Regina Ferguson studied the handwritten lyrics in her notebook as she worked out the chords on the piano last week as she prepared a few new songs for an EP she hopes to start recording next month.
Between her part-time job at a juice shop and playing weddings and special events, it’s pretty rare that the singer-songwriter finds the time to sit down and work on some of her own music. But she doesn’t seem to mind. Without the special events to play around Charleston, she probably wouldn’t be able to afford studio time in the first place.
“I play guitar and sing, and I play out solo, and I do the jazz thing, but really, I make the most money doing weddings and events,” she said. “I’ll pay my rent in one gig and that’s ... also why I live here. Because it’s affordable and I can still make money by playing music.”
As the busy spring wedding season approaches, it’s well known in Charleston that church bells often signal a payday for a whole industry of private event planners, caterers, venues and, yes, performers.
But wedding bands in town aren’t the cheesy, down-on-their-luck sort that you might have seen portrayed in comedies such as Adam Sandler’s “The Wedding Singer.” In fact, as a premier destination for weddings and private events, Charleston offers a unique opportunity for musicians to not just make ends meet but thrive as members of well-paid event bands.
As a result, the city has become home to many musicians like Ferguson who came here for real work and stayed to invest in their own original music. For other professionals, playing wedding gigs is a flexible, yet reliable way to supplement their income as they navigate the often unpredictable nature of the music business.
Ferguson is a Philadelphia native who ended up in Charleston after graduating from the University of South Carolina in 2012 with a fine arts degree.
“I wanted to really play my original music as a singer-songwriter, but when I got here, I realized that everyone just plays with everyone to make money,” she said.
She met Ben Fagan, who plays private events as well as big productions such as the First Flush music festival with his backing band, the Holy City Hooligans. He hired her to sing back-up vocals, which she’s been doing for more than a year now.
But she also has the freedom to play with other event bands and club gigs with pieced-together groups.
“So, that’s the cool thing about here, you have all these event bands but you can really pull any musician because we all know the same songs. It’s like, you can pull any guitar player, any drummer,” she said.
While many event bands have set members, it’s this level of fluidity that allows some professional musicians to get in on the wedding gigs without having to commit to the industry full-time.
One company with an affiliate in Charleston, Emerald Empire Band, is a group that pools members of the local music community and hires them on an individual basis to play in groups at local events and weddings.
“There are many advantages to not being a fixed band size/roster every week but the most important advantage is being able to customize the band size and personnel for each event,” said Richard Sherrington, a manager of Emerald Empire Band.
Charlton Singleton, a local trumpeter who leads the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, is often pulled in for various cover band shows and special events.
He said he enjoys playing them, even if his real passion is jazz music.
“For me personally, it’s a variety,” he said. “It’s great musicians, good friends, good music and so, I always take a gig like that. That’s a no-brainer because I have fun doing it.”
Ferguson said she likes that the events keep her singing on a regular basis.
“I try to make sure I focus on (my music) on my days off. But the cool thing about doing special events and stuff is that you keep up your stamina. ... It’s really just like practice,” she said.
Musicians in event bands are often some of the most talented players in town because events offer the biggest pay day, Singleton said.
“If you’re a good performer, and you are dedicated to your craft, you can really make a nice living here in Charleston,” he said.
Brian Mahanes, the owner of OtherBrother Entertainment, said the bands on his roster of event performers can earn up to $15,000 per wedding, depending on their size and popularity. But even small bands and DJs can earn a pretty penny, too, because live entertainment is critical to most receptions. Mahanes said most of his wedding clients know “they need to spend money on the music aspect.”
Quiana Parler, a local singer who is perhaps best known locally for her stint on the second season of “American Idol,” is now the lead singer of Quiana Parler & Friends Band, a sought-after events band in Charleston.
She toured the country with Kelly Clarkson as a back-up singer for 10 years, but decided to come back to Charleston about three years ago to be with family.
“Traveling the world with a 2-year-old wasn’t easy,” she said. “When I decided to come back and come off the road, I started doing weddings.”
During the busy season, her band typically plays two or three events in a week.
“I think people underestimate how large the wedding market is here,” she said. “We do celebrity weddings, which we can’t really discuss. ... It’s just unbelievable.”
Candice Hilse, a local event planner and owner of YOJ Events, agreed. She said about 85 percent of her events are destination weddings, and most out-of-town couples hire event bands from within the Charleston market. That’s why there are so many opportunities, she said.
Even so, Parler said her band’s schedule still gives the members opportunities to pursue other projects.
Her bassist Lavonta Green, for instance, often flies out of Charleston for days at a time to go record or tour with Rihanna or ASAP Rocky, two hip-hop stars. Other members stay busy, too: Demetrius Doctor is a well-known jazz pianist; Stephen Washington, the keys player, records frequently with gospel star Travis Green.
“Everybody goes off on the road and then comes back home to work,” Parler said, adding that she plans to go on tour again sometime soon, but she couldn’t discuss the details. “The good thing about what I do, I can control my schedule.”
Managing the wedding band remains her top priority, regardless of the big-name acts she’s hired to played with.
“I love what I do and it’s such a blessing,” she said. “There will always be a bride. That’s the way I look at this business. We are the No. 1 destination in the U.S., so there will never be a shortage of weddings in Charleston.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.