Over the course of my 600 shows I’ve hired 9 drummers, 9 bassists, 7 guitarists, 5 keyboardists, 5 singers, 4 trumpet players, 2 trombonists, 2 saxophonists, 2 cellists and 3 violinists. Not to mention the various session players for recordings.
I’ve also been hired as a trumpet player on a few gigs. I’ve seen both sides. But as a singer/songwriter, I’ve primarily been the employer.
Here are 9 things you need to know about how to hire freelance musicians:
1) Freelance musicians aren’t playing your music for fun.
Sure, all musicians love the art. Love the craft. Have a passion that bleeds out of their eyeballs. It’s the only reason they chose such an unstable career.
But musicians, like all other humans, need to eat. Just because they’re holding a guitar instead of a hammer, you shouldn’t treat their craft any less valuably. Just like a construction worker isn’t going to build your fence for the love of the craft, don’t expect a professional freelance musician to play your gig for free either.
Young musicians will tend to take gigs for free, however. For experience. Some friends might even agree to play your gig as a favor. Or because they believe in you. They may even say “for fun.” But be very cautious about getting a volunteer band together. If they get offered a last minute paid gig the same night as your show, you may be left without a drummer hours before you hit the stage.
By paying your musicians (regardless of the amount), you can demand (politely) a level of professionalism. If they’re playing ‘for fun’ or as a favor, prepare yourself for flakiness.
2) Sitting In
However, “sitting in” is an honored tradition and many artists sit in with friends all the time – for, of course, no pay. If you want your singer/songwriter friend to sing backup vocals on a couple songs for free, that’s totally kosher. Just make sure to plug her from the stage.
3) Discuss all details up front
You can’t just ask someone to play the gig for $100 and then spring 3 rehearsals on them the week of the show and assume they’ll be ok with this. Make sure you discuss all details up front: rate, rehearsals, show date(s), per diems and sleeping arrangements (if it’s a tour), how many songs you want them to learn, if you require them to be memorized or if they can have charts on stage, rehearsal length (3 hours is typical), show length, gear they need to bring, if you want them to make charts or if you’re providing them and anything else you’d like from your musicians.
4) Get the scene’s going rate
In LA, the typical going rate is $100 for the gig and about $50 per rehearsal. This varies depending on the musician’s demand and experience. Some will need way more and some will accept less. If you’ve never hired musicians before, ask other singer/songwriters or music directors (MD) in your scene what they pay their players.
I don’t recommend asking them what their rate is because most likely it will be way more than you were prepared to pay and then you’ll feel like the asshole for undercutting them and they’ll feel like a noob for agreeing to a rate so much lower than their ‘normal rate.’ Pitch them all details including the rate from the get go.
And remember, just like every contract agreement, you can always negotiate. But be respectful. If you ask them to play the gig and two rehearsals for $50 and they reply saying they need $150 for that, try to make it work, or pass. Don’t tell him his mother only goes for half that.
All details should be worked out up front. Once both parties have committed there should be NO MORE HAGGLING. This is an easy way to get blacklisted in the scene. Both sides should respect the offer and accommodate. They shouldn’t spring a “cart fee” to bring their gear and you shouldn’t spring extra rehearsals or outlandish outfit demands.
5) Send songs as streaming and/or download links.
I hate downloading music. When I freelance, I want practice tracks sent as streamable links. Preferably on Soundcloud, Box or Dropbox. I want to listen to them when I’m driving. I want to dedicate a few minutes here and there to run them in my home studio. I DON’T want to spend 15 minutes downloading, importing, labeling and syncing to my iPhone.
6) Be a leader
You need to lead your rehearsals. Your players have agreed to play YOUR gig with YOUR name on the bill. They may be the lead songwriter and front person of their main project, but for this gig, they defer to you.
Make sure you show up to rehearsals prepared. Know what songs you want to rehearse in the order you want to rehearse them. Don’t spend 10 minutes in between each song deliberating over the setlist. This is your responsibility. You can ask their opinions if you want, but you know your audience, act and songs best.
You should be familiar with every player’s part. Be able to answer every player’s question decidedly. Confidently. Don’t say “I don’t know. Do whatever you think.” Yes, you can trust their talent, expertise and craft, but it’s your gig and your songs. Know your songs and know your show.
7) Set expectations
In addition to discussing all details up front, make sure you let your players know what you expect from them. Will you have charts available or do you want them to learn the parts on their own?
Let the players know what to wear to the show. I once forgot to mention this to my players and my bassist showed up to my festival show wearing cargo shorts and Birkinstocks.
It’s your responsibility to lock in a rehearsal space, but feel free to ask if they have suggestions.
Are you religiously against alcohol? Make it known that the tour will be dry. Don’t wait for show #3 on a 50 date tour to bring that up.
Discussing everything up front will save you a lot of stress down the line.
8) Have the check at the gig
This is the #1 rule. Don’t make them hunt this down from you. If you become known as someone who never pays (or delays payment), you’re going to have a very difficult time finding players. Hand them the check BEFORE they hit the stage. Or Venmo them at soundcheck.
9) If you can’t afford to hire a band, you can’t afford to have a band
I never recommend singer/songwriters split the door with their freelance players because it’s a slippery slope. If you somehow get your musicians to agree to split the shitty door cuts with you, they’re going to expect the same when you get the huge check.
It’s your name. Your image. Your reputation. You are making all of the management decisions and you are setting the shows up. If you get a $2,000 check then you should pay your players a fair wage, and then invest the rest into the career. If you get a $100 check, then you take a loss and pay your players the same, fair wage.
You’re the entrepreneur. It’s your project. And your career.
Early on, your gigs will not pay for your band and you’ll have to take losses. But those early investments into your career will payoff when you’re selling out venues with the same players who have felt respected and cherished from day one.
Photo is by Chris Pan