Paying the Cost to be the Boss: How to be a Good Band Leader

The most important thing a leader can be is organized. From keeping up with the names and numbers of musicians, club owners, subs, and potential clients, to keeping an accurate calendar, being able to access information is the key to success.

With Sam Frazee · Nashville, TN

As a gigging musician involved with several bands, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the traits and characteristics of bandleaders both good and bad. And, from time to time I’ve been the contractor who books the gig and hires the band so I’ve seen from the other side what it’s like to be the guy making the calls and writing the checks.

One thing I’ve learned for sure, is that it’s a whole lot easier to just show up with your gear, play your part, eat the free dinner and go home than it is to deal with all the minutia that bandleaders have. That includes finding the gig, contacting all the players, showing up early and talking with the client, making sure that all the musicians are happy, collecting the money, paying everyone and doing the accounting to make sure that the taxes are covered; in addition to playing well, looking good and sounding great.

Some people are better bandleaders than others. I’ve known guys who are great musicians, but utterly worthless at being the boss. It takes a special personality to keep all the loose ends from unraveling. Many times the good band leaders are a bit obsessive-compulsive. Good band leaders are sometimes neurotic (but in a good way). It can be a stark contrast to the laid back reputation that musicians have earned.

The most important thing a leader can be is organized. From keeping up with the names and numbers of musicians, club owners, subs, and potential clients, to keeping an accurate calendar, being able to access information is the key to success.

Musicians are notorious for being forgetful. And, restaurant and club owners are crazy busy. They often forget what they say as soon as the words leave their mouths. Everyone else may get by without remembering what was discussed last week, but the leader must be on top of it, and able to tactfully remind all parties of the agreements made.

Good leaders are also very detail oriented. They don’t miss much and they don’t leave much to chance. They are good communicators. They make sure everyone understands when and where the gig is, how to dress and, what to play. Making set lists, providing charts and having regular scheduled rehearsals are all a part of being a good band leader.

A good band leader also looks out for his players, he knows that they are simply human and may sometimes forget. They hassle the players with kindly but persistent reminders.

“Did you receive my email?”
“Do you know where the place is?”
“There might be traffic so give yourself extra time.”
“Remember to bring your music stand.”
“Please dress nicely in black.”
“ Please bring your cables and batteries and anything else that you might need, also, bring extra strings, and please remember your extension cord.”

Sometimes, despite the nagging a musician may show up without a vital piece of equipment. Something important like a chair, or stand light, or power strip. One band leader told me he has one extra of everything in his trunk because he knows musicians are “distracted.” Unfortunately, musicians often live up to their reputation of being forgetful and disorganized. The bandleader has to always be prepared to cover for a player who left something behind.

The good band leaders are thorough. They have the drive and follow through to complete the tasks are too often overlooked. Things like printing flyers and making sure the word gets out on social media falls on the shoulders of the lead musician. Sometimes the band leader has to handle all the promotion for a gig. Usually the task of getting butts in the seats is the responsibility of the entertainment.

It can feel like the band leader has to do the work of the club owner and they won’t help, even a little. Performer, songwriter and bandleader Irenka told me about booking out of town shows. She would design great looking flyers and promotional material. She would pay to get them printed in color, and Fed Ex them to the venue. Weeks later, she would arrive for the show only to find that no one had even bothered to post her flyers. What’s worse is, at the end of the night the manager would be mad if there wasn’t a crowd.

This is where keeping a fan email list can be valuable. Pablo Garzon, band leader of the popular Nashville Latin string ensemble Serenatta, has been keeping a contact list for over 10 years. It has literally thousands of email addresses. When they play a new venue they’re able to pack the house with customers from the mailing list. At every show there is a notepad for new fans to leave their contact information. And, it’s up to Pablo to keep the list updated and current. This also includes removing people from the list if requested.

Here are a few more things that good bandleaders do:

Have a reliable core group of musicians – You’ve got to have reliable players that have their personal lives together to such a degree that they will show up, on time, dressed appropriately and sober. It’s also important to have a list of subs that can be relied upon should a schedule conflict arise. It’s better to have several players at each position to choose from instead of just relying on one all the time.

Find and Book the Gig– This is an ongoing and everyday part of the job. Finding the gig and booking it are the real talents of the Bandleader. While all us sidemen are at home practicing, the bandleader is out looking for jobs. The good ones I know spend a great deal of time going to restaurants or clubs at off-peak hours to meet with and talk to owners and managers to try and nail down dates.

Several band leaders have told me, “Owners and managers don’t respond to phone calls and emails, you have to go there in person to talk to them.” Most of the time the owner/talent buyer is not in when you go to see them. So you have to make another trip.

If, by chance, you do get to talk to the person who books the entertainment, then the real fun of selling the act begins. After you use all your Jedi mind tricks to try and book the gig then you have to get to the important details. This includes the date and time of the performance. How much does the band get paid? Are there any food arrangements, does the band eat/drink for free or discounted? Also the P.A. situation must be discussed. Will a sound system be provided? Is it large enough to handle the band and the room size? Are there travel concerns? Is there extra money for gas or hotel rooms? There are countless scenarios that may require extra compensation. It’s the band leader’s job to identify and resolve these situations, so that the musicians feel that everything is taken care of.

If, you’re doing wedding and special event gigs, use online sites like Thumbtack and even Craigslist to find private events and parties. When booking a gig the band leader needs a few pieces of vital information. It is the band leader’s responsibility to interface with the event planner or coordinator to make sure that the needs of the guests and the needs of the musicians are taken care of.

Where will the band park? Where is the nearest power outlet? How early can they set-up? Are there any special music requests? If new charts have to be made is there an extra fee? How much space is available? How close to the stage can we park? What time is sound check?

It’s important for the leader to hammer out all of these details.

Contract the Band – After lining up the date with the talent buyer, make sure that you contact the individual players for the gig. I find that email is the best way to make sure everyone has all the pertinent details. Make sure to include the address of the venue, the performance times, the musicians call time, the amount that they’re getting paid, what they need to wear and any other info specific to the gig especially repertoire and equipment requirements.

Run and Manage Rehearsals – Rehearsals need to start on time and be run efficiently. It is too difficult to get all the players schedules to line up to be wasting time. The bandleader should know what is going to be practiced and have all the charts and parts ready to go. If rehearsal starts at 6:00 make sure that it really starts at 6:00. It kills me to have to wait for someone who is running late, to arrive 15 minutes after we’re supposed to start, and then they have to set up their gear and shoot the breeze, have a smoke, etc etc etc … Let’s Go! I got stuff to do!

Play the Gig – Sound Great- If you’re a pro musician this should be the easy part. This is why we do this. We love music, and we love performing, we love seeing happy people and being the best part of a party. Everything else is just business. To make sure that we play and sound great, the Band Leader has to have done his or her homework. Making sure that everyone is prepared, and has what they need.

Invoice the Client, Get Paid – Collecting the cash from the person that hired the band is an important part of being a great band leader. Sometimes this involves creating and presenting a professional invoice. Sometimes this needs to be submitted ahead of time so that a check can be printed. Ideally the band would be paid in person on the day of show. Occasionally payment will have to be mailed after the fact. Whatever the arrangements are they should be decided on when booking the show. If not doing a formal contract an email outlining the agreement should be sent so everyone can see what the terms are.

Pay the Players – Not only do the guys need their dough, but as a bandleader you’ll need to keep good records of how much each person gets. It may be necessary to file form 1099 with the IRS for each musician. Otherwise the bandleader may be liable for paying taxes on the gross income of the job. It’s also important to track expenses such as gear repair and mileage for tax time.

Do it Again – The crowd was pumped, the owner was smiling, the players got fed, someone in the audience wants to hire the band for their wedding, and for once the band made it through the bridge of “Girl From Ipanema” without botching the chords. While not without its hassles, doing a great gig, having fun and getting paid make this the funnest job there is. Tomorrow is another day, so lets’ do it again.

Having played in lots of bands I’ve seen some good band leaders and some bad. I’ve learned from the best and from the worst. Once, after a gig that didn’t go so well, I was complaining to a fellow musician about the leader on the job. I started by saying “he’s a good drummer, but not a good bandleader” My friend’s response was “that’s because you have to be a good musician to be a good bandleader- and like you said -he’s a drummer!”

Ba-Domp-Cha!

All drummer jokes aside, that is an interesting idea- that it takes a good musician to be a good band leader. Why would this be true?

Perhaps it’s because working musicians that have come up through the ranks have had to work under all types of leaders and they’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Or maybe it’s because a good musician has an ear for finding the right players and making set lists, or picking the right gig and venue for the band.

I want to finish by saying thanks to Shannon Williford and also Gene Gibson of The Moonlighters for inspiration and consultation for this post. They’re two of the best.

~Rock On~

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