In the last article, the difference between a local musician and a touring musician was established. In this post, I’d like to discuss the different responsibilities side musicians (or a “sideman”) have versus the role of a bandleader. Although a side musician and a bandleader have specific duties as part of any group, each play individually important roles in the make-up of an ensemble. In brief, however, a bandleader is in charge of the group in its entirety as well as the business side of music whereas a side musician is mostly responsible for him or herself in relation to the group.


The bandleader often feels the most pressure out of any member of the group because they have the most responsibility and because the audience’s response relies not only on their own personal performance but that of each of the members of the band.

A bandleader is usually (but not always) the one whose name appears in the band name (i.e. The Shannon Kennedy Quintet, or Night_Vision featuring Shannon Kennedy). They are the one who takes the initiative to book the gig and selects the members of the group. He or she also has the most business responsibilities which can include making the calls to make sure everyone is going to be there, dealing with the money, figuring out the gear that needs to be there and who is going to bring it, getting the music together for everyone, negotiating food, space, etc. for the band, CD sales, and marketing the group to book more or other gigs, etc. Some of these responsibilities may be handled by the band’s management, if there is some, but if not, it is the bandleader who takes care of each of the above tasks.

The bandleader also has the greatest music responsibility because they have to lead the band and direct each tune, decide which songs to play for each performance in advance, who solos when, how long they solo, who sings or plays the melody, if guest performers are allowed, etc. Some of the specifics of the bandleader’s job can be confusing and/or overwhelming and so here are some of the more important and not so obvious things that are expected of a bandleader.

On the business side, money is usually one of the most awkward aspects. As a bandleader, it is your job to negotiate money with the person who hired you and your group. Never sell yourself short. Make sure you have enough money to be able to do what they ask and that it’s worth the amount of preparation and performance time you’re putting in (a gig isn’t just the time you start playing until the time you end, there is preparation before and packing up after). Sometimes venues will request a certain number of musicians and will pay you accordingly. If they did not tell you how many musicians, make sure you hire a number that makes sense for the size of the venue/type of music you do and that you can pay them fairly.

As a bandleader, it is also your responsibility to bring in an audience (this is also the venue’s responsibility). You have to market the gig and make sure people know that it is happening.

In regards to the music itself, one of the not-so-obvious responsibilities of the bandleader, is that they are required to prepare the music and charts for the musicians in advance. Even if it is not mandatory, it is important to bring charts for everyone just in case. It is also your job to create a set list so that when the other musicians ask “what’s next?” you will know. You really have to be prepared for anything and everything.

Another bandleader responsibility is to deliver all the details of a gig to the rest of the group, a small detail that many bandleaders overlook (or just forget to do). You need to make sure that everyone knows when the gig starts, when it ends, exactly where it is, who else will be there, how much it pays, what they need to bring, what they need to wear, etc. Any miscommunication will be the bandleader’s fault, and even if someone else screwed up, it reflects upon on the bandleader. Any mistake the band makes is a responsibility that the bandleader must take.

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Side Musicians

The side musician can have a much easier time than the leader, but that is not reason for them not to approach their role responsibly and well-prepared. The side musician is pretty much only responsible for themselves, and if they can’t do that, then they are not ready to be a working musician. If you show up to a gig unprepared as a side musician, you will not be hired by that bandleader again in the future.

The only business a side musician really has to deal with is figuring out money and such with the bandleader or any self-marketing they wish to do at the gig (i.e. networking, CDs, handing out business cards, etc.). This, however, has its own etiquette – be sure to check with bandleader regarding self-promotion because it may be considered rude to promote yourself at another musician’s gig.

As far as music, a side musician needs to bring any music they are told to bring in addition to their fakebook/realbook. A side musician should be able to do everything that they tell the bandleader they can do and follow the directions dictated to them by the bandleader.

In essence, the bandleader leads the ensemble and the side musician is there to be a part of the group and to make the bandleader look good (by making the bandleader look good, the side musician looks good). Becoming one or the other is primarily by opportunity. I recommend trying both to find which best fits your personality and interests – a leader or follower. However, it is more likely you will find yourself doing gigs both as a side musician and as a bandleader.

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.