So you've decided on live music for your wedding or party. Maybe you've heard the usual DJ requests one time too many, or maybe you simply appreciate the kind of musical energy that comes from a good band. What can you expect to find? What should you look for and what should you avoid?
Trust Your Instincts
From the moment you speak to a bandleader, you should trust your instincts. If this person comes across as experienced, poised and confident, someone ready to hear your wishes and willing to work to satisfy them, you've probably found a winner. If instead you get the feeling you're being pushed by a sharp salesperson, that's unfortunately also probably accurate. The same thing applies to DJs, photographers, planners, florists, and everyone else involved with the process.
Where to Find a Band
A recommendation from a friend is still the best. Recommendation by a trusted vendor such as your venue, photographer or caterer is almost as good. A booking agent can offer several options. Look for one that has been in business a while, and trust your instincts just the way you would in dealing directly with a bandleader.
Clients not lucky enough to get a word-of-mouth recommendation are increasingly finding their own music on the Internet. Searching Google or AOL is popular, but themed sites like Eventective make it much easier.
Six months to a year is the usual lead time for the more desirable bands. In heavily competitive markets some bands are booked one to two years in advance. For the best selection, begin searching the music even while you are still arranging the venue. Then firm up the music as soon as you book your venue. On the other hand, don't feel bad about calling bands within a few weeks of your event, regardless of the reason. Every band has open dates, sometimes because of a cancellation like the one that may have led to your short-notice call. Established bands that are already booked may also be glad to recommend others.
Ask for a song list, where you should see plenty of songs you recognize. Don't worry if you see some you won't want, as wedding and party bands need to be able to play songs for a variety of tastes. The bandleader should be willing to work within your preferences, and to avoid a few songs you really dislike. Don't let him or her try to take over. You're the client and you are entitled to considerable leeway.
On the other hand, an experienced bandleader will point out that your guests may ask for songs that are not necessarily your favorites. It's one thing to say no to “Strokin'” as being in questionable taste. It's another to say no to Frank Sinatra songs because you don't happen to like his music. Do you really want an unhappy guest who happens to be Sinatra's biggest fan? Be reasonable.
Also, every band has material that really works for them. Say you're an Elvis fan and love “Suspicious Minds”. As it turns out, your band knows “Don't Be Cruel” a lot better, so you let them play that, and they rock the house. You made the right choice.
Most bands have audio on their websites, and all should offer a demo by mail. Don't be put off by a song you don't like. Remember, the demo is for everyone, not just people like you. Also, an otherwise promising band with a poor demo can be redeemed by your seeing them live, if possible. This is especially true for less expensive bands lacking recording expertise and budget. Really expensive bands are the easiest to hire because everything looks and sounds great. On the other hand, if you can invest more time you may save money with a group that performs better than their demo reveals.
Photos are a must. Any band prepared to play for weddings and parties should be professional enough to offer decent photos. Do the attire and attitude seem appropriate for what you have in mind? Ask if the band usually plays in tuxedos or something less formal, and be specific about your preference.
Don't be too put off by a poor-quality video demo. It's typically only much more expensive bands or agencies that have enough money to make a quality video. On the other hand, if the video depicts behavior you'd rather not see at your event, that's a reason to reject the band.
It's true that a band will cost more than a DJ, but be realistic. For example, a band that charges $5,000 is probably more appropriate for a total budget of $50,000 than for one of $20,000. There are still bands that charge $1,000 or less, although larger and better-established groups can be expected to run closer to $1,500 and up. Brides and grooms should remember to budget for ceremony music as well, from $50 for a very reasonable church musician to several hundred dollars for a harp or chamber music ensemble. These estimates vary widely by market, of course. The point is that if the first few bands you call happen to be too expensive for you, don't assume they will be all be that way.
Two problems you don't want to deal with are a band that starts late or plays too loudly. The best way to judge the latter is by asking former clients if they and their guests were able to enjoy conversation as well as dancing, especially during dinner. Everyone expects the music to be lively (loud) at least part of the time, but not all the time.
Why not go see the band and judge for yourself? It's harder than you might think. Contrary to popular belief, most party bands don't play every weekend, and Murphy's Law says they won't be anywhere public on the weekend you finally manage to set aside to go see bands. This is even worse if your wedding is in Florida and you're in Connecticut. Think you can see four bands on a whirlwind weekend trip to Mom's? Might want to think again.
Of course, you could always get lucky and fall in love with the band playing at a showcase. Now, if only they are available on your date, and they don't charge too much?
Do yourself a favor. Ask a former client the simple question, "Did they start on time?" Too many bands seem to be hazy about punctuality, but you won't know until you ask the people who paid.
Many bands now use sequencing, prepared musical backgrounds that augment the band's instruments and singers. This is why music played by a duo consisting of guitar and keyboard often seems to have invisible drums, horns, and strings. Even bigger bands with real horns usually use sequences as a way to fatten up their sound.
A band with good singers and six musicians or more may be very expensive, but their quality depends not only on musical talent, but on how well their sequences are implemented. Unfortunately, some bands of this kind tell their musicians only to pretend to play, and clients may feel they are getting something less than true live music. The recorded demo won't reveal this except to experts, but a few tactful questions asked of a band's references may help. On the other hand, even a duo can be musical and very enjoyable if their sequencing is good and very affordable because only two people are needed.
If you have your heart set on a particular instrument or sound, don't settle for a "keyboard that can sound just like a sax." If you've dreamed of hearing vibes, Celtic fiddle or blues harp at your wedding, go for the real thing.
Traditional bands such as jazz combos generally don't use sequences. Some popular dance music bands also play without using sequences, but they are getting harder to find. You can always ask, "How much sequencing do you use?" As with everything else involved with your vendors, you can trust your instincts to evaluate the way this question is answered.
Enjoy the Day
I think the single best service any event vendor can provide is to help lower the client's anxiety level. If anything a music provider says or does seems to make you worry more about your wedding or party instead of less, think twice before engaging their services. It's your party, and you should be able to enjoy it.
Ted Knight of Knight Music