Dealing With Contractors

I have played drums professionally since 1980, so I’ve had 22 years of opportunities to get my share of ups and downs since then. While the reasons for success or failure might seem obvious enough to insiders of the game, my intent here is to advise future fellow musicians that the factors which may determine the difference between doing well or not so good in the business are usually one of two: musicians or contractors, with a huge gap separating both categories.

If anyone from within a series of factors can be “the thing that goes wrong” with musicians in a professional perspective, they – at least to my experience – tend to be very straightforward about, let’s say, firing a colleague (I’ve had to do that a couple of times, myself, and the “fired” hold me no grudge, to this day), and the behavior goes along very objective lines: “No good performance” equals “no work”.

Contractors, on the other hand, can turn that simple logic around by means of pure greed, and are quite capable of keeping on the job purely for economical reasons a professional whose performance is bad (and by bad, as you’ll see, I mean “disastrous catastrophic bad”).

There are basically two obvious types of contractors: Those who pay and those who do not. The first kind usually has a highly professional attitude and is concerned about a status he has earned and strives to maintain. These are very easy to deal with, since they can be counted on, even if the actual payment takes somewhat longer than expected one can rest assured that it will eventually take place – some of the good guys even present you with a contract, which is a clear cut to a winner.

The other type… well, what can you say about those? These people feed mostly on an eagerness to play presented by some musicians, and usually promise more than they can deliver (which sometimes is nothing at all, not even the gig itself).

Instead of trying to theorize more on this, I’ll leave with you with some experiences I’ve had in order to illustrate it somewhat better, ending each one with a lesson (leaving the best story for last – next month, I must warn, before you scroll down). All has happened way back in time, more than twenty years ago, but I bet all the species presented still abound in our jungle.

I’ve been had sometimes by contractors, yes, and found the worst type to be the “bad payer transvested in good payer”, as in a sub-genre.

There was this guy who had formed his own band to play dance halls in club balls around town, an act he went around and sold, himself. The deal with the band was that you would get a percentage of whatever was the value he had sold the act for, and all was agreed around these terms with slight variations (old timers with the band received a bit more).

It was good for me while it lasted, for we worked at least two nights a week, every week of the year including the Holiday season. It was all based in trust, and not once one of us had ever questioned what would the 100% value be, until one day, after deciding to leave the band for personal reasons, I accidentally ran into a copy of the contract for the venue we were at lying over a speaker. I looked around, took it, read it over and found that the totals between our percentages did not match the 100%.

He was taking half percent from each one – at least on that particular time and place -, and it figured like that was the current practice. Funny thing is that I told the other guys about it and at least two of them did not believe me! The lesson was: When there is a document involved in the deal get to read it or be ready to pay for someone else’s profit.

Another very common kind is the smarty who offers you a gig for which he depends on you to provide material, like one I once met.

A piano player friend called me up with this dream gig (the money was very appealing) to play a contemporary repertoire on dance balls. On the very first rehearsal we were not presented to a single music sheet. To save time, we proceeded to play some of the stuff by ear, and that was when the guy niftily suggested that we could make the sheets for the band but failed to talk about paying us for that.

I just packed my gear, quietly, called the boss over and arranged a meeting for that same afternoon to “arrange some overlooked matters”, not telling him exactly what those would be. In his office, along with my silent peers, I cornered him big time by asking how much would he pay us for the job of building the sheets and that no one would play another note before he gave us either a decision on that or delivered sheets himself.

He, of course, chickened away with some vague promises, never called us again, and it seemed obvious that all he wanted was the sheets, which he had already decided to obtain for free, using us as instruments. The lesson was: Be wary when the tip seems too good, for the money might be not so.

There are gigs where the world and more are offered, while there is a complete failure to provide a single ounce of guarantee.

One day, I was called by a friend singer and guitarist: “Come to my house this afternoon, man! We are going to Europe!” There I went, yet unpacked, only to discover that the deal was to travel around Europe on a show with some typical samba school female dancers. Despite the attractive perspective of going anywhere with some of those beauties, I had to break the guy’s dream (and break his heart), but I took my time just to see how far ahead of facts they already were.

He and the others were all excited, as he repeatedly told them (us) about the cities to where we’d be traveling to perform. I have let them have their fun, and then asked which guarantees had he been offered, like the contractor’s curriculum with any prior experience, plane schedules, expense money, hotel reservations and terrestrial routes, scheduled dates and venues etc. – not to mention a silly old contract, to which he frowned, gave me a dirty look and went: “Why?” The other guys were aghast.

I was dumfounded, but patiently lectured them, asking if anyone could let me know what would be the plan to manage the situation if things went wrong in a foreign country with no money, accommodation, transportation, plane ticket or at least a bloody contract to supply with the singlest element of guarantee for a legal sue. One of them gave me the funniest answer: “Well, at least he (my friend) told us that you can speak all those languages.” I had to laugh.

Pissed off as he was, my friend had to give me the benefit of reason and the others sighed in relief as they realized what they had almost got themselves into, but I still wonder what would have happened had he called someone else other than me to fit in. The lesson was: Do not jump under the first impulse from your heart when paid work is involved, and evaluate objectively whatever is being offered. If the deal involves trips outside the city, ask for all possible guarantee and a contract always comes in handy.

There’s also the guy who hires you based on a strong confidence that the act he produced will drown in tons of money from the box office and solely counts on that source for all expenses.

I was called by a friend to play on a show with a couple who had just arrived from Europe with the supposedly hot act. The proposal was decent enough, the repertoire was not all that bad and I called three buddies in. The deal was payment after each gig, what I took as a mere formality.

There came day one, and the couple looked all sullen, backstage, when the moment of truth was up. I sensed danger, but elegantly awaited for the inevitable outcome, as the guy told us there was not enough dough to pay us all right then and asked what could be done about the situation. Before anybody had even thought, I gave him the briskest answer: “If this money and next week’s payment is not up the day before the first following show we would not even go onstage.” All looked at me in awe, but not another word was said before we left the theater.

Later, the guys thanked me for my prompt and straightforward answer, and I only wondered if there would be anything else to be done or said under the circumstances imposed on us. Eventually, later that week, the couple found a sponsor and all was settled to everyone’s content. The lesson was: Be tough or you’ll be softened and don’t go for anything other than what was settled and agreed before, unless it suits you.

Another common type is the artistic seducer, who can convince you that the job you are about to get into has high social or artistic interests and values, so you’ll be working for the benefit of some cause that is to be considered above the mere financial aspects, you’ll be a contributor, with your performances, to art of the highest possible quality.

I was called to play in a musical comedy play that had music by the musical director and lyrics by a very famous and prestigious writer of our national musical scene. We were a quartet, all unanimously agreeing that the money was not so good, what we told the producer. He immediately turned around and called the lyricist, who happened to be visiting the production site that day, and asked him to join us at the table where we discussed evil matters of money.

This guy took a deep breath and just lured that poor bunch of artistically astray men with the siren call of the social importance of art and some other equally eluding BS. More than that, though, he has put his name’s importance on the table of discussion in order to convince us all that he was also earning much less than he could and as a co-author, and counted solely on gross box-office percentages, while we would be working for fixed rates. Talk about an argument!

Holy Saint Cecilia, up in heaven! We were almost excusing ourselves for working as professionals and giving our fees for charity while he left the table, a feeling of shame filling the air. We agreed with the producer to work for the settled for the first month and then discuss a percentage for a raise, which had to happen, regardless of the percentage, or we would go on strike.

A month later he would not talk to us about the arranged raise, so we had to strike for a day to show him we meant business. His loss of a Friday night’s earnings quickly made him change his mind, and he raised our fees to our best content. The lesson was: Stand behind your positions or someone will stand behind you.

Later on, immediately after the job described above, I hit the jackpot with a dream gig for a theater musician, and only took jobs on which all was clearly arranged beforehand. This job lasted for fourteen months in the span of a three years period of time, but, while being extremely rewarding both financially and musically for most of the time, it still had it’s share of bad surprises on both fields, as you’ll see on my next column.

Two faces of a coin – when things can go right and wrong at the same time

Before I start, I would ask you to read the previous article to get a clearer picture of what is about to be told.

The job mentioned in the last paragraph of last month’s article was one that would make me part of a selected group of artists and technicians (a team of 34 people) who would travel over five Brazilian states to play the best theaters on each capital. I would play in a quartet of piano, bass, accordion and drums.

The act was with a lady (now 81 and still trudging along) who is unanimously considered as our country’s best and most famous theatrical actress and singer, in a musical depicting the life of the late French singer Edith Piaf (whose music I loved) written by another lady, the English Pam Gems. The play was already a smashing hit in Rio, the capital of Rio de Janeiro state, where I live, by then (June, 1984) having had sold out performances for a year. In fact, Brazil was the only country where this play has achieved any success.

The musical director, arranger, piano player and conductor of the famous play (I won’t name names, this time, for ethical reasons you’ll understand, later on) was married to an actress of the play I worked on. So, on occasion, as he dropped by to pick her up, he saw parts of our show (he had seen the opening day).

One night, he called our piano player to ask about me, an inquiry I was informed about on a moment’s notice. My friend told me he had given the maestro a briefing of the best of my capacities (some of which he invented) as a musician, instrumentalist and professional.

Eventually, my actress friend formerly introduced me to her husband, who called me to be a player on the famous act for the “consistency shown as a player”, as he said. I had to agree, of course, even more so after I visited the producer’s office, on the next day, and learned that I was to start with a salary that was exactly five times more than what I was earning at the time on the other play (which I only had to turn my stand in as an effective to get away from).

On the trip I went, contract signed, earnings based on a nice little percentage, even nicer considering we only played sold out venues (I knew that for a fact, before, since this was – and still is, as a matter of fact – the tradition with this lady).

It was more than I could ever want, for the music was splendidly well written, arranged and conducted, the relationship between all members of the cast, including the star, was as good as can be and a very nice camaraderie started between this splendid lady and myself early on.

The quartet’s sound was very tight, as it had to be the case when such a small combo has to sound like an orchestra, sometimes, as in the arrangements for a couple of tunes we played. We received high praises every now and then, like on an unforgettable standing ovation given to us one night by a crowd of 1200 persons when we returned from backstage to the orchestra pit to play act two.

After we returned to Rio, four months later, the theatre group was dismissed. We still played a few odd gigs (a pocket show with some of the tunes and other stuff) with our star until next year, when we were all called to be once more in that same play on a travel to northeastern Brazil.

Since the bass player, the accordionist and I had become friends, fees offered by the production to each one were freely discussed between ourselves until we managed to get the very same amount – which, of course, was over the highest they had offered to one of us (I am not sure who that was, but that did not matter, since we had what we wanted). We were back after three months, and once more dismissed, until next year.

In 1986, we were to play the same venues visited two years before, added of a few more, and would also make new seasons in Rio and São Paulo. When they called me, though, I did not take the proper care of asking my two friends about their earnings, maybe trusting the production would be more wary this time, maybe led by my imminent bankruptcy. Anyway, I thought, the money was decent enough, much more than any average musician was earning at the time, and it was 100% guaranteed for a period of eight months.

On the second week after we had returned to Rio for a four months season, coming from the one month long first leg of the tour (there would be a third before São Paulo, the last one), my buddies and I were chatting backstage during one of the playing breaks. Then, quite casually, the accordionist mentioned her earnings, much to the astonishment of the other two, both earning less (I was earning a bit more than half of that and the bass player about 20% less than her).

The next day, before the gig, I went on a business visit to the executive producer’s office, taking with me two copies of a document I was prepared to give them, unless they equaled my fee to the accordianist’s: A legal month’s notice before my leave from the act. The lady producer said that they could not come to terms with that, so I dug both copies and gave them to her – who “could not believe her eyes”, as she said –, got back mine, which I had her sign, and fled.

Maybe some of you might be thinking I was a bit ahead of myself to do that, since I would still have about six and a half months of decent pay to my account, but I had a very nice backup giving me confidence to play so boldly on such a high and risky bet: A musical reason. And a true winner, as it was .

Before that year’s season had started, the maestro had been replaced by a lady pianist, extensively tested by him before approval (as done with me and all others, including another maestro, who had played the first São Paulo season, back in 1984, who my friends had qualified as admirable). Modesty will not keep me from saying that he chose only the best.

This time, though, the case was quite different. He had missed to match his excellence degrees of requirement, admitting someone who was far from qualified to perform as required, as a pianist-conductor and as a musician, moreover.

The music, once so beautiful, suffered terribly as a consequence, and all those involved in the production (and sometimes the public, I am sure) could tell that quite distinctively, and it figured she had to go. But she was to be kept, no matter what, her acquisition was cheap in cost (no pun intended) to the production, even more so if considered the fact that the maestro was ranked “over the top” as an expense, having added fortnightly salary raises to his percentage as arranger, on the season before.

It was a clear case of “economy beats reason” (not to mention taste), since the very core of the play had been drastically affected, and perhaps only the charisma of our star and our competence as “polishers” had managed to keep the act together in theatrical and musical terms, still.

We tried to protest, but had to learn the hard way that economy was undoubtedly the key, and very much so. The main actress, who that time around was also one of the producers, once bluntly told us three keepers of the torch, after we had made only the slightest of complaints about the current musical disaster, during a sound check, as a true Gemini native should do, while quickly glancing from the pianist to us and back: “That is the way things are and the way they will stay”.

We got that. She knew it as well as we did. Who was kidding? It simply did not matter how hurt we were, so we’d better not hurt ourselves yet some more by feeling miserable… as we did. But we all knew she meant that for good, so we just did not insist for the sheer uselessness of it. Even while she later obliged to attend a rehearsal – summoned by me, with no proper authority – to put back together one the pieces (a particularly destroyed one, turned into a mish-mash of interpretations).

What we did, though, the bass player and me, as soon as we could, was to tell our musical director and friend about that, since both our musical souls were suffering with anguish and pain to revive that bitter situation five times a week, every week, month after month.

In order to illustrate our ordeal, just a brief passage of the experienced chaos: As a conductor, the pianist had to count off the pieces, one of which was a small two bar excerpt from the intro of one of the songs, which was repeated before the second act’s opening. The piece consisted of seven notes, in 2×4 time, played forte, in unison, and started on the first note of the first measure.

One night, she signaled the counting of “one, two” and came in on the second half note of the second note of the counting time! Since my reflexes are good, I refrained from playing and managed to match the three last notes of her “impromptu”, but the rest of the group was not so keen, so… well, you got the picture, was it a car wreck it would have made all front pages. I wanted to die.

The night when we told the maestro about “our secret”, sitting inside a car in front of the theater’s back entrance for more than two hours, like in a morbid trance, I also told him about my imminent leave. Then we all cried, three grown men suffering from the loss of good music.

Since that picture was shown, I was quite sure he would be extra careful with the choice of any other new musician to figure in the band, for another wrong one could be a clear cut to an absolutely ruinous disaster. He knew as well as the three of us did that our experience and musical blending were the only things holding the act together musically, and since the play was also a musical… he tested some guys and gave them all the “we’ll call you” routine.

So there was I, two weeks later, on the last night before my notice would expire, master of my own destiny, standing in front of the executive producer, waiting for the inevitable outcome. But that was not enough anymore: I had already decided to add an extra touch to it, one keenly and carefully arranged before with my peers.

That “touch” was to ask the production to pay back all my past losses, which by then amounted to the equivalent of almost three months of the difference between my salary and the accordionist’s, as well as providing a guarantee against any future loss, meaning I would always earn as much as the highest fee (including actors – with the exception of the leading role, of course.

As a touch of grandeur, the bass player patiently awaited outside with a document in his hands, ready to let the production know he was about to leave, too, unless he had a raise to be leveled with the accordionist, since he was unsatisfied with the musical situation, by which he was indeed psychologically affected.

On the day before, by pure coincidence, after being let in on the content of our discussion with the maestro, our accordionist lady friend had already guaranteed a 20% raise for herself, on sake of “musical abuse”.

In the end of the deal, we made that production pay big bucks for having ruined the show by trying to save the load of money they thought the maestro would extract from them. In fact, we probably have made them pay much more than what that would have amounted to. As yet another extra touch, an homage to the maestro, I had them agreeing that my raises would occur fortnightly.

No money in the world could ever pay, though, for the sacrifice of the excellence of music so elegantly devised, written, conducted and performed as that originally was, back in France, and once more had been, with us, and I regret that to this very day.

Whenever I look at my set of drums I think about that story, for I managed to travel to New York to buy it with those earnings alone. Sad story, though…

The lessons were more than one: Always strive to give your best on any job, for you never know what it may lead to; try to do collective negotiations whenever possible; if you get to have the chance to trespass against those who trespass against you and music, ask dear Saint Cecilia to provide forgiveness from above and do a touché move trespassing a heart, or: If you have a good hand, play accordingly; usually, capitalists are only in it for the money, so do not expect them to behave like artists.

Oh, and keeping with strategies proven right might help out a bit, of course.