Most musicians start out as sidemen, and some of them remain sidemen their entire careers. It is a great place to learn the business. Here are some tips for how to conduct yourself professionally as a sideman.
- Be reliable. There is nothing more disrespectful and frustrating than not showing up for a gig on time. Be ready to perform 20-30 minutes prior to downbeat for rehearsals and gigs. If you are going to be any later, call or text the bandleader and give him your ETA. Don't make a habit out of showing up 5 minutes before downbeat.
- Dress up. If you are not sure, err on the side of dressing too formally. It is always better to overdress than underdress for a gig.
- Bring all your gear. Remember to bring all the gear you need for the gig. If you forget any gear (music stand, mouthpiece, instrument, etc.), let the bandleader know and try to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Shit happens, but make every effort to fix the problem yourself. Apologize to your bandmates for your stupidity, and resolve to not let this happen too often, because your reputation will suffer badly for it if it does. Make a checklist of stuff you need to bring to the gig if that helps - anything to prevent unpleasant surprises.
- Be open and positive on the gig. No one likes a downer who whines and complains on set breaks and especially on the bandstand. Treat every gig like you want to be there and that you are enjoying making music with your bandmates. If something is genuinely bothering you, adopt businesslike manners and try to discuss things calmly and reasonably during a set break. If you don't get your way, or your concerns are dismissed, be cool and finish the gig with a smile. The gig is often not the best place to bring up certain issues, so call/email the bandleader or arrange a meeting and discuss your concerns in a calm and professional manner.
- Be a team player. Be a good sport about taking directions from the bandleader; he's the boss on the gig, and if he tells you to play softer, louder, take fewer solos, play shorter, stay in time, or whatever, make every effort to do so without complaining. If you find the bandleader's directions unreasonable, you have the option of not working with him or her again, but suck it up at the gig and just do the job with a good attitude. The rest of the band will thank you for being a team player, and so will the bandleader.
- It's not your party. During a set break, don't assume that you can mingle with the guests or help yourself to any of the food and refreshments for the evening. If you need some refreshments (especially on long gigs), arrange this in advance or ask your bandleader. Don't just help yourself. On gig day, stay sober - don't drink alcohol or get stoned during the gig. A good rule of thumb is that if you aren't okay to drive, you aren't okay to work. It's always a good idea to bring a snack and a water bottle to every gig just in case.
- Help out. Always offer to help with equipment set up and tear down after the gig. Don't just pack up and walk out.
- Don't promote yourself on the gig. It is unethical for you to give out your own business cards to members of the audience or otherwise promote yourself to potential clients. The ethical problem with promoting yourself on a gig where you are not the bandleader is that you didn't have to put in the work to get that gig, and you would be profiting from the work of the bandleader, his agent, and/or manager. It takes a lot of effort and money to create a band, promote it, make contacts, negotiate contracts, fees, deal with patrons, clubs, companies, etc. Even if someone from the audience comes up and chats you up, asking for a business card because he likes the band, you are ethically obliged to direct him to the bandleader and not give out your personal business card. After all, it's the bandleader's efforts that made this contact possible. If you do it, you are unfairly benefiting from the work of others without their permission or knowledge. The only ethical way to do it would be with the bandleader's express permission and blessing.
- When and how to promote yourself. If you like the venue and want your own band to play there some day, you have to be very careful to not cross some important ethical lines. The gig is not the place to try and promote your own band or product. This includes going around and asking intrusive questions of the staff (like, "Who hired the band?" "Who is the manager?"). This is the musical equivalent of corporate espionage (gig espionage?). The only ethical way to promote yourself would be to come back to the venue after the gig, and you should try to promote your own band (or product) without referring to the band you played there with as a sideman. And it is also important to consider that if the bandleader finds out that you are using the gigs he hired you on to promote your own band, he may not be kindly disposed to you afterward.
- Oh no, double-booked! If you double-book yourself for a gig, the first thing to do is to try and arrange for a sub. Next call the bandleader and let them know the problem and that you are working on getting a sub (or have already found one). It is your responsibility to get a competent sub! Only the bandleader can absolve you of this responsibility, but you should make every effort to get a sub as quickly as possible. If the bandleader doesn't like your choice of sub, make every effort to find a sub the bandleader does want without complaint. This applies even for pro-bono gigs, and you may have to pay more for a good sub than the gig pays. This is the cost of double-booking yourself. If you leave the bandleader to find your sub, or leave the band just hanging, don't be surprised if people stop calling you for gigs.
- Don't overbook yourself. Very few people play well on the third gig of the day. If you show up to a gig tired and worn out, you won't play as well and you will have trouble being professional. Especially, don't brag to other musicians about how many gigs you've had that day (or week) and all the money you are making.
Being a bandleader is a difficult and time-consuming job. Bandleaders are often maligned by their sidemen for trivial matters and perceived slights, and it is nearly impossible to please everyone. Here are some tips for bandleaders on how to treat their sidemen and earn their continued loyalty and respect.
- Details, details, details. Make sure your sidemen have all the gig details (sound check, directions, attire requirements, gear requirements, gig schedule, set lists, charts, and recordings) well in advance of the gig. Check in with your sidemen a day or two before the gig and make sure everyone is on the same page. This also gives you enough time to deal with any last minute crises that may come up.
- Sound checks. Don't spring the sound check time on your sidemen the day before the gig. This information should be included when the gig is booked so your sidemen can plan accordingly. Make sure sound checks do not run too long, and try and use everyone's time effectively. It is always a good idea to pay cartage to your rhythm section because sound checks for them generally take much longer than for singers and horn players. If a sound check runs overtime, do your best to wrap things up quickly and don't make a habit of it.
- The sound check is not a rehearsal. It's okay to run a tune or two, but bear in mind that your band may not be at their best on the gig if you added a long sound check/rehearsal a few hours before the gig. If you feel the band needs a rehearsal, then book that separately on another day.
- Sidemen are always hungry. Try to arrange for your sidemen to have something to eat or drink on long gigs (3+ hours), or between the sound check and gig if there is not time for them to go home and change and eat. If you cannot, then make sure your sidemen know that there is no food or drink being provided and remind them to bring a water bottle and a snack.
- Set Breaks. Don't cut set breaks short or program outrageously long sets. More than 75 minutes per set is excessive. 50-60 minutes per set is reasonable. Set breaks should be a minimum of 15 minutes.
- Rehearsals. Don't assume your sidemen are free for a rehearsal before the gig, and especially don't spring a rehearsal on them a few days before the gig. If a rehearsal is required, then it should be booked along with the gig, and it should be paid. If it isn't paid, then you should mention (when the gig is booked) that there is an extra rehearsal service required for the gig. It is a good idea to break down gig fees into services that include all rehearsals and possibly the sound check.
- Charts. Make sure your sidemen have the music (charts and/or recordings) for the gig well in advance. Two weeks is usually sufficient. If you get them the music the night before, don't expect that they will have time to check it out. A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on theirs! Only spring new charts on your musicians on the gig if you know that they are good readers and don't mind.
- Money, money, money. Let your sidemen know how much a gig pays when you hire them. It is discouraging and uncomfortable for your sidemen to have to squeeze this information out of you. Also, let your sidemen know exactly when you are paying them for the gig. If you say nothing, then the expectation is that you will give them a cheque or payment immediately after the gig, or the next day at the latest. If payment is delayed, please let them know when you will be paying them and why there is a delay. Lack of communication breeds resentment. If there is a problem with the contractor, just keep your musicians in the loop. Shit happens, but if this happens to you more than once, you will lose the trust and respect of your fellow musicians. Always have a contract for a gig, and work hard to ensure your sidemen are paid quickly.
- Dealing with sidemen. If a sideman comes to you with a request or problem on the gig, then listen and acknowledge their concern. You will have to decide whether or not this is a problem that can or should be dealt with on the bandstand. Regardless, adopt business-like manners and let your sideman know what (if anything) you intend to do about their problem/concern. Don't ignore it.