14 Tips for Hiring Musicians on Your Sessions & Gigs...

Courtesy of Chris Robley

14 common sense tips to make any hired musical collaboration a success, whether you’re $paying people or not...

My friend Pony (who I’ve hired to play bass in my band on occasion) and I were talking about life as a "hired gun," and we came up with a few pointers for bandleaders who might be new to this situation. Here they are.

Don't assume every hired or guest musician is the same
They all have their own skills, needs, and quirks. Upfront communication is key. The fewer surprises on both ends, the better.

Charts? No charts? Parts? No parts? Tracks? No tracks? Talk about it!
Do you expect musicians to be able to play by ear and come up with parts on the fly? Or would you prefer they be good sight readers and stick to what's written? Should they listen to tracks you'll provide and figure out the parts that are on the recordings? Or do you want them to just experiment and come up with something wild and improvisational? Make sure you have these conversations before your first practice, session, or gig, and that the musician is comfortable with the situation you’re setting up for him or her.

Don't waste their time
There are a lot of ways to waste hired musicians' time, including having them learn songs that you eventually cut from the set, calling too many practices, and requiring them to show up four hours early to the gig when all you end up doing is a five-minute line check. You don’t like having your time wasted. So don’t put other musicians through it, even if you’re paying them.

Discuss time ahead of time
How many gigs are you asking them to commit to? How many practices? How long are the practices? Again, no surprises!

If you're not paying them, do what accommodates the players
Would they prefer to practice to recordings at home rather than have to drive across town for a full-band practice? Fine. If they’re volunteering for the job, you need to make sure you’re not demanding too much of them. If you require more from your guest players, pay them!

If your project isn’t creatively fulfilling for the musician, there has to be an extra benefit
If the job is unrewarding, musicians will eventually burn out (even if you’re paying them). So find out why they’re helping you. What perceived benefit excites them most? Is it for fun and friendship? A big paycheck? The opportunity to network with high-profile bands? Is it because you’re playing cool venues? The rooms are packed? Maybe they get a few moments during the set where the spotlight is on them? As long as the player is getting something extra out of the experience, he or she is likely to keep taking the gig.

It may be that you’ve hired a bassist who absolutely loves hard rock to play in your jazz fusion band. He doesn’t really like fusion, but he's happy to play with you as long as you’re drawing big crowds at a cool venue. If that changes, though – say you start playing at restaurants as background music – he might want to bow out of those shows. Expect burnout, and keep the benefits coming!

Know what they're good at ahead of time
Don’t just hire any yahoo you find online. Go out and watch a bunch of local bands. See who the players are. If you’re considering hiring someone for a gig or session, try to catch him or her in a live setting so you can see if he or she is right for the job.

The most incredible guitarist in town might not be right for your session if you find out he or she isn't really good at coming up with stuff on the spot. Or maybe the most killer lead vocalist ain’t that great at coming up with harmonies. Know session musicians' talents, and call upon them for those talents. Don’t put them in a situation where they can’t succeed.

If they can't do the gig, don't push it
Don’t get pissed if musicians turn down a gig. They might be busy. They might be in a phase where they’re trying to protect their time. So be polite. Ask if they can refer anyone else for the job. And lastly, don’t be afraid to ask again further down the line. They might want to do the next gig. You, or the player, might be in a different spot where everything comes together.

Get on the same page about what your goals are
This is kind of a summary of many of the above points, but in addition to being clear about the expectations and process, you want to also discuss what you’re hoping to achieve. If the player is on board with those goals, that might provide him or her with some extra excitement and investment in the outcome.

When you’re not paying people, etiquette is way more important
A session player might be fine doing 300 takes of a guitar solo while you act like a diva – if you’re paying well. If he or she is working for free, not so much.

Build a community of musicians you can call upon
Again, you don’t want folks to burn out. So make lots of friends. Be professional and make a name for yourself as someone who treats musicians with respect and puts together cool shows or sessions. The bigger the roster of players you can call upon, the better.

Don't assume anything about money – talk turkey early
If the players aren't close friends, you should have the money discussion upfront. Actually, even if they are good friends, you should still have these discussions early on. This is your job as a bandleader. Some great players might be happy to help you out for free (if there are other benefits, as I mentioned above). Others will expect to be paid at a certain level. Don’t have that awkward conversation at the end of the night.

You might think you’re being generous writing a check out for $100 for a couple hours’ work in the studio, but the person you’ve "hired" may have an entirely different figure in mind and feel ripped off. Avoid that. Talk turkey early.

Request and accommodate appropriate instrumentation
This is another permutation of "talk about all the details beforehand," but it’s crucial for success: be specific about instrumentation and gear! A jazz bassist might assume she should bring her upright to your small restaurant gig, only to find out that she's competing with an electric guitar, keys, and three horns – and no one said to bring an amp. Or the keyboard player who was asked to play "piano" on a session shows up at the studio, only to find out you really want a bunch of organ – and he didn’t bring the keyboard with all the realistic organ sounds. Don’t surprise someone or create a situation where they’ll feel unprepared.

Let them know if they should bring food, drinks, etc.
A hungry player is an angry player. Give them the heads up if they’re on their own for nosh.

All of these tips basically get at this point: increase the player’s comfort, increase the quality of the output. Your music deserves quality presentation, doesn’t it?

Chris Robley is an indie-pop songwriter whose music has been praised by the LA Times, NPR, the Boston Globe, and more. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry magazine, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, and others.


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