Katy Bourne

Paying the Band

POSTED ON December 01, 2010 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 4 Comments

The other day, I bid on a holiday party for my quartet. It was for a corporate luncheon that was to take place on a Friday afternoon in December. It was slightly unusual in that the potential client, a woman I’ll call “Jodie,” only wanted us to play for the first fifteen minutes of the event and the last fifteen minutes. But she wanted the band on site for four hours. I might add that the gig was to take place in Tacoma. I crunched my usual numbers; I shaved off a little on the price point because it was a daytime gig but I also had to factor in travel to Tacoma. I made what I thought was a reasonable bid. She replied that we would only actually be playing for 30 minutes or so and, accordingly, wanted to see if that would bring down the price. I explained that even though we would only be playing for 30 minutes, I needed to pay musicians for the actual time on site. The back-and-forth emails began with Jodie making multiple attempts to reconfigure the playing time in the hopes that I would drop the price, presumably to mere pennies. She suggested we only play at the end of the event and wanted to know how much of a price reduction that would be worth. I made a few adjustments based on the schedule changes that she suggested, but the long and short of it was that this was a gig in Tacoma that would take up most of an afternoon. I wasn’t willing to reduce the price to her satisfaction, and we both walked away from the table. Needless to say, we won’t be doing that gig.

Without going into specific numbers, there is a minimum fee that I charge to perform for private events. Sometimes, depending on the dictates of the event, the fee is higher. However, in most circumstances, I am willing to negotiate and adjust within reason. But there is a minimum price that I refuse to go below. In order to work with the caliber of musicians that I do, I need to compensate them fairly. These men and women are tops in their field, and music is their livelihood. One hundred bucks and a cup of hot chocolate for a three hour Christmas party just doesn’t cut it. However, I am forever amazed by the off-the-hook expectations of some potential clients when it comes to hiring a band for their private event.

Hiring a band for a wedding reception or a corporate function is not like bartering over vegetables in some open- air market. Still, I don’t know of many other situations in which a professional is expected to negotiate his or her price to such ridiculous extremes. I am wondering if people like Jodie try to haggle with their mechanic or dentist for services rendered. My guess is not. Taking this a step further, I wonder how the Jodies of the world would like it if they were expected to do their job for a monetary compensation that was well below what was reasonable or fair for the task at hand. Of course in the aforementioned situation with the holiday party in Tacoma, Jodie had it in her head that she should only be paying for those two fifteen minute segments that we would be playing and not for the time in between. Au contraire, say I! If anything, we should be paid more for gigs where we have to sit through laborious speeches and lengthy toasts. If we’re there, we would much rather be playing, not listening to Uncle Frank give a rambling and misty speech to the newlyweds. Just sayin.’

I will confess that there have been a couple of rare exceptions when I did accept a private gig for a price that was below my bottom line. In both incidents, I regretted it. Inevitably, the ding-dongs that want a band to come out and play for peanuts are usually the most demanding clients. They want the band to learn a bunch of music, load-in through a manure-laden pasture or let grandma sit in with her harmonica. The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, I know that my relationship with my musicians is more enduring and important than my relationship with any one client. My priority is taking care of the musicians. And this is never at the expense of providing outstanding music for the client. In fact, because I make it a practice to take care of my band, I feel this enhances the situation all around.

It is important for me to qualify here that 99% of the people who hire my band for private events are absolutely wonderful. They’re fair with the pricing, usually quite flexible with details, generous to a fault and extremely gracious. The last casual we played, which was a wedding reception downtown, was a real pleasure. The clients couldn’t have been sweeter, and the event was a success for all concerned. My rant here is definitely directed at a small but exasperating percentage. I might add that as a writer, I do not have this problem. I state my fees without flinching or apology and I have yet to have a freelance client balk for even a second. If there is any wisdom here, it is this: If we don’t value ourselves and what we do, then ultimately our customers won’t either.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jodie probably found some other jazz group to play at the company luncheon. There are always musicians who are willing to make lowball bids and to play private parties for a sugar cookie and fifty bucks. But as my ex used to say to my father-in-law when he bought the crappy, bargain brand ice cream: “Sometimes, you get what you pay for.”


4 responses to “Paying the Band”

  1. Jason Parker says:

    Kudos for walking away, Katy. As you say, there are those who do not understand what it is they are asking for and what it costs. To those people, I say “good luck” and move on with my life. Sure, I’ll try my best to negotiate a deal that will make everyone happy, but in the end it HAS to be a win-win, otherwise it’s just not worth it.

    And you know what…almost without fail, when I turn down a low paying gig a better one comes along. Sometimes you have to make space for things to happen, and taking gigs that are outside your comfort zone takes up that space.

  2. Cheryl says:

    Good for you! One problem I see where I live (not in Seattle) is that too many musicians ARE willing to take lowball pay for gigs, which makes it difficult for any musicians in the area to get what they are really worth. I’m not a musician but lived with one for well over ten years and have many friends in the business. With the time involved and the expense of maintaining and hauling equipment, I see too many of my friends barely breaking even on gigs. Many of them are doing it for the love of the music and performing but that means they have to have day jobs, which also cuts back on their availability for gigs. Seems like a vicious cycle.

  3. admin says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    I guess I should probably make a distinction between club gigs and private gigs. On the money side of things, each present challenges. This blog post was definitely written with private functions in mind. Presumably, if someone is planning a reception or a party or whatever, they are making all kinds of decisions about what they want to spend and on what. (caterers, booze, venue, etc.) In my opinion, if someone wants a live band for their soiree, they should be willing to pony up the bucks. They should value the services of the band as much as they do the type of booze they’re serving.

    Clubs are a slightly different can of worms and present a whole other myriad of issues. Club owners have way different priorities than someone planning a wedding reception for his daughter does. Club owners want to fill seats and sell food and booze. If they offer the band a guarantee, it’s usually pretty minimal. (According to friends that have been playing in Seattle for a long time, club pay basically hasn’t changed in decades. What they made in the 70’s is pretty much what they’re making now.) More often than not, the band is paid with whatever they can bring in at the door, and it is incumbent on the band to bring in as many folks as possible. The club owner, in that scenario, fills seats and it doesn’t cost him or her a dime.

    In both cases, clubs and private events, there are always musicians willing to come in, take the gig for less and basically undercut their peers. You’re absolutely right on that, Cheryl. In fact, I am seeing this played out right now with a club that I had a steady gig at for about 6 months. Out of the blue, I got a call from the club owner; he had a long sob story about problems with his business partner, money, etc. I already had several gigs scheduled at the club, and he basically asked me to do them for half as much as he’d been paying us up to that point. I said “no” and that I couldn’t do that to my musicians. Sadly, I lost the gig. I see that the club has a busy music schedule and see plenty musicians that I know posting on Facebook about upcoming gigs there. I know that club is paying next to nothing now and feel frustrated that some of my peers are so readily willing to jump in for shitty pay, drive the market down and basically give the club owner a green light to continue to reap the benefits of having live music without really paying the band.

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.