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October/November 2016

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Parties & Events – Stage Trek 4

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Parties & Events – Stage Trek 4

There are many great gigging opportunities that will boost your cred and your ego that have nothing to do with earnings. You shouldn’t turn down such work as it can be extremely fun and potentially career-building. My psychedelic/Goth band played a San Francisco Arts Festival as our third gig, which got us the attention of a major local agent and gig promoter, who offered us several key opportunities we might otherwise have worked years to achieve.

On the other hand, there’s more to money than just getting paid at the end of a show. There’s a certain psychological evolution that occurs for any performing artist, which has to do with responsibility. The stakes are much higher when you know that you’re worth being paid, and you have to deliver a professional-level show every night from now on. This change can bring a whole new level creativity and determination to a band. It can also mean that less serious band members quit when it’s not just fun and games anymore. So watch out.

Playing ’Party World’ for pay

Breakout bands often assume they’re mostly going to play a party for the fun of it, when the truth is anything but. The reality is that a band’s duty at any party is to stand in for the host, and take responsibility for the energy and mood of the partygoers.

Have you ever seen how much work a host or hostess puts into a formal party – flitting from guest to guest, filling drinks, offering snacks, introducing dozens of people to one another? It’s fun if you’re that kind of person, but it’s also work. So expect to work your tail off if you play a party gig, and lay off the refreshments.

A good host will work with the band and tell them what they want. If they simply ask for “two really good sets” then use your chops to build the perfect set list that will get a crowd on its feet, then enjoying themselves, then uniting in some way, then cooling down and finally rocking out at the end. Work in any announcements, party games and specific dance songs that you’ll be asked to play. There might also be instructions involving cake and candles.

Even with the best plans, be as flexible as you can during the party and roll with whatever changes may be needed at the moment. You may get hired to play a party in which the host is a huge fan of your music, but the particular selection of guests who happened to arrive aren’t so high energy. Or vice versa. It’s not uncommon for a reluctant parent to hire a band for their child’s big graduation party, and then to constantly hover around the band, asking them not to play so loud!

Business is business

Parties are great in many ways. You can usually count on a captive, supportive audience; an easy setup and breakdown; an informal venue where you can be a bit more casual (but not too laid-back); and of course, payment. But that payment really depends on a lot of things. First, you should negotiate what exactly you’re offering and what they’re paying. Remember that in most situations, you’ll be bringing your own PA, soundie, instruments, amps and maybe even lights.

If you own your own PA, is it big enough for a big party? Will the venue have a system and is it any good? How long will you have to play? If the party is shut down by Noise Control will you still get paid? Few bands think of that last question, and even fewer clients. Will you have a cancellation fee, or an advance payment?

The longer a working band has been in business, the more likely they’ll ask clients to sign a contract through a third party acting as manager. This formality may be largely symbolic, as such management is often just a friend or relative of the band. But it brings a level of seriousness to the transaction, and that can really help an otherwise careless client to be more mindful. A contract also protects you, because it gives you some sort of basis from which to make a legal claim if you get stiffed.

Originality is a flavour, not the main course

Most bands that do a lot of party gigging tend to be working, playing mostly covers along with perhaps a sprinkling of originals.

You might well get away with a more originals-focused show, but you can’t really make the party about how creative and amazing you are, unless you really are becoming an established band and everyone knows and wants to hear your own music. But this shouldn’t be a huge problem, as most bands tend to mix covers into their regular set, often in a nicely re-interpreted way.

I actually feel that unless you’re a dedicated covers band with that exact reputation, then you shouldn’t play only covers. That is boring, and reduces you to a living jukebox. It’s far better to prove to the party audience that your songs can stand strongly next to the more well known hits you might play.

Keep in mind as well that genre music can be the deciding factor in why you got picked for the gig, and you should be clear with your client about what you play from the start. This is the time when you’ll be glad that you’ve recorded a demo of your music that you can link online. (Or maybe this will be the time when you realise that you need to get your act together and go record something.) If you got recommended to the client by a friend of a friend of a friend, then really make sure they know how you sound and what that will bring to their party.

Of course there are a number of different kinds of parties you could play. I’ve found corporate gigs to be some of the easiest to book and play as a manager/musician, because people in suits, ties, and power dresses are way hipper than you might think, and love to cut loose to a good band of any style. I’ve played in boardrooms, skyscrapers and waterfront restaurants.

Graduation parties are also great, especially if it’s with your peers – though this can really be a test of how well you can keep it together when your mates are egging you on to do something really stupid that they can remember for the rest of their lives.

Then of course there are private parties, which as noted above are quite susceptible to noise issues. (The flipside of that is being hired by your local Council to play at an event, during which you’ll never be asked to turn down unless you sound truly awful.) A lot of private parties are held in banquet halls or wineries, or other posh places that are probably pretty cool with Noise Control – but the posher the venue, the nicer you need to dress, and the better your PA needs to be.

I’ve delayed talking about the biggest party/event market of all – weddings. This is such a huge topic that it really deserves its own article, even though it’s technically yet another continent on Party World. But it’s also such a lucrative sidelines for a working musician that everyone should know about it – in detail. Up next in this Building Blocks’ mini-series is Stage Trek, Episode 5: In Search of Wedding Gigs.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky.