Whether you’re a musician for hire, or want to book one for your upcoming wedding, corporate event, birthday party, or other engagement, it's important to make sure expectations are clear at the time of booking. Although it might feel quite formal, a contract helps ensure that everyone is on the same page. Simple sample contracts, and some more complex ones, are available online through a simple Google search.
Points to include are payment particulars (what is the fee; will a deposit be required; when is payment due; what forms of payment are accepted), event timing (playing time; set-up time; cueing for a wedding ceremony or other event), location information and directions (including parking and load-in spot information; shade options for a sunny outdoor event, as well as what to do if there is inclement weather; what the musicians need on site, like chairs, outlets, extension cords, water, etc.; the on site coordinator’s phone number, etc.), and finally, what are the terms in the event of cancellation by either party.
To help avoid disappointment, also consider these two more specific lessons I’ve learned through performing violin and viola for events since 1998.
Managing musical expectations Within the last hundred years or so, the number of musical genres and sub-genres has exploded, so it’s important to ensure that everyone understands the client’s vision for the event music BEFORE signing the contract. This seems simple and obvious enough, but unfortunately, words and labels aren't necessarily ubiquitous when trying to communicate about music. I’ve had countless experiences where clients say they want a certain genre performed, only to find out though further questioning that the actual sound they have in mind is worlds away, in my mind anyway. Because the majority of clients are not musicians themselves, I always ask a client to send along some links to samples of what they’d like the music to sound like.
For instance, clients might say they’re interested in having Classical music (I’m thinking Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.), but they send over clips of pop music and video game themes (with a Classical string quartet treatment in all fairness). Recently, I had a bride asking for “Folk music” for her reception (I’m thinking fiddle waltzes, Kate Wolfe, Woody Guthrie, Iris Dement, etc.), but then she sends over a couple of sultry pop-country tunes she’s hoping I can recreate (she heard fiddle on one of the tracks). And just the other day, I was asked if I could provide an “Old Tyme” band for a party (I’m imagining banjos and fiddles on the back porch in 1800s rural Virginia), only to discover that the artists they wanted the group to emulate are modern singer-songwriters with Rock, pop, and Jazz leanings (they heard harmony vocals and a banjo in the mix). Music, after all, tries to express what is hard to explain otherwise, so it’s imperative to actually hear a bit of what is desired so everyone can proceed on the same page.
In some instances, a musician or ensemble may be easily able to change gears from what they were originally anticipating, but other times the client might be best moving on to other possibilities - either finding new musicians, or making some compromises on the type of music or songs they want performed.
Booking timeframes versus events A few years ago I received a note from the mother of a bride who’s wedding ceremony I had played. While the mother had enjoyed the music, she was disappointed that the ensemble hadn’t played through the picture session after the ceremony. It was a basic miscommunication at the time of booking. The mother assumed that the music was supposed to continue through the photos, which she considered a part of the "ceremony" before they'd be moving on to another location for the reception. The ensemble didn’t consider the photos a part of the ceremony and upon noticing the photographer yelling to get the group photo organized, not to mention the fact that the rental company had come and was collecting the chairs, we also packed up and left.
This could have been easily avoided by more detailed communication at the time of booking. It’s important to clarify if the musicians are contracted for a certain timeframe, as may be the case for a party and many other, more casual events, or if they are to play until something particular happens, like the end of the wedding ceremony, the end of the photos, when the DJ arrives, or when the limo takes off.
These decisions are important not only for managing expectations on event day, but also in negotiating the fee. Is it a flat rate independent of a timeframe, or an hourly fee? If paid hourly, what will happen if a ceremony goes overtime?
No professional musician will leave before a tardy ceremony finishes unless there's another event we have to get to, which sometimes is the case unfortunately. My cellist and I once waited for over two hours for a late bride, playing prelude music to keep the guests entertained. The ceremony didn't even start until our booking timeframe had long since passed. Had we had another wedding to get to, that may have not been possible. Will the musicians have a hard stop time in order to get to another event? Many musicians might play 2-4 ceremonies a day on the weekends during the high season, so there may be a limit to how long they can wait. These potential issues should be discussed at the time of booking or built into the contract.
As well, it should be discussed whether the musicians are expected to continue playing after the ceremony, should the ceremony end earlier than expected. I’ve had instances where everyone is milling about and enjoying a few more pieces and others where it’s outside and cold guests are leaving for their cars or the reception area. Cues to wrap up the music seem especially obvious when the clean-up crew is coming in like bull-dozers to clear the area immediately after the recessional, but are they? The coordinator for a recent wedding proposal I played said at the time of booking: “Play one song after he proposes and then you’re free to leave.” It’s always nice when expectations are so clearly spelled out!