I was recently at a four-day industry conference where, during three out of the four evening events, the music for dinner was way too loud and there was no clear point person who could do anything about it. Everyone just complained or left the room and headed outdoors—or called it a night.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Musicians get a bad rap, events suffer, and everyone just accepts it or gives up on live music at receptions and dinners. So let’s fix it once and for all. Here is my four-point checklist to set up your live-music events for success.

1. Round up the bandleader.
On site, find the bandleader or DJ, the sound company, sound engineer, producer of the event, destination management company on duty, or whoever is responsible for providing the live music. If there is more than one of the above, include them all. I’m a firm believer in including everyone who is a stakeholder in an event, so they can all agree on a common goal. It helps all involved to support each other and I find everyone steps up a bit when the whole team agrees on and knows the expectations. What are those expectations? To have the music played at the right volume.

2. Define the right volume for receptions and dinners.
Ask the talent to play at a level where they can hear your guests talking. If the band can hear them, your guests will be able to hear themselves. I discovered this simple solution about 10 years ago after years of struggling with musicians. Two things happen: You actually have a way to measure the volume yourself (you can stand near the stage and check any time if you can hear your guests talking) and it also changes the focus and perspective of the talent. They become more aware of the reason they are there. The attendees did not come to hear them play: They earned this trip, or chose to support this event, or its cause.

3. Instruments only, please.
Unless it is a special presentation, theme enhancer, or short vignette between dinner courses, my recommendation is to skip the vocalist and go with instrumental music only during dinners and receptions. Vocalists send a mixed message: Should I be paying attention to the singer or to my meal and colleagues at the table? You can also ask a smaller portion of the band play during dinner. I will often rotate six to eight performers, using three or four at a time. It helps to keep the music softer and you can have nonstop music without burning out the musicians.

4. Turn off the PA.
Explain to the sound engineers that it is not necessary to “fill the room” with the music. If they try, it will inevitably be too loud for the folks close to the stage. My recommendation is to just turn off the PA. In most venues, the band will be plenty loud for background. In large ballrooms, a small amount of PA can work well, as long as the speakers are "flown"—that is, hanging from the ceiling—and not on the floor.

The best part about getting this right is that when it is time for the after-dinner entertainment, the band can really crank it out and your guests will have had plenty of time to chat and eat comfortably and they will be ready for it. They will be willing to accept and embrace it—even if it is a bit on the loud side.

Bill Hopkins has performed, coordinated, and produced entertainment for 25 years in major incentive destinations on five continents. As a producer, he has focused on the financial and insurance incentive market for the past 12 years, and is a past chair of the Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Hospitality Partners Committee. For ideas on saving time and money on entertainment, visit his blog, and look for his book, “The Entertainment Buyer’s Guide,” coming in March 2011. Reach him at (831) 688-3700 or bill@billhopkinsevents.com or visit his Web site.