Should I Cancel A Gig for a Better Opportunity?

Bassist in the spotlight

Q: Have you ever been put into a situation where you have booked yourself for a gig in one place (even months in advance) but had a even greater opportunity come calling after? How have you handled bowing out of the prior engagement for a greater one?

A: This is a tough but all-too-common quandary for the freelance musician.

There are a number of things to consider when doing your math (and, as usual, everybody’s math will be a little different depending on their priorities and sense of obligation).

The quick answer is this: If you want to maintain a perception of 100% reliability and dependability, don’t cancel gigs because a better one pops up unless it is vastly better. Example: yes, you can find a sub for the trio gig at the coffee shop if a pop star offers you $3k/week to hit the road. They will understand.

I’ve permanently lost the opportunity to play with some musicians I really dig playing with because I took their gigs for granted and treated them as the gigs I would do unless something better came along. I learned the hard way that you need to treat every person and every opportunity with respect. Yes, I will still occasionally sub out a $100 gig if I get a $500 gig, but only if I can find a sub that the band leader feels comfortable with and it’s not an issue. I’ll usually write or call the band leader and explain that an opportunity came up and ask how they would feel if I found a quality sub for the gig (making it clear that I would turn down the opportunity if it caused them stress or grief). Usually, they understand.

Take it Upon Yourself to Find a Good Sub:

If you just have to take the other gig, the first step is taking it upon yourself to find a replacement. I will often inquire with the band leader or MD (musical director) to see if they have any “plan B” bassists they prefer. I always try to find the absolute best sub I can find for the gig (sometimes throwing a little extra dough their way if I’m making significantly more and the gig they need to cover doesn’t pay that well and/or requires a lot of shed time).

Some musicians feel as though they take a chance if they hire a sub who could possibly do as well or better than they would have done – as if their gig may be threatened. I don’t play it that way at all. I feel like my sub will be representing me and my decision making process to the band. I want them to shine and shine brightly. This also makes it easier the next time I ask to sub it out. I prefer to develop a reputation as one who will make the gig happen without stress or drama (even if I’m not there for it!)

Think Long-Term:

Are you damaging a long term, fruitful musical relationship for a one-off gig for an extra hundred bucks? It might not be worth it in the long run. One thing band leaders detest is unreliability. It’s hard enough making everything happen without musicians bailing on you when you thought that job was already covered and in the “taken care of” category. It doesn’t take too many times for you to bail on a gig before that band leader would rather hire someone who might be less capable but is significantly more reliable. Reputation for that kind of thing also tends to make the rounds around town as well, tarnishing your reputation far and wide (potentially).

Once in a while is understandable. Life happens, you’re broke and get offered the chance to make $750 playing for a wedding down the street when you were originally only making $75 playing for three hours in a bar an hour-long drive away. Most band people will understand that. However, there is always a handfull of players in any given town who will:

  1. Take every gig that comes their way (even if they conflict)
  2. Sub out the lower paying gigs that conflict
  3. Develop a reputation as completely unreliable
  4. Often wind up not getting any quality gigs aside from the up-and-comers who have yet to learn their lesson

This category of player often winds up under-employed, struggling and bitter… typically never understanding why the scene “sucks” so much, not taking responsibility for their own actions and not realizing that there are a lot of us who continue to work plenty specifically because we hold ourselves to a standard of mutual respect.

Treat band leaders the way you would want to be treated if you were in their place and you should be cool. Most of us don’t realize how hard being a band leader is until we try it for ourselves. They have to:

  1. Develop material
  2. Find the right musicians
  3. Email clubs all over the region trying to get gigs
  4. Record demos or albums on their own dime to try and get better gigs
  5. Spend countless hours on the phone or emailing to get everything set
  6. Then to deal with musicians who they have confirmed a month ago, only to call 2 days before the gig saying that they can’t make it after all

It’s enough to drive a band leader insane.

Of course, I’m painting with broad strokes here. There are an infinite number of situations and an infinite number of ways to deal with them. I suggest you do the math and use your best judgement.

  1. How much does the booked gig pay?
  2. How much does the new gig pay?
  3. Will either of them offer opportunities for future gigs?
  4. How does the travel compare between the two gigs (especially when taken into consideration along with the difference in pay scale)
  5. Is there a sub available who could nail the subbed gig?
  6. How much would you care if you did it to you (with regard to this specific situation of yours)

I always joke that, if you flip a coin, you will know which side you hope to land on before the coin hits the ground (it’s often true). Use your best judgement, be respectful and try and cover your bases.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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