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  • Writer's pictureRyan Williams

Choosing A band, Hiring A Band

Step 1: Take your time. Now, on to all the other steps. Picking the right kind of music is extremely important, and picking the right musicians equally so. Things will begin to fall into place when you decide on the genre of music that's right for your organization. As we're concerned with open space preservation and holding these concerts outdoors on property that's being highlighted for a preservation effort, think carefully.

Who is your intended audience? I'll give you a hint: either people with money, or people with energy. They may not be just like you. You need to attract as broad an age group as possible, and as broad an economic demographic as possible. This is why I go primarily with bluegrass-oriented music. It's popular with a wide age group and variety of people, it fits the character of outdoor events, and it's easy on the ears while still being energetic and uplifting in the hands of a good band. Classic rock may sound like a good idea, but does it have the right degree of sophistication for various potential listeners? Jazz can work for certain audiences, but if it's outdoors, can the sound hold up to wind, birds, etc. A New Orleans marching band style? That could be cool.

Exclusivity is also critical: a good local band might be on your radar as they're cheap and locally known. However, if they play local bars or events, do they make your event special? Where's the excitement for the audience? What makes your concert worth coming to? To make the event special, you're going to have to go outside the standard local talent (unless they have a few Grammys on the shelf, then that's a different story.)

So you need to scout for bands. That can be a lot of fun, but it takes lots of time and patience. It's best to let the folks on your committee who are music fans handle this part, as they at least have a starting point. They should know of a few bands they like, and there's nothing more useful than the "artists you might like" suggestions from Spotify or Apple Music. My main trick was to check festival lineups, and here's where the budget for your band kicks in.

Again, let's start with bluegrass. I happen to like Molly Tuttle a lot, and she was at my series a few years back before she "blew up." There's not a prayer I could afford her now, however, here's where the festival thing kicks in. If I look at her schedule, I'll see which festivals she's playing. If I go to that festival's artist roster, I look waaaay down at the bottom. There's where you'll find the up-and-coming artists.

Now it's auditioning time, and it's all done at your laptop, looking at videos. Check out the band's website, check out the videos. It's not just whether or not they play well, it's how they perform between the songs that separates the winners from the also-rans. Humor and spontaneity are key to the live music experience, so look for live videos so you can see their performance capabilities. Everyone sounds good on a recorded track, but can they deliver live?

After lots of video watching, maybe you've selected a few contenders. The first problem you'll face is how far they have to travel. Those living near cities, as we do in New England, have the luxury of musicians from Boston, New York, and southern Maine and Vermont. That's a big pool of talent. The closer they are, the less of a cost issue travel is.Their schedule will be a lot more flexible.

As for budgeting, there are so many regional differences that there's no rule of thumb. Where I am, I can get 3-4 young, talented Berklee students for maybe $1000. For a recently graduated trio or quartet, that jumps to around $1500, and then, now that everyone is touring again, the better young bands might go as high as 2k. Just for perspective, a lot of festival headliners, or second-liners, don't leave the house for less than 25-50k. You can't charge enough to make money.

A quick word on budgets: I work backwards. If I hope to get 150 people for a certain event, and I'd like to charge $30 (not including food) that means I might get as much as $4500 in the till. For me, it's not only about making money from attendance, it's more about getting people to the spaces and hopefully recruiting fans of the land trust, getting a few potential volunteers and then hoping a few donors enjoyed themselves enough to write bigger checks. And that always happens, so it's not worth getting greedy. Therefore, I'll go as high as 2k for a band, happy with the result and happier still if the audience is happy.

But the artists website will have contact information. If it's just the band themselves, simply email, tell them what you're doing, and wait for the response and to what their hoped-for fee is. If it's too high for your budget, simply say thanks, and sorry it won't work out. Don't beg or try to negotiate. If they're willing to play for less, they'll answer right back. If they hold firm, that's what they're getting, and good for them.

They may have an agent. You'll be directed to the agent through their website. Some agents are easy to work with, and some not so much. The only way to find out is to try. Explain what you're doing and what the budget is, and why you'd like a certain artist. Keep in mind that 2k, if that's what it is, means the agent isn't getting rich, the usual booking fee being around the 15% mark. If your choice of artist is out of reach, don't be shy, ask who they might represent who could work out. You might find a new favorite artist. This is where the good agents show their worth in representing clients. They don't just answer the phone, they work. Agents who run smaller boutique agencies usually are more helpful, but not always. It could be an agent only represents the bigger artists, so that'll end that conversation in a hurry.

You'll need to provide dinner at any rate, and sometimes lodging. That's why I like to keep it within a two-hour drive; they can just head home after the show. No worries, some artists will be ok with staying at people's houses, called homesteads. Some want hotels. I will say I drop the artists who want all sorts of hospitality extras like beverages, munchie platters before dinner, nice hotels, etc. Too much trouble for volunteers to have put up with that, and it hurts the budget.

That's the basics, and if you decide to get going, feel free to email!


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