Starlight Music’s wedding band performances are choreographed and rehearsed to well-oiled perfection so that the audience experiences consistent top-of-the-line quality on those magical nights. The band is on stage live, reading the audience, infusing the reception area with vibrant energy. Electric guitars are playing in symphony with trumpets and saxophones. The singers are serenading the crowd while swinging their hips in unison with the dancers. Everybody’s bopping to the groove, rocking and celebrating. So much effort has been spent on planning, practicing, and the synchronized execution. It comes to fruition with that one memorable night the bride and groom have been waiting their lives for.
People love their performances. Weddingwire.com gives Starlight Music an average review rating of 5.0 stars out of five for more than 160 reviews. For six years straight, Starlight Music has been winning Weddingwire’s Couples’ choice award. It is a premier live-performance company for the upscale market. The bands are consistently fully booked. In a normal year, Starlight Music’s five bands are flying all across the world, servicing 100 to 200 weddings.
But Covid-19 wiped the schedule.
Evan Tyler, CEO of Starlight Music, explained about how devastating the pandemic has been. The wedding season really kicks off in the last week of March, so his company was booked and ready to rock. They had gigs set up in Palm Spring, Houston, Mexico, and all across New York.
“We basically got to March 15th,” Tyler said, “and everything went down. Then it was total chaos and bedlam because nobody knew anything other than the fact that we were shutting down. So the brides are scrambling. The party planners are scrambling all the performers. Nobody knew what was going on. We were rebooking the flights and the airlines, didn’t know what they were doing and how they were handling it because you were in a nonrefundable place.”
The stay-at-home order came, and suddenly, Tyler was back at home, running a business at home with his wife also working full time from home, and their kids were also there because school was cancelled. “The transition was quite brutal, actually. I’ve got clients melting down, musicians who are expecting all of this income to come in because… there are always tight months, January, February, or March, then all the events. So the people that really count on this industry for income, we’re expecting a big rush to make up for the slow season. Then they went to zero and it was like, wow. The scramble to get all of that together was very stressful, and worrying about my own family, my work, and all of the over one hundred employees that worked for me on any given night and nobody knew. So it was really crazy.”
The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was put into effect with the CARES Act, was welcomed, but the implementation was rushed, Tyler said, and getting the money was brutal. He only got about a tenth of what he needed. However, with it, he was able to pay the rent for his Manhattan based office and his office staff. Most of his performers, though, were sub-contractors, not working full time. They were left “out to dry”.
It was really tough for the performers. Not only had they been waiting for the rush of income coming with the wedding season, but unemployment benefits were difficult to get because they were sub-contractors, and many were just lost on how to start the process. They were artists, Tyler said. They weren’t going to spend fifty hours online trying to figure out how to get unemployment. Starlight Music wasn’t able to help them financially either. The money that was received from the PPP was not even close to being able to cover his performers, and even if he did get the money, the law forbade him because the performers were registered as independent contractors.
It was very stressful for Tyler. These performers were his family. He had known many of them for 10 to 20 years. He described his dilemma: “How do I take care of these people who are my valued performers that I’ve cultivated when they’re not widgets? These are people that have been picked and hand-chosen and function in a band. You can’t just replace the keyboard player for Bon Jovi…Can you tell Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones that night we’ve got another guitar player?…These are bands that live and breathe in an organic way. So how do I support them at a time when I can’t even support myself or the company?”
Starlight Music was struggling. Tyler found it funny that he used to like hearing the phone ring, but that changed. “We all cringed every single time the phone rang because it was another postponement that was gonna cost us five, ten thousand dollars.” Tyler explained that for the first few months of the pandemic very few people were booking events and no one was performing. His business model depended on new reservations and then everyone stopped booking new events, and his events from 2020 were moved to 2021. This meant that all the income his company would have gotten from booking 2021 was lost. Starlight Music didn’t have an endless supply of music bands. They only have five. It was a total loss of revenue.
Dealing with distressed clients added its own headache. Weddings are reserved a year to a year and a half in advance because the company has to line up the venue, the band, and other vendors like the photographer to be available at exactly the same time. Often ten vendors have to be aligned perfectly. With many of the vendors already pre-booked for 2021, availability became an issue. When a client’s dream wedding was postponed, their band might not be available in a year’s time at the desired date and it might require a switch. Clients understandably complained.
Then the issue of the day came up. Saturdays are prime days for having weddings. Thursdays and Fridays attract fewer people. Thus, when clients asked to postpone their wedding to Saturdays in 2021, there were reservation fees, but if other days were chosen the clients could get discounts. Tyler said, “Nobody wanted to hear that… I was ethically torn… This client’s wedding just got blown up and they’re in complete misery and a miserable state. How do you come back and [give them] what they think is a penalty for moving to next year?”
Cancellations caused the biggest problems. For various reasons—maybe clients just didn’t want to wait to get married or there was a pregnancy—some just wanted their money back. After a year of booking, clients were demanding a full refund, but the initial payment was not a deposit. Tyler explained: “They don’t understand that the initial payment that they gave a year ago to lock in the band, let’s say, was four thousand dollars, up to eight thousand dollars, was a percentage of the contract. It’s not a deposit. You’re not holding a band. You’re booking a service. And that service is being provided from the moment we meet you. A salesman has to get paid to meet with you. The office has to get paid…Many of our performers — one of the ways we’re able to keep top level performers in our industry is that we advance them sometimes a certain amount to keep them afloat in the slower times.”
Tyler found the situation tough. Client relations are important. Normally, his company spent all its time trying to make their clients happy, but he just couldn’t. He had a business to run and responsibilities to his employees. People had to get paid, and he didn’t know how long the virus was going to be around.
Initially, the wedding band industry expected that after a few months, Covid-19 would be contained and the industry would be back up. There was optimism. However, when the virus wasn’t contained even with a shutdown, and the situation continued to spiral out of control, the industry faced another wave of postponements for the fall and winter seasons. Tyler said that recently there has been a trickle of new clients who were nervous about reserving but wanted to beat the mass postponement for the prime days a year to a year and a half from now. With the mad rush of postponements and the rare new client, some clients wanted to negotiate.
He tried to be accommodating. That a pandemic had never happened before in our lifetimes has made policies and protocols for such an event nonexistent. “Dealing with the unknown of the future with Covid has certainly sent private events into a mess,” Tyler said. “I would say that if there is one thing that is constant it is that there’s been no constant.” Tyler rewrote his postponement policies eight or nine times.
When Tyler talked about the future of his company, there was measured hope. “I am assuming that we’ll be back up and running next year because I trust in the ingenuity of the world that someone will figure out how to get us all back up and running. So if the next PPP round covers the next four to five months or six months, wonderful, that would be a godsend.”
Being able to perform at a wedding relies heavily on the country being able to control the virus, and his wedding band company has taken a huge revenue hit because the United States has not been able to contain the pandemic. When asked about whether the economy should be fully reopened, he said ‘no’. He believed that if the economy was fully reopened, it would lead to more shutdowns. His company is presently suffering. Nonetheless, Tyler felt the personal responsibility for his performers and the attendants of his events to stay safe.
“My performers are going to go out this weekend and do an event. I hope nobody gets sick. They’re all grown adults, and they’ve all made that decision on their own to go and perform and do what they do. But, gosh, I would never forgive myself… Some of my musicians are 50, 60 years old and probably are high-risk people. What if someone did die because we did an event? …So part of me is like we really need to shut down for real and just give it a pause or shut down until there’s a real vaccine.”
His wedding bands have two events this summer, which follow state guidelines. Both are in outdoor settings with limited guests. The company usually sets up around 40 events between July and August, which is a huge financial hit.
Financially, the company has been devastated. However, Tyler wished there was more talk on how the human side of the industry has been affected.
Just having rehearsals was challenging. “I don’t expect anybody to understand it, but it’s not like a band cannot work for four months and then suddenly be as tight as they were,” Tyler explained. Managing performers revolved around having Zoom conversations and talking to singers about memorizing lyrics when they hadn’t sung those songs in four months. An event looked easy, but the work getting it together now is much more complex.
For performers as well, there is so much uncertainty about the future, and it just is not possible to do a work-from-home wedding band event. Tyler talked about the emotional effects on his artists: “I haven’t heard a lot of discussion at all about the mental strain and negativity that this [pandemic] is taking on artists who have spent their lives sacrificing and honing a craft and have completely lost the ability that it took to get the endorphins, the rush, the dopamine…. We’re talking real depression, real negativity, strain on marriages, drinking, drugs…People just don’t understand what it takes to be an artist.”
Tyler expressed deep concern for his performers. He was a performer for years, and he empathizes with them. “A lot of our identities are wrapped up in these alter egos. So, if we are Superman when we’re performing, we’re all stuck being Clark Kent. We’re not allowed to put on the cape and save that person.”
“But there’s still a hole,” Tyler said, “I guarantee you, if you pulled a hundred musicians, artists in my industry, [and asked them] would you rather get full unemployment and sit at home or would you rather make the same money and go perform? They’d rather perform. That’s very rare to my industry.”
The pandemic has devastated so many lives, and in the wedding industry, brides and grooms have lost their dream weddings. The live music performance companies are hurting financially, and Starlight Music’s performers are ready to rock but are biding their time. When the pandemic finally comes to an end, perhaps when the vaccines are revealed, it will be time to celebrate. Let’s pray the wedding band companies will still be afloat so their performers can jump on the stage, grab their instruments, and bring some magic back into our lives as they lead those celebrations.