You want us to play where?!
Musicians put up with a lot of strange requests, hopefully with good grace, but one thing we do like assurance on is that we will be allowed to play in a location that is adequately lit, covered, spacious enough, and in some appropriate proximity to those we are playing for, i.e. other people. OK, I guess that’s four things.
That doesn’t mean we have to always be center stage, although I’m not sure what’s so unreasonable about that. It’s music, right? Why hide it?
But there are gigs and there are gigs. At a private home or country club, unless it’s a dance, musicians are considered as inverse children: heard but not seen. We even have a name for this type of engagement: wallpaper gigs. If you draw more attention than the furniture, you’re overplaying.
And I don’t mind that. We understand that we are there oftentimes to create an ambiance and that’s just fine. Musicians frequently serve as sort of a breathing flower arrangement, something impressive for the guests to gawk at as they wander past us to the buffet tables.
But there are limits. So if you’re hiring background musicians to play for your event, please consider:
Space. A four-piece group with drums, keyboards, and PA system will not comfortably fit into a 10 x 10 foot patch of floor, even if we have been dieting. Also, we may look like we love each other and all, but we are generally married to other people. So co-habitation is frowned upon. A good way to size for the band is to imagine each one of us is a sofa, and leave enough space for that. Or as a last resort, read the contract.
Proximity to the audience. There’s a lot of leeway here, but try not to be insulting. Like my solo piano buddy who was only allowed to be halfway into the room at a country club, his piano wedged in a doorway and him seated on the outside. Another time, our trio was shown to the spacious back yard of large mansion and told to set up on the far side of the pool, which was already far from the house, on a sunken patio that was completely below pool level and out of sight of the attendees. I gently convinced our hosts to allow us to set up slightly closer to their guests, otherwise we would not be heard at all. Sometimes folks think we are just like the radio; twiddle some knobs and we appear. Of course, we could have agreed to the placement and just packed up and left–I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Climate-controlled. There could be a whole book written on this, but it boils down to:
Right? You wouldn’t leave your husband outside to freeze, would you? OK, maybe that’s a bad example. But we aren’t being paid enough to take that level of abuse, so please–remember it’s a human being on the other end of that saxophone, despite outward appearances. There have been times when we are set up on a back patio in December during a norther, while the guests are curled up indoors, sipping hot mulled cider and gazing at us complacently through the glass doors. At the other end of the spectrum, booking an outdoor gig in Texas during July or August is probably unwise in any scenario, but even less so in direct sun while wearing a black tuxedo.
Physically dangerous. Maybe I’m just too old for this sh*t, but I have been asked to play:
On a billboard platform 40 feet in the air. (I declined, because even though he was a club owner, I think he may have been drunk at the time, and besides, he got distracted 15 seconds later when a shiny object was spotted.)
On top of the cliffs overlooking Lake Austin and Pennybacker Bridge. (I accepted, because I was younger then, and plus I thought it was a neat way for a guy to ask his girlfriend to marry him. I do admit to feeling some trepidation over the possibility I had not contemplated, that she would say no. Would I be tossed over the side to ease his anguish? She said yes.)
Uncovered, in threatening rain, with amplifiers. (There is no reason why musicians deserve the death penalty. At least, not just for being musicians. There may be other reasons to fry our asses, but what are you, Judge Dredd?)
My favorite band placement story took place on a gig where I was the sideman (translation: “cannot say no”), with a band that I had worked with enough to know they were willing to take any and all abuse, as long as they went home with their $80 in their hot little impoverished hands. I know, but I was younger and hungrier in those days.
This was a backyard occasion, and a dance. So far, so good. A dance means we need to be set up in proximity to the dancers, right?
Not this time. These folks lived in a mansion overlooking Lake Austin–but due to erosion, the back yard itself was quite narrow. They solved this by building a deck overlooking the lake, but about ten feet below ground level–extending out from the side of the cliff. The view looking out was spectacular.
But we weren’t looking out. We were looking up, at the dancers twirling ten feet over our heads, in the shaky backyard. Likewise, all the speakers had to be arranged pointing upward instead of into the cliff wall, because between their vibrations and the sheer weight of a ten-piece band with an absurd amount of gear on our rickety wooden platform, there was real danger that we could shake ourselves loose and tumble 200 feet into Lake Austin. And this band didn’t play “Free Bird”.
But the best part came at the end of the gig, when the entire band was entreated to crane our stiff necks upward at our benefactors and sing an a cappella chorus of “Shine on, Harvest Moon”. The band had never done this before, and I don’t know whose inane idea it was this time, but I took the opportunity to make up my own lyrics for the occasion. Fortunately, I was off mic so I doubt anyone heard me. But it went something like:
Shine on, shine on crazy loons,
Way f*cking up there.
It’s been so much fun
We’re not coming back until our cupboard is bare.
Til then, keep this gig for those with more to lose
And shine on, shine on crazy loons.
Come to think of it, that may have been my last gig with this band. I wonder why?