Show Date: Wednesday, June 13, 2012

As we move into the second episode of our Summer Music Series, we are joined by an industry giant, Harlan Ellis of Hank Lane. Representing a company that has been in business since 1978, Harlan will explain the nuances, benefits and process of working with an company acting as an agent to help couples and families select their musical line up from start to finish. Having bands at his fingertips that can play everything from Motown to Rock and Reggae to Top 40’s, Harlan will give us his most important tips for choosing music to ensure a smash hit event.

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EVENT MUSIC: Interview with Harlan Ellis of Hank Lane Music & Productions

Introduction

C&G:
Good afternoon, it’s Wednesday, June 13, 2012, and we are about to start the second episode in our summer music series, which we kicked off last week. We started last week with a discussion of music in general for a special event, wedding, or reception, corporate type of party and not-for-profit-events. We wanted to give you an outline of what to really think about and to look for but today, luckily, we have a real professional on with us to talk to us for the next thirty minutes about everything he knows and he’s seen in the industry and how wonderful his company can be when you’re really not sure about what you want or maybe when you want something very specific. We’re lucky enough today to have Harlan Ellis on with us from Hank Lane Music and Productions, a firm that’s been around since 1978-yep, a long time, and Harlan himself has been with the firm for twenty three years this August. So I can’t think of anyone better to really launch into a discussion of music on a much more specific scale than Harlan.

Harlan, thanks a million for joining us today.

HL: Oh it’s my pleasure Jeannie, happy to be on the show with you.

C&G:
And one of the reasons that I really wanted to have you on as our first guest to start this series is because your company offers so many options. Not just in the number of bands, but in the genres of music, the types of music, everything from classical, to rock. I mean, you name it, you guys have it. And of course a lighting company, a DJ group, to back all of that up just incase the bands and different types of music weren’t enough. So, what I’d really love to walk people through who are listening to the show today is: what type of person should call you, and what happens once they do. What’s the process?

HL:
Well, we receive phone calls from so many different sources. Not only recommendations by planners such as yourself, to caterers, to photographers, but even more so I would probably say 60 percent of the clients that come and walk through our doors have heard of us in a more direct fashion. They’ve either been a guest at an affair that we’ve performed at, or they have a close friend or relative that has used us, because word-of-mouth in any industry, in particular this industry, is really key. So anybody that’s really just starting out, and doesn’t know where they want to go in terms of the music or entertainment aspect of the event they’re involved with, particularly with regards to weddings, or as you said, even corporate events and charitable events, we’re a great place to start, and not only myself, but we have a wonderful staff of experts in the field that can kind of guide clients in the direction that they’re looking to go.

Professional set bands 

C&G:
Absolutely, and we’re going to get into how you do that more so than people can probably imagine. Not just because of your experience, but because Hank Lane has within their repertoire so much more to offer than one band could not or just one group could not. But I want people to feel really comfortable because sometimes it can be daunting calling an agency or a larger group, and I find that many of our couples sometimes think, “oh are they really going to have what we want”, and the thing I really want to impress upon listeners today is, in many cases a group like yours will have more choices, more options, than just a stand alone band or having to go through that process on your own and calling ten different bands. But one of the things I love most about your structure, and really it seems one of the big reasons that Hank Lane was started, was this idea of having people who play together all the time, who really are in a band all the time together playing for you at your wedding.

HL:
Yes, this is something that Hank Lane, who does exist—there is a Hank Lane, he is CEO of the company and was a bandleader for many years, although he’s not on the bandstand anymore. But one thing that he kind of figured out back in the late 70s was that in order to legitimately reproduce the sound of the current day, the only way to do it is to have a band that plays together all of the time, like you said. You know, in previous times and decades, the way to do it was, musicians that knew each other but really didn’t play together all of the time, and, as I like to say, the rock and roll generation came of age, music started to get a little bit more complicated. You couldn’t just fake your way through it as the older generation of musicians did, and the only way to really legitimately reproduce that sound was to have, what we call a “set band” or a group that works together all the time. So you’re right about that.

C&G:
And it really does come through, I mean, I’ve worked with at least ten, probably if not more, of your bands and one of the most interesting things that I found happen, and I’m not sure if you remember this Harlan, was there was a band that was a stand-alone band and a client of ours had hired them- this is before they had anything to do with Hank Lane- and dealing with them was so impossible. And then about a year and a half later, I noticed we were talking, and they came up and I said, “you guys are managing them now”, and you said, “yep and they are amazing!” and boy what a difference. And to me that really stood out as what you guys do best. I mean, these, this particular band that I referenced, they were great musicians but scheduling the appointments and the back and forth, it was really hard for them to do and that’s what you take away a lot of, is the pressure. You really seem to let bands just do what they do best, which is perform, get out there, really bang it out on stage, and not have to deal with a lot of the logistics that can weigh artists down.

HL:
Well that’s very true, Jeannie. You know, people think that just booking a band is meeting with a guy and sitting around and discussing what they’re going to do for you, but there’s really much more to it than that, and it really becomes a question of, as you say, relieving the band of the business side of it as much as possible. Musicians are, what I call a strange bunch, but they’re talented people who, often times, you put them in front of 200 people, at a wedding or another kind of affair, and they’re the life of the party. They have their musical crutch, they have their instrument in their hand or their microphone in their hand and they’re the life of the party. But put them in a room with a couple that’s getting married, or parents, and they can easily talk about themselves, but their people skills one-on-one isn’t the same as it is when they’re in front of their band mates and they’re leading a crowd. So that’s the thing we’re able to do. We’re able to work with clients on a one-on-one basis; we do this all of the time and yes you can meet the band and you can meet the band leader, but the early processes of sitting down and trying to talk a client through a process, for most people they’ve never been in the position of buying or booking a band before so it’s a little bit of a novelty but also a challenge, and that’s something that we try to make clients feel comfortable with and kind of guide them through the process. And not only that, we’re not just talking about ourselves. If a client doesn’t like a particular guy or bandleader and they’re sitting right in front of them, and they’re turned off of that guy right away, we’re able to say, “okay if you don’t like this aspect, let’s check out somebody else” and there’s no bruised ego involved and so we’re able to relieve the band of the marketing aspects of it, the meeting with the client, and let them concentrate on what they do best, which is performing, learning their songs, and kind of easing the burden on both them and the client and select the right group.

C&G:
Absolutely. And one of the things, as a side note, and I can speak to this because I’ve seen your bands perform at least, at hundreds of weddings, hundreds of events that we’ve done with you guys, I’ve never, never in 12 years that I’ve been working with you, seen anyone ever shown up late. And that’s a big deal, because statistically, at some point, it’s not unreasonable that if I’ve seen your group perform at least 100 times, one person might have been late once. It never happened, and as wonderful as stand-alone bands may be artistically, musically, what have you, we do have problems with that sometimes and it can be very frustrating. Not as much for me because it’s what I do for a living, but if you’re doing this once as a couple or a family and you’re planning this one event and one guy isn’t showing up, it’s a huge problem. The second thing is, all the band members, not just the bandleaders, have always been really good people. Kind, sweet, very receptive to talking about things, talking things out, that’s something that we look for because if we’re making the recommendation we want to know, especially if for some reason we’re not going to be there to manage the day, everyone’s going to work together. I think that’s really important because artists bring so much talent to the table and sometimes it may be harder for them on the day of to work with a client who might be having a panic attack or whatever it is, and I’ve never seen that. So I think that’s a great testament to the vetting process that you do in not only finding great musicians, but great people. And let’s talk about those musicians—this is one of my favorite things that you do, Harlan, and I remember the first time I saw it happen as I said, over 12 years ago. A client came in and they told you what kind of music they wanted and when I started it was sort of always like, well whatever they say they want we’ve got to give them. You were very adept at saying, “well this is what you’re telling me you want, but what I really think I’m hearing is you’re saying these songs but what you’re explaining about the party you want is this”. And it was so important because what they got out of that experience was not just a band that they ended up loving, but I think they got a more refined idea of what they wanted musically, because they had a seasoned professional saying, listen I’ve been doing this, and at that point I guess it would have been 20 years, plus your other experience, but you were able to guide them with a hand that wasn’t just “I’ve got this band for you”. So talk to us a little about….

HL:
That’s the important thing, sitting where I sit every day and I meet with couples half my age every day, and it’s about trying to be a good listener. Some people are very well-versed and have a lot of knowledge and there may be a few couples who come in with kind of a tentative list of songs that they like, but most couples I find, they just come in and I’ll say to them, “well what’s your vision, tell me about your crowd, tell me what kind of dance music you like”, and often times I’m met with a blank stare. So when you do meet with someone, whoever you’re going to meet with, whether it’s a company that represents many bands like Hank Lane Music or an individual band or someone that has a couple of bands, you want to at least be prepared at your meeting to get some idea of what you want to do and not just say “well, you know, we have a great dancing crowd and we want to have a good time” because everybody wants that, that’s the goal, but there are many ways to go about it. And particularly with this generation today, for every 26 to 36 year-old couple that I meet with, their likes and dislikes as far as music is concerned is all over the map. Not every one likes top 40 music of the current day. Some people don’t want that. Some people, they like their rock, they like their 80s. What about the parents—some parents like Motown, or some couples say “Motown, been there, done that, I’ve heard it a million times that’s not for me” or “I like my 80s rock” or “I like my Michael Jackson and the Madonna 80s” or “I’m a child of the 90s, is there really any good music from the 90s that we can dance to” and people chuckle about it but yes there are things. So we’re really going to look to guide people and extrapolate from them what is really best in terms of the party environment. Particularly a lot of guys- the grooms in particular at weddings- there’s a lot of grooms that say “well I’m not really much of a dancer” and the brides are the dancers, and they don’t want to feel that they’re selling out, so to speak, by having this pop dance music that they’re not into, so how can we incorporate what they really like, if alternative rock, or classic rock, or other things that they might like, you know, that isn’t necessarily great dance music, how can we incorporate that into the evening, to make them feel that their wishes are being included as well. So we have to kind of be good listeners, first and foremost, to try to understand what this couple is all about, what makes them tick, and try to pull out, if we can, what they like as far as dance music is concerned. Because sometimes just going through your iPod and flipping through and saying “I like this, I like this” doesn’t necessarily make for a great party, and so those are things we’re going to listen to, and then as we go through the vetting process and the suggestion process we may just get them to react to different things and say “wow I never thought of that, what a great idea that is”.

Hank Lane’s repertoire

C&G:
And one of the great things that I think couples can do to prepare for meeting with you and, in general, is on your website, hanklane.com. You guys have a section called “musical repertoire” and on there you can go through and really pick out everything from processional, recessional, standard swings, and go down the list from the 90s rock to the 80s, 50s, classic disco, top 40, and on and on. So, I think that brings us to a great point. Clearly you have breadth of music, that’s not an issue with a group that’s been as successful and been around as long. How many bands do you have? And then I am going to ask you the age-old question because I have a very interesting philosophy on this, but we get this all the time: band or DJ? We’ll get to that sort of towards the end, but walk us through what really Hank Lane has in terms of numbers of bands, and how people can begin to understand which one is right for them.

HL:
Right. Well, there’s about, you know, 15 different bands at Hank Lane but that really doesn’t complete the picture because we also have a classical department for string players for folks that need an on-site wedding ceremony or their church allows outside musicians. So we have a classical department with all kinds of string ensembles that can play classical music or even contemporary music done with strings, which is a great thing we’re doing these days. We have jazz groups that are, you know, for things other than just your cocktail hour, but there are some clients, particularly corporate clients, that might say “we’re having a cocktail party we need a jazz group”. And the other thing that we take a lot of pride in is having a really good number of musicians and singers from different ethnic cultures. And New York being the great melting pot that it is, we meet with couples every day and it’s very diverse. Whether it’s from Indian and Hindu weddings, whether it’s Russian, whether it’s Hebrew, French, Italian, Latin, and what kind of Latin music, et cetera, et cetera. So we have a great backdrop of music, musicians and singers in that regard as well. So there’s 15 main bands then there’s those other aspects of it that makes us what we call a full service company. We don’t really like to shy away from any challenges and that’s a big part of who we are and why working with an agency has huge advantages in that aspect over a guy that just works out of his house.

C&G:
Absolutely. And one of the other things that I should point out is that you really are well-versed in a number of types of events, from weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs to the corporate, to the social, to the charity, and then of course, I don’t know if I’m allowed to share this but I’m going to Harlan, you obviously had a hand in the Tony Award celebration party after the fact on Sunday night.

HL:
Very excited about that, that was the second year in a row we’ve done that. That’s the big gala that’s after the TV show, about 1700 people were bused over from the Beacon Theater to the Plaza Hotel, and we had them dancing till 2:00 in the morning on a Monday night, which is quite a remarkable thing in and of itself. Last night actually we did an event honoring Tom Cruise at the Waldorf and our band backed up people like Robin Thicke and cast members from Rock of Ages and stuff like that so the type of event we do certainly extends far beyond doing weddings but weddings is obviously the thing that put us on the map and the thing that we do every week.

Band or DJ?

C&G:
Absolutely, and I can attest to the most. Now going back to this idea of the DJs, you have sort of a subset, or an arm of the company called More than Music, through which you represent DJs. So I want to talk about that and I also want to hear what happens when you get the couple who comes in there and looks at you and says, “we don’t know if we want a band or a DJ.” What do you say?

HL:
Well we get that fairly often. There are two primary reasons couples aren’t sure if they want a band or a DJ. The first and foremost in their minds is cost. A DJ will always be less expensive than a band, but the other reason sometimes where cost is not the prime motivating factor is that from wherever this couple is from they haven’t necessarily seen a really really good band; perhaps in their circle of friends or where they grew up there really wasn’t a great pool of live musicians and bands in their area and so perhaps they just haven’t really seen a top level New York type of band and so they’re only accustomed to DJs. And the third aspect I should say is that there are some couples that want a lot of top 40 music and they can only conceive of the original recording and they don’t like the idea of a band doing music of the current day, and that’s just something that they either have to get or not get or understand that, yes we recognize that Lady Gaga will not be at their wedding so we have a recording of it, but here’s a group of talented people that are going to give you a great live representation of that and you can either accept that or not. So I have to dig in a little bit and find out what is the motivation—is it strictly cost? Is it the fact they’ve never heard a great band? And lots of times when we start to show them what a really good band sounds like, I see the defenses drop down and they say “wow, that’s better than I ever thought it was going to be”, or that third thing where they just don’t really want a cover band doing music of the current day. They don’t seem to mind it if they’re doing Motown, or the Beatles or the Stones, but if it’s a current song that seems to bother them. So we try to determine what the thing is that’s driving them and then kind of approach it that way.

C&G:
And one of the things I love most about your bands is that when you’ve actually said, “this is a group that can do top 40”, they really can. Like it’s not sort of a throw-in at the last second. We were with Karen Lloyd, one of your bands about a month ago, and she was doing a lot of stuff that had just come out and she was doing it really well. And, I saw from your website, again that’s hanklane.com for anyone who wants to check that out, she also happens to be one of the back up singers for the hit Smash.

HL:
That’s right. Just to give you the idea of the level of musicianship that we have, and of course we’re very fortunate in New York in that regard. Karen was on Smash, she was on tour with Enrique Iglesias, she was on tour with Billy Joel and Elton John, on one of those tours they did together, as a backup singer. This is the level of performers that we have. You know, we’ve met others that have been on Broadway in Movin’ Out, others that have sung at celebrity weddings and things like that, so you know it’s a talented group of people that we have and we’re really fortunate about that. Even at the Tony’s the other night, the assignment was to play a lot of swing tunes and what we call jazz standards or great American songbook like Sinatra and things like that for the first hour, hour and a half, and then we eased into it and got into our 80s and our Lionel Richies and things like that, and for the last 45 minutes to an hour it was stuff that’s on the radio right now, “We Are Young” by Fun. and things like that, the latest Rihanna tunes. That’s what we do and we take a lot of pride in being up to date and then we have some bands that are more classic in style that maybe aren’t as up to date as a couple needs and that’s part of recommending a particular band to a client who says “well we’re more rock and roll, we don’t care about the top 40 stuff” and so maybe that band, they play current music, but maybe it’s not the song that came out 2 weeks ago so that’s something that we look at also.

Pricing

C&G:
And one of the things that I want to do as we get towards the end of the show is really give people an idea of a range of pricing, which I know is really hard for you to do, but one of the big things that I want, again, listeners to understand is don’t be afraid to call just because you think “wow their bands are doing P. Diddy’s birthday parties.” I mean, you do have a huge range, we were talking about Karen Lloyd and, you know, we happen to have a wedding this weekend where we have Harris playing and that’s a totally different scope, but there’s again not just breadth in music but breadth in price, so if you can guide our listeners a little bit without being too specific and no one’s going to hold you to it, about what might you be able to do pricing-wise on the lower end. And also what happens when we get a lot of people who come in and say “well I need to have a 15-piece band”, though we may argue with them about whether or not that’s true, but also on the DJ side—where you start on the pricing and where you go up from there.

HL:
Well the key thing is it a Saturday night or not a Saturday night and then with the exception of the two Sundays of Memorial Day and Labor Day, which in our industry are treated as a Saturday. So certainly if you’re concerned about budget, for a Saturday night in September, October, or May or June, there isn’t going to be a lot of flexibility with bands or DJs anywhere whereas you do have choices for a Friday night, or even a Sunday, that you can have a little bit of flexibility. So on a Saturday night, the bands are going to start at around $1000 per musician for 4 hours, and all of our bands play continuous live music, we don’t take breaks so there’s always live music being played, even during dinnertime, and it’s going to go up from there. Anywhere from $1000, $1200, $1300, $1400 on the high end, and on super high end you’re going to find bands like Harris that are going to be considerably more than that, but the vast majority are going to be in that $1000, $1200, $1300 per musician for 4 hours on a Saturday night. On a Sunday and a non-Saturday night, it’s considerable savings. So that’s something that you have to determine. Come in with a rough idea on your budget, keeping in mind whether you do need ceremony music or not, or if you’re getting married in a church where you don’t need ceremony music and you basically just need the music for your cocktail hour and the next 4 hours. A DJ on a Saturday, is probably going to start, around $2500 for the night to maybe $3500 on average and then DJs also can be useful for a so-called after-party, which is another topic, and something like that on a Saturday might run about $2000 or something like that.

C&G:
And of course, the other great thing about working with a company like yours is that we’ll have a lot of people who can’t necessarily answer that question again, do I have a DJ or a band, so they’ll want to combine them. Although we are always quick to point out that there is no band or DJ that will contract for half the time that they normally would, generally, so be prepared for that. But overall that’s the great thing where you’ll be able to put together a DJ or a band that may have already worked together, knows how to work together, is dealing with the same equipment, so you’re not having two different groups working off of two different sound systems, et cetera, and that’s a huge bonus. Now, I think there’s only one way to end a show like this, and we’re going to have to ask you about what you guys refer to on your website as “Headline Acts” because we’ve been seeing a huge uptick in couples, more than corporate events obviously, wanting to get back into that “hey we need a headline act” or “I really want our first song sung by the person who sung it originally.” Obviously you have a division that deals with that so if couples want to intersperse something that’s a little more dramatic, like a celebrity or a well-known singer, that’s something you also have access to depending on who it might be.

HL:
Yes, that was my original background, I was a talent agent in my early days, and so I have extensive background in doing things like that, and you just have to establish a realistic budget; someone real current is going to be a ridiculous amount of money and probably won’t want to perform at a wedding. Somebody who hasn’t had a hit in a while is likely to be a lot more realistic in their pricing. That’s something that’s impossible to give a range for like that, so it’s something that we will have to discuss on an individual basis.

Conclusion

C&G:
So basically everything from cellists to celebrities you guys can do. I cannot thank you enough, Harlan, for coming in and keeping us all better informed.

HL: My pleasure, Jeannie.

C&G:
Everybody—thanks again. We’ll be continuing our summer music series next week at noon on Wednesday, as usual. Until then, thanks for joining us for the black and white of wedding planning and we hope you all have a great week.

Introduction

Categories: Wedding Music

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