It happens enough, it’s certainly a pain in the ass, and most importantly, what do you do about it? My first experience running up against the beast came in 1975 on a solo gig in Brady Lake, Ohio. The lake was haunted, by the way, reputedly inhabited by catfish as big as a man. “Catfish that big would be ugly as a bag of assh*les,” the locals were frequent to point out.
I’d been hired to play Sunday nights at a local bar, and after the first night I remember how proud I was of the $20 I’d made. I think I brought it to bed with me that night. The next Sunday, there’s someone else setting up when I arrive. I ask the owner “What gives?” and he informs me I’ll be trading sets with another player. My pay has been cut in half. I don’t remember if I quit or was fired, but that was my last night there.
If I had to guess, I’d say double bookings have maybe happened 10 times over my 40 years performing … or could it be more like 20 times?
For most casuals you don’t sign anything, it’s all done on a handshake. The big question would be, “How can I prevent this from happening, and what can I do about it if it does?”
The answer to the first part is simple: You have to see it coming. Actually, not so simple if you don’t know the venue or the operator that well. Reputation means everything. Talk to other players, and compare notes. These things don’t just happen once. Some operators are good at their word; some aren’t. You’ve got to get a feel for it.
Actually, my policy is “Always expect the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed.” There are some venues I won’t touch because I flat-out can’t trust them. Sure, some make mistakes, don’t write things down when you’ve booked the gig, and now I always book gigs in person, so we can both write the date(s) physically into our calendars then and there. Or we do it by email, in which case I ask for a confirmation email.
Still, these systems aren’t failsafe. My most recent brush was just a couple weeks ago – yes, after all these years. We showed up and somebody else was scheduled for the night. The operator gave me a blank look when I told him we’d agreed on the date a month and a half ago. I got home and sent him back his own email confirming the gig.
So what do you do when that happens? Rule of thumb is whoever shows up first gets the gig. Although if someone has traveled a good distance, the rule may not apply. And of course, the operator always has the last say in the matter – it’s his place. And they are rarely, if ever, wrong, although this one did apologize after I sent the aforementioned email. Then he got on my case for sending too many emails, that I had confused him.
See why I call it a monster?
You’re simply going to have to work with people you trust, develop a relationship, and hope they think enough of you to not screw you over intentionally. The guy I’m describing I trust, we’ve worked together forever, I love the venue, and I certainly realize that everyone makes mistakes. I just want to minimize the damage, which is about the best you can do. You can ask for an extra gig to make up for what you missed. Truly, the best remedy is to get a feel for each individual operator and keep on your toes.
Like the reporter warns to the rest of the world at the end of the original “The Thing” (with “Gunsmoke” James Arness as the monster): “Watch the skies, watch the skies!”