It’s A Cover Up

We’re going to look at the cover band, and it’s importance to you as a musician.

Yes, it’s a dirty word to some – me included.  But, I’ll explain to you why it ain’t always so. You’ll hear about the brilliance of ABBA and the Bee Gees, playing on the Spirit of Tasmania, and picking up $1200 a night!

Take That!

Have you ever noticed the shellacking cover bands cop? I’ve certainly stuck the boots in on many occasions. Yet, we all start off playing covers in one way or another. What was the first song you played on the piano, guitar, or recorder? Was it a composition of yours or was it, Hey Jude or Yellow Brick Road? I bet the latter.

Firstly, what is a cover band? Simply put, it’s a band whose repertoire consists of versions of songs by other artists rather than original material.

I am, first and foremost, a songwriter and singer but I too have been in several cover bands for a number of reasons. There’s no better way to develop your chops and musicality than through playing live three 50 minute sets a night in a cover band. Each booking will make you practice and prepare.

The money can be good too, really good in fact, if you start picking up corporate shows and private events. When I was between projects and low on cash, I’d always chase a fill in show here and there to help with the bills. It was always a better choice than packing boxes or making basketball rings (other mundane jobs that paid my bills).

I’ll be the first to admit though, I don’t usually like playing covers. Despite that, some of the cover bands I’ve been in, have been very successful. I’m talking about bands that were playing four nights a week before 600 screaming drunk people each night. It’s almost a touch of rock stardom at times, and they’re big long nights that usually finish very late. But, they pay well.

Jessie’s Girl?

I’d often be in the middle of one of these crazy shows and just look across the crowd who were bouncing up and down. Then I’d begin to wonder why these people loved dancing to Video Killed The Radio Star or Jessie’s Girl so much. 

And then I’d begin to wonder why I was actually standing there performing to a crowd that didn’t give a shit about me. A crowd that treated the band like a human jukebox. On several occasions, I had expensive equipment actually stolen from the stage during a break. It would really drag me down.

In between sets, we’d find ourselves in one of the venues back rooms, stacked floor to ceiling with cartons of wine and champagne – not that we’d ever drink any. It would either be freezing or too hot.  And there we’d be, the band members sitting crowded together on crates in sweat-drenched clothing. 

In the background, the venue’s nightclub was full steam ahead. The party music would be thumping away with the occasional scream or laugh punctuating the monotonous drone. Very glamorous indeed.

I would always get into this state of feeling sorry for myself because our original band was pulling 16 people to the show.  While a multitude of inebriated teenagers were in heaven, blissfully dancing to our renditions of hit tunes. 

You can see why I never lasted long in the cover band scene.  Well … except for short bursts only.

It Ain’t All Bad

But there were fun times too. We once had a weekly residency on the Spirit of Tasmania. It is the huge passenger ship that commutes daily between Melbourne and Launceston across the Bass Strait. Magnificent views from the top deck and tremendous hospitality all round. 

We also did a couple of shows on the bow of an old paddle steamer on the mighty Murray River. Travelling up and down the river in midsummer at dusk with the sun setting over the river was beautiful to be sure! 

Playing in a cover band as a teenager also has benefits.  It elevates your status with the opposite sex. Suffice it to say, we were never short of company during or after the shows. Our parties went well into the evenings and long after the gigs had finished.

But there are pros and cons to everything in life. Here are four pros of the cover band:

1. Improves your skills

Nothing will sharpen your chops more than a cover band. Really! Playing super difficult solos by the greatest players on earth, every night can only improve your playing. If you’re in a cover band that’s playing Van Halen or Deep Purple, look out.

I found myself playing all kinds of guitar solos that would never have seemed possible years earlier.  I was mostly a rhythm player and singer. Yet, there I was ripping through a solo, feeling like a phoney the whole time. Thank god the punters were so drunk!

The cover band is a forced way of practicing and sharpening your skills.  It doesn’t matter which instrument you’re playing or singing, you can only improve.

2. Ramp up the cash flow

There’s no denying the cashola is good. Depending on your band and the kind of shows you’re playing, taking home $400 or $500 each per night adds up quickly over the week. Better than a day job in some circumstances, but you’ll earn it.

One of my friends has been a keyboard player in a heritage cover band for over 20 years now. They play all over the country doing private events and corporate shows. They regularly take home a minimum of $1200 each per night!  And it is much more on special occasions like New Years Eve. Not bad going.

Getting the big bucks, however, can spoil you. It’ll be very hard for you to walk away from a band that’s making you that kind of money to head straight back into your old original band making $125 for the night with a half-empty room. Not forgetting the front of house mixers fee of $120 for the show. 

In my band Prettymess, this is exactly what happened. Our drummer, was not only a handy player, he could sing as well. He had spent many years in cover bands making big money, and he was well known in that scene. Drumming was his income and he slowly began to squeeze in cover gigs between Prettymess shows. We understood because he had to pay his bills.

It was a difficult time for the band though, and eventually, he recommitted back to the cover world. Then we began to use fill-in drummers. As I’ve mentioned, it was a downward spiral for us once he departed. A stable drummer is essential to your band.

3. Meet potential original collaborators

This is a real biggie. Cover bands are a kind of proving ground for up and coming rock stars. The number of players out there is staggering and this is possibly where you can hook up with your future collaborator.

There is no shortage of talented players who are out cutting their teeth and learning their chops each night. Venues can pick and chose at their leisure. Playing in a cover band is a great way to learn and earn. However, you’ll find that most players will jump at the opportunity of testing their mettle in an original band that might actually become famous. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star?

I have hooked up with many long-term collaborators via the humble cover band. There have also been hugely successful crossover cover bands that took their whole lineup to the original world. They wrote some tunes and made it big. Taxiride and The Superjesus are two that come to mind.

Two of the members in my mid 2000’s band Prettymess came from the cover band world. As mentioned before, one returned to covers because that was his only income. But the guitarist, Ryan, was an exceptional player and singer, and he was intrinsic to the success of that band. 

Had we not discovered him at the local pub in Flemington, playing solo covers on his acoustic, none of it may have happened.

4. An insider look into legendary songwriters

Yes, you get a little special inside info into how the hit songs are being written. Like them or loathe them, the songs you’re going to be playing in a cover band will be popular in some way. You can dissect each song to better understand it’s structure, melody, and harmony. 

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the tunes we played and impressed by just how incredibly beautifully they’d been arranged and written. You’d be surprised at just how brilliant the Bee Gees, Neil Diamond and ABBA really are! All their production fluff aside, underneath lies an incredible song.

It’s easy just to learn the chords to a cover song and play it. If you really want to learn something and expand your skill set, dissect the songs you’re learning. Try to get a handle on how it was composed, where the modulations – if any, occur, the lyric and hook structure, rhythm and groove etc. There’s always something new to learn.

Another thing about learning stacks of songs each week, is being exposed to other styles of music you may not have ever considered playing. Often there’ll be a novelty song or two you add to the playlist that might dip its toes into bluegrass, funk, or jazz. Once being introduced to the new style you may find yourself going down that rabbit hole.

The take home message here is, your priority is honing your craft and developing your skills as an original musician. But it’s still OK to play in cover bands when required – they can be a lifeline sometimes.

Give It A Go

So what’s wrong with being in a cover band? There are so many reasons why you would be in a cover band. I haven’t been in a cover band for many years now.  There’s every chance, though, that during a quiet spell, I might just jump in and do a handful of shows myself.

But always keep in mind; you’re on the long journey of the songwriting, original musician. Keep that in sight at all times, and use the cover band as stop gap measure or a cash top-up because your original career may stall if you step away for too long. 

What are you thoughts on cover bands? Have you played in a cover band? Do you play in a cover band and fit your original band around it? Head over to indieconfidential.com where you can tell me your stories and leave comments and any questions.

You can also follow me on Instagram @indieconfidential and this blog can also be listened to via my podcast here and there’s more episodes over here.

In the next episode of Indie Confidential I will be talking to superstar, luthier and electronics wizard Paul Gale of Soundworks. This interview had to be rescheduled from a couple of weeks back.

With over 35 years as guitar tech of the famous, he is now working at Cole Klark guitars, teaching and building custom acoustic guitars. This will be one very interesting interview.

I’ll catch you soon.

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