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Wedding Bands: the Career Opportunities in this Lucrative Market

For good function bands, weddings can offer an abundant and decently paid source of work. Here, bands offer advice on how best to succeed in this market.

Last updated: 20 January 2021

In an uncertain music business, the evidence suggests that joining a wedding band is a good career opportunity. The British wedding industry has weathered recession and austerity, with the average spend rising to £32k in 2019 and the rise of same-sex marriages broadening the income stream.

With a major survey by the Confetti website finding that 47% of couples chose to hire a live band for their big day in 2017, no wonder it’s rare to meet a gigging musician who hasn’t at least dabbled in the sector in the course of their music career.

A booming wedding market

“I think the wedding market is booming right now,” says Musicians’ Union General Secretary, Horace Trubridge. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, the emergence of wedding fairs and conventions in the UK has elevated the wedding market to new plateaus of catering and entertainment. We know that weddings are a substantial element of a function band’s work.”

Every wedding band has their backstory. But for many on the modern circuit the wedding band sector is an easy and profitable segue from the dwindling pub scene, believes Sean Geraghty of Somerset band The Sidekicks. “Weddings are something we fell into back in 2001,” he remembers. “The pub scene was quite healthy in the West Country, so people would see us at places, invite us to play at a wedding and offer us more money. In terms of payment, you can get the same as three pub gigs in one night. And it’s three times less work, because you only load, unload and set up once.”

How wedding gigs can boost your music career

“It’s also much better,” adds Geraghty, “to play gigs for people in celebration mode, rather than ‘down the local pub getting drunk’ mode. Like any performance, there’s a time when the people listening and the musicians are all on the same page and you know you’ve had a good one when you forget about the journey home.”

It’s a view echoed by James Ferraby of Leicester band Mansfield Avenue. “The wedding band market is in fantastic health,” he says. “It’s as good – if not stronger – than five or ten years ago. We didn’t notice the downturn. Weddings are always happening and people prioritise high-quality entertainment. We aim for between £150 to £225 per band member, plus fuel, per gig. 80% of our work comes from weddings. Military, corporate and private functions make up the rest.”

Mike McLeish of Birmingham-based House Of Chords believes that a respected outfit can survive on wedding bookings alone: “We run this band full-time. With the exception of the odd bit of session work, it’s our sole income, and weddings make up over 80% of our bookings. Typically, we’ll go out for £1,200 for a local booking. We get a lot of mid-week weddings as well, and by maintaining that throughout the year, it’s possible to focus all your energy on weddings.”

How to remain competitive in the wedding bands market

Yet a note of caution is sounded by Pete Martin, who has played in the wedding sector since the late-90s, and currently leads The Night Shift in Leicestershire. He fears that the encroachment of pub bands is undercutting the specialists. “I think there’s a race to the bottom, with pub bands charging slightly more than a pub rate for a wedding. Five years ago, my band was going out for £1,000 a night – add on £300 for an acoustic option during the wedding breakfast or champagne reception. Now, I get emails asking if we can match a pub band that’s quoted £400.”

Few wedding bands would deny that the sector presents myriad challenges to offset the potential earnings. “Sound limiters at wedding venues are a nightmare,” says Geraghty. “We’ve had them set off by people clapping in the past. We’ve had damage to equipment. The music is cut out, then the electricity comes back on and everything gets hit with a massive surge of power. But what I find most difficult is juggling deps. I’ve met a lot of wedding bands who are pretty much comprised of deps – and it shows. If you’re the music at someone’s wedding, it’s important you don’t turn up with a weak line-up. We’ve begun to turn down gigs if we can’t be our full unit. Because that’s no good for the long-term. It’s a self-sabotaging strategy.”

Assessing the competition

Dig a little deeper into that Confetti survey, meanwhile, and some less heartening statistics come to light, with 71% of polled couples hiring a DJ and 40% choosing an onsite photo booth. With the average couple earmarking a maximum of just £500 for the day’s entertainment, these options are liable to be at the expense of a live band.
“The threats are everywhere,” agrees Martin. “From venues that supply a DJ as part of the wedding package to other items such as photo booths and magic mirrors, selfie pods and sweet carts. Entertainment is definitely not on the bride and groom’s priority list. Cake, flowers, venue, photographer – those are the items at the top.”

How to prevent problems at a wedding gig

But the biggest problem for bands braving the wedding sector, says Geraghty, is the gulf between what was agreed in advance and the couple’s demands on the day. “If the organisers have a practical approach, then things generally go fine, but you often find that if one thing hasn’t been thought about, none of the other things have been either. Timing, in particular. People often don’t realise how much equipment has to come in and how important it is to get near to the stage if they want a quick set-up. People think things will run smoothly at a wedding, but if they don’t have a timetable of where a band fits in, it’ll invariably overrun. Then they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ve booked you, so can you keep playing until one in the morning…?’

“So we’ve had to put in mechanisms to dissuade people from that,” Geraghty continues. “We’re not in any way adversarial about it. Everyone’s trying to get the night to work as best it can. You don’t want to be a stick in the mud. But at the same time, there’s only so far you can bend. The organisation side is becoming more of a feature. As a band, you have to specify that your equipment will be safe, that your insurance is in place, when you’re supposed to arrive, when you’re supposed to play. Because if you do turn up and there are problems with the venue or location that haven’t been factored in, it’s very difficult at that moment to be awkward. Who’s covered in the event of an emergency and who’s going to be held responsible? You’ve got to get everything in writing.”

Contract is king: always use an MU standard live contract

For the professional wedding band, stresses MU Midlands Regional Organiser, Stephen Brown, paperwork is every bit as important as musical equipment. “We’ve had a few issues over the years with spats between the happy couple and bands. Cancellations, or the couple refusing to pay until the band has played, even if advance payment is specified. Or, more commonly, refusing outright to pay and adding damages for a ruined day once the gig is done, usually on the grounds of ‘poor performance’ or ‘unhappy guests’ – and sometimes despite video evidence to the contrary. The contract is king, of course, and the MU always recommend you use our standard live contracts.”

Horace Trubridge highlights the importance of having an MU-approved contract and being aware of the specific needs of your clients. “For instance, do they want the band to back the bride and groom’s first dance? Will the event be filmed? Playing a wedding is not like playing any other event and the client may have preconceptions of what they want the band to do. So all of this must be discussed in advance of issuing a contract to avoid disappointments or disputes. The MU can help with the former and of course the latter – but only if the band has followed the MU’s advice.”

Mike McLeish of House Of Chords says that being an MU member has helped massively in a number of ways. “We’re an independent band, so we only use the MU Standard Live Engagement Contract. That way, if we’ve had any legal issues then we’ve been fully advised and supported by our local official and the MU legal team.”

If you do choose to draw up your own bespoke contract, advises Geraghty, then strip it back to the essentials: “It’s all down to getting a detailed-but-succinct contract that explains it all very clearly. If the contract is too long, people won’t read it. They’ve got a million other things on their mind, like wedding cars or what colour the flowers are.”

Keep your set current and fresh

Even watertight paperwork can’t shield wedding bands from the evolving musical demands of younger generations. According to Confetti’s survey, the most popular age for women to marry is 28, and with the modern pop chart built on electronic dance – often featuring no analogue instruments whatsoever – wedding bands with a traditional line-up face a struggle to deal with first-dance requests.

“The biggest threat,” McLeish considers, “is really the change in music tastes. We have some real versatility as a live band through our skills on both acoustic and electronic instruments, as well as all four of us singing in harmony. But even though we’re always adding more recent songs, those tastes could change. And if the tastes of young people change so much that ‘live band music’ is not as appealing, that could see a pretty quick change in enquiries. Even The Beatles seem to be not as fashionable as when we started.”

Get the right tools and technology

As most modern pop music is heavily augmented, says Ferrably, bands need to find a way to make that work in the live setting. “We always carry an electronic drum kit with us in case the need arises. We’d rather not use it, but you need the right tool for the job.”

“We’re fairly old-school,” picks up Geraghty. “We don’t play a lot of music from the 21st century, maybe just a handful of the tunes that have lasted. I think there’s a different culture now around live music. Wedding bands tend to reflect the groom’s youth. But to recreate what people are using to create pop music right now, is a little bit beyond the remit of a band that’s set up to play rock-based or guitar-based music. We’re getting further away from the period that we specialise in.”

How to impress the wedding crowd

And yet, despite this trend, McLeish believes the capable wedding bands will survive – and the best ones will flourish. “As live musicians,” he says, “we don’t treat the performance as ‘just some stranger’s wedding’. We take real pride in focusing on the finer details to play authentic versions. A lot of bands will just listen to an original and write out a basic chord progression, but the focus on the more musical details, including the vocal arrangements, can all add up to impress the wedding crowd.”

“There’s still a big place for a live band at weddings,” concludes Geraghty. “It’s something you just can’t replicate with a DJ. A live band still has that immediacy and that sense of uncertainty and unpredictability. People still really get into live music, and sometimes, you can introduce young people to just how great a live band can be. There’s still a good amount of work out there. You have to chase it, for sure. But I don’t think it’s going away…”