There is something to be said about including live music when planning a party, wedding, or holiday event. Music can add so much to an event's ambiance.
If you interested in hiring musician(s), here are 10 tips to consider as you wade through the process:
1.) First and Foremost, Plan Ahead (4-6 months)
Musicians perform constantly and their schedules can fill quickly. To ensure you get the type of ensemble you would like, allow time to look/listen around, identify, negotiate, and settle on the individual/group.
Also, consider the time frame in which your event is occurring. Holidays, (New Years, Christmas, Easter/Spring) are the busiest times of the year for musicians. If you are considering student groups/musicians who are local, remember they may well be heading home for the holidays or during the summer break.
Planning ahead will also help you to decide exactly what type of musician/group you want, the genre of music, and other logistics.
2.) Finding the Right Musician(s):
You may have already heard the group/individual you are interested in at another event. If so, contact your connection to that event and go from there.
If you happen to be attending an event with live music and would like to get the ensemble’s contact information, feel free to do so during breaks. Professional groups will have a business card or one individual responsible for gig management.
If you do not have a group in mind, you can likely find what suits your interests and budget online. Many musicians have websites - google keywords like "classical," "quintet," "quartet," "jazz," "rock-n-roll", etc. along with the city or county where you live. Their websites might have testimonials to review too.
To narrow down the search field, utilize your local resources. Many towns/cities have schools, colleges and universities with music programs. Skim through the faculty listings at these schools to see if they have websites or belong to the type of ensemble you are looking for. In addition, music students often have established groups and ensembles at the ready and are looking for some experience (and cash) to come their way. Check online or call the music department to see if they have a gig service or a location where you can post your advertisement/find theirs. Do not ask the school for recommendations as most administrative personnel do not know what groups exist and even if they did, it would be putting them on the spot.
You might choose to advertise yourself, with a “Musicians Wanted” post via Facebook posting, Craigslist or newsprint. When doing so, be certain to include as many specifics as possible (genre, gig date, hours, location) and to provide your contact information so that the musicians can get in touch with you. Take note, though, the more public your advertisement the wider variety of musicians may contact you, so double check their credentials or ask for a audio sample (see #5).
Lastly, be flexible in your ensemble selection. Traditional groups - jazz trio, vocalist and pianist, string quartets, wind quintets, even rock bands are plentiful. However, if you stray from the norm (guitar duet or cello and flute, etc.) you may be hard pressed to find an established group. You really want to locate musicians who are familiar with the music and one another. Special arrangements will likely cost more, require additional rehearsal times and increase the likelihood of performance snafus.
3.) Consider the Event Space:
As you begin to identify your musical needs be aware that the event’s venue (space) needs consideration – indoor/outdoor, small/large or quiet/loud. The lilting sound of a harp mixing in with chirping birds at a quiet outdoor wedding is incredibly scenic and quite fitting, but that same harpist adjacent to a kitchen or roadway doesn’t stand a chance. And remember, for outdoor events you will require a back-up plan in the chance of inclement weather - wooden instruments (and electronics) can get easily damaged in the rain.
For soft acoustic instruments (guitar, violin, cello, harp, flute, clarinet) – an entrance foyer, small art gallery, or small dining area is about the maximum size space where they can remain audible. If you increase the square footage you will need a larger ensemble.
If the room is going to be packed with people chatting, the clinking of silverware, or a large water feature, you’ll have to go with brass or electronic instruments. Piano, jazz trios with a brass instruments, or an amped group will give you the sound you need.
If you are uncertain what will work for the space, ask the musicians right off the bat. Most will have reservations if the know that they won’t be heard and they will tell you so.
Note: Musicians are responsible for bringing all music-related equipment, such as music stands, instruments, extension chords, amps, drum kits, etc. However, as the hirer, you are responsible for locating the appropriate place for the musicians, and providing large equipment such as a piano (acoustic), chairs, nearby outlets, and adequate lighting.
4.) Hiring/Negotiation Process:
Unlike hiring wedding planners, caterers or florists, the process for hiring musicians is unfamiliar to many. Most musicians/groups are freelancers, however in larger urban areas some musicians work with managers/management companies who help you to identify/pair you with individuals or groups. These usually fall under categories "Entertainment" or "Event Management." They will do all the matchmaking and negotiations for you and can be easily found online. These management services' fees will be built into the contract.
If you choose to go directly to the source, you will find that freelance musicians may have a one/two page contract which will outline their services, music genre, rates, method/timing of payment and any additional charges for specific pieces/songs not normally in their repertoire. If they do not provide you with a contract they will likely rely on email exchanges as the binding agreement. If that is the case, make sure to capture everything discussed in one final email including: fee/payment process, start and stop times, venue location, arrival instructions, dress requirements/costumes, special requests and other expectations.
Negotiating fees is perfectly acceptable, for both parties. As a general rule of thumb, when talking to trained musicians, you are paying per musician, per hour. If you want a string quartet to play a straight hour’s worth of music, you will be paying each individual for that set. The average for a conservatory student or young professional is $100 per hour, so a total of $400 for one hour. For seasoned professionals, obviously the rates will be higher. Note: These prices may vary depending on location. For larger cities such as New York or Chicago, prices will most likely be higher.
Like most purchases, you will get what you pay for. With a decent amount of support you can ensure experience and adequate rehearsal time is being spent specifically for your event. In addition, when you place an ad or reach out to your local music school, I recommend including the payment amount and whether it is negotiable. If you don’t, the chances of people responding to the ad will drop very quickly.
Please understand that it would be inappropriate to ask trained, seasoned musicians to play for free. If you are planning on paying for a venue, caterer and servers, plan on paying the musicians.
5.) Ask for an Audio Sample:
Before you make your final musician selection, remember it is acceptable to ask for a sample of their work (though some might be on their website/Youtube video, etc.). If you do ask for a sample, fair warning, the sample will most likely not be of the song(s) you were hoping to include in your event. However you can still ascertain quality from a good sample recording. Also, there might be an opportunity to see the musician(s) live locally. If the group doesn’t provide something to you within 2 weeks, feel free to move on.
6.) Pre-select a Few Songs:
Providing musicians with a listing of a few preferred songs/pieces will be most appreciated. By providing a genre, composers/artists, or specific titles, the musicians will immediately know what you are looking for and be able to advise of their suitability. Don’t go overboard with the song list. Groups won’t mind adapting a few songs for a gig, but if you begin to dictate entire sets of music you will likely incur additional costs for the additional work required to arrange and rehearse.
Should you have other requests in mind, such as a vocalist dressing up as Cinderella or Victorian garments for a holiday event, (yes I’ve seen both of these requested), plan appropriately, have costumes at the ready, and plan on paying a little extra for the unique request.
7.) Allow Breaks:
Lastly, be flexible in your ensemble selection. Traditional groups - jazz trio, vocalist and pianist, string quartets, wind quintets, even rock bands are plentiful. However, if you stray from the norm (guitar duet or cello and flute, etc.) you may be hard pressed to find an established group. You really want to locate musicians who are familiar with the music and one another. Special arrangements will likely cost more, require additional rehearsal times and increase the likelihood of performance snafusk with the group to see the amount of time they are prepared to play in one sitting.
8.) Provide an On-Site Contact Person:
Be certain to identify a person who, on the day of the event, will be there to help coordinate musician arrival, access, set-up, and timing. Be certain their contact information (cell phone, email) is made available to the musicians. Oftentimes the person who does the hiring is too busy at the event to orchestrate onsite coordination. If there is a second-in-command, that is perfect! Also identify the person responsible for payment - which brings me to…
9.) Providing Payment:
Be certain, as part of your contract negotiations, to establish the means and method of payment (check/cash). It’s especially helpful if the second-in-command person onsite is able to provide the musicians payment per the contract, which might be at the end of the event.
10.) Keep the Musician's Contact Information:
And lastly, be certain to keep the contact information for the musical group. They will appreciate your patronage in the future and they will likely be able to provide further recommendations!