Freelance Musician Etiquette – For Professionals Only

Those of us who attempt to make a living by playing music without a steady gig often see ourselves as mavericks, flying under society’s radar – somewhat like the cowboys of the wild, wild west but with instruments instead of six-shooters. But even in Buffalo Bill’s era there was a code of behavior that was more or less understood by all those who wanted to be in the game. It may be a jungle out there, but we don’t have to behave like savages. A little forethought and politeness can go a long way towards making our freelance lives a little more civilized.

Let’s talk about talking – on the phone, that is. (We’ll cover texting and social media in a minute.) Nine times out of ten when you call someone regarding a gig you get their voice mail. This is good. If you have work to get done the last thing you want to do is get into a conversation when all you need to know, for example, is if the other person is available for a certain date. So while you wait for the beep, here a few helpful hints:

If you are hiring and the gig is more than a month away, call the person you really want to hire for the gig. Then hang up and wait for them to call back. If you need an answer immediately, call them on their handy cell phone (I’m sure they’ve left that number in their outgoing message). If they don’t call back within a reasonable amount of time (I think 24 hours is sufficient) assume they are not interested and move on.

If the gig is too soon for comfort and you feel the need to make multiple calls, mention that in the message you leave. If you make a bunch of calls and wait for the first lucky caller to get back to you without informing your colleagues, it gives them the impression that it really doesn’t matter to you WHO you get to cover the gig. All you need is a warm body, apparently…a hunk of meat with a guitar, say. It’s not a very genteel message to send. Sometimes you’re in a hurry, granted. State your intentions, otherwise you’ve started a game of phone derby and I, for one, hate that game.

If you are leaving a message for a fellow musician do not say, “please give me a call – I’ve got a date I want to check with you.” That is a waste of everyone’s time. Leave the date, time, place, compensation, name of leader – all the pertinent info so your colleague can make an informed decision and call you back with a real answer.

If you are on the receiving end you must return the call as soon as possible, regardless of your availability. If you can do the gig, leave that message and ask for a confirmation call and the contact info of the leader (if you don’t have it). If you are not able to take the date, politeness dictates that you leave a hearty “oh man, I wish I could do it but I’m already booked and please call me again” message. Everyone appreciates an answer, yes or no. Don’t make the mistake of only responding if you’re open; that’s just rude.

In the last few years, more and more (but certainly not all) of us are getting in touch with one another via email, SMS (texting) or by using social media, Facebook primarily. All of these communication modes are great, with a caveat or two, and the same rules of courtesy apply. The caveats:

1. Be sure that the person you’re texting knows who you are, or include your name in the message. Anonymous texts are creepy.

2. Know that many excellent, hip and happening musicians either do not have smart phones or for whatever reason do not “do” texting. Just because you have what you think is someone’s mobile number does not mean it’s a sure bet that a text will get through.

3. Not everyone checks their email frequently or lurks on Facebook the way you might do either of those things. So don’t assume that someone you’ve tried to reach electronically is ignoring you. A good old phone call is still the surest way to know you’ve gotten your message across.

4. On the receiving end, you should probably answer via whatever method the person used to contact you in the first place (unless they tell you otherwise).

Now let’s discuss the politics and ethics of subbing out of a job you’ve already accepted. This is a controversial subject. I know musicians who adhere to extreme positions on this: they either never, ever sub out of any job or they will sub out at the drop of a hat for a gig that pays $10 more. Both strategies are self-defeating.

If your policy is never subbing out of a date to do something that is either much better paying, more artistically satisfying, or as a means to further your career, then you are doing yourself a disservice. This business is difficult enough, so why shoot yourself in the foot? It ought to be acceptable to any reasonable contractor for you to take advantage of a great opportunity that comes your way as long as you take care of biz. More on that in a moment.

On the other hand, if you are the type of person who will get out of any gig for any reason at any time you run the serious risk of getting a reputation for being unreliable. I have a short but memorable list of players I simply can’t do business with for that reason. If you’re going to sub out, do it sparingly and for good reasons.

If you do have to get out of a date, here’s the right way to do it: First, call the person you are already committed to and ask them if you might be able to sub out. Tell the truth (ie, have a good reason for asking) and offer to hire an acceptable sub. If the contractor balks or you can’t replace yourself on the original date with someone who passes muster with that person, then don’t sub out. Never leave someone high and dry; it is simply unethical. If you feel that the leader is being unreasonable or unnecessarily stubborn, play the job anyway and file away that fact for next time. If you think you may run into that situation again with a particular contractor make sure you are OK with that understanding or don’t accept the engagement.

Assuming that you get the go-ahead from your employer, get a short list of players that person likes and start making calls (one at a time – see phone etiquette rules above). When you find a good substitute, call the contractor and leave your sub’s contact info and ask them to call back and confirm that they have gotten your message. You can’t be too careful and everyone appreciates a freelancer who treats them in a professional manner.

The golden rule applies here, folks. Communicate clearly, be polite, don’t be evasive or disingenuous. If you’re in this business for the long haul, know that people have long memories. A reputation can be broken far too easily. Unless you’re everyone’s first call in your town you cannot afford to be rude or take anything for granted. We all know that it’s tough to make a living playing music; it seems to me that we can at least try to make things easier for one another.

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