What Every Songwriter Should Know About Working With Sidemen

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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(Will Kimbrough)

Unless you are a die-hard who believes a song suffers when surrounded by more than a single instrument played by the writer, sooner or later you will be working with sidemen (or women). Whether in the studio laying down demos, or performing live with some version of a band, you will have to deal with hiring, firing, rehearsing, and generally hanging out with musicians who make their living playing with people like you.

Ideally, these will be top-notch players who are sensitive to the musical needs of your songs, as well as supportive of your abilities as a performer. But players like that are not as common as one would wish; the best of the breed can pick and choose employers, so it might help to know what attracts them – other than the sheer brilliance of your songs (or huge wads of cash). To this end, here are sage words from world-class players who have accompanied everyone from Paul Simon to Renée Fleming.

Paying The Price

One of the trickiest issues is payment: when to agree, when to pay, cash or check, etc. First understand you are asking these people to perform a service like plumbing or medical treatment, and like your plumber or doctor you need to pay them. The biggest no-no is to say, “Let’s form a band,” when what you really mean is, “I will write and sing all of the songs, and then sign a solo deal with the first label that wants me without the band.” This is called: “Trying to get unpaid sidemen.”

Once you have reconciled yourself to compensating your accompanists here are some things to consider. “There is always a certain level of trust involved with payment,” says Vinnie Zummo (Joe Jackson, Shawn Colvin). “I like to be sure the money is straight before any work is done. Also I like it clear there will be additional money if the work takes longer or more songs are added etc.”

“Not being clear up front is a recipe for misunderstanding,” adds Marc Shulman (Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti, Patty Larkin). “While we don’t want it to appear that the money is the priority, it is a mistake to not address pay early on. We have rent and bills to cover. Prospective employers should understand this and not take offense when the subject of compensation is broached.”

Without advocating anything illegal, an accompanist sometimes appreciates cash, especially if he or she is extending a friendly rate to the artist; for example: accepting your budget will only handle $10 per hour for rehearsal, when they usually charge $35. It is also considered appropriate for the artist to take care of transportation costs for their musicians when such costs are burdensome. “If a three hour rehearsal pays $75, and a musician’s driving to a rehearsal entails gas, tolls, and parking, it’s not fair to ask them to cover the $35 it costs them just to show up,” says Shulman. Payment should also be made at the time of the service, whenever possible.

These fee examples are New York prices, and will vary – as do all wages – depending on your part of the country (or the world), but the principles remain the same.

The R Word

When it comes to rehearsals, situations may also vary, but there are universal things you can do to make them go smoothly. “You should have mp3s ready to send out or download,” explains Larry Saltzman (Blue Nile, Simon and Garfunkel). “It always helps to have some form of chart. It can be anything from a lyric sheet with chord changes (not great, but better than nothing), to a more detailed chart on real music paper. If it’s three chord stuff it might be okay to ask a player to write up his or her own chart from the mp3. It starts to get abusive if the music is more complex. In that case, the player will have to spend hours at home, writing charts and you should consider compensation. If you don’t have the ability to write a chart yourself, consider hiring someone to do this for you; by the time you compensate each musician for chart writing you might as well hire one person to do it and distribute those.” Make sure they are accurate. “I did a major session that would come to a halt every once in a while because of major errors in the charts,” says Zummo.

Songwriter/sideman Will Kimbrough (Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris) has been on both sides and offers a slightly different perspective. “In Nashville, if you get the right players, you don’t need rehearsal,” he maintains. “In fact, it can be much fresher (if you’re into that sort of thing), without a rehearsal. But, if you’re singing harmonies, you may want to rehearse for phrasing, etc.”

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