If you are planning an event that involves cocktails, dinner, parties and/or dancing, you will more than likely have some entertainment, such as a DJ or live musicians. If you are considering musicians, this article will help ensure you have selected the right ones for your event. If you are planning a wedding and are thinking about hiring live musicians for the ceremony, please also read the article “Hiring Musicians for Your Event – Part 1”.
You may need musicians for background music during cocktails and dinner, or for the dance/party later on - or for both during the same evening. It is quite possible that you have found musicians versatile enough to play unobtrusive background music during dinner, and who can also kick it up a notch for the party – but it often makes sense to separate these two. For example, any soloist or ensemble that plays a wedding ceremony can undoubtedly play during cocktails and dinner - and you never have to ask a flautist to play quietly – unless Jethro Tull stops by to play your event.
That said, my rock band is often asked if we can provide music for the dinner before the dancing. Depending on the budget, that may mean we plug in the iPod and wish them luck. But sometimes we can arrange for a scaled-down version of the band (i.e. no drums) to play acoustic music, light rock, smooth jazz, some Eagles, Simon & Garfunkel, folk or Celtic music – all of which can add to the mood without destroying any chance of your guests talking amongst themselves (stay tuned for my rant about excessive volume).
How do you find a band that fits in with your event? Whatever your method of research (Internet, phone book, word-of-mouth), make certain you find a band that does private parties on a regular basis. The criteria for a wedding, stag-and-doe, dance or any other type of celebration is entirely different than that of a bar gig. Once more for those in the back: do not hire a band that just plays bars. A dance band or a wedding band will know that there are many more aspects to the event than just their music. These musicians will readily accommodate the caterers, the MC, the grandparents, the drunk uncle, the sudden change in itinerary - and will do so with aplomb. That alone is worth the high price of a dance band. Yes, bands charge significantly more for a private event than they do in a bar. The expectations are much higher, to say nothing of the unlimited repertoire that a dance band is required to possess.
Consider the type of music you want from your band. Rock music is a very wide genre that can, in theory, accommodate everyone from the grandparents (Buddy Holly, Chuck Barry), and the baby boomers (Beatles, Rolling Stones) to the teens (good luck with this one, folks). Ask to see a song-list; you should see over 100 songs listed if you hope to make all your guests happy. A jazz band can be a great idea for your event – pay attention to whether it is, for example, smooth jazz (might be too light for the evening portion of the party), acid jazz (the musicians in the audience will love it, not so much the other guests), or big band (fun for everyone).
Does the band have a male or female vocalist (or both)? If there are no women in the band, don’t expect to hear songs by Blondie, ABBA, Madonna or Celine Dion. Are the musicians too young? Your nephew’s band, “Brain-Crusher” may have won their high school Battle of the Bands with their original song entitled, “Puke on my Toes” but, in booking them to save some money, you run the risk of them not showing up –or, even worse, that they might actually show up and perform!
This brings me to the topic of volume. Most veteran musicians will not need to be asked to turn the volume down. They can read the room and judge what volume the audience requires. The players in my band and I are in our late 30’s and early 40’s. Nobody has to ask us to turn down. Our drummer brings brushes and bamboo sticks to every gig in case we need to play quietly. It is indeed possible to have an energetic dance band that doesn’t cause everyone’s eardrums to burst. If there are other musicians reading this, I’m talking to you too. However, when you (the coordinator of the event) book a band with drums, guitars and horns, you have to expect some loudness throughout the night. The solution is simply to make sure the room is plenty big enough to have a bit of a louder band.
Every reputable band has a demo recording on a website – but sometimes that can be misleading, as recording studios offer all sorts of tricks to make even horrible musicians sound fantastic. In this day of YouTube, the band should have some sort of video of themselves live in concert. The sound quality may not be as good as that from a studio demo, but at least you will know it is really them. If you can, try to go and see them play live somewhere.
If you want recorded music in between the band’s sets, the band leader can look after that if you arrange it in advance. Any professional band will bring an iPod or CD player anyway, as they understand they are responsible for all the musical requirements throughout the night. This can be an opportunity for your guests to hear some of the songs that the band can’t or won’t play (i.e. Bird Dance, Hava Nagila, Livin La Vida Loca, anything by Eminem, etc).
Establish in advance what the start and end times will be for the event - as well as the set times. If you’re not careful, you may have musicians who disappear for a 45-minute break. Best to coordinate the set times with the speeches, cake-cutting, or any other ceremonial aspects of your evening. At the end of the night, you can expect one or two encore songs for free, but please be prepared to pay extra if you ask the band to play an over-time set.
While on the topic of scheduling, consider the set-up time. Most bands need between one and two hours to load in, set up and sound-check. If there is a dinner going on in the same room as the dancing, you will have to coordinate all the events together. Nobody likes to drink cocktails or eat underneath a glaring “CHECK-ONE-TWO... CHANNEL SIX... NOW THE SNARE DRUM...”
You may instead wish for the band to be finished setting up by 5pm, even if they don’t start playing until 9pm. The resulting four-hour gap has to be accommodated somehow. As a band leader, I am happy to arrange that sort of a time-table, but the price will go up, especially if we are coming to you from out of town. Alternatively, it is possible to set up quietly while guests are eating, and play without a sound-check, if there are no other options. If you can, please try to leave room for the musicians to load their equipment onto the stage area. It doesn’t make us happy to be told to set up at 7pm for a 9pm show, only to find that the dinner starts at 7 pm, and we can’t set up until the last plate is cleared and tables are moved out of the way. This means we sit in our van for 90 minutes, and have a half-hour to set up. This can easily be avoided with a little bit of foresight. Now, having said all that, one of the reasons we charge much more for private parties is to anticipate this exact scenario. It may make us a bit grumpy, but we’ll still have smiles on our faces when we hit the stage – because we are professionals. Said smiles are even wider if food and drinks have been offered to the band.
Copyright 2010, Steve Parton of Avalon String Trio and The Relics