The Pros & Cons of Playing Cover Gigs- Pt. 2 (the Cons)

2110 17

This is part 2 of a guest post  written by DC singer-songwriter Dan Fisk which originally appeared on GrassRootsy.com. Click HERE to read part 1.

THE CONS:

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!

Expensive Wallpaper
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.

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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!

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  • It seems that band members who don't understand why you should want to play originals don't WRITE originals, whereas the members who want to play them, WRITE them. The arguments for playing covers revolve around wanting to please the audience with what is familiar to them. Guess how those songs GO TO BE familiar? Yep, somebody wrote them, recorded them, and performed them. Anybody that writes songs understands that. If your band is any good, they will be able to get any audience excited about their originals and MAKE THEM like them. If you don't believe that, stay home and listen to your radio.

  • Brian Maxwell

    In my opinion the pros outweigh the cons by far, if you do things right. My band is an original band, but we also make money playing cover gigs, and we were able to get a much larger budget for our album than we would have playing only original shows. We do a couple of things that keeps us from being pigeon-holed as a cover band. First of all, we tend to play the cover gigs in the suburbs or out in the country, and play the original shows in the city where there is actually a scene and people that want to see original music. Secondly, we play country/folk music and I think its more accepted and probably even expected for an original band in this genre to cover some classic tunes. Also, we try to play about 1/3 originals at our cover shows, but we stick to the more catchy tunes, and after a couple of repeat performance, the locals at these cover bars sing along with the originals more than the covers. On the flip side, we also make sure to play at least 2 covers at our original shows. As far as focusing on original music, it takes only about 10% of the effort to learn a cover as it does to write an original tune. So that means we can learn 10 covers at 2 new originals in the time it would take to learn 3 originals, so when you look at it like that, its not a huge trade off. If you do it right, you can use your cover gigs to make enough money to open up new opportunities for recording, merch, touring etc in your original music career.

    Brian of the Song Birds

  • What a great pair of articles! Been thinking about doing some cover gigs to keep my rents paid, and the issues I was weighing back and forth was just the issues Dan Fisk here took up.

    Thanks,
    Alex

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  • JMH

    I wouldn't recommend using two different band names for cover verses original gigs. Really, I've always just looked at a gig as a gig. Sure there are some places that I would play more covers at than originals, but whatever the gig, I'm gonna play as many originals as I can get away with. I will take the pulse of the crowd, but if their not really into anything, (or their into pretty much everything) then screw it, I'm gonna use it as a live rehearsal and play my originals. But as far as that goes, half of my covers have been changed enough that they are almost originals anyways. I've always been under the impression that most musicians try to start off playing mostly covers and then try to reverse that over time to mostly originals. Otherwise, just let the juke box play, right? It prolly sounds better

  • Linda Vee

    We have noticed that if we get to play more than 30 minutes we begin to pull in the crowd with our originals and they suddenly actually sit down and begin listening to us.

    But we mostly do private parties because we won't pay to play and you are barely warmed up and your time is over anyway in the P2P venues.

    I'm not crazy about seeing cover bands, but that's just my personal taste and I still say if you want to make money and have the time, go for it.

  • Mike Snelaski

    originals in Nashville? Not on Broadway my friend.

  • Kid Anon

    Great article! I’m not sure if my situation is unique but I was only able to secure cover gigs in my town *after* establishing myself as an original artist. My band has a good following for a town this size and when I play cover gigs the fans of my originals know I’m trying to make a living playing music and the fans of the covers either care about that side of things or not. I’m usually not too worried since I’m mostly trying to get paid!

    I think it’s mostly about building a strong personal brand that allows you to do different things. My image lies somewhere in the “scrappy dude from the record store that has a band but also pops up around bars and farmer’s markets playing Motown – let’s check out what he’s doing tonight” realm. As long as I keep things fresh for myself, it all seems to work well together.

  • Nice. Glad you're able to keep some crossover fans. We do the same thing in my band, play mostly originals, and then every once in a while we'll take part in a tribute night of some sort and put together a bunch of covers for the occasion.

  • Dan Fisk

    Glad you enjoyed the article. And great comment! Interesting perspective to start as original artist and move to cover markets.

    • Evgeniy Shestopal

      I do think playing cover gigs is a grat idea and it outweignts al lthe cons. Still you can always quite. Or just do not have to making it soo serious, just signing to services like htttp://www.poptop.uk.com and if you have new requests – you can choose which to take. Ot just leave it…..

  • travelergtoo

    Good article.

  • capthiltz

    As a musician and writer of over 30 years and having played in both original and cover bands I always thought it was a sad statement that acts playing music written by someone else makes them more money and maybe creates more opportunity for gigs than acts who create new material. I do understand that we are creatures of familiarity especially when you add alcohol to the mix. The ability to place your original music online may be the savior for local original music acts. When I go to see a band live that I have been listening to for some time I try to make sure I am current with their new material as well. Again, familiarity. Having your music available 24/7 will make you sound just as familiar as that Johnny Cash song the article talks about and thus makes the audience more receptive.
    A lot of the dilemma falls on the club owners who don't do much if anything to promote the fact that they have music at their establishment. This is true of both cover and original venues. The article also nailed a big issue on bars and live music. Club owners should survey their patrons as to whether or not they actually want live music. I ran into this more at cover places where the audience seemed indifferent and even annoyed at the fact we were even there. I remember one gig where we started playing a song and the crowd let out a cheer and we thought it was because of the song we were playing. Turns out the cheer came from what was happening during the baseball game that they had on a couple of TVs. Locally here in St. Paul/Minneapolis I would love see more places like First Avenue for the local acts (especially the little knowns and up and comers) that are concert oriented and not bar/drinking oriented. Also as a middle aged person whose fan base will be about the same age range, starting the music around seven or eight pm instead of nine or ten would make a big difference in crowd size for musicians in my age category. Seriously, many of my friends have told me the reason they didn't come out to see my band play was that we started too late even though it was a Friday or Saturday night and they didn't have to get up in the morning.

  • Travis Rambo

    Great stuff. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  • T.B.Told

    In our area with a population just a hair over 200,000 we have well over 50 cover bands competing and playing for peanuts at various venue types, Restaurants, Wine bars, Pool halls …you get the picture. From what we have seen on repeated occasions EVERY single one of them are virtually playing the same set lists. Its nauseating. Eagles, Brown Eyed Girl, Southern Man, Taking care of Business, Brickhouse, Funky Music White Boy. etc. etc. etc. etc. It never changes and every last one of them are so LOUD with no sense of dynamics many are not hired again. We have 1 Acoustic group that plays 90% originals and the covers they choose are tunes no one dare attempt .. Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Led Zeppelin, Simply Red etc. etc. etc. Since they came on the scene they always draw minimum 50-100 folks no matter where they play while all the other bands are lucky to draw 5 -15. Why you may ask? I believe its because they are playing what THEY enjoy and NOT what other people think they should play or what people want to hear. The sound is always balanced and impeccable everyone sings lead and does harmonies that would rival CS&N! As a result, they make more money than all the cover clones and are booked solidly every weekend through next year. Very key to this I believe is their level of professionalism, form, appearance to performance. Every time they play now people ask to hear their originals. It can be done on your own terms!

  • Cliff Rock

    So… What part of the country DO you live in?