SHOP LIKE A PRO

BECOME AN EDUCATED CONSUMER

The information in this section is advice on booking bands for weddings, parties, and other special events. It is neither a discussion of musical tastes, nor a listing of bands, but it is intended to help you understand the entertainment business, as you seek the perfect band for your event. Information that relates to any law or contract issue is not intended as legal counsel. State and local laws vary.

Let’s begin by talking about the very end of the shopping process… the contract. There is a disturbing trend lately, where some wedding and entertainment vendors try to avoid signing a written contract, by claiming that your email exchange with them is all the agreement you’ll need in order to secure their services. Plus a deposit. Oh yeah, and they claim to be from your town, but the only address they’ll give you is in a city that’s 200 or 500 miles away. Wait… what? This sounds remarkably close to the tactics of the notorious Nigerian email scammers. Are they in the wedding business now?

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INSIST ON AN INSURANCE CERTIFICATE

Yes, bands should have liability insurance at all times. They deal with electricity, heavy equipment, and sometimes tall stages. As the “end user” of their services, you can be held responsible for property damage or personal injury if the band has no liability insurance.

Do not take this lightly.

Many bands, including Retrospect, already have insurance certificates continuously on file with most of the venues where they perform. But it’s a good idea to make your band contract contingent on you, the purchaser, receiving a COI (Certificate of Insurance) within 10 days of signing the agreement, naming you as the certificate holder, and showing the date and location of your event. Insurers do not charge the band anything for issuing a certificate.

Most venues expect vendors to have at least $1 million in liability insurance. You should do the same. Here’s a more in-depth article on this subject from Linkedin Pulse.

INSIST ON A WRITTEN CONTRACT

You’ll notice on some entertainment and wedding vendors’ websites, there is no contact info except a phone number and an email address, and sometimes not even both of those. No office address? Why? Are those same vendors reluctant to sign a written contract specifying the exact terms of their commitment? Why? This is not the uncertainty you want when planning the most important day of your life.

Not only should you insist on a written contract, you should insist that you have it in your hands well in advance of the day you’re expected to sign it. A band contract should specify the band name, number of musicians, the band leader's name, and it should say that all will “perform in person.” The contract should specify the exact hours of the performance, the number and length of breaks, the total agreed fee, the advance deposit amount, the balance due and the date it's due. An hourly rate for overtime should be specified, as well as any transportation, lodging, or any other special fees that you have agreed to pay.

Be sure that that the contract has the seller’s name, office address, and phone number. And it should clearly state that the seller (the band leader or agent) guarantees that he is “authorized to represent the band” that he's selling you. Don't accept any wording that allows the seller to substitute any other band for any reason, or allows non-performance for any reason.

Insist that all parties signing the contract also print their names and titles below their signatures, in case you ever need to enforce the contract terms. One local seller used to keep his level of commitment ambiguous by having his secretary scribble an illegible signature on all his contracts.

Does an agent claim to represent bands
(such as Retrospect) that you know
are not available through agencies?
Walk away from that.

LEARN THE LANGUAGE

The first-time entertainment buyer may feel like he's in a foreign country, with unfamiliar language and customs. Here are some of the terms you may want to know.

Purchaser: Contract language for the buyer of services, meaning YOU when you hire a band or other entertainment.

Seller: Contract language for the business selling you the services. This may be the band itself, the band leader, the band’s agent, a secondary agent, or a contractor.

Agent: The band's hired representative who handles their business deals. His relationship to you is basically “salesman.”

Contractor: Union or non-union terminology for a role somewhat similar to an agent. A contractor brings together musicians as needed to form a “band” for a single engagement, not unlike a construction contractor picking up laborers in a 7-Eleven parking lot in the morning for the day’s work. Regardless of what happens behind the scenes, the contractor’s relationship to you is still basically “salesman.”

Cooperative booking: One agent books a band through another agent, who is actually the one authorized to represent the band. Both get paid out of your pocket, one way or another.

Exclusive representation: Only one agency is authorized to represent the band. But cooperative booking may allow other agencies access to the band.

Independent band: A band which handles all its own bookings instead of booking through agencies. This sometimes refers to a band which handles some of its own bookings, but not all of them.

Continuous music: A performance in which the band takes no breaks, or in some way provides non-stop live music for the entire event. (This term does not apply to a performance where the band puts on an iPod or CD during breaks.)

Overtime: Any extension of the performance time specified in the original contract. Hourly rates might be higher for overtime, depending on the band.

Finder's fee: Money paid to an individual or company for successfully steering a customer to a particular seller. Also called a referral fee, a spiff, or a kickback. In the wedding business, finder’s fees are often paid to event planners or hotel catering managers who are in a position to make vendor recommendations.

YOUR FIRST CONTACT WITH A BAND OR AGENT

How you handle your first phone call or visit to an agent or band leader may determine the price you will pay for the band’s services. Keep your eyes and ears open, and it's best to keep your lips buttoned. Is the band leader or agent unwilling to discuss anything until they know your address, phone number, music budget, and number of guests? Not all of this information is necessary to find you the right band - it's mostly for finding out how deep your pockets are. They really only need to know the type of event, the venue, and your tastes in music. Definitely don't tell them who you've already talked to, or who you're calling next. This too may influence your price.

Ask the seller about the various bands he represents… and don't give a budget figure up front. “I don't know yet” is the most you need to give. An unscrupulous agent may inflate the prices of all of his less expensive bands to match your budget figure. Ask for band names and the exact price each band would charge to play in your event location.. Ask for promo kits and song lists (or web links) for multiple bands that interest you, then watch the videos at home. Say you're shopping around, but don't say where.

INVISIBLE PLAY LISTS

No party or event band can function without, at a bare minimum, about 200 songs. Most have song lists that range from 300 to 500 available songs. If you don’t see around 200 songs on the band’s song list shown on their website or other promo material, something is wrong. Maybe they’re new and not ready for prime time. Or maybe they’re hiding something else that needs to be flushed out, like they only know enough songs to do a demo set, a video, or a demo CD. So here’s what you do…

Ask them for the complete list of songs you could choose from, if you booked them for an event this weekend. If they can’t produce that list, if they offer you only a short “sample list,” or if they tell you “we’ll learn whatever you want,” you are being played. Walk away. Have you ever gone to a restaurant where the menu is “we’ll make whatever you want?” Me neither.

Once you get a song list, ask about the band's play list policy. Will the band leader let you choose the songs you want from the band’s official play list, or does he (this is ridiculous, but it happens) does he tell you it’s better to let the lead singer choose whatever he or she wants to sing that night? What??? It’s YOUR wedding, not the lead singer’s wedding! Insist on control of your own wedding.

In fairness, there is such a thing as taking too much control. If you’re asking a band to play a rigid list of songs, and giving them no control at all, you may as well use an iPod and save a lot of money. The job of a band leader is to play to the moment, which often requires changing gears on short notice. But the rest of the  band leader’s job is to play for the client, not for the lead singer.

Is the band willing to learn your First Dance song? Will they promise to learn other special requests?


COMPARE SELLERS AS WELL AS BANDS

Some agents use a network similar to the Multiple Listings in real estate, but they aren't necessarily all offering the same band for the same price. By shopping around, you may save hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on the band you want. Does this agent overprice the bands you already know about? Does he claim to represent bands (such as Retrospect) that you know are not available through agencies? Does he use high-pressure tactics to get you to make a commitment right away? If so, there are plenty of other agencies out there.

INVISIBLE CONTRACTS

Some agents or bands may not want you taking home their contract to look it over before signing, so they won't send it to you. There is no reasonable justification for this. Insist on having a contract mailed or emailed to you, so you can read the fine print carefully before signing.

INVISIBLE BAND LEADERS

Some agents absolutely will not let you speak to the band leader before booking a band. One reason given is that you might book the band behind the agent's back, but that doesn't really fly. Even if you would do that, the band leader won't, because he knows the agent wouldn't ever book him again if he did that. You should be able to speak to the band leader. Because he’ll be at your event, unlike his agent, the band leader is more likely to give honest direct answers to your questions, rather than just saying what he thinks you want to hear.

Pickup bands all book from the same pool of local musicians!  And it’s first-come-first-served, so avoid this route if you are not booking
well in advance of your event.

SHOPPING AROUND

Contact several sources... independent bands, contractors, agencies. Some will want to talk to you on the phone, others will insist that you come into their office, others will expect to do everything via email. Ask the band leader or agent to email you any paperwork or send links to videos they want you to consider. It’s best to shop by phone or email only... the office is where they may put pressure on you to book immediately, like a used-car salesman. And more importantly, the office is where lies are told by people who wouldn't dare tell those same lies over the phone or put them in an email. Don't tell an agent that you have seen any of his bands on video elsewhere, or that you have talked directly to band leaders. This seemingly harmless information can cost you.

It’s YOUR wedding, not the
lead singer’s wedding!!!
  Insist on control of your own
wedding reception!

IF YOU ATTEND AN EVENT

If you see the band playing at an event, analyze their attitude toward that client. Did the band start on time, or did some band members arrive late? The music selections may not be what you would request, but make an educated guess about whether they are following that client's instructions.

Is their volume appropriate to that event? Are the breaks too long or too frequent or poorly timed? How do the band members act during their breaks?

Does the band maintain a quality performance for the whole event? If they claim to play live, using no sequencers or backing tracks, is it true?

Does their equipment look professional, or like a garage band (like this) >
with junky-looking equipment on the front of their stage, and wires hanging off the edge?

Most importantly, are you comfortable knowing this band will have the power to make or break your event?

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

Retrospect’s singers and musicians always perform LIVE, never using pre-recorded vocals tracks, electronic backgrounds or digital substitutes for real musicians. Our three amazing vocalists are always backed up by the same six versatile musicians, never a pick-up band. Horns are always included, and are a rehearsed part of the band, not an afterthought. MC duties are a normal part of our job, for which we do not charge extra. See below.

Cartoon image of pickup musicians being hired for a wedding gig

PICKUP BANDS

Maybe you're thinking of hiring a “pickup” band – one which is totally flexible and fills every position except the band leader with a variety of available singers and musicians – rather than having any permanent band members. This is a system that worked well back in the era when music was all big bands and jazz combos, and it still works in those worlds today. But it doesn’t work well in the rock, pop, dance and party music of the last thirty years, where 3, 4, or 5-part vocal harmonies are a critical component of most songs.

If you are exploring pickup bands, do not book anything through the first contractor or band leader you contact. Call several different contractors or band leaders to compare pricing and personnel options. They all book from the same pool of local freelance musicians!

The musicians’ motivation for playing or singing in a pick-up band is the total absence of commitment to one band or to one band leader, or to rehearsing. [Author’s note: I personally object to rewarding slackers (oops, did I just say that out loud?) for their lack of commitment – especially at the expense of the majority of hard-working musicians who do commit to rehearsing and working as a team, those who create professional performances with tight vocal harmonies and polished backup instrumentals. But that’s just me.]

IS IT LIVE, OR IS IT MEMOREX®?

The point of that 1980s Memorex® advertising campaign was that most people couldn't tell the difference between live sound and a Memorex recording. That's great, unless you pay a high price to hire live music at your party or wedding, but instead you get a high-tech version of a karaoke act. Ever heard of the band Milli Vanilli? This male duo caused an uproar in the early 1990s because they were lip-syncing rather than actually singing in their “live” performances. It turned out they couldn't even sing, and somebody else had recorded the tracks for them. They returned their Grammy awards and slinked off into obscurity.

This is the way many local bands perform today. The industry calls them sequencer bands or fusion bands. A computer program called a sequencer plays a synthesizer via MIDI (pronounced “middy.”) The synthesizer can produce the sounds of all the instruments in a band, and may even be linked to recorded vocal tracks. If a band tells you up front that they perform this way, that’s fine. On the other hand, f they tell you they play live, and they don’t, that’s a scam.

But if you're not a musician, how can you recognize this? The tip-off may be a drummer who's wearing headphones, or singers who are still heard when they turn away from the microphone. Or the sound of a full horn section when there’s only one saxophone on stage, or most often a keyboard player or bass player who takes both hands away in the middle of a song, while his instrument is still heard playing without him. Advocates call this state-of-the-art. Maybe it is. Fully half of your guests won't even notice. The other half of them will probably notice, but may be too polite to say anything to you.

ODDS & ENDS

Q: Am I expected to feed the band at my event?
A: Not unless it's written into their contract. But it definitely is expected that you will let them know in advance whether any food will be available to them. Some caterers will provide meals for your vendors inexpensively. Ask the caterer about “vendor meals,” commonly known as bandwiches. Musicians arrive on location as early as two hours before the event, and they often stay at least another hour packing up afterward, so they actually work eight hours playing at a five-hour event. Most will appreciate having vendor meals available.

Q: Am I expected to tip a band?
A:Some bands are tipped often, others are not. As you would with other services, follow your feelings about the level of service you received.

Q: Should I pay to add a horn section to a band?
A: No. Don't fall for add-ons. A common sales ploy is to sell you on a small band, at a price you can handle, then upsell you later with offers to upgrade their sound by adding extra musicians (at a price) for your event. If you can afford the add-ons, you can afford to hire a better or bigger band in the first place, maybe one with a full-time horn section, not pick-up horns added as an afterthought.

Q: Should I pay to add an emcee to a band?
A: We saw this add-on offered on a band’s web site recently. Emcee duties are something that all bands have done for decades – maybe forever – as part of their normal performance duties. No, no, no. Do not pay any band extra for this -- that’s totally ridiculous.


Next:  Tricks and Traps Exposed

You also need to remember that, for pickup bands, the pool of local freelance musicians is finite in number, and they book themselves on a first-come-first-served basis.

Unlike hiring a rehearsed band with permanent members, a pickup band will likely have mostly different players between the time you audition them and the time they perform for you.

Which brings up the last point. If you are a little late to the party – shopping for a band on less than three or four months notice – the best of the freelance labor pool may be already booked.

A pickup band may serve you the leftovers on your wedding day, because all the other brides got to the buffet first. At this point, a rehearsed band is going to be by far your best choice.

Finder's fee: Money paid to an individual
or company for successfully steering
a customer to a particular seller.

Example of an ugly band setup with wires hanging off the stage

NARROW DOWN LOCAL CHOICES, THEN SHOP ONLINE IN OTHER CITIES

What?? Why other cities? The reason is not what you may think – I’m not suggesting you bring in a band from out of town. I am saying that you need to know that each band you’re considering locally is “real” and not just a digital construct. If this sounds crazy, let me explain.

Some bands simply invent themselves online by using stock photos of musicians, stock audio tracks and stock music videos as promo materials. They look fabulous and sound really great online, but they don’t actually have the personnel you see and hear on their website. Singers and musicians in some distant city were paid to make those slick promo materials, and trust me, they won’t be showing up for your wedding. This trickery is everywhere, including in Washington DC and Baltimore, and it happens more than you would think.

There’s more info about this in the next section, called Tricks and Traps Exposed, but meanwhile, here’s a pro shopping tip to avoid getting duped by this trick…

First, narrow your choices to a few local bands, and familiarize yourself with their websites. Then shop WeddingWire in medium-to-large cities far, very far away. Because I searched just before writing this, I’m going to suggest some of these: Austin, Denver, Phoenix, Albany, Jacksonville, Minneapolis and Charleston. You’re looking for familiar photos, not familiar band names. Now, scan the listings for a stock band photo you recognize from your Washington DC area band shopping. If nothing looks familiar, click on the bands that show only a logo instead of a photo, then click on “Visit Website.” Do you see any familiar musician photos there, any familiar videos? Bingo. Both the local band and the distant band are scamming brides in their respective towns. Check their site for more identical promo materials, such as the exact same set of audio clips used by a Washington DC area band. It’s like you’re in the movie “The Matrix,” where nothing is what it appears to be, everything is just a digital construct.

When you strike gold here, you’ll understand why you should be doing this exercise for each and every local band that you’re seriously considering. Try it now.


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WeddingWire.com  
2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014 , 2015, 2016 and 2017  
“Couple’s Choice” awards.

Washingtonian Magazine
2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017
  “Best Wedding Vendor”
 awards.

Larry Elliott, band leader
3429 Huntsman’s Run
Ellicott City, MD  21042
301-438-2400           
Larry@RetrospectBand.com

© 2016 Retrospect Band

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