Playing In Cover Bands

Cover bands play songs by other artists. They don’t write their own music. Most cover bands play either rock or country music, and most work in bars and night clubs. Cover bands are the quickest, easiest money-making projects in the music business. There are more musicians paying their rent, at least in part, from club gigs than from jobs with symphonies, ballets, operas and universities.

If you know how to play a lot of mainstream songs, then it’s easy to find people to play with. When all the players know the same songs, then organizing a band can be really easy. Good musicians can create a group chemistry instantly. Pro level players who have never met can form a rock or country cover band overnight, if they all know how to play the same songs. Some cover bands turn into successful businesses.

Because they’re easy to put together, it’s also easy for them to fall apart. All cover bands are  marriages of convenience, for as long as it remains convenient. Some cover bands are short-term projects, something to keep busy between projects. In this business, even your side projects have side projects. Forming a temporary side-band can be the music business equivalent of converting your failed dry-cleaning business into a burger joint until you run out your lease.

Along with teaching music, cover bands are a great side business. A typical ad in “musicians seeking gigs” goes something like, “Looking for a bass player for a classic rock band. We play Fri and Sat nites almost every weekend. Have gigs booked into next year. Not looking to play more nites because we all have day jobs.” Some of these bands stay around for 10 or 15 years. A cheap cover band is $400 a night. If you play weekends with two weeks vacation, that’s $800 a week, times 50 weeks per year, which equals $40k gross. For a five-piece band, that’s $8k a year extra per band member, for playing two nights a week for a year. If you’re charging $500, that’s $50k per year. That’s a half million dollars over ten years, divided by the number of band members.

In the US, the number of weekend cover bands is in the thousands, employing tens of thousands of people, if only part-time. It isn’t much, but for many working Americans, $8k extra per year is still real money. It is good money in that it’s basically all profit. Many of your expenses are tax-deductible, and you don’t have all of the trappings of a small business. You don’t have suppliers. You don’t keep inventories. You don’t have “customers” in the traditional sense. You might advertise directly to consumers, but the cover band model is business to business.

It doesn’t cost much to start up. You can buy a professional guitar, amp and accessories for less than $1000. If you make $100 per performance, then your break-even point on gear is 10 performances.

RehearsalsIn the eleven years I played with my last cover band, we never had a single rehearsal. We all learned our parts on our own. We’re experienced pros. No one needs their hand held. I wrote charts for practically all of the songs we played, so that we had a song book we could give to substitute musicians. That’s standard practice in the business. We learned most of our parts by practicing with recordings.

Rehearsals are a huge drag on the bottom line of any working band. If you’re making $100 at a gig, but you rehearsed three nights that week, then congratulations, you just made $25 a night. If you and your band aren’t experienced performers, then you should probably have as many group rehearsals as you can. On the other hand, experienced cover bands don’t need rehearsals. These songs have been around for how many years? And you still don’t know them?

We rehearsed new songs in the last set of our club shows, when most people had already gone home. Call it unprofessional. “But you never know who might be watching.” Yeah we do – the same pickled livers as the last twenty-five times we played there. When they’ve seen everything you’ve got, what have you got to lose?

Weekend cover bands are mostly an urban phenomenon. But there are lots of paying gigs out in the country. The “sticks circuit” is always an option for bands willing to travel. People who hustle can play somewhere every night.

The job landscape for performing musicians has expanded to include more settings. One reason is they can fit them-selves into smaller places, and get more sound out of less equipment, than in the old days. PA systems are much smaller and cheaper. A Fender Rhodes “suitcase” (more like “steamer-trunk”) electric piano, Hammond organ, Leslie rotating-speaker cabinet, Moog synth, Mellotron, and a thirty-piece string and brass section have all been compressed into one keyboard you can carry under your arm.

Learning Material – When you get a job with a cover band, you get a song list. These days, it’s often an online playlist. It’s your job to figure out your part to each of the songs on the list. Except for very popular songs, relying on published sheet music is usually not an option, because in the majority of all recorded songs, there are no published transcriptions of parts for individual instruments.

These days, you can find unauthorized tabs on the web for a huge number of songs, including some that are very obscure. Many of them are well-written. But there’s no guarantee of accuracy, and availability is hit and miss. Be careful about what kinds of sites you click on when you’re searching for tabs. Use cached pages where possible.

In the old days, we got recordings of our songs on cassette tapes. I learned a couple of hundred songs from FM radio. After that, we used CDs. Now we look them up on YouTube , iTunes, Spotify or wherever.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug