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Advice > Industry Interviews > Q & A With Freelance Musician Kenwood Dennard

Q & A With Freelance Musician Kenwood Dennard




Copyright Bobby Borg 2003, 2008


Kenwood Dennard is a freelance drummer in New York City who has worked with such notable artists as Sting, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Maceo Parker, Wayne Shorter, Vanessa Williams, Jaco Pastorius, the Manhattan Transfer, Pat Martino, Brand X, John McLaughlin, the Gil Evans Orchestra, and Miles Davis. In addition, Mr. Dennard is employed as a professor of music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusettes.



Q: Employees are generally people working with one employer on a long-term basis, while independent contractors are people working with a variety of employers on a shorter-term basis. There are also business differences between the two, such as taxes and state unemployment benefits. Which professional status do you prefer: that of employee or that of independent contractor, and why?


K.D: Each situation has [its] strong points. Being an employee means steady money. I worked for three years with the group the Manhattan Transfer, and even when we weren’t on the road, we were paid a retainer. The employee-oriented situations in my career were less of a hassle because taxes were taken out of my paychecks each week, along with unemployment, social security, etc. On the other hand, freelancing is fantastic, and a little less restricting schedule-wise than being an employee. I get to be called upon by a variety of artists for my own style and particular strengths. I’m in a position to arrange my own schedule, and nurture my own price. Independent contractors must have more self-determination than employees in order to stay on top of business issues such as finding gigs, doing paperwork, taxes, etc.



Q: According to state laws, employers are responsible for providing their employees with workers’ compensation insurance for injuries that might occur on the road, while independent contractors are responsible for providing their own disability insurance. Are you covered?


K.D: Most of my jobs have been independent contractor gigs, but the real bonanza for me in terms of health insurance comes from being a full-time employee at Berklee College of Music. I have also been employed part time as an adjunct professor at NYU, Parsons School of Design, and Manhattan School of Music. These were also much appreciated modes of employment at the time.



Q: How about equipment insurance? Again, as an employee you’re generally covered by your employer’s policy, but as an independent contractor you’re responsible for buying your own equipment insurance. Are you covered?


K.D: I’ve been covered by insurance on my own, though the musicians’ union has tried to make instrument insurance fairly affordable for a lot of freelance musicians. Congratulations to New York Local 802.



Q: Are you a member of the American Federation of Musicians, the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, or (if you play an instrument and sing), both organizations? Please explain.


K.D: I’m no longer an active member of the AFM. I requested to change my status and became an inactive member. This way I maintained a good relationship with the union without having to pay dues. I became an inactive member because I wasn’t doing enough of the gigs the AFM specializes in (studio work, Broadway shows, jingles, etc.) to fully benefit. I was doing more live jazz and pop gigs.



Q: Solo artists and band members may benefit from percentages of publishing royalties, record royalties, and merchandising monies, while an employee or independent contractor usually works for a straight wage. What criteria do you use for establishing your employment agreement with an employer. For instance, how do you determine your wage?


K.D: You’re right. In a band situation you typically write music as a unit, and receive composer’s royalties that can last for many years. When freelancing, you simply play the music that other (albeit wonderful) musicians composed separately. You work for a wage. I negotiate my fee based on what the employer has in mind in terms of my obligations and what I feel I’m worth. As long as the resulting figure is not below my personal minimum standard, I take the gig. As far as your readers [go], I suggest that they refer to the union’s minimum scale wages, and use their rates as a starting point for negotiating their wage. Whether you’re a member of the union or not, you’ll get a good idea about what’s fair.



Q: Employees or independent contractors may find work as session players, live performers, musical instructors, copyists, arrangers, songwriters, engineers, and producers. What are some of the other ways that you’ve kept busy throughout your career?


K.D: All of the above, plus co-producing with Delmar Brown [keyboardist, producer], producing my solo albums, and other projects. Production is nice because, in the situations [in which] I’ve worked, I received a lump sum budget and then paid the others. If I was able to save time and money, I was able to pocket even more cash.



Q: Do you have any advice about getting your name out in the music community?


K.D: Older, more established musicians, sometimes benefit from associating themselves with current fresh up-and-coming musicians. By associating yourself with them, you can then parlay the exposure into creating your own “niche.” Being in Jaco’s [Pastorious] band was fantastic exposure. When the tours with Jaco finished, other musicians who had seen me on the road or at the Bottom Line or the Blue Note in NYC, etc., would call me for gigs.



Q: What are some of the methods or personal attributes that have helped you stay busy over the years as an employee or independent contractor?


K.D: As an employee, spending social time with your colleagues is important for the morale of the group as a whole. Simply put, people want to play with people they want to be around. As for independent contractor work, punctuality, professionalism, and your physical appearance are very important attributes. Reading music and stylistic versatility helps so that if one kind of gig dries up, the other can kick in.




Q: Have you relied on other business professionals throughout your career, such as accountants?


K.D: An accountant is necessary for taxes, of course. Attorneys have also offered valuable advice over the years, especially in negotiating contracts. Sometimes lawyers find gigs for artists as well.



Q: Employees and independent contractors don’t benefit as “normal” corporate folk in that they don’t have savings plans, vacation plans, or (in some cases) any business plans at all. What types of business techniques, investment tips, or general advice have you adopted over the years in order to secure your future?


K.D: As far as your comment about “not having any plans at all,” I say failing to plan is like planning to fail. As an independent contractor, I was kind of “winging it by the seat of my pants.” I didn’t have health insurance and didn’t worry about money for retirement. As I have grown older, that approach no longer seems wise to me. I found that the best strategy for the future has been to at least have one “employee” gig. This way I could get health benefits, and have federal, local, and social security taxes deducted from my paychecks, which I’ve found is like [having] a forced savings plan. [Some people like to take the lump sum or tax refund you may get back at the end of the calendar year and put it into a savings account. Speak to your accountant for advice.] So, my strategy is to maintain and nurture my professorship at Berklee College of Music over the long term. This puts my other touring, recording, and sideman activities in a stable perspective. Thankfully, Berklee has allowed me to do this since they have a flexible schedule.



Q: Is there any other advice about employees or independent contractors that you think is important for our readers to know?


K.D: Music is a business, but I hope your readers are able to maintain the reason why they started playing—to have fun! If every single gig is not fun, at least try to make each job lead to fun and fulfillment down the road. I feel that’s up to each individual. Peace!



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Warning: This material is copyright registered by Bobby Borg ©2003, 2008. All rights reserved. If you copy material from this web site, for use in any printed or electronic media, please ask permission of Bobby Borg first by email at All credits, links to, and copyright notices must be posted.


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