Cover Band Vs. Original Band: Do you have to choose between the two?

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A couple weeks ago, we posted an article by David Roth called 4 Lessons on How Much to Charge for Your Performance.  It generated quite the discussion in our comments section (over 130 comments so far). Many musicians seemed to think the advice was only applicable for “event” bands that play weddings and other parties.

In response, our friend Drew Stoga from GigMasters.com wrote this piece about a Chicago band called Josh & the Empty Pockets, an act that is able to have success on both sides of the “cover band vs. original band” divide. Thanks to Drew for allowing us to post his article here in its entirety.

-Chris R. at CD Baby

Josh & the Empty Pockets (Chicago, IL) are living a double life. No, they’re not a rock band by day and a team of CIA operatives by night, not that we know of at least. What they are – a band who splits their time between touring in support of their own original indie rock releases and playing popular covers at weddings and other special events – is nearly as interesting. But is it such an anomaly?

Last week our friends at CD Baby re-posted our 4 Lessons on Pricing Your Entertainment on their DIY Musician blog. Written by David Roth of five-star GigMasters band Mighty Groove (Boston, MA), the post really struck a chord with CD Baby’s audience, as evidenced by its 100+ comments and 400+ Facebook likes.

Some commentators were quick to point out, however, that it was written from the perspective of, for lack of a better term, an ‘event band.’ As opposed to an ‘original band’ who mostly focuses on their own material, an event band is more likely to play mostly or all cover songs and be found at weddings, private parties, corporate events and more.

It’s true that getting booked for birthday parties and weddings is different than gigging at bars and nightclubs. For one, the special events often pay more and get you in front of a larger audience. But of course there is a lot to be said for baring your soul and winning over an audience with music you wrote yourself.

As an original band that doubles as a (very) successful special event band, Josh & the Empty Pockets are proving that you can have it both ways.

With impressive credentials like headlining gigs at SXSW and multiple singles in the Mediabase Top 100 radio chart, The Pockets have enjoyed success that eludes many original bands. When not on the road promoting their latest release you can find the quartet rocking out at corporate parties and other private events they booked through GigMasters.

We recently spoke with Josh about the band’s double life and how they have been able to strike a professional balance between their original work and gigging as an event band.

Josh:

Striking the right balance between our event band and our “indie rock” original band is a challenge that we deal with on a daily basis. Over the past several years, our social and corporate event band business, thanks in no small part to GigMasters, has created a financial stability for the band that is extremely satisfying. We work hard to understand what the goals of any given event are and then we find ways to help accomplish them while still staying within who we are as a music group. I think that is the key. In any given week we might play a birthday party, a public original concert, visit a radio station and then play a wedding. It’s very important that we stay true to ourselves, both musically and personally, at all of those very different functions without forgetting that each event requires individual attention and thought.

It’s clear to me that in any industry, but especially the music industry, each person or group’s path is very different. I know some artists that have never played a private event in their lives but still manage to make a living making music. That being said, my opinion is if you’re capable of being a wedding band or an event band, it can be very rewarding. As a group we have learned over 1,000 songs since 2007 and we play over 200 public and private events each year. We are a better group of musicians because of the thousands of hours we’ve spent learning and playing music and I believe we write better songs because of it.

So what do you think? Are The Empty Pockets in a unique situation? Know anyone else who supplements their career as an original artist by taking event gigs on the side? Leave a comment and let us know!

And don’t forget to check out Josh & the Empty Pockets on GigMasters and listen to some of their original tunes on their website: joshandtheemptypockets.com.

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  • Diddo to all of the above information in the above article. I am the bandleader of the gigmasters 5 star band called The Professors of Soul. Gigmasters is a great source of revenue for a band. Wedding/Corperate Band gigs on the weekend funds my ability to play creative/less or non paying gigs the rest of the week. Just because you play covers doesn't mean that a band has to sell their musical soul. Our top selling point is that we play covers like we wrote them, jam them out hard and put our hearts into the music, v/s the stereotypical "sterile corperate/wedding" style. As a college music professor and a profession musician of over 25 years, tunes = money. The more songs you know = the amount of money that you can earn throughout your lifetime and in a career as a musician.

    To become a 5 star band takes a lot of hard work and hours of dedication. If someone is paying you $3000 to play at their wedding, you have to cater to the bride and groom/clients every needs before the event and on and off stage. Many musicians have a hard time with this because they let their egos get in the way. The show is not just about them per say; it's about the clients, making sure everybody in the room has fun and feels included, giving, great, top quality service, and getting great reviews to be booked for more gigs in the future. Gigmasters has done a great service for many of us around the country to help us survive as professional muscians, but as their popularity grows, more bands are signing up and the competition is getting more fierce. Bands and gigmasters will both have to step up their games to bring more clients/gigs to the musicians and to bring great performances to their clients so that in the future, more people will want to hire more live music.

  • Lsmith1222

    Another plug for Gigmasters. We’ve never had any success with it.

  • I wasn't thinking of it so much as a plug for GigMasters as a keeping the same conversation rolling. But, if you have a minute, feel free to talk about your experience using GigMasters vs. doing your own booking thing. I'd be interested to hear.

  • Our Band Quickness does exactly the same thing, we have an album of original tunes we released this summer, and have learned about 120 cover tunes to supplement our income, when we perform we do a mix of covers and original tunes and it has proven very rewarding for us. for exactly the same reasons that Josh states. I absolutely agree.

    Quickness has managed to break into mainstream, campus and community radio enough to make our presence known on the westcoast and are slowly building our fanbase east and south.

    Each of us in the band has played numerous “Forum Gigs” you know “for um, 30 bucks!” at indie bars and are just not interested anymore in starvation. How much money can you really make from a 4 band gig in a 200 person room when 2 bands consistently bring no-one and then want a door split… after the promoter takes promo costs and a 20% cut

    So now we work with people who are willing to pay a guarantee as long as we include some top 40 songs in our repertoire? no Problem, each of us usually leaves with $200 these days from a gig. And we are always the headline band because we are the only band playing…

  • Haha. Forum gigs. Good one.

  • MrsDCB

    Do NOT book this band for your wedding. We booked them 15 months before our wedding date and they cancelled on us with no explanation! Basically went out of our way to have a long engagement and get the vendors we wanted – only to end up scrambling a few months before the wedding anyway. Save yourself from the unnecessary stress!!!!

  • capthiltz

    When I was younger (now 47) and the drinking age in my state was 19 I would go to one of the several bars in my immediate area almost every weekend that had bands. They were always cover bands. I have to say that there was only one band that played soul and R-n-B (the fact that an all male band did a version of Sade’s Smooth Operator made them cool) that was really, really exceptional. Other than that the rest were made up of competent musicians at best but the thing that soured me the most was a lack of energy or soul. Also they all were doing the same damn songs. I have been a musician and writer myself for 35 years and played in both cover and original but mostly original bands. From my experience I think you have to break the cover seen into several categories i.e. plain old cover bands, tributes and corporate bands. They all have their place and I don’t really see these bands competing with original bands unless there is a lack of venues that book original bands in a given town and the cover band bars have a monopoly on live music.

    Next, we should look at the audience of each type of band. Again, from personal experience the person who goes to see a cover band wants a) familiarity b) something to sing along with and get drunk to for the most part and c) by asking the band to do requests they get a form of control over the show. In a sense they become part of the show. The person who goes to hear a band doing their own music wants something new, probably doesn’t want to hear an amatuer version of a song they heard a million times on the radio over the last few years and or wants to support a band that will produce new material and maybe actually put on a concert not a gig. That brings us to another point. For the most part when a cover band plays it’s a gig (unless it’s a tribute band trying to put on a show). When an original band plays it’s more of a concert experience. The following statement may seem sort of mean but I think the average music listener will take what is feed to them by the music industry. My hope is that with all of the independent means of distribution, original acts may become more of an important factor in the live scene.