Musicians and Verbal Contracts

Verbal Contracts In Music

Right or wrong, good or bad, a lot of the local music biz is done by verbal contract. As a sideman, there is only one band I have ever worked for that insisted on contracts between the band leader and the sidemen. All the rest work on a variety of levels of verbal agreements. Most of the time this works fine, but sometimes there are problems. For verbal agreements to work, both sides need to be trustworthy and honor their word.

Unfortunately, the music industry is not entirely professional. Many bands and musicians do what they do because it is part of their culture. To them, performing and playing gigs isn’t a career, it is an expression of their heritage on one end of the spectrum or an expression of their cause on the other end.

Mixing the two types of musicians does not always produce satisfaction and misunderstandings abound. A good example of this is when a professional freelance musician takes a gig with a salsa band. Almost all of the salsa bands I ever played with were more cultural than they were professional. I’m sure they didn’t see it that way, but conflict always resulted when assumptions were tested in the course of working together. In my experience, most salsa bands assume if you take a gig then you have also agreed to make every rehearsal. A professional freelance musician expects these types of assumptions to be clearly communicated before the deal is made. When the salsa band calls a third and fourth rehearsal for a performance that only pays $150, the professional players feel like they have been cheated because it wasn’t clearly stated at the beginning.

But salsa bands are not the only bands that operate that way. I just recently had to turn a gig down after I had already excepted it because there was no mention of rehearsals before I took the gig. And that was a top forty cover band. Fortunately the leader was very understanding, perhaps because I stressed the fact that I wasn’t told about the rehearsals when I originally accepted it.

It’s not just rehearsals either. This lack of communication during the negotiation stage of booking a gig translates into a variety of misunderstandings ranging from whether or not the band gets fed to what time the gig starts and ends. Far too often I have accepted gigs that the leader failed to mention it was in Dallas or in San Antonio. Imagine my surprise, weeks after I had taken the gig, when I learned that the gig required four hours of driving time.

Email Is Better

Things haven’t been as bad (in this respect) in the past few years of my career and I think it’s because most leaders are using email to negotiate and communicate gig information. I often take a printed copy of the emails with me to a gig if I think there may be a problem, but generally speaking, once something is in writing, there isn’t as much of a problem.

Email not only forces the band leaders to be more clear about the details of a gig, it also increases the accuracy of those details. A band leader can send one email with all the correct details and everyone will be on the same page, automatically. Between that and google maps, gone are the days of taking a left turn when the leader meant right. So much of the stress that used to be associated with getting to the gig has been eliminated by the internet this way.

Falling Through the Cracks

But every once in a while something falls through the cracks. This last misunderstanding was because all of the business was handled via text messages. Not good! It’s kind of difficult to communicate at the same level of accuracy with a text as you can with an email. Also, texts are not readily printable.

Other exceptions to the “email is better” era of gig negotiations is when we work with leaders who, for whatever reason, refuse to rely on electronic media. There are still leaders out there who prefer the phone. I was horrible on the phone before (because of my hearing loss). I’m far worse at it now that I rarely talk on the phone anymore.

Renegotiate Fearlessly

I think it’s important to be able to renegotiate without hesitation when conflicts arise. As far as I’m concerned, when an undisclosed detail is revealed, after you have already taken the gig, then they have broken the verbal contract and you are no longer bound by the previous agreement. They will complain, but you have every right to back out of the gig or demand more pay.

They do complain. That’s why I say you should be fearless when you communicate. They will believe that you accepted the gig so you are committed to everything they add to that commitment after the fact. Remember that these gigs are mostly cultural for them, not professional. Some of them can’t begin to understand that you do this for a living and that you need to make a profit. They will behave as if you have betrayed them and make it seem as if you have selfish motivations (Everyone who works for money is selfish, right? – oh wait – that’s only true in music – I forgot!). But it is important for you to stand up for what is right. Stand on the confidence of knowing you are a professional and don’t let their complaints move you from your position.

Yes, it may mean that they won’t call you anymore, but this is how great music scenes are created. When enough people stand up for what is right, then the leaders are forced to behave professionally when they hire pros (duh). But for as long as the musicians cave in to the whims of those who do not have professional motivations, the musicians will always be treated poorly with low wages and miserable work conditions.

Your Responsibility To Clarify

On those occasions when you are the only professional in the business relationship, all of the responsibility to clarify details falls on your shoulders. If you want to be a genuine pro, you cannot afford to just wait for these conflicts to arise and then blame them on the more culturally centric leaders. It is best for your business to avoid these conflicts from the start. If the leaders you work with are not pros, then you need to take up the slack and ask all the right questions, even the questions that seem so obvious to you that you would never typically ask them.

For me, 99% of my gigs never require rehearsals. It’s easy for me to assume that anyone who calls will tell me if there will be rehearsals, but that is not a safe assumption. I would have avoided frustration for both myself and the leader if I had asked about rehearsals in the first place. But I recognize this as a mistake on my part, not on the part of the leader.

When I say that those leaders are not professional, I do not mean it as an insult. I am not putting them down because I know each one of them prides themselves on being professional bands (in other words – playing paid gigs with professional quality music). They are not the problem in this scenario! It is very important that you understand this because they are your source of income. It’s not really them who is screwing up, it’s us. If we are the pros, then it falls upon us to behave professionally.

You don’t think that you could bite half of your McDonald’s burger, change your mind and take it back in exchange for chicken nuggets, do you? No! Because McDonald’s isn’t going to let that happen. We are not professional consumers of hamburgers just like band leaders are not always professional consumers of musicians.

In the same way, it is our responsibility to make sure we have all the details before we accept the gig, not the band leader’s.

About Eddie Lewis

Eddie Lewis is primarily known as a Christian free-lance trumpet player in Houston, TX. Eddie makes a living playing trumpet, teaching trumpet and jazz improvisation, writing trumpet music and authoring trumpet books. His second book, Daily Routines for Trumpet, is used regularly by thousands of trumpet players around the world. If you would like to purchase some of his CD's, feel free to visit our online music store at
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