Pigeonholed as a cover artist
If your’re good at your job (as a cover artist), people in your area will notice. As you start to gain a following, people may think of you as the “cover guy” (or girl!). This can be a positive if you want the ability to increase your asking price and/or have aspirations of doing the cover gigs full time (which can include lucrative corporate gigs, weddings, etc). It also makes it easier to get signatures on your email sign up sheet. But it might make it increasingly more difficult to ask your regional fans to accept you as an original artist. Before you know it, you are on stage about to play that new song you just got done writing, while the crowd is just begging you to play that Johnny Cash tune you do so well. It is for this reason that making cover songs “your own” is a good idea. Put your own twist to it, while still paying homage to the original version, offering the listener a unique interpretation. You are an original artist after all, aren’t you?
A distraction from your goal
Are you spending so much time learning cover songs, playing gigs and booking cover clubs to make any progress writing new material and booking original shows? It’s easy to lose sight of the prize. I know I have personally fallen into this trap many times. I have to remind myself regularly that my long term goal is to be an original artist – not a cover club regular. This also applies to spending too much time working on promoting your original material when you aren’t quite ready for that step. You can spend all the time you want marketing and promoting your “brand”, but if you don’t have a quality original product to sell, you need to question how you are spending your time. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this blog right now?! I could be writing a new song!
While some cover gigs are fun (see Pro: “It’s fun” above, specifically the “It’s fun” part), some are boring, sparsely attended, long, and just tough to make it through the night. It never ceases to amaze me how much harder it is to play a gig on a slow night than it is to play on a busy night. Never under-estimate how much adrenaline can do for you. But even if the bar is packed, often times the patrons are there to drink, chat with friends, have dinner, play darts, hit on girls, shoot pool, etc. What they often AREN’T there to do is see live music. Nobody is watching you! You feel like Patrick Swayze in Ghost when he walks around and nobody can see him! That’s right… you’re expensive wallpaper.
I mentioned in the Pros section that cover gigs can be a great place to try out (and flesh out) new original material in front of a live audience. But since most people don’t go to bars to hear original music, you are apt to get dismayed by the lack of positive reaction to your original masterpieces. Although it’s easy to think you are great when they cheer their heads off to “Don’t Stop Believing”, it’s just as easy to get tricked into thinking you suck when they can’t even muster a clap for that new love song you wrote. Just as your real estate agent will tell you, it’s all about location, location, location. In the right venue with the right crowd (in the right frame of mine), your love song just might go over great. (Check out this long but good article that chronicles internationally acclaimed virtuoso Joshua Bell playing beautiful music in the subway, with passersby only tipping him $32.17 the entire time.)
Not all gigs are created equal
Let’s not forget that there are really only 2 big reasons you are playing cover gigs while you are trying to make it in the original music world: (1) make money and (2) gain fans that will hopefully support your original music aspirations. Not all cover gigs can sufficiently do either one. You have no reason to say yes to these gigs, but sometimes you might just need all the money you can get. Saying no to these less-than-fruitful gigs gets hard to do. You get wrapped up playing too many gigs… before you know it, you don’t have enough time to write original music.
Marketing is tricky
I mentioned earlier that you want to avoid being pigeonholed as a cover artist. One way to help you do that is to have all of your marketing materials (newsletter, website, press kit, etc) inform people that you are a songwriter, not just a musician that plays cover songs. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. If the random person stumbles upon your website, are they only going to see cover clubs on your tour schedule? Are the only videos you have on YouTube ones of you playing cover songs? Is your band name the same for cover gigs AND original gigs? If so, how will fans know which gigs are which? I welcome feedback on this topic, as I think separating your artist persona from your cover band alter ego is critical. However overall, I think it’s important to make sure your brand and the associated marketing materials accurately depict who you WANT to be as well as who you actually are. Don’t exaggerate, but I personally feel that an aspiring and emerging artist should have promotional materials that reflect just that.
Your brand gets watered down
If you play all the local bars and restaurants 4 nights a week, do you really think that awesome original music venue nearby is going to hire you for a show? They might worry that you are overexposed… and so should you.
Lack of cover clubs
Some areas of the country have a cover heavy culture. Patrons expect to hear cover songs in Baton Rouge (great for cover bands, bad for original artists). Locals in Nashville expect to hear original music. I’m fortunate to live in an area of the country that has tons of bars and restaurants that are willing to pay musicians to play covers, but also have a fair amount of original venues of various sizes. Making a living (even temporarily) might be tough if your region of the country doesn’t have a market for musicians belting out the classics.
So where does this list of pros and cons leave us? I think it is safe to say that there isn’t a single sweeping conclusion that fits every person’s individual situation. A musician with 4 kids that lives in rural West Virginia might not find playing cover gigs a realistic way to achieve the original artist goal. And others might be really well suited to use this approach to propel them through the ranks of their local music scene. How do we sift through the positives and negatives to find out if this path is the right one for you? It is important to note that the difference between a cover gig and an original gig isn’t just what songs you are playing. A cover gig in a bar typically calls for an energetic, attention-getting, banter-filled evening. This is in contrast to most original gigs that tend to be more subdued and structured (at least in my genre of acoustic pop). Cover gigs should be fun. Original gigs should be interesting. Different skill sets are required for both, and they don’t always translate to each other.
I have personally found that playing cover gigs isn’t a bad way to make a living while you try to make it in the original world. I’m still learning and finding my way as a musician, but I’m determined to figure out what works for me. I take solace in the fact that I know I’m not the only guy out there trying to achieve this dream. If you can find a way to exploit the positives I listed above, while finding ways to minimize the cons, you just might be on the right track. Good luck!