I spoke with a client just last week who wanted to book me for a three hour private party. He had already seen my video on YouTube and liked what I did. This was his wife’s 50th birthday party and he wanted it to be memorable.  He then said, “ your price quote is a lot higher than I expected to pay.” Notice he didn’t say it was “too high.” I asked him what he hoped to spend. He had already spoken to a musician who would play guitar and sing at his pool party for $175. He then said, “I listened to a couple recordings by this guy and he wasn’t very good.  I’ve never booked a musician to perform for a party before. I guess I didn’t realize what it cost.”

This gave me an opportunity to educate this gentleman on what good live entertainment is. I pointed out that a professional DJ won’t work for less than $500 and it could cost two to four times that for a big event. I ended up booking the gig for $250 for two hours, on a day I already had a wedding earlier in the day. They loved what I did so well I played an extra hour for which they gladly paid and even tipped me! I am not writing this to brag on myself! I point this out to let you know that if you are good and don’t oversell yourself, you can make excellent money performing as a solo entertainer.

What does it cost to hire live entertainment? You probably know what is costs someone to hire you. But what about a bigger group?A DJ? A regionally successful group with a few independent recordings? A national act with a major label deal, past or present? Why should you care?

All good questions. Since most of you reading this are not part of a group with a recording deal, let’s focus on smaller fish and a smaller pond. As I pointed out at the start of this monthly column, solo performers can usually make good money if they have a quality act and position themselves to fill a void in their market.

Let’s start with the end user- the talent buyer. Most solo or duo acts are booking small clubs, restaurants, hotel and casino lounges, weddings, private parties and the like. If you are trying to perform at a club or restaurant, the talent buyer is generally the manager or owner of the establishment. Their job is to hire the best acts for the least money possible. If they like live entertainment, they may spend a bit more for good acts than mediocre or bad ones. More is relative, however. Let’s say a local bar pays $20 per hour on a four hour gig for a solo guitarist, with or without vocals. A better guitarist with a following, a CD or two, or a guitarist that sings well might get $25 or even $30 an hour at our hypothetical “local bar.” A great one won’t be paid $50 or 60, since our manager/owner is comfortable with $20/hour, more or less. If you try and get $50-60 off the bat for your new act, you’ll face an uphill battle. You can try to educate our “hirer” by pointing out how much better the new act is, but all our manager/owner hears is the cost. Better to either agree to perform for the lower wage or look elsewhere to work. The same goes for hotels and casinos. People hiring acts for these establishments know what the going rate is and aren’t likely to bend much, unless they started out hiring bad musicians and now have to pay more to get better performers. In that case, they might agree to a slightly high wage to keep from losing customers or getting fired themselves.

Private parties, weddings and similar events are much better. The average person has no idea what live entertainment costs for a private function. Traditionally, musicians and DJ’s charge more for a private performance since it’s a one time only gig with little chance of repeat business- at least up front.

Let’s take the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex for example. Most good DJ’s here charge at least $500 for a four hour gig. Some cost $1000-1500 or more, depending on how much production they bring. A top flight DJ may bring a full PA with subs, dance floor, lights, mirror ball and over 1,000 songs on a computer for that type of money. A solo performer here may charge $200-400 for the same four hour show. Is this fair? Not necessarily, but if a solo performer treats his presentation like a professional, he might get $500 or more for the same four hour event. Much of this depends on the type of event, how many people are attending, where the venue is located, etc.

It’s important that you look, sound and act the part of a real pro if you want to make professional wages. “Life will pay exactly what you ask for, but not a penny more.” Weddings are potentially even more lucrative gigs, but you have to be able to deliver when it counts. Because of my formal training at GIT, I play classical guitar as well as jazz, pop, country and rock material. This works great because many brides want to walk down the aisle to the sound of classical guitar. If you have a local teacher who can help you learn some classical repertoire, this is a lucrative part of guitar gigs. In fact, I have dubbed 2015 the year of “nylon string guitar” for my act. I am doing more weddings than ever and in fact, just booked a wedding while writing this column! I have done many weddings themselves and then the reception afterwards. Since I can do the Romance/Canon in D/Wedding March/etc on nylon string at the start and then play more dance oriented material later, I can save a client lots of money on their wedding and still provide them top quality live entertainment without blowing their budget.

What about you and your act? What can you do that sets you apart from your competitors? Can you perform more than one style? Can you play more than one instrument? Can you play and sing? At the same time? (I’m not kidding.) Can you improve your show? Can you do something different in terms of your sound? How about your onstage communication? These are hard questions to ask yourself but you need to do so if you want improvement.

People are still hiring live entertainment in 2015 but you need to be smart in order to be successful. My buddy Robby Le Blanc shared this story on Facebook (Facebook.com/robbyleblanc) about a secret he learned from his mentor Jim Hodge. “If you want to impress people, you gotta do something that will impress them. If you want to be memorable, you gotta look memorable.” Robbie wears his trademark blue suit as a result of this advice and he plays some incredible, well paying gigs because he looks like he deserves to be there. This is a photo he did at a recent gig at the bottom of the Grand Canyon! The client paid him well and flew him into the canyon via helicopter for the event.

All musicians understand it requires more talent to play an instrument and/or sing that it does to DJ. But in order to earn what a DJ earns or even more, you need to look and sound excellent with a polished presentation. Devote some time and effort to looking and sounding your best and you’ll find your bottom line improves, too.


Riley Wilson does One Man Band gigs all over Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in addition to teaching guitar, bass and recording voiceovers. His webpages www.wrileywilson.com and www.guitarmadesimpler.com tell the full story.