What’s Your Rate for Private Gigs?

I am often asked my rate for private gigs in the abstract, without a specific gig under discussion. Here is my answer.

My pricing to play private gigs depends on the nature of the event, the number of guests, and the timing. There are many considerations so an exact formula isn’t practical. The highest rates I tend to charge are for weddings, corporate events, and events with difficult working conditions taking place on weekend evenings, and significant distance from San Francisco.

Specific factors that figure into my rate:

  • Type of event and level of ritziness: My pay should be commensurate with the cost of the venue and the compensation of others creating the atmosphere at the event. Weddings are more expensive. Corporate and private winery events are more expensive. Informal house parties and concerts are often less expensive depending on the clientèle and the amount of formality.
  • Number of guests: Having me play for a large number of people is more expensive for the client. For private events the rate starts to increase somewhere around 50 people or so.
  • Working conditions: Is there significant exposure to cold, wind, lack of shade, sun, heat, or even potential rain? Is the venue one that I’ve learned has poor accommodations for musicians (lack of nearby parking, nowhere to put equipment cases, difficult load-in and load-out, surly staff, and/or a high likelihood of unpleasant surprises, delays, etc.)? Are the musicians welcomed as guests or fed crappy meals in a dirty back closet or not fed at all?
  • If the gig calls for sound reinforcement, how much extra work will that mean for me? Obviously this isn’t an issue if it’s just me and my instrument for dinner / cocktail music, but if it’s a band situation this question often comes into play because I’m a skilled audio engineer with the right equipment for most kinds of gigs. If I have to play AND run sound for a multi-piece ensemble I charge extra. More extra if I have to bring a PA system and / or other sound equipment over and above my instrument and the basic amplification my instrument needs.
  • Length of playing time: Above about an hour and a half the cost starts going up with the length of time I’m expected to play.
  • Overall length of engagement: Some gigs require arriving early, setting up, and then sitting around for hours before playing. This costs extra.
  • Distance from home to engagement: At 50 miles’ driving distance and above I start charging extra.
  • Nature of the music I anticipate playing, and amount of preparation required if there are no paid rehearsals. Obviously music requiring more preparation means I need to be paid more. Of course a player who is better prepared already might get the gig instead of me because of this, and that’s OK.
  • My expectations of my colleagues’ / bandmates’ musicianship: If I have to shoulder the burden of music direction single-handedly for the whole gig to keep a band on track because they aren’t prepared or if the gig is just a bummer because the band can’t sound tight and I know this in advance, I feel no shame about charging more. If I expect to have to read low-quality charts on the gig I charge more; often this happens when the client is a non-musician singer hiring me to accompany them.
  • Weekdays and weeknights cost less, weekend gigs cost more.

That’s a lot of stuff, but in the end, the idea is to be able to walk out of even the crappiest gig at the end of the night feeling like I did my best and feeling like I was not taken advantage of.

To make things more specific, here’s how I’ve priced some past private gigs. I include examples where I think I got it right and examples where I messed up the pricing:

  • A weeknight outdoor wedding reception in a local city park close to home, unsheltered and exposed to cold, wind, and sun. About 30-40 guests. Very pleasant people to work with, referred through a friend of an extended family member, no overly formal or stuffy aspects. Musicians welcomed to eat and drink as guests. No sound reinforcement responsibility beyond my own instrument. Three hours’ playing time. Ample nearby parking on the street. Music fun to play, requiring no special preparation. Playing in a duo with an excellent musical partner who makes everything fun musically. $500. I think this compensation was about right.
  • A 4-hour weekend evening solo piano performance at a large corporate law firm’s annual company party one year at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the next year at San Francisco City Hall (both close to home for me). I was offered food and drink as a guest, and my contact was very professional and easy to work with. I was allowed to play whatever I wanted. I worked with the client to help them rent the piano from a professional piano rental and moving company, which included a tuning and setup on site right before I played, so I didn’t have to bring anything. I had to arrive a little early to supervise the piano setup and tuning. No audio engineering responsibility or other burdens. No deviation from the planned schedule. I charged $600 for my performance and $350 additional for the time I spent arranging the piano rental and working with the piano company on site to make sure the piano was located and prepared to the client’s and my satisfaction. I think this compensation was about right.
  • A three-hour birthday party for about 40 guests at a restaurant in a town about 30 miles away (not super close to home, but an easy drive in light traffic) on a weeknight. Semi-formal dress, no special repertoire, easy bandmates to work with. We were backing a non-musician singer but one my bandmates and I had worked with a lot already, so there was no problem with sight-reading bad charts or other nightmares of music direction. We were fed and treated like guests. Outdoor performance, but under a sheltering shade canopy with propane heaters available as needed. No special sound reinforcement responsibility. I was guaranteed $330 and was tipped $70 additional for a total of $400. I think this compensation was about right.
  • One example where I undercharged and had a learning experience: A Saturday-night wedding reception about 140 miles from home, unsheltered outdoors in 90+-degree temperatures, playing music with excellent bandmates and needing no special preparation. Mild sound reinforcement responsibility. Semi-formal dress, about 100 guests. We were fed as guests. Two hours of playing time if I remember right. The event planners were nice people, but very unprofessional: After we were done, the planners denied us access to load our equipment out for over an hour so we were stuck there just waiting to begin our long, late drive home. I got paid $333, and the main factors I failed to consider correctly were the distance, the heat and lack of shelter, and — had my spidey-sense given me the indication — the sloppy and unprofessional event planners who would determine our fate at the end of the night. This should have been at least a $700 gig considering the distance, the size of the event, the fact that it was on a weekend night, and the fact that we got stranded, unable to load out and drive home until long after we were done playing.
  • An example where I charged a pretty low rate and I feel it was fair because everything about the experience was smooth, easy, and enjoyable with little to no extra work built in: A house concert I played in my neighborhood where the very personable hosts had a nice, well maintained piano, I could dress informally, my bandmates were consummate musicians, and we were free to choose our repertoire. The performance was acoustic so there was no sound reinforcement complicating things, and if I remember right it was a two-hour gig with a break in the middle. I think I was paid $150 or maybe $200.

So you can see my rate is variable according to what I understand about the gig.

As a closing thought, I will add that I don’t try to compete on price for my music services. Clients and musicians alike benefit from the kind of vibrant community that we can have only if musicians’ work is valued enough to sustain a performing career. I therefore make a point of charging the going rate to the extent that I can ascertain it. My fellow musicians are my inspiration, my collaborators, my teachers, my idols, my students, and my friends; setting aside my own finances, undercharging would only weaken our entire community’s ability to keep doing our best at what we and our clients all love.

Comical surcharges for unreasonable musical expectations