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.
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.