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Getting the Most from Your Hired Musicians

For an emerging artist, bringing in the hired guns for a one-off show, recording, or tour can be a daunting proposition. Even after you’ve found the perfect players, you still have to negotiate compensation, make sure they understand what’s expected of them, and provide them with the materials they need to perform their best. Every situation is unique (and every rule has exceptions!), but a few simple strategies can make things run far more smoothly for both musician and bandleader alike.

Setting the Tone: Clarity on the Front End

The surest way to save yourself time and energy (and to start off on the right foot) is to begin negotiations with a complete, detailed description of the gig. Before committing, a musician has to estimate the time and labor involved. Things run most smoothly, then, when your very first text, call, or email includes the following information:

  • Date, time, and duration
  • Location (This can radically impact time commitment and travel expenses!)
  • Rehearsal schedule (Rehearsals equal additional time commitment and travel expenses. Whether you pay separately for rehearsals or include them in a single fee, the more details the better!)
  • Attire expectations (if any)
  • Amount of material (Does your set include three songs or 33?)
  • Curveballs (i.e., anything else that might impact compensation requirements. Is there a noon load-in for a 10pm show? Will the show be video recorded? Are the musicians expected to memorize the music? Is the show is outdoors in freezing temperatures? Will the entire band perform in turkey costumes? Do you expect the band to rent their own turkey costumes?)
  • Compensation (While perfectly okay to ask a musician their fee or rate, it can be advantageous to make an initial offer. If payment will be delayed for any reason, it’s your responsibility to inform the players ahead of time.)

In addition to these basic logistics, feel free to mention anything that might make the gig more attractive. Sometimes the little things can push it over the top — whether something simple like delicious food and validated parking, or something major like legendary players in the rhythm section.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, clear and businesslike communication actually sets a nice, easygoing tone. Speculation and confusion are far more stressful than transparency and comprehensiveness, and many more-experienced players become rightfully suspicious when someone appears cagey with details. Laying it all out there on the front end sets up a great vibe and helps avoid logistical surprises. This is usually rewarded with clear-headed, focused, and energetic musicians who have a strong desire to match your level of confident preparedness. That is, of course, to your extreme benefit!

Here are a few more organizational items to consider when you’re setting up a rehearsal, or recording session with guest musicians, courtesy of Soundfly’s free course, Building a Better Band

Setting Everyone (and Yourself) Up for Success

In so many pursuits, the work you don’t see is the biggest determinant of results. When hiring professional players, you’ll get their best if you help them help you. Usually, this means making sure they have all necessary materials far enough in advance to adequately prepare.

Whether you’re sending charts, recordings, or both, the first step is to make sure the materials are accurate and high quality. When in doubt, err on the side of more information. If the live arrangement of a particular song is different from the studio recording (but the only recording of the live arrangement is poor quality), send both versions (with a clear note that you’ll be performing the live arrangement).

If there are multiple versions (or discrepancies between the chart and the recording), clearly specify which arrangement you’ll be performing. If possible, avoid sending distorted, poor-quality phone recordings — especially those containing ambiguities or mistakes. A player will be most prepared when their time and energy are focused on your music’s nuances (instead of on whatever forensics may be needed just to grok the basics)!

A few artists also send individual stems to each player of their part(s) from the recording. While potentially helpful, this level of detail is usually above-and-beyond stuff. What’s most important is that the players have access to the complete song — including the vocal or melody. Many musicians rely on vocal or melodic cues to determine form and get a vibe for the track’s energy and emotion.

For this reason, completed masters (or even rough mixes) are far more helpful than “TV” tracks or instrumentals (particularly if memorization is needed). If the recordings aren’t completed yet, do your best to supply at least a scratch/guide vocal. If that doesn’t exist, an additional rough demo of the song with vocals really does help!

If hiring players for a recording project, anything from a simple work tape to a full-fledged demo arrangement is fair game. If there are parts on the demo that are particularly important to you, though, make sure to note this so the player can give these details extra attention.

Focus: Narrowing It Down

One of the easiest ways to ensure the best from your hired guns is to focus their workload as early as possible. When a song gets cut the day of the show, that represents a waste of preparation time and resources. You want to avoid this whenever possible!

When constructing your set, remember to allow for applause, stage banter, instrument changeover, extended song forms, etc. If you’re trying to squeeze more than eight average-length songs into a 45-minute set, there’s a good chance you’ll end up having to cut something. Much better to do that on the front end than to dilute both your paid rehearsal time and your professionals’ individual prep time!

Setting the Tone, Redux: The Follow-Through

Even the most consummate professional will, in a million subtle ways, generally perform better when happy and engaged. It’s wise, then, to take care of the stuff that’s easy and free! Your punctuality is a big one. Unless you’ve got your musicians on retainer at a hefty day rate, make every effort to be on time to all rehearsals and other calls. It shows that you don’t take their valuable time for granted, and this goes a long way toward setting the right tone!

It’s also important to maintain and respect clear boundaries between professional obligations and personal favors. In other words, try to remember that you’ve paid your drummer to learn your music and help you sound your best — not to be your publicist, chauffeur, and print shop.

Providing your players with flyers and event pages that they may share if they choose is welcome and helpful! Applying pressure to do, however, so can make things messier than they need to be. In a similar vein, if you need to ask someone to ride-share or print out charts for the whole band, offer to compensate them for parking, gas, tolls, or other expenses.

Finally, if an unforeseen detail or surprise does require you to ask a favor, don’t panic. Stuff happens, and none of us are perfect — but a simple acknowledgment of the oversight goes a long way!

Summing It Up: Final Thoughts

Within reason, it’s a professional’s job to handle anything you might throw at them, and the good ones will do their best for you almost regardless of the circumstances. But your players are human, and their level of preparedness (and frame of mind) can and will impact their performance.

With clear communication, comprehensive materials, focused preparation, and a professional follow-through, you can be sure you’re getting your players’ best. It’s their responsibility to deliver for you, but as a bandleader, you can do a lot to help them get there!

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Brad Allen Williams
Brad Allen Williams

Brad Allen Williams is a NYC-based guitarist, writer/composer, producer, and mixer. He has worked with artists such as Cory Henry, Bilal, Kris Bowers, and José James on stages around the world. As a leader, his 2015 album Lamar received critical acclaim in numerous mainstream outlets including The New York Times. In addition to being an in-demand session player, he collaborates with many artists as a writer, producer and mixer, working primarily from his home base The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, a two-suite facility he helped to build. [Photo ©2017 Deneka Peniston]