Booking a barn dance band:
8 questions to ask

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Before booking a barn dance band and parting with any of your hard-earned money, here are some questions to ask first. You may find the answers illuminating...

1. How good are they?

A band is a band is a band in the same way that a car is a car is a car. There are a wide range of performers available to you, ranging from clapped out Morris Marinas to shiny new Aston Martins. Bands tend to know what they are worth, and charge accordingly. Some are indulging themselves in their hobby (especially for barn dances) and looking for a bit of beer money, others aim to provide the service you want.

I've met some frightening cases over the years – callers who bully and belittle their audience, people in bands just because they are family members or own the sound system and/or van, musicians who have become ‘jaded' over the years who just want to know where the bar is, when they'll be fed and how soon can they can go home.

There are also excellent musicians who have no sense of time keeping and are liable to arrive late, or who become ‘prima donnas' on stage. Others have a problem with sobriety or drugs, a bit of a challenge if your event is a beer festival, certainly a major one for a wedding or corporate affair. One superb group I know will probably all be stoned by the interval, if not already far gone on arrival. And then there's the chap who tends to pick fights with the organiser 'Listen pal, I'm telling you...' , or the caller who on arrival, immediately insists on a free bar for the band...

You can often tell how ‘serious' or committed a barn dance band are by looking at their instruments and equipment. Although I have several systems available, my usual rig is a compact but powerful modern Yamaha set up plus a bass bin. This fits into most venues and is clear enough to be heard without causing anyone's ears to bleed!

Although the better barn dance bands usually only play for private and corporate events, making it hard to see them in action, it should be possible to see a video, hear a tape or CD and read comments from past clients.

Going back to the car analogy, it is also obviously important to make sure you are getting the right style of band. Good though an Aston may be on a race track, there are obviously more appropriate vehicles if you interest is in rallying. For example, booking a jazz band without checking to see if they are 'swing' or trad' gives you a 50/50 chance of a cock up, whilst a quick listen to a demo should make things clear. I say this from experience, having been put out by an agent several times into completely the wrong sort of gig. His only concern was earning a fee, his motto being 'don't worry boy, just turn up. You'll be alright...'. Not the best way to go about booking a barn dance band!

2. What guarantees do they offer?

It seems only fair that the client should not have to bear the risk of guaranteeing how a group they don’t know will perform at an event – the liability should be on those providing the service. The simplest way you can be sure that your performers will be there on time, clean, sober and presentable is if you have absolute discretion over payment of all fees.

Will any of the group behave inappropriately, or be rude to your guests? Will they be truly professional? I have enough confidence in myself and my colleagues to make that promise. A full, no quibble 100% money back guarantee that you will be delighted with the performance. You decide, not us, that we have given you the service promised.

I invite every other band, agent and solo performer to also prove that they believe in themselves, and have confidence in their performance. If they are unable to offer this, perhaps you they should tell you why.

3. Is their electrical equipment legal?

It is a requirement of both ‘Health and Safety’ legislation and the ‘Electricity at Work Regulations 1989’ that ALL mains powered electrical equipment is checked and tested by a ‘competent person’ to comply with Portable Appliance Testing (PAT) standards.As well as being the law, it is also common sense. Many bands either ignore this, claim it doesn’t relate to them or simply lie and claim that their gear has been tested when it hasn’t. This can put you, your guests and the venue at risk, as well as the band themselves.

A schedule of tested equipment should be available, and all tested equipment will be marked with green and white stickers - see our health & safety section for details www.barndance.co.uk/health-and-safety, as well as examples of a few 'dodgy' items I’ve found during testing.Over the years, I have found few performers that did not have at least one fault the first time their equipment was checked (usually fuses).

I recommend that it is agreed, in writing, that you can inspect equipment used. If any amplifier, mixing desk, mains lead, transformer - ANY piece of mains powered electrical equipment over a year old is not PAT tested, you can withold the fee. If they cannot agree to this, you should use extreme caution and ask why this is a problem.It is also worth asking about the age and quality of the sound system, and what back-up is available in the event of failure.

4. Are they insured?

Again, a matter of common sense as much as anything else. Musicians in general do not tend to be the richest members of society, and are unlikely to have assets to match the million pounds worth of cover I ask for as the minimum. For your piece of mind they should hold third party insurance in case of accidents. There has been a trend to encourage the public to sue for all sorts of personal injury; if you plan to host an event it would be wise to obtain written confirmation of insurance beforehand, just to protect yourself. Best to make sure that you are not in the firing line from any claims from guests or the venue should something go wrong, and there turns out to be no valid insurance in place.

A good agent or band leader will ensure that all performers will have cover, and should be able to provide you with written details. I know groups who would not dream of not insuring and ‘M.O.T.’ing their vehicles, yet refuse to insure themselves or test their gear.

5. Who are they working for?

A strange question you way think, but as well as the many part time musicians who just play ‘for a bit of fun’ and regard Saturday night as ‘their’ night out playing what they want to, I’ve also met those who actually play rock music, but who have to call themselves ‘folk rock’ musicians to get any bookings. Others spend hours rehearsing wonderfully elaborate and very clever arrangements and sets of tunes, which they will play regardless of what is actually required.

All of these performers have the same thing in common – they are working to THEIR agenda, not yours.Please do be sure that the performers will do what YOU, the client want - book the most suitable group and make sure they are fully briefed as to what is required. Ideally, have some kind of guarantee as to your satisfaction (see above).

6. Are they flexible?

Imagine a sunny summer’s wedding day. Rather than go into a hot stuffy hall or marquee, your guests decide to sit outside instead. I’ve met two types of bands. The first stay inside, cross their arms and say things like ‘Why did they book a barn dance band if they didn’t want to dance’? No skin of our nose’ etc. The others offer to play un-amplified ‘acoustic’ tunes outside as either background music or a mini concert until it is possible (if at all) to go inside later on.

There was a power-cut at a rural barn before one event, so the client set out some candles and we gave a three and a half hour performance of songs, tunes and dances with no sound system – do check that any group you engage will have the ability and willingness to look for solutions should it become necessary.Another example – my own band when setting up for a medieval banquet noticed the bridegroom was laying cutlery although due to leave for the service. We took over from him and finished setting up our gear later afterwards. Although not our ‘job’, we do try to treat an event as a whole performance, it was the obvious and sensible thing to do.

7. Are they ‘fun’?

Some traditional performers regard themselves as guardians of a secret and ancient mystery. They insist that dances are performed correctly down to the last step, coming out with lines like ‘Come on, this is your heritage we are teaching you’. They don't seem to have quite grasped the idea of 'social' dancing.There are dance ‘callers’ who can make the evening a very grim affair, blowing whistles, clapping hands and sending everyone back to their places like a primary school teacher!We have found that usually audiences simply want a light-hearted ‘fun’ event, where anyone – regardless of age and ability - can join in, and which doesn’t slow to a crawl with long and over-complicated dances being taught. Callers should enjoy their job, and be able to communicate this to the audience.

8. Back up

A good band should be able to call on a wide range on musicians to try to provide cover in case of illness or injury. Some bands have very fixed arrangements, and are unable to work with others in the event of a key member dropping out. Best to check this in advance, rather than finding out if something goes wrong.

I hope that this guide has been of help. If you would like any other information please feel free to contact me to ask about booking a barn dance.

P.S. Don't forget that the best groups usually go first – who ever you decide to book it is better to be safe than sorry and get them under contract before someone else does!