Tag Archives: working musician

Get It in Writing

I had a chance to talk with one of my AFM buddies a few weeks ago who I hadn’t seen for awhile. He said he’s had a pretty busy calendar, but was ticked off when, a few days ago, a private party he had booked cancelled on him a week before the gig. The person called him on the phone and just said they no longer wanted his band. He asked why, and the answer was: “We found another group who will do it for less, and are going to use them.” I asked him if he had a contract or anything in writing. He said no. It was a local gig. He knew the people and didn’t think it was necessary.

How many times have you played a gig that was pretty much on the “honor system”? You had a verbal agreement as to date and time. It could be a private party, a wedding, or a spur-of-the-moment club date. Then, when it’s time to get paid, you have to renegotiate your rate, or you get into a hassle about getting paid at all. Or maybe they cancel at the last minute and you can’t fill the date.

You’re an AFM member. You don’t play for free. You don’t “pay to play.” You’re a professional. Use an AFM contract. Get it in writing. Then, if there’s a problem getting paid, you have some recourse. You have a tool to support your position. Many times it makes the difference when you have the unfortunate situation of having to take legal action.

I received an e-mail from Roger Latzgo of Local 45 (Lehigh Valley, PA) just recently. He wrote:

get it in writingI was playing a wedding at a Pocono resort several years ago. It was winter, and the ceremony was to be in the indoor swimming pool area. The place was lavishly decorated with lights, flowers, and a gazebo under which the couple would stand.

As I was setting up, the florist/decorator comes in and starts dismantling everything, saying, “I hope you get paid. I didn’t!” Not a good omen, but everything was straight as far as my dealings with the client were concerned: AFM contract, deposit, etc., were all in order.

The exiting florist crossed paths with the food and bar staff as the latter set up their stations. The ceremony started on time; I played and it was great. Afterward, the couple thanked me profusely for my professionalism, never mentioning the florist. And, yes, I did get paid and (believe it or not) even received a nice tip. So what I learned was: focus on your job, use an AFM contract, and ignore the external noise. I’ve done it ever since.

I think having a written contract for all gigs can really help you stay out of court altogether. Putting the terms of the agreement down in writing will help prevent both parties from forgetting exactly what was agreed to. What were the exact date and times you were supposed to play? Was there an agreement on number of musicians? Do you furnish your own PA, or is the client supposed to supply it? Is a tuned piano part of the agreement, or do you bring your own keyboard? Do you get a deposit with the rest paid upon completion of the gig? The list goes on and on. I’m not an attorney. It’s not legal advice. This is simply what I’ve learned over the years.

I think the best way to deal with a botched verbal contract is to avoid the whole mess in the first place. Get it in writing. I personally learned this the hard way. People remember things differently or don’t remember crucial details you may have talked about verbally. So ask your clients to sign an AFM contract. This is business, after all, and anyone who balks at written contracts could possibly pull a disappearing act once the gig is over.

That’s just my thought. You don’t have to make it into a major legal issue. You don’t need attorneys. You can explain it’s for their protection, as well as yours. In fact, just tell them to “OK it.” You’ll take it from there. Sometimes verbal contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Crazy and Memorable Gigs

For the last couple of months I’ve been writing about awful gigs. I know that, as an AFM member you’ve also had funny gigs, crazy gigs, and memorable gigs. I’m sure that, as a professional musician, you’ve played them all.

I remember playing at a piano bar in a waterfront restaurant where the walls in the cocktail area were indoor waterfalls. One night a drunk decided to take the soap dispenser off the wall in one of the restrooms and pour the soap into one of the waterfalls. Funny huh? Over the years I’ve had to quit playing because of electrical failures, smoke alarms, and bar fights, but until then, I never had to leave a gig because of a giant avalanche of soapsuds.

Last month, I got a letter from Earl Cava of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), along with a clipping from the San Leandro Times. He wrote: Of all the different types of gigs I’ve worked, the nudist colony was a night to remember. I got a call from my pal Buzzy, who had a trio, asking me if I had ever worked a nudist colony gig. I said, “No, but it sounds interesting. Count me in.” I asked Buzzy if there was a dress code. He told me just to wear my birthday suit. So, not knowing for sure if he was kidding, I brought both my bass guitar, and an upright bass. (I could play the upright and hide behind it, if necessary.)  Buzzy gave me the directions to the Sequoia Nudist Colony in Castro Valley, which I didn’t know existed. As I approached the main gate I was greeted by three women in their birthday suits. They gave me directions to the club and told me the dance started at 8:00 p.m. People always ask if we played in our birthday suits. I dodge the answer, and I still dodge it to this day. I can say, however, that when we took our first break, we talked to all the club members. I can tell you that they were friendly and the nicest bunch of people.

Crazy and memorable gigs are endless. I was talking with my pal Vinnie Falcone of Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV) the other day about funny things that have taken place during gigs throughout the years. He remembers a lot of crazy stories from when he was pianist/conductor with Eddie Fisher, Steve and Edie, Robert Goulet, and Andy Williams. Some are written in the Frank Sinatra book we did together. He says the wacky things never stop. Lately he’s been conducting for Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis. He told me that recently he did a gig with Lewis. During the show, he plays piano, while Lewis sings five or six songs. This time, Lewis was doing his bit, and forgets that Falcone hasn’t been called out of the wings to sit down at the piano onstage. Lewis goes into his first number and sings the entire song “a cappella.” He finishes, and realizes he did it without accompaniment, turns to the audience and says, “Damn, I forgot my piano player.” Falcone couldn’t stop laughing. Neither could the audience.

Mike Bennett, Dixie clarinetist of Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI), says his craziest gigs are the ones where musicians don’t show up or go to the wrong place. He recently played a church gig with a Dixie trio. They were supposed to play at a precise time for a service. It was a well-advertised, good-paying gig. Ten minutes before the time they were supposed to play his piano player was still not there. (He later found out that the pianist went to the wrong church.) It’s tough to play a Dixie trio without a piano player. Bennett says he started to sweat. The church was packed to capacity. He was thinking about how he could possibly pull it off, when the pianist came through the back door, slid onto the piano bench as if nothing happened, and they kicked off the first tune right on the dot. Bennett’s blood pressure dropped 50 points and the gig went on. Some jobs can be a real adventure.

If you have a crazy or memorable gig story you’d like to share, send me an e-mail. My address is RPopyk@aol.com. The ones that are more off the wall might end up in this column. You never know what’s going to happen on your next gig to make it more interesting.

AFM Working Musician Connection
The International Musician will be launching a new AFM Working Musician Connection e-newsletter sent by request to current members and to all new AFM members. The AFM Working Musician Connection will offer advice to get more gigs, promote the benefits of AFM membership, and help musicians feel more connected to the AFM. Sign up today by click here

Awful Gigs Some AFM Members Have Experienced

Last month I wrote about Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld talking about awful gigs. Jay talked about a bad gig he had done, and Jerry said, “Hey you got paid didn’t you? Don’t complain.” Well, in that respect he’s probably right, but some gigs are definitely worse than others. My e-mail inbox filled up over the past few weeks with your stories about bad gigs. Here are a few examples:

From Alan Thomas of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA): I am sharing my real-life stories about terrible pianos. Fortunately instruments like this are in the minority and most pianos in finer homes are pretty well maintained. But this piano was in a spacious and fine home in a wealthy enclave on the peninsula about 35 miles south of San Francisco. I think I could have actually wrung water from the felts. As I progressed with this gig, more and more keys retreated into the keybed—and didn’t return. My standards turned into minimalist renditions. By the end of the gig I estimated that at least 44 keys or 50% of the keyboard were “down” for the night, slumbering in the keybed.

From Jane Bate of Local 186 (Waterbury, CT): In a community production of Evita, the directors called orchestra members “barbarians” and worse, even though the orchestra was unquestionably the best thing about the production. Things got so bad, that I spent the break between acts dress rehearsal night in the ladies’ room crying. Opening night, the president of the union was there to prevent a walkout by the orchestra personnel. We made it through the performances­—and the orchestra played brilliantly­—but I knew I wanted nothing to do with the group again. Here’s the coda: The following season, that theater group put on The Boyfriend, a piece of musical fluff. The review was headlined something like, “Great Costumes Make Up for Poor Music.” There is a God!

From Robert Michaels of Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA): I have had many awful gigs including drummers getting drunk, playing too fast, sending texts, drinking beer, yelling into the mic; bass players playing too loud and storming out in the middle of gigs; and getting grief from bar owners because we didn’t bring enough people with us and not getting paid because of it. One time, the band I was in got fired from a gig because a drummer attacked me and cracked my ribs.

The most memorable awful gig happened when we were playing a showcase of my band EXPEN$E’s original material at a local club. The bass player I had at the time liked to show off and toss his bass around his body and catch it. It was cool when it worked right. At the end of one of my songs, when the bass player tossed his bass the strap broke and his bass went flying. Fortunately, no one was in the area where his bass landed.

From Mike Anthony of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM): One year in July I took off in my new Explorer to play a wedding on my classical guitar in the Tijeras mountains. I reached my destination greeted by a torrential downpour using my four-wheel drive in the mud. I still had to walk about a quarter-mile following signs to the tent. I was quite alone!

No one showed up for a half-hour. Then a large roar of motorcycles delivered a tribe of Hells Angels and their girlfriends. The wedding was delayed for almost an hour and a half while the bride and groom were having a knockdown drag-out fight in their trailer. Meanwhile, I played some classical, as the bride had requested, and a variety including James Taylor. The attendees only wanted to hear Def Leppard. I was definitely intimidated. Finally, the weather cleared and the bride and groom made up and I sat on a tree stump in the hot sun and played their ceremony. By now, I’d been there longer than the time we’d agreed to and frankly had had enough. The bride became angry with me when I told her I really needed to leave. I was thrilled to return to familiar surroundings. I washed my car and really appreciated my friendly home. I never did get paid.

From Paula Hatcher of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD): My worst gig was an outdoor wedding under Maryland’s tallest Bing cherry tree. The tree was full of ripe cherries and hundreds of birds eating them. The bride’s parents staged the wedding directly under the tree. My polite concerns were ignored. Halfway through the ceremony, the birds “let fly” and bombed purple poop over everyone, even the wedding cake! As people screamed and ran, the parents shrieked at the musicians to “keep playing!”

From Fred Gosbee of Local 1000 (Nongeographic): Like almost any full-time musicians we have had gigs where there was a poor fit, as in “what were they thinking to hire us?” We are an acoustic duo, Celtic harp, guitar, fiddle, vocals, that has done considerable research on the songs of Robert Burns. On his birthday every Scottish society in the world celebrates with a banquet, recitations of Burns’ poetry, and performances of his songs.

We were hired by such a Scottish society when we were on tour a few years ago. It seemed like a match made in heaven; we would be performing the Burns songs that we love to a knowledgeable and appreciative audience.

I suspected we were in trouble when we saw that there was an open bottle of whiskey on every table in the banquet hall, plus the opening act was an 18-piece bagpipe band (indoors!). 

As part of their scholarship fundraising, the society had a silent auction, which was supposed to close after dinner when we started our set, but there weren’t enough bidders so they held it open for another hour. Potential bidders looked over the items, which were displayed at one side of the banquet hall.

Between the whiskey, the adrenalin jolt that bagpipes always cause, and the chatter at the (not so silent) auction, we were generally ignored. There was one table of folks who stayed and listened so we played to them.

We did get paid and we did get fed, but we both came down with food poisoning.

Yikes. These really are awful. To everyone who wrote in, thank you very much. What’s nice about bad gigs, though, is they make the good ones even better!

Click here to read more awful gigs

Had Any Awful Gigs Recently?

Jerry Seinfeld does a show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You can find it online at: ComediansinCarsGettingCoffee.com.

The basic format is that he picks up a well-known comedian in an old classic car, and they talk and joke on the way to a coffee shop. They banter back and forth when they get there, then chat and kibitz back in the car. It’s really (as Seinfeld writer Larry David says) “a show about nothing.” Seinfeld has done bits with Howard Stern, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Don Rickles, Jon Stewart, and a whole bunch of others. It’s very cool and very funny, as well.

One of the ones I got a real kick out of was when he picked up Jay Leno in a 1949 Porsche. Back then, the first Porsches (this was number 40) looked like driving an alien space ship, compared to a ’49 Ford or Chevy.

During the joking around in a Hollywood coffee shop, Leno says to Seinfeld: “Did you ever have any awful gigs?”

Seinfeld replies, “There are no awful gigs.”

Leno responds, “The heck there aren’t!” and went on to say he’s had a lot of awful gigs as a stand-up comic.

Leno talked about doing a stint in a Playboy club where he was graded from “A” to “F” every night on his performance. One night the audience was mostly Portuguese. They didn’t get the jokes. It was hell. He got an “F” and the program director told Leno that he should have been more prepared. Leno said he let the director know how ticked off he was. It was really awful.

Seinfeld says, “Hey, you got paid didn’t you?    Stop your belly-aching.”

Okay, okay, I get it. Maybe there are no “awful” gigs, but some are worse than others. I’m sure you can relate. Maybe you had to fight to get paid at the end of the night. Maybe your audience wasn’t what you expected. Maybe there was chicken wire in front of the stage so you wouldn’t get hit with flying beer bottles. It could be that one of your musicians didn’t show up for the gig. In the end, maybe it was an “awful” gig, but at least you took something from it. You can always chalk it up to a learning experience.

Man, I’ve been out there. I’ve had fire alarms go off where I ended up spending an hour in the parking lot. I’ve had electrical failures where we ended up playing in the dark, and club dates where no one came in. I’ve had staggering drunks who thought they could play better (and feel they should let everyone know), and customers starting fights. I’ve had drinks spilled on my keyboard.

Once I worked in a ballroom where a water pipe burst and the ceiling started to collapse. Big deal. If you play a job that turns out to be an “awful” gig, don’t tell people about it. Forget it. Ninety percent of the people you tell your problems to don’t care, and the other 10% are glad you have the problems anyway.

So in the end, the “awful” gig helped you make rent, a car payment, or pay a few bills, and you go on. Learn from it. I’ve had my share of “awful gigs,” horrible gigs, and really strange gigs. In hindsight, some were just worse than others. Maybe some were a lot worse. I’m sure you’ve had some treacherous, grinding, “awful” playing experiences as well.

If you want to get it out of your system, send me an e-mail about it. If yours is really out of the box, I just may run it in the next column (with your permission). At least you can get it off your chest. (And, hopefully you got paid.) Send your e-mail to: RPopyk@aol.com. Put “awful gigs” in the subject line.

Remember, the nice part about a bad gig (or a bad day) is that it makes the good ones seem great. (I got that from the recent Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day movie.)

Good luck on your next gig. A better one is always just around the corner!

AFM Working Musician Connection

Starting in January, the International Musician will be launching a new AFM Working Musician Connection weekly e-newsletter sent by request to current members and to all new AFM members. This AFM Working Musician Connection will offer advice to get more  gigs, promote the benefits of AFM membership, and help musicians feel more connect to the AFM. Sign up today by sending an e-mail with the subject line “Working Musician” to: im@afm.org.

Dealing with Foreign Sales Tax

by Robert Baird, President Baird Artists Management (BAM!)

My column “Getting Merchandise Across Borders” (October 2014 IM) prompted some questions on dealing with the sale of merchandise once you’ve gotten it into the country. We all know about “under-the-table” sales, but we should also be aware of the regulations regarding tax on merchandise—sales tax or “use” tax. All jurisdictions have regulations regarding the collection and remission of sales tax and you need to know what is required of a nonresident federally, as well as in each state, province, and even in cities. Collecting and remitting taxes are the responsibilities of vendors, so as a self-employed musician, you need to be aware of tax regulations and how to deal with them.

Dear Crossing Borders,

If an artist is selling promotional merchandise at his shows, does he need to charge tax to the buyers? If so, are the regulations different if the merchandise was produced in the United States, as opposed to Canada. Are there any special rules to follow when claiming income from selling the merchandise on your taxes?
Taxed to the Max

As Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” And for any musician, especially a travelling musician, trying to sell merchandise, finding out about taxes can be daunting. The general rule is that sales tax must be collected on every sale to the ultimate consumer. However, each jurisdiction is different and there may be no sales tax applicable, or there may be exceptions for nonresidents.

First of all, you must determine if there is a sales tax. In the US, there is no general national sales tax. Sales tax is levied at the state (or lower) level. There are five states that do not charge sales tax: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon. Unfortunately, some localities within these states may charge sales tax and you may have to do a little research to check if there is an applicable local tax. Information on state sales tax can also be found by looking at each state’s website. You can find links at: http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/State-and-Territories.shtml.

In Canada, there are two levels of sales tax: federal and provincial. The federal and provincial sales tax rates are combined (harmonized) as HST in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador (13%), Prince Edward Island (14%), and Nova Scotia (15%). In the rest of Canada, the federal sales tax (GST of 5%) and the provincial sales tax (PST) are collected separately. Registration for GST/HST is voluntary and, depending upon your level of business activity in selling merchandise, you may want to consider registering.

Secondly, you have to determine if you are required to collect sales tax at all as a nonresident. In most jurisdictions in the US, out-of-state sellers do not need to collect sales tax, unless they have a “nexus” or presence in that state. A nexus means that you have a store location in a state, inventory held within that state, or employees or affiliates who live or work in that jurisdiction, visit customers, or attend trade shows. If you have an established nexus, you do need to register as a retailer and get set up to collect sales tax.

However, nexus rules vary from state to state and some states or areas may require that you collect sales tax without a nexus. If the vendor has no nexus within the jurisdiction then “use” tax (self-assessed sales tax) becomes the responsibility of the consumer/purchaser. However, some jurisdictions may require the vendor to collect and remit this tax.

In Canada, if a nonresident vendor has no business presence in the country, then the collection of HST/GST is not required. However, several provinces recommend that nonresident vendors register voluntarily, either provincially (PST), federally (GST), or both (HST). More information can be found at: http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/E/pub/gp/rc4027/.

Rather than ignoring the issue, musicians need to research sales tax and deal with the specific requirements in the jurisdictions in which they will be selling merchandise. If you are selling merchandise at a trade show, or in connection with a performance at a venue or event, the trade show, venue administration, or event organizer should be able to assist you in doing this. Knowing about sales tax and how to deal with it are two necessary skills for artists crossing borders.

Finally, to answer the other questions posed: sales tax regulations are the same whether the merchandise was produced in the US or in Canada, and there are no special rules to follow when claiming income from selling merchandise, except one: do claim the income.

last gig go

How Did Your Last Gig Go?

The now defunct Eastern Airlines used to have a slogan: “We’re only as good as your last flight.” Maybe the airline is gone, but that slogan had a lot of truth in it. You’re only as good as your last gig in the mind of the people who heard you the last time you played. Not all gigs live up to your expectations. It could be a club or a private party that doesn’t come off exactly as planned. Maybe there was a crappy venue-provided sound system. Maybe weather, or any number of other circumstances, kept people away, and the attendance was far less than expected. We’ve all played gigs where we can’t wait for the night to be over or played gigs where the booker just wanted “background music,” and  no one pays any attention to you or your band. It’s tough playing for a small crowd in a huge room, particularly when hardly anyone knows you’re there.

We hear all the motivational hype about putting your best foot forward, thinking positively,  and when life hands you lemons, make lemonade, etc. It’s easy to preach these things when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s not that easy if you’re in the middle of a gig that’s the absolute pits.

Some time back, AFM Secretary-Treasurer Sam Folio was in town. Now, even though we’re not in a major metro market, there’s a casino, many musical theaters, off-Broadway productions, quite a few concerts, and some decent club work, especially for younger groups. There’s work, if you want to go after it. We got talking about various local musical talent and I wanted him to hear a group at a well-known club, on a night where it was snowing like crazy. Not only that, there was little promo that the band would even be there. Few people showed.

The problem, however, was that one of the people who actually did show was a concert promoter who brings in major acts to one of the local theaters. He had verbally committed to using the band as a warm-up act for a national band where the pay was over scale and the exposure was significant. He was there less than an hour.  The band was on a break for half of that time. No one in the band figured out who he was, and they didn’t know he was coming. When the band did play, it was obvious that the drummer had more than enough to drink. The band simply did not have their hearts in it and they were goofing around more than actually playing their best charts. I was embarrassed for my AFM guest. It got worse. The concert promoter left the club and found another band.

And there lies the moral to this little episode: “You’re only as good as your last gig.” We are musicians. We play live music—we don’t push a button and let recorded music play. We are entertainers, professionals, and musicians who have spent years learning our craft. We want to get paid decent bucks for our talents and skill, and we want our clients to get what they pay for. Actually, more than what they pay for.

Don’t cheat the person who hired you, or the audience in front of you, no matter what the size. Play like your next gig depends on it. Play for the hotel staff; play for whoever is in your audience. Play for yourself. You never know who might be talking about you long after the chairs are piled on the tables and the lights are turned out. It could be an agent, a meeting planner, a club owner, a corporate exec, the manager of the hotel who books groups, someone who’s getting married and looking for a band, a record producer, or maybe just the person who hired you. One dissatisfied person will tell 20 others. Those 20 will tell 100 … and on it goes.

But whether you believe it or not, someone is always listening. Not only that, social media can spread their thoughts in a hurry. You never know if that one person could advance your career or put it into a holding pattern.

If you work a single, a little self-discipline can go a long way. If the room is sparse, make friends with every person in the room. If you’re in a band, don’t let one irritated musician in your group bring down the whole affair, just because it wasn’t what you expected. You’re an AFM member; you are a union musician. You get paid to play to the best of your ability to a crowd of 1,000, 100, or maybe just one. Make it a stellar performance, like your career depended on it. Who knows? Your next gig and your income might depend on it as well.