Watch Your Step #5—The Company Christmas Party
Let’s pretend that there’s no pandemic. Traditionally, December would light up like a Christmas tree with holiday parties. Musicians would rake in the dough with numerous functions put on by corporations and businesses. It’s a windfall that all musicians look forward to, bolstering their yearend income. These parties are a special animal unlike anything else during the year. Let’s look behind the scenes at the process that unfolds, to which the public is thankfully unaware.
PLANNING: The band leader is usually contacted by someone in the company that is relatively inexperienced in such matters, which requires a certain level of education and patience. If you are lucky, an event planner is your contact, but even then, they can be problematic. These events are organic and evolve in their own way and seldom adhere to a rigid schedule in spite of a minute by minute 4-page timetable that the party planner might hand you 5 minutes before the gig.
Most of these parties occur in a hotel ballroom or an event space. If it’s at an American Legion hall or The Salvation Army you are dealing with a horse of a different color and may want to reconsider. Occasionally the event may be at a private residence. Just make sure it’s indoors. After all, it IS December!
All information about the gig MUST be written into a contract which is signed by both parties, usually months before the event. This should include a 50% deposit paid in advance. If the leader does not get a deposit for security, there may be real trouble. All kinds of things can go wrong that would nullify the event. Don’t ask.
VITAL INFORMATION: When and where does the band load into the venue? If you are lucky you can load in your gear just prior to the performance. If not, you have to schlep your stuff in 6 hours before the event, which requires two trips and a lot more time. However, an early load-in is cool if it’s close to your house or your favorite bar. Hopefully it’s a short distance from your vehicle to the stage. Otherwise, there is a long haul to an elevator or, God forbid, a flight of steps. I’m already wasted!
What gear is provided? If the stars are aligned up just right, there is a house PA and a sound technician. This could go either way. Is the sound person nice and cooperative or do they have an “attitude”? This scenario would require a sound check prior to the arrival of the guests, which is still preferable to having to bring your own sound system.
How long do you play and when are the breaks? A three- or four-hour gig is most common. If it’s less, terrific. If it’s going five or more hours, you charge accordingly. Typically sets are 45 minutes to one hour with 20-minute breaks. However, it is common to have a period reserved by the client for speeches or toasts. These often run on interminably long, which is good for the band. It shortens the gig and gives the musicians time to eat or go outside for some fresh air or whatever. Does the band get fed? These parties always occur during dinner time, so the guests will always be treated to fine cuisine. I learned the hard way years ago that if you want to eat it has to be negotiated ahead of time and written into the contract. It is very awkward to have to walk up to the person in charge and sheepishly ask them if the band can eat in the midst of the festivities. I always specify in writing that the band gets to “partake of the food that is served to the guests”. Eating a box lunch comprised of cold cuts, chips and an apple just doesn’t cut it. If it’s a buffet there is usually no problem. We just load up our plates and head to somewhere inconspicuous, like the coat room. If it’s a sit-down dinner you may get lucky and have a band table. If not, a full dinner in the green room is totally acceptable. There, in the privacy of our own space, the band can enjoy a great hang with plenty of laughs.
What music does the purchaser want? It is essential that this has been discussed prior to drawing up the contract. If it’s your day, you get to play background music for cocktails and dining, then dance music that is a normal part of your repertoire. If you are jazz musicians and the client wants Pop music, just don’t take the gig! A special rehearsal to work up 3 hours of new material for one gig is out of the question. However, it is not uncommon to take one or two requests that are not part of your song list as long as it’s within the band’s genre scope. In my case, a special Sinatra tune would be acceptable, a song by Justin Bieber, not.
What about the money? It is standard to charge a LOT more bread for private parties for three reasons: 1) These parties involve several more hours work than your usual club or restaurant affair. 2) It makes up for the sometimes less than adequate pay you normally get at your afore mentioned club or restaurant gig. 3) They can afford it.
Finally, it needs to be in writing that the leader receives the remaining 50% BEFORE the event starts. Trying to chase people down at the end of a party is a risky and sometime futile business.
I ask, “Hey, where is so and so, they have my check?” And the response, “Oh, they just left for France. Can I help you?”
In the end, company parties can fall anywhere between delightful to disastrous. The best thing is to make sure that YOU do your job covering all the bases to protect yourself and the band from all things unforeseen. Be a good Boy Scout and be prepared so that after the gig you and your mates can enjoy the egg nog, or whatever.