Books, jazz and high tea at Eynesbury

Last Sunday, the Trio played at the beautiful Eynesbury Homestead to accompany the launch of Kerry Greenwood’s Murder and Mendelssohn, the 20th book in her Phryne Fisher series. We enjoyed high tea with a coterie of immaculately dressed Phryne aficionados, listened to the author give a fascinating and entertaining account of her career and the birth of her characters, and provided plenty of genre-appropriate tunes to kick the afternoon along.

Thanks to André Elhay Photography for these great images.

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My thoughts on background music

Live background music gets a bad rap. I once played at an after-concert foyer jazz session for a major performing arts organisation, and the manager of that organisation stood up beforehand and told everyone how offended he was by the idea of background music. Then we started playing, and the champagne started flowing, and everyone started chatting, including the manager, as I recall. It was background music, and it was completely fine.

You can understand why someone who was immersed in the world of concert music might be challenged by the idea of music being played by real musicians while other people talk over the top. Like most musicians, I spend at least some of my time playing in darkened halls to attentive audiences, and there’s no denying that it’s rewarding. All that hard detailed work that we’ve put into our craft seems to be worth it when we’re playing to people who are doing their best to pay close attention. Perhaps more importantly, concerts constitute a status recognition for performers. When people pay for a seat and then spend an hour or two in silence, listening to and watching you do what you do, you feel important. It’s great from a purely musical perspective, but maybe even greater from an ego perspective. It’s the chance to showcase your art, but also the chance to be validated as an artist.

So I play at concerts sometimes, and jazz clubs and festivals and other gigs where people come to listen. But that’s a minority of what I do. I play a lot of background music. Much of the time, my job is to provide mood and atmosphere for events where people want to talk and catch up and network and celebrate. The music is a part of the event, but listening to the music is not the primary objective for most of the people there.

That creates some challenges for the musicians. Musical challenges, and also ego challenges. You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve managed to deal with both, and deal with them pretty well.

The musical challenges are pretty clear. When the musician’s don’t own the soundscape, and have to share it with conversation, the music has to work differently. Some aspects of performance, which might be important in a hushed jazz club, take a back seat. Firstly, we have to compress the dynamic range (the difference between the loud bits and the soft bits). There’s no point in playing beneath the noise floor that’s set by the conversation. And there’s even less point in overpowering the talking – playing too loudly both annoys people and makes them talk louder. Secondly, we have to constrain the emotional content. The audience at a concert will listen to a soul-tearing rendition of Cry Me a River or Nessun Dorma which leaves them distraught and gasping for breath, and consider that money well spent. Not so most brides and grooms. Thirdly, sounds might need to change a bit. As a bass player, my background sound is probably a bit bigger and rounder than my concert sound, because I need to find space in the frequency spectrum that’s not already occupied by chatting. Similarly, in a very noisy environment I might prefer to use a trumpet or a clarinet or an alto saxophone or a female singer, in preference to a tenor saxophone or a male singer, because there’s room for those higher-pitched instruments to float above the level of the conversation without getting in anyone’s way.

The musical problems have technical solutions, and they’re easy enough to manage once you know how. You have to accept, of course, that playing alongside crowd noise is never going to allow you to create quite the sounds that you’d like to create, or to hear yourself as clearly as you’d prefer. That’s just part of the deal. No performance is perfect from a sonic perspective – background gigs are particularly imperfect. But the bigger issue is the personal one. Music is, at its core, an emotional experience. That doesn’t mean that when I play the bass in a jazz band I’m actually experiencing personal drama, but what I am trying to do is connect with other people in quite an intimate way. When you hear my sound, you feel it in your body, and when you respond to the rhythm, you’re reacting to a stimulus which is going right to the core of your humanity. I think on some level, most musicians experience this connection with the audience as a relationship of sorts. We look at people in the audience and see and hear and feel how they’re responding, and on some deep level we take it personally. When we can sense that the listeners are loving what we’re doing, there’s a very special feeling that goes along with that. If the listeners hate what we’re doing, that’s not so great. As performers, we’re offering something of ourselves, and we’re vulnerable. Maybe everyone who offers a service is vulnerable, because anyone who makes that offer can be rejected, but I think performing amps up the vulnerability. Partly, it’s because the thing we’re offering is a bit of ourselves (quite literally, when I’m getting to end of a hard night’s playing and my fingers are starting to deposit themselves on the strings). And partly because live music only exists in the moment. If you don’t like it, we don’t get another chance.

Reading all that, you’d imagine that playing background music is a special kind of hell. For some musicians, I think it is. But some of us enjoy doing it, and take pride in it.

It seems to me that background music is just a different mode of performance, which comes with its own set of motivations and ideals and philosophies. Perhaps the best comparison I can make is with film music. Film composers, and the musicians who play on the soundtracks, know that their music is not going to be the central focus of the audience’s attention (unless the audience is made up of film score buffs, in which case all bets are off). Maybe only a small portion of people walking out of the cinema at the end of the film will have any comment to make about the score, and an even smaller portion will be rushing out to buy the soundtrack. But can we take that to mean that film music is unimportant? Of course not. Good film reviewers understand this – When they try to describe whether or not a film works and why, they’ll talk about the music (along with a whole raft of other storytelling elements that most people probably don’t notice). I’m pretty sure that most film composers take their job seriously, and think very hard about exactly what the musical accompaniment needs to be to create the dramatic effect that the director is looking for. Nobody thinks of a film score as muzak, even though it’s in the background most of the time.

When I’m approaching a job playing background music, I’m thinking about the emotional content of the event, just like a film composer trying to understand a scene. True, weddings and corporate events seldom incorporate car chases or martial arts sequences or life montages (PowerPoint slideshows notwithstanding). Still, they have an emotional story to tell, and the people who attend the events have emotional responses to what’s going on. Good event planners worry about the food and the wine and the décor because they want the guests not only to be impressed, but also to feel something. Whether or not you, as a guest, notice on a conscious level how much work has been put into the flower arrangements or the lighting or the colour co-ordination, you still have a response to it. It still makes you feel a certain way when you walk into the room, and whether you realise it or not, it will colour your memory of the whole event. Film-makers and advertisers and novelists and artists and chefs and landscapers and musicians: we’re all working towards the same basic end. We’re all trying to make people feel something, and if we’re serious about that, we don’t care for a moment whether or not the people doing the feeling are aware of what’s making them feel that way, or whether we’re reaping the acclaim that we undoubtedly deserve for our part in the experience. People who come to concerts are willing subjects for the manipulation that we provide, and some of those people will have very powerful responses. But I don’t think you have to be a focused, listening member of an audience in order to be moved by music. The guests at a function probably won’t react with the same intensity (in fact, it’s probably best that they don’t), but the response is no less real, and no less abiding.

When you’ve been doing this a long time, you can see the signs. You can see the small, spontaneous movements that people do when the music is making them happy. You can feel the way the soundscape affects the mood of a room. There might only be a handful of people who we’re actively and obviously connecting with at any given time, but we can think of those people as symbolising the unconscious impact that we’re having on many others who might not be showing it outwardly. We’re complementing the other things that are going on – eating drinking, socialising, networking – and in cognitive terms we often take a back seat to those other things. But if the eaters, drinkers, socialisers and networkers are feeling good, and we’re part of the reason why, then our job is well done.

Bringing our jazz bands to country Victoria

I’ll share a secret: musicians from Melbourne really love travelling out of town. We all love living here – it’s a fantastic music town – but spending as much time as we do out and about in the inner city, we appreciate every chance for a change of pace and scenery. Getting out on a road trip has always been a significant part of being in a band, so we take it where we can get it.

The Mood Merchants exist to provide great live music for the significant moments in people’s lives, and we do our best to make it possible and practical wherever and whenever we can. If you’re in Gippsland or the Riverina,or the Western Districts or the Highlands, and you’re celebrating a birthday, or a wedding, or a big community event, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy fantastic live music as a part of that experience.

Isn’t it expensive?

It costs a bit more than it would if you lived in the city, to cover the time and expense of getting there, but the difference is probably less than you think. We provide a quick, no-obligation quote, and we do everything we can to keep the music affordable.

What about accommodation?

Depending on performance times and distances, the band might need to stay overnight. There are three options for putting up the musicians. Obviously, if you can provide accommodation at your own property, then that’s great. If you’ve booked rooms in bulk for your guests, and you can get a good price by including band accommodation in that deal, then that’s often a good option. Alternatively, you can leave it up to me to organise, and I’ll pass on the best price that I can get. Generally, the band will need either one or two rooms, depending on the lineup.

Where will you travel to?

Basically anywhere, including but not limited to:

  • Albury Wodonga
  • Alexandra
  • Anglesea and Aireys Inlet
  • Apollo Bay
  • Ararat
  • Bairnsdale
  • Ballarat
  • Beechworth
  • Benalla
  • Bendigo
  • Bright
  • Camperdown
  • Castlemaine
  • Cobram Barooga
  • Colac
  • Cowes
  • Creswick
  • Daylesford
  • Dederang
  • Dunkeld
  • Echuca Moama
  • Euroa
  • Falls Creek
  • Geelong
  • Halls Gap
  • Hamilton
  • Healesville
  • Heathcote
  • Hepburn Springs
  • Horsham
  • Kyabram
  • Lakes Entrance
  • Lancefield
  • Lilydale
  • Lorne
  • Mallacoota
  • Mansfield
  • Maryborough
  • Marysville
  • Metung
  • Mildura
  • Mount Beauty
  • Mount Buller
  • Mount Macedon
  • Nagambie
  • Ocean Grove and Barwon Heads
  • Paynesville
  • Phillip Island
  • Port Campbell
  • Port Fairy
  • Portarlington
  • Portland
  • Portsea
  • Queenscliff
  • Rutherglen
  • Yarrawonga
  • Sale
  • Seymour
  • Shepparton
  • Sorrento
  • Stawell
  • Swan Hill
  • Torquay
  • Traralgon
  • Walhalla
  • Wangaratta
  • Waratah Bay
  • Warragul
  • Warrnambool
  • Wodonga
  • Woodend
  • Yackandandah
  • Yarra Glen
  • Yarragon Village

Trio at The Plough

Last Sunday the trio played for a birthday party at a new venue for us, The Plough Bar and Bistro in Myrniong. It’s a gorgeous out-of-the-way restaurant with a country inn vibe, delicious food and excellent service. The main dining area was (understandably) packed for Sunday lunch, and our function took place in a cosy side room with an open fire. David Gardner was playing saxophone, and I asked him to bring his clarinet too (Dave is one of Australia’s finest jazz clarinettists). I was glad I did, because it turned out that the clarinet was the perfect fit for the acoustic, floating beautifully above the bubbling of conversation.

Like what you see here? It’s quick and easy to book our trio for any event. Just visit our contact page.

Dinner at the Grand Hyatt

Last Thursday, the trio played for a conference dinner at the Grand Hyatt.

It was a professional crowd, friendly and sociable but also purposeful and businesslike. The music needed to supplement that energy and perhaps lighten the atmosphere a little, but without getting in the way of all the important networking that was going on.

At the same time, it was easy to spot a number of music fans (like we find in most mixed audiences) who were quite focused on what we were doing. So that became a performance within a performance, offering the listeners something interesting and creative while pleasing the rest of the crowd with energetic but subtle background music. I’m pleased to say that our trio was up to the task!

Does this music seem suitable for your event? It’s quick and easy to book our trio. Just visit our contact page.

Jazz in the backyard

Last Sunday, we played for a birthday party in a Parkdale backyard. Our client requested a banjo, so we used a special version of our swinging background music trio, bringing in the wonderful Peter Hooper. We played with no amplification at all under the back verandah while the guests enjoyed a delicious lunch and soaked up the atmosphere.

Videos from our quintet rehearsal

On April 29th, we held an open rehearsal at my place in Newport. I’ve only recently moved in, and was the first rehearsal that I’d had in the studio at the back of the house. The room was cosy, especially once we were joined by some prospective clients, but it proved to be a great space for making music in, and the cupcakes that I baked for the occasion were particularly tasty. I set up some video cameras and a simple recording rig, so you can see what it was like. Don’t be concerned by the fact that Mary Louise disappears at one point – she was there, really, she just managed to evade the cameras.

Jazz in the gardens

A beautiful evening on Monday as Todd and Iona returned from their wedding in the Cook Islands to celebrate with jealous friends at Gardens House. Our acoustic jazz trio provided the backdrop, and the guests took advantage of the unusually balmy April weather by happily mingling outside in the gardens until well after dark, to the bemusement of the possums.

Why good music is worth it

Obviously, it’s in my interest to convince you that fantastic music is worth every cent that you pay for it, and more. But leaving that aside, I’ve also spent more than twenty years playing in a huge variety of situations, with good bands (including those run by me) and not-so-good bands (not including any run by me), and that experience has been enough to convince me of two things:

Live music is vital

For reasons that I cover to some extent here, I think that if you’re serious about putting on an event that will make people feel genuinely great – one of those celebrations that goes on to live in their memories – then having live music is essential.

Everyone knows that functions can be a chore, particularly for people who attend them all the time. If you’re planning a wedding or an event, you want nothing more than for your guests to relax and have a good time, but in most instances you’re taking them out of their comfort zone, inviting them to a place that they’re unfamiliar with, dressing them up in fancier clothes than usual, mixing them with people they don’t know, and expecting them to look like they’re enjoying themselves.

A proportion of people respond to these challenges by drinking heavily, and there’s no doubt that that can help them to feel relaxed, but if a room full of heavily inebriated guests is not an ingredient in your dream occasion, then you need other strategies to help people cast aside their inhibitions and start having fun without having to pretend.

Having a great band at the function immediately puts people at ease. They have something to listen to, something to watch, and an instant connection with all the other people who are listening to and watching the same thing. They can sway or nod or tap, instead of just standing awkwardly. They can sing along if they feel like it, or request a song, or have a dance. More than anything, live music creates a shared space and a shared energy. It makes everyone in the room feel like they’re a part of the same thing.

And of course, it’s good to listen to, in the same way that nice wine is enjoyable to drink and fine food is fun to eat.

But quality is critical

As you might have gathered, I’m a great believer in live music, and any time people get to enjoy the experience, I’m all for it, whether or not that involves hiring me or my band.

But here’s the thing. Just as we’ve all been to functions which are lifeless beyond belief, at least partly thanks to the absence of live musicians, we’ve also all been trapped in circumstances where live music itself makes the experience insufferably bad.

When the band starts playing in the ballroom and immediately 80 percent of the guests spontaneously migrate to the foyeur, it means exactly what it seems to mean: the band is not doing a very good job. Maybe they’ve misjudged the environment, or misunderstood the crowd, or maybe they’re one-trick ponies who just don’t have the skills to adapt to the situation. Maybe they sound bad because they’re not very good musicians. Or maybe they’re great musicians who lack gig-smarts, or they harbour some grievance which they feel the need to express through music. Who knows.

The thing is, experiences like that create a well-justified fear in people who are thinking about hiring a band, because nobody wants to pay good money for their guests to have a bad time.

That’s sad, for two reasons. It’s sad because good musicians suffer from guilt by association with the bad ones, but fortunately, genuinely good musicians will always be in demand, so let’s not shed too many tears over their lost income. What bothers me more is that every time one of these dysfunctional bands plays, it represents a lost opportunity for a whole audience to experience all those great positive things I mentioned above. Not only that, but because people in that audience are less likely to use live music in the future, the one lost opportunity can cascade into a whole host of lost opportunities. Word of mouth spreads bad experiences just as efficiently as it spreads good experiences, and the tales often get worse in the retelling.

All this means that there’s good reason to be cautious, but no reason to fear, provided you get good advice, deal direct with the musicians, spend time in conversation with the bandleader to build trust and confidence, and make sure you’re prepared to back your own instincts.

Finding value

So, good music is worth it. Does that mean that paying more for a band will guarantee you get a good one and not a bad one?

Unfortunately, not quite.

To begin with, it’s almost impossible to get a great band without paying a reasonable fee. As I mentioned above, and contrary to what some people might think, good musicians are in demand, particularly on busy nights and at busy times of the year when lots of people have functions. They generally rely on live performance for all or part of their living, and it would make no sense for them to book in a cheap job at a high-demand time. Because of this, the low end of the market tends to be dominated by students and hobbyists, for whom the demand is weak, often for good reason. The classic rule holds: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

By that reasoning, you might expect that paying more money would reliably get you a better band: the more you pay, the better the music. I don’t think it always works that way. Of course, from a band’s perspective, once their diary starts getting full, it makes sense to increase prices. So yes, there are bands whose prices are unusually high because the band is unusually good.

But prices can be high for other reasons, too. There are bands, for example, who don’t really enjoy doing functions at all. They set the price really high and more or less hope that the client will say no, knowing that if the answer is yes they’ll at least be well paid for their suffering. Some bands set the prices high as a bluff, knowing that some clients will fall victim to the fallacy that price equals quality. Some bands perceive a wealthy client and find their eyeballs spinning with dollar signs like Daffy Duck. Some bands work for reasonable money, not knowing that their agent has doubled it and pocketed the difference. So at the upper end of the market, the number on the page is not a very reliable guide.

Okay, so how much exactly is good music worth?

I can’t give you a set of figures, but here’s one way of thinking about it.

The musicians you want are professionals. You should expect to pay professional rates. If you’re budgeting for unskilled labour, then that’s what you’ll get. That’s bad.

A normal hourly rate for a professional musician seems to be similar to that of a GP or an accountant. Usually not as high as a medical specialist or a corporate lawyer (we’ll argue another time about whether those fees are justified), but sufficient to reflect the fact that you’re dealing with highly trained, experienced and specialised people, and that you’re claiming a significant proportion of their billable hours that week (because the times that you want to book them are probably similar to the times that everyone else wants to book them).

At a glance, the number can seem expensive, especially if you’re hiring a larger band. But as a fraction of the money that most people spend on an important function like a wedding or a corporate event, and when you consider the benefits compared with cheaper options, it’s really very good value.

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.