About a year ago, I decided to stop working my regular 9 to 5 job and dedicate myself to music much more seriously than I had in the past. But I still had bills to pay! So now I play between 5 and 15 cover gigs per month to provide income, while I spend the rest of my time pursuing my original aspirations. I’m still learning, still struggling and still finding my way through life as a musician. This post contains lessons I’ve learned on my journey, in hopes that it can save somebody else some time, as well as to flesh out the discussion on ways to do it better. Maybe there are others out there in the same metaphorical boat, or maybe just somebody thinking about doing the same.
First, let’s make sure we are on the same page with a couple definitions, at least for the purpose of this post:
- Cover Gig: A performance at a venue where the performer primarily plays well known songs written by other artists.
- Original Gig: A performance at a venue where the performer primarily plays original songs written by him/her.
As a full time musician, I am often asked what my (musical) goal is. That’s a very broad question, so I have a stock response that is equally broad: “To become a self-sustaining original artist.” I want to make enough money to survive from the music I create. So the question is; how do I do that and make a living at the same time? Singer-songwriters have a tough time getting paid to play their own music early in their careers, and some chose to play cover gigs (that can pay well) to cover the bills. There are many different paths that you could choose to become a “self-sustaining original artist”. I chose the path of playing cover gigs to make money while I make (sometimes slow) progress writing, gaining fans, performing original songs, etc. Some starving artists work in a coffee shop or wait tables in order to pay the bills while they pursue their artistic dreams. I just happen to go to bars and play “Jack and Diane” and “Sweet Caroline” to bars full of people that are really there to drink and talk to their friends, rather than to listen to me perform “art”. But can playing cover gigs actually HURT your chances of becoming an original artist? There are tons of positives to taking this approach, and plenty of negatives. Since I love lists, here are the pros and cons to choosing the “cover gigs for money while I pursue my dreams” path that I chose.
You make money… playing music!
There are TONS of bars and clubs that hire weekly (if not nightly) entertainment. And in this world, solo acoustic (guitar) gigs are by far the most common, and also the easiest to make a living from. Some parts of the country are better than others. I live in Northern Virginia, which lets me play the entire Washington DC area. The primary booking agency I go through books several hundred rooms locally for every night of the week! Money varies wildly, depending on many factors. But making a couple hundred bucks a night playing music can be pretty alluring. It won’t make you rich, but you can pay the bills.
It makes you a better performer
Hone your skills! Playing lots of cover shows will give you a chance to become a better singer, better at your instrument of choice, improves your stage presence, improves your ability to read a crowd, and will increase your endurance.
Become a better songwriter
Many guys (or girls) that play the circuit know several hundred songs. If you learn 200 songs that some of the all time great songwriters wrote, I guarantee that you will become a better writer of original material. Studying the great pop songs of the last several decades can teach you how to write songs that are more palatable to the average listener. It’s like your very own college level class in “How To Write a Pop Song 101”. You are bound to pick up some songwriting tips, learn some new chord changes, notice how Dylan wrote his bridges, fall in love with the harmonies of Simon and Garfunkal, or find the unique song structure of Radiohead something you want to incorporate into your own song. It also keeps your finger on the pulse of top 40 songs, and what direction the music tastes of the masses are heading.
Playing the cover market allows you to meet the local agents, club promoters, bar owners, etc. But most importantly it allows you to meet other musicians. Don’t get me wrong – if you are gigging 5 nights per week, you aren’t going to have much time to meet many other performers. But I have made it a point to go out and see other players on my nights off. I introduce myself, I exchange emails, I stay in touch. There is a natural bond you will have with others that are trying to climb the same mountain you are. When just starting out, their advice (on many topics) will be extremely valuable. And the relationships can pay off in many ways. Future bookings, guest musicians on albums, subs if you’re sick – these are all benefits I have received from meeting my fellow cover club players. You will quickly find out that most folks playing cover clubs are also trying to “make it” too. Some just more seriously than others.
Increase your fanbase
Even if you are playing a cover club, you should still have an email list signup floating around. The new fans you make will hopefully come to see you when you are playing all of your own music in the future!
Try out new originals
You should be playing at least SOME original songs during the night – even if the bar is paying you to play songs that the entire bar knows. This will let the crowd know that you are an original artist (which might help you sell some original CDs at your cover gig!), but will also let you try out new material and see how a crowd reacts to it. But don’t forget – the crowd is NOT there to hear original music, so this is not the best barometer to gauge how great your new song is… but it’s better than nothing. All the bar owner really cares about is if you are entertaining the crowd and keeping people there to spend more money longer. Push the limits and play as many originals as you can.
About 15-20% of the songs I play out at a typical bar gig are my own original songs. Some guys play 0%, other guys play 95%. It all depends on what the bar approves, what the crowd demands/expects, your ability/reputation, how your originals fit within your setlist and several other factors. Ted Garber, a friend and local DC musician who has successfully transitioned from primarily a cover artist to an original artist, speaks from experience when he told me that “Whatever you are doing, you are getting better at. What you aren’t doing, you aren’t getting better at. If you want to get better at honing your craft, then you have to play your songs.”
No Pressure to Pack
Although most bars very much appreciate it when you bring in your own fans, most cover clubs have a built in audience. Often times, your job is to KEEP the barflies there, not to bring them in the door. This especially holds true when playing restaurants and places that make the majority of their income from food service rather than alcohol. Not having to be ultimately responsible for packing the place with your fans (like you are for most original gigs) allows you to not worry about massive marketing efforts. Especially if you are playing several gigs per week in a small geographical area, it gets hard to ask your friends and fans to come out to support you so often.
It’s hard to beat the rush you get when you are playing in a packed bar and every person in the room is singing at the top of their lungs along with you. The cute girl talks to you during a set break. The dude in the corner just offered you a grand to play a summer bar-b-que at his house. You feel like a rock star. The energy and enjoyment can be very alluring.