Hiring Substitute Musicians: Preparing for Success

(Disclaimer: This post is geared towards the small bar band/cover band circuit, not the large-scale, pro touring circuit. Please keep this in mind as you read.)

We have all been there, either doing the hiring or being the sub. Sickness, births, deaths, life-altering events, etc, all come up and can severely impact a band’s ability to play a gig. It’s unavoidable and if you haven’t been in this situation yet, just wait. It will happen. The good news is that as long as the band has planned appropriately for these times, then you shouldn’t have any worries. Initially, you should have a list of folks at the ready to call when an emergency strikes and you need a sub. While I’m not going to cover how to hire someone, the individuals on that list should already be cleared by the band. As in, the band is already confident that the sub(s) can do the gig. But, how do you actually prepare for a sub? Here are some tips:

  1. Have a clearly defined setlist(s)

This may sound like a no-brainer but a close friend of mine (and the person who gave me the idea for this post) recently described a gig where he was hired as a sub and was given a master list to work from, but no actual setlist. Upon arriving to the gig, the vocalist just randomly called songs and they didn’t even play some of the songs that my friend had been told to learn. This is bad juju, folks. Please make sure you provide an actual setlist/song order for the sub prior to the gig. You do not want to waste their time. Furthermore, as much as possible, try to stick to that setlist or at least the same tunes on the gig.

  1. Double-check the song keys

The reasons for changing a key vary from alternate tunings to vocalist range. Whatever the reason, you need to let your sub know if you are doing the song in a key other than the recorded version. This is especially important if you don’t have a rehearsal with them . . . speaking of which . . .

  1. Schedule a rehearsal!

Unless there is an extreme time crunch, it is always a good idea to schedule a rehearsal with the sub, especially if you have never actually played a gig with them. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and that much more prepared for the show.

  1. Record the band

If you have the ability to record the band either during a rehearsal or on a gig, do it! We are not talking about producing an album though. All you need is a rough recording of the setlist(s) to give to your sub. This will help the him/her get a picture of what you sound like and also clue them into any special arrangements or small nuances that you may have added to a particular song(s).

There you have it! Hopefully, this will help you and your band better prepare for a substitute player the next time crisis strikes. In all honesty, Murphy is a pain in the arse and you can never be too prepared for things to go wrong. If you lay the groundwork for hiring a sub, it will pay off in the end.

Do you have tips or stories on this topic? Please share in the comments below!

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