Function bands – More Function Than Band
Musical jobs are hard to hunt down and secure. The irritating catch 22 that so many in the creative/artistic industry find of needing experience to get the jobs but having to have the jobs to get the experience creates a real barrier unless one is incredibly lucky or incredibly well-connected. However, there are always steps to take to further your career within music and, whilst unlikely to be a direct way in, playing in a function band is a great place to start; both as an easy alternate means of income and for experience (if you play your cards right then you can wangle free meals and holidays from it too!).
Playing in a function band is rarely a career in itself but is a great way to meet other musicians which, lets face it, is the only way to find a way into the industry. It rarely improves a musicians playing (as the standard four-chord pop song is not overly taxing to a decent player) but it is a great way to improve a musicians ability to communicate on the fly with other players and provide a relatively stress-free situation to improve ones’ soloing.
This is because people rarely listen to a function band as a band. A jazz function band is normally little more than a particularly swanky piece of furniture at a party; if you screw up the Giant Step’s turn around the likelihood of the crowd turning around and booing is quite small. Similarly, when relaying a standard and well-loved pop or soul song such as Price tag (Jessie J) or Superstition (Stevie Wonder) people rarely listen to more than the lyrics, drum beat and (maybe) a well-known riff. This, coupled with the fact that playing the same, repetitive pop songs time and again, can become frustrating. But once you accept that playing in one of these is more function than band then it all becomes a bit more bearable and really rather fun.
And once you see a function band as a job of sorts then you can sort gigs properly. Setting a band up requires a fair amount of energy and dedication; you need a decent and reliable set of musicians who are all on the same level (and preferably not too busy/in about the same place), a reasonable amount of initial rehearsal time, parts to play from and maybe memorise, enough cars to transport all the kit needed for a gig (often including a PA and monitors) and the desire to drive a bargain. Pub gigs rarely pay more than £250/300 for a band but weddings and large private or corporate functions can fetch really rather a lot. This tends to work well with musicians who are self-employed teachers; the school summer holidays are a bleak time for teaching and July/August weddings are a cash-cow godsend.
However, band leaders and managers must beware of bargaining. All too often I have been in perfectly good bands who end up spending the best part of twelve hours at a function to be paid a pittance because the leader hasn’t bargained hard enough and the client has decided that you enjoy playing: so why not play for free? This is very unfair but people do not appreciated the thousands of pounds that go into training a decent musician, the cost of equipment and the added time of rehearsals, arranging and logistics.
Even deciding on a setlist can be difficult. A selection of recent chart tunes are great, sprinkled with old favourites such as Stevie Wonder (I Wish, Superstition, Signed Sealed Delivered), Luther Vandros (Never Too Much), some Tower of Power (Soul with a Capital S – cracking tune) and so on but then some individual tunes that really make the audience turn around and say ‘wow, I bloody love that tune – not heard it in ages’. I saw two function bands recently on in the same night (strange billing). The first played a rendition of Bat Out Of Hell with a keyboard backing track that went down like a lead balloon and the next played a funk arrangement of Praise You by Fat Boy Slim. I could barely control myself. And this individuality within a conformist band mould is one of the clinchers: function bands are two a penny but good function bands are far more rare. A band that can keep a dance floor full, with quick turnarounds between massive tunes whilst still putting their own individual stamp on it will do really well. Just a bit of improvisation, a horn section synchronised dance routine or even a little breakdown section that make the audience notice the full band works wonders and nearly always leads to repeat work or some form of other connection. After that, talking to the revellers after the gig and letting them know that you are people goes far as well – not only can you gauge reactions and tweak your setlist/performance accordingly but also network and hunt down other work in a professional manner. On the other hand it is a perfect time to take full advantage of the free food, drink and impressionable young girls swooning over the musicians….
As jobs go, it is a lot of fun. It initially takes a huge amount of hard work and dedication but once the ball is rolling and you have your name out there (most bands don’t even need an agent or manager) then you can bring in enough gigs to subsidise your main music career quite effectively. Like any self-employed music job, it is far from consistent or reliable but, if you get it right, playing in a function band can be enjoyable and lucrative; a win/win situation.