Performance Contracts: When Should You Get It In Writing?

Note: this is NOT our band. It's just an example of an average, outdoor gig.

I was once in a band that had been hired to do some outdoor shows at a local restaurant. The work was seasonal, and we were to play once a month for about 6 or 7 gigs (we were paid at the end of each show, and each of us got $75). Unfortunately, we missed out on about half of them because of rain. I suggested that we should use a performance agreement that had some sort of provision for rescheduling in case of rain. The bandleader disagreed, saying that the venue wouldn’t sign one and would just hire another band. I figured that since we were only getting about half of what we would have gotten anyway, we didn’t have much to lose by asking.

InnerRhythm director Kavit Haria suggests that it isn’t always necessary to get a performance contract:

… if you’re playing a house concert or a coffee shop gig, there’s no real reason to have a contract as it’s only you and maybe a few others, and a “handshake” or verbal agreement is good enough.

Haria’s article on contracts does acknowledge that there are times when an agreement is necessary, and that it’s “best to take it as it comes.” I take that to mean that he has a dollar figure in mind that serves as a cutoff point, and that’s not a bad thing. And it’s probably fair to say that most musicians who play the average Saturday night club gig work without a net, and they probably do just fine.

This is not to say that you never should work without an agreement. In “Performance Contracts,” author Keith Hatschek is quite clear about the relationship between contracts and service and money:

If you [have] a written performance agreement signed and in place, you likely [will] be in a position to negotiate all or part of your band’s payment. Without any type of written music contract, the chance of your getting any money is minimal.

To help ease the deer-in-the-headlights reaction when someone says “contract,” it’s useful to understand what the definition is. Hatschek explains that oral agreements are considered contracts. So are emails and simple written agreements, such as the ones you can download from the internet. These would probably do very well for most local acts, though larger shows may have several pounds of paper invested in their contracts. However, all of them are designed to spell out the following:

  1. Scope of performance (how long will the show be, breaks, etc.)
  2. Date, time, and place for performance
  3. Compensation (aside from the fee, are there other factors (free food, lodging, etc)?)
  4. Technical requirements (lights, sound, etc.)

Other things could be addressed, and Haria’s article goes into greater detail about them, but the main thing is to develop an agreement that works and use it when you book a gig. I suggest developing at least two: one for the coffee shop gig and one for a larger club. In either case, a simple email covering the 4 basic areas listed above should do just fine. (I would print and save both the email and read receipt.) Above all, be sure to present the agreement to the booking agent or owner in a professional manner.

Think back to my situation I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Did the venue sign a contract? No. Did they expect us to play for a specified number of hours? Yes. Did they specify the location and amount to be paid if we played? Absolutely. Did they agree to provide other compensation and technical requirements (free food and a lighted stage)? Of course.

So since we had an oral agreement (or, in other words, a contract), how would a written copy of all of that have changed anything? The band would have more legal recourse with a written agreement had the owner refused to pay.

The bandleader in that situation was reluctant to ask for an agreement, fearing that the club would move on to another band. I would argue that such an attitude is more of an issue of self-worth; it certainly isn’t related to business, and whether you do it on the side or as a full-time occupation, music is still a business. And if a club won’t sign a written statement of what they said, you should probably think twice before you play that gig.

________

Kavit Haria is The Musicians’ Coach. Kavit is the director of InnerRhythm, a company that prides on providing success solutions for musicians worldwide. Visit him at www.innerrhythm.org.

Keith Hatschek is a contributing writer for Echoes and is the author of two books on the music industry, Golden Moments: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How To Get a Job in the Music Industry. He directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific.

Note that this article is not intended to serve as legal advice. You should seek the advice of an attorney if you have specific legal questions.

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