Over the past three years, professional musicians have been asked to roll with the punches as never before. First came Covid, shuttering the live music sector from March 2020 to July 2021. Now comes a crippling cost-of-living crisis, with many households forced to slice their budgets down to the bone.
Recent surveys by UK Music have examined the recovery of the live musicians playing festivals, theatres and club tours. But almost exactly three years since the first reports of the unfolding pandemic, what does professional life look like for that less-discussed breed of musician, the wedding/function band?
Weddings remain wary of overspending on live entertainment
The sobering statistics in a recent survey by UK charity Help Musicians included the bombshell that eight in ten players (78%) earn less than pre-pandemic, and close to half fear they’ll have to leave the industry entirely.
But wedding bands might face particularly stiff challenges. In October, leading hen and stag party organiser Fizzbox polled 300 respondents from across the UK and found that despite a spike in the number of weddings in 2022, engaged couples were wary of overspending on live entertainment. Additionally, 57% of respondents were considering getting married abroad to save money, with a knock-on effect for UK-based wedding bands.
“We saw a ‘double dip’ boom this year,” says Fizzbox’s Tom Bourlet, “with the end of all lockdowns meaning a number of delayed weddings as well as the ones originally planned for this year. In regards to wedding bands, we found this was one of the only areas that weren't going up in price in 2023, with the average remaining at £750. The cost can often float up to £2,000 if paying for a reputable live band, but the price is lowered by 32% of survey respondents opting for a sound system and a playlist, with a cheap DJ.”
Demand is going strong but the market feels less buoyant
Those statistics won’t surprise the function musicians on the ground. Dave Savage of top-rated wedding band The Man From Funkle says the appetite for live music is stronger than ever but fees haven’t kept pace. “It's a double-edged sword. In some ways, more work comes our way because people are desperate to party post-Covid.
“But no one wants to pay like it used to be. We used to go out as a five piece for £750 to £1,000 easily – more with a brass section. Now we’re rarely booked as a big band, mostly it’s a four-piece. Generally, we go out for way less than 15 years ago and that doesn’t work with today's cost of living. But we do it!”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Matt Normington, lead singer for Fracture, who are acclaimed as one of the West Midlands’ best rock covers outfits. The band is going strong, he reports, but the market feels less buoyant. “It’s still worse than pre-Covid, at least in our experience. We’re getting the gigs again now, we’re pretty busy, but we’ve had to accept we need to go out at a lower fee in order to stay busy. Fees and budgets seem to be tighter than ever.
“We’re taking about 25% lower fees. Pubs are feeling the squeeze massively – they cannot afford to pay as much for bands while their utility bills are through the roof. The last six months do seem to have picked up, though.”
Upper-echelon clients are still happy to foot a growing bill
Some musicians painted a brighter picture of a sector slowly shaking off its slumber. “It was slow to start with, but we are definitely getting busier,” says Claudine Cassidy of the Cambria String Quartet, one of the most acclaimed and experienced quartets in the region. “The market is about the same and with the kind of work we do, the fees didn’t change, although maybe the wedding sector had couples say that their budget was tighter than before.”
Dan Rosen is singer and managing director for The Function Band: a hugely successful outfit that has played high-profile events including the birthday party of comedian Steve Coogan. His impression is that upper-echelon clients are still happy to foot a growing bill for a great night. “In our experience, this year has been the busiest we’ve ever had.
“The market seems better than ever at the moment, so hopefully that will continue. We feel as though the market has recovered since Covid, now we just hope that remains with the cost-of-living crisis. Costs for us have gone up – office, electricity, suppliers, sound equipment – so, unfortunately, fees have had to go up with inflation.”
Post-pandemic, but with no end to the financial crisis in sight, it will take a comprehensive MU member survey to truly take the pulse of the function band sector. But anecdotally, at least, it seems there are reasons to be optimistic for those who can ride out this latest storm.
“We definitely need to see the back of this heavy inflation and high energy bills,” says Normington. “Once confidence has returned to the hospitality industry, and the pubs are rammed full of people again, then bands will be able to charge their pre-Covid fees again. But we see it staying pretty tight for another year or two…”