The Case For The Cover BanD
by Matt Biancardi

Somewhere in your home town this weekend, the latest up-and-coming noise-psyche-garage-doom band will blaze through a set of original material for a half-empty basement of glass-eyed twenty-somethings. Meanwhile, across town, Better than Better than Ezra -- a fictional band, feel free to take the name -- is trudging through Pixies’ “Where is My Mind” for a bar full of people who couldn’t be more thrilled to hear one of their favorite songs.

When original and cover bands are considered side-by-side in the music community, the original band is always awarded more credibility and respect while cover bands are slighted, despite the fact that many feature competent and accomplished musicians who are getting paid to do what they love: perform.

And that’s why we’re here today. I present for your consideration: The Case for the Cover Band.

Doing It For Experience
Unless you’ve already drained your soul to play for the bartender and a couple stray patrons on a Tuesday for months on end, the number of shows an original band is going to play is likely to be few and far between. Establishing an act people are unfamiliar with takes time and patience, and in the meantime you could be missing out on valuable experience onstage.

As a cover band, your options and opportunities are far wider, though there’s still work to be done getting your name out, making the rounds through venue circuits. Weekends are made for the masses to flood bars and guzzle alcohol, and bar owners need need entertainment to keep drinks coming and wallets open. Cover bands are a necessary commodity for lots of bars, so getting more slots and longer sets is a lot less of a headache. Added stage time means more hours spent learning and honing how to carry yourself on stage, which in turn means a faster avenue to becoming a better live musician.

Experience is a currency, and choosing how to spend it is wholly your decision. Are you playing in a cover band as a means to build your chops and make an original band? Great. You’ll have an exponentially larger vocabulary of technique for your instrument and reference points for crafting music from the repertoire of songs you played in that three-hour block of covers. Newton famously wrote “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” and in this case, those shoulders could be Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” that springs you to tomorrow’s next hit.

Conversely, do you just want to play in a cover band because you like being on a stage and playing music? That’s just as great. There’s no shame in working a career and playing out in a cover band on the weekends. It’s a wise way to hold down a steady income, make a little extra on the side, and have fun all at the same time.

Doing It For Money
Speaking of compensation, there's a lot more to be found in cover bands than in original music. While there are the few who break through, tour nationally, and sign record deals, the vast majority of bands playing their own music are playing for free and even opting for “pay-to-play” (yuck) just for the exposure. Any money they do make usually gets funneled back into making new merch and saving up to record an album. In my time playing with an original band that played great spots on bills in Chicago and did some regional touring, I didn’t see a cent. While my intent for the band wasn’t a steady living, getting a little money in your hand at the end of a night of schlepping, playing, and busting to sell merch feels a hell of a lot better than shelling money out for your hard work.

A base-line functioning cover band will play out at least once a month. Depending on the talent in the group and their desire to perform, that number can leap to every weekend if all members are determined to get out there. For a three to four hour set, you can expect at least a couple hundred, and if you’re established with a track record, around five hundred or more. When you’re at it for awhile, an extra hundred some-odd bucks a weekend feels pretty good for a night spent playing music for drunk people.

If you’re set on making music your career, you don’t have to stop at the weekend warrior act. Professional cover bands tour nationally and play everywhere from casinos to state fairs to a town’s biggest bar on a Saturday night, making enough to support themselves and their families. Prefer another avenue? Cruise ships, amusement parks, and resorts, much like bars, bank heavily on entertainment and always need reliable musicians who can hit a mark every time in their ranks, and the same can be said of weddings and corporate events. Playing in a cover band seasons you to consistently perform and produce a quality show time after time. These institutions look for resumes and playing samples, and if you develop a rapport in your regional cover circuit with references and get a quality recording of your playing, you’re already a leg up on other applicants.

Doing It For Fun
We talked experience and we talked money, and now we arrive at the most important pillar in support of the cover band: they’re FUN. They’re a hoot. Sure, there are the logistics of practicing, setting up shows and transporting gear, but at its core, a cover band is a good time. Who wouldn’t have fun playing in a band named The Food Fighters (actual tribute band) or Aerosith (also actual Aerosmith/Star Wars tribute band, I can’t make this up). A certain degree of ham is not only expected, but encouraged, because the band wants to have just as much fun as the audience at the bar. In my hometown, there’s a cover band named One Ton Trio, and they go by that name because they’re some of the heftiest men I’ve ever seen on a stage. Self-deprecating? Maybe. Funny? I’d like to think so.

My Dad’s been a musician for nearly forty years and played in cover bands since I was born. I have (not so) fond memories of him drafting me and my brothers when we were kids to help lug his impossibly heavy bass rig and PA into the truck for a Saturday gig, but when he got back, we always liked to hear about the show and how he thought it went. While writing this, I shot him a text asking “What’s your favorite part about being in a cover band?” His response? “Watching people dance.” There’s little in life more rewarding than a job well done, and I can’t think of a better job well done than watching a drunk guy trying to dance to Pat Benatar.

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