, so for now I’m marketing it as a band (because what else are potential clients going to be looking for, after all?) and if it means as I come across as a bandleader rather than a musical-director-at-large, then that’s completely fine. Not least because for much of the work that I expect to be doing, the two are basically the same thing. Lots of people just want to book a band, and that’s everything that they need. I’ll always be more than happy to help them on that basis, and I’ll never be pressuring anyone into putting on more of a production than they’re really up for.

But whether it’s something bigger, or smaller, or something a bit unusual, or whatever, I want people to know that what we do is not limited by the combinations that we have listed on the site (as great as they are), and I stand ready to listen to what they have in mind.