Is it right to charge to learn a new song?

Here’s one that I’m going to put out to the function band community. Is it right to charge for learning a new song for, say a wedding? A song that you’re very unlikely to play again and is not in keeping with the rest of your set.
This issue is salient for the hirer also.
The reason I pose this question is simple. I am a little annoyed as I think we’ve just lost a gig because of this very issue. I will not name names here, but the gig was through our regular agents Function Junction. Now, let me make it clear that we are absolutely not knocking our agents here, We like FJ very much as they have provided us with a good lot of gigs through the years.
We had been booked for a function in April when Paul at FJ asked me if I wouldn’t mind talking direct to the client over a few details. This was absolutely fine. I spoke direct to the hirer and it turned out that she wanted us to play a medley of sixties songs (mainly for her parents). This was all fine as we have about a good few sixties songs we can play, at least half an hour – early Rolling Stones, early Beatles, Smokey Robinson, Dusty Springfield, Kinks etc. The phone call was going well until the curve ball came. Can you do a Blondie song for our second dance?
Well, I replied. “We don’t actually do any Blondie in our set, but we are prepared to learn this song for you as a one-off request. We do charge £150 for this service though as it is likely that we will never use this song again in our set”. The phone went dead for a while, then the hirer came back on a little shocked I think. I added further, “…we are also happy to play any songs you want over the DJ service for free, that would give you a second option”. Fine I thought, all bases covered, she left the phone call saying she would let me know but was pleased that we could do most of her sixties requests.
A few days later, we learn (through the agent) that the hirer no longer requires our services for her wedding.
Now, as a matter of course function bands get involved in this sort of thing – it goes with the territory. Some bands are happy to learn and play songs for free, i.e. to learn parts, discuss instrumentation, meet-up, rehearse and then play. Some particular function bands are even happy to just ‘busk it’. Others, religiously stick to their set list and refuse to take requests.
The Love Junkies don’t really fall into any of these camps and have always looked at this issue from the point of view, that we are prepared to take requests, but if the songs are not in our set and are never likely to be used in our set again, then we will charge a fee to learn them. Are we mercenaries? Are we despoiling the hard fought reputation of our trade?
No, we don’t think so.
In fact, we think it’s fair that we should get some recompense for learning a new song. We don’t like to appear all grumpy though, so let us explain why.
If you look at what goes into learning a new song, a fee to learn of £150 is actually not bad value. If you realise it takes each member a minimum of 2 hours to learn their part, get the form down, practice at home, write the dots, program the patches, etc; and then you factor in travelling to rehearsal, spending an hour or so going over the song; then extras like the petrol to get to the rehearsal, wear and tear and the hiring of the rehearsal studio. We reckon for five musicians you are looking at a minimum of 3-4 hours playing time each (20 hrs), plus venue hire and travelling time (5 hrs). You total this up and £150 is not now so much. In fact after reharsal space hire (around £50) we are lucky to get the minimum wage for our song learning efforts.
So, are we just a bunch of curmudgeons who are out to ruin everyone’s fun? We’d like to hear what you think. If you are hiring a band for your event, do you expect them to play any request you throw at them? If you are in a function band, we’d love to hear what your policy is (and decorum please – don’t use this as a forum to drum up business for yourselves 😉

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