Pictured: Guns 4 Roses, a killer Guns N' Roses cover band
“Do you guys play originals?” If I had a dime for every time I was asked this question, I would be a goddamn millionaire.
After constant run-ins with strangers bringing up their relatives being in a cover band, it seemed they were under the impression that it’s impossible to write your own music. After being in a touring band for the last decade of my life, I didn’t understand that mentality. It was the same revelation I had when I thought no one genuinely listened to radio rock and nu-metal, then realized the world outside of my scene was the majority. Why was this part of the music world so far removed from mine? From what I understood, cover bands generally make more money playing the same town every weekend without having the stress of touring or people liking their original material. Did they have higher aspirations or just do it for a quick buck? Let’s take a look into the life of a cover band.
So why do cover bands make more money than the average local band? One word: Alcohol. You’re not likely to find a cover band frequenting a place without a bar. The average bar week has a few big “drinking days” as well as drink specials, but they are genuinely pretty dead the rest of the time. A safe bet to bring in some more people without having to listen to terrible karaoke is hiring a cover band. Whether it’s a local owner or a corporate chain, these people are willing to spend the big bucks on music that will keep people entertained, happy, and drinking (hopefully a lot). Expect everything from Led Zeppelin to pop country. If the band develops a fan base, you can guarantee the bar is making bank each night they play. Based on my friends doing this over the years, a good cover band can expect between $300 to $500 per show after playing four sets a night. If you do well enough and want to make the big bucks, you can get into the wedding band circuit. People have ridiculous budgets to spend and if you’re professional enough, you can make it a weekly gig. The trade off is getting paid well to play more music even though you didn’t write any of it.
I was finally able to experience the strange cover band atmosphere when my friends and I started a 90s cover band called Salute Your Shorts. We loved the radio jams of that decade and grew up in it, so we figured it would be easy to play what we already knew. We whipped up a 45-minute set and were able to play some extremely bizarre shows ranging from a private accounting firm party to an 11 AM slot on St. Patrick’s Day for 20 people. When we played in our element, a punk rock club, we would do well. When we’d play one of these typical bar band settings, it would get to us a little too much. Half of our cover band members were in an international touring band and the other half were in bands who did well in the state. We set up our gear in an Italian restaurant for my brother’s wife’s accounting firm party and when I hit the snare drum once, the room full of old people cleared out instantly. We played two or three sets to a few people and still collected $500. When we played the bar at 11 AM, we played for a few of our friends who weren’t working, and about 15 people sitting at the bar facing away from us. The only way we made it through was telling ourselves we were getting paid. Sure it’s easy money, but when you’re coming from the, “playing originals” side of things, your morale plays a large role.
Are there bigger picture success stories for people playing covers as a career? Oh hell yes. In a previous article, I mentioned Rick K and the Allnighters featuring the infamous Drummer At The Wrong Gig. These guys are playing 150 to 200 shows a year and getting paid well. Are they rock gods playing to crowds in arenas? No, but they’re making a steady paycheck by simply playing music. Sometimes strange instances happen like Journey picking their new singer right out of a cover band a la the film, Rock Star. If you’re good enough at replicating someone’s sound or style, there’s always a chance you can end up in your favorite band. Speaking of Steel Dragon, one band that started out playing covers in LA is Steel Panther. They had a residency at the Key Club playing 80s hair metal hits and as their popularity grew, they became a major attraction for the club. Celebrities would show up and be pulled on stage to play along and things overall became something really special. Now they write original material and tour the world.
The Molly Ringwalds
Now it’s reality check time. Just like any band trying to make it, cover bands have it just as hard. Realistically they’ll be playing every Saturday at a bar you didn’t know existed in hopes they’ll get some free drinks and the members can walk away with $80 at the end of the night if they don’t take the two orders of chicken fingers out of their pay. Sometimes, there are really great standout bands with cool gimmicks and can make a whole room explode with adrenaline. Other times, there’s a dimly lit bar with five people having a conversation as a band playing their hearts out to “Stairway To Heaven” in hopes they’ll get noticed. Instant gratification will come from doing the cover band circuit because technically, all of your songs are hits. That’s why you never see punk or hardcore bands playing sports bars on a weekly basis. People want only what does well, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to get someone else to play it for them.
My roommate Eric, who eventually left his cover band, put it into perspective when he said something along the lines of, “A gig is when you’re playing for money and a show is when you’re playing because you want to.” It made a lot of sense. I walked away from all of this knowing I couldn’t consistently play someone else’s music and although I have an ironic “gig life” tattoo, I was not built to gig in that sense. When you’re playing music you wrote, the lows are low, but the highs are pretty damn high. I’ve been able to travel all over the world playing music and although I don’t have much financially to show for it, I have some great stories. That’s just me. On paper, it is financially safer and smarter to join a cover band. You don’t have to write the music, you get to experiment with different styles and better yourself as a musician and at the end of the day, you’re still getting paid to do what you love.
So when I'm inevitably asked that magical question again, I will simply reply with, "Yes, stranger. I do play originals."
In addition to Salute Your Shorts, Jonathan Diener is also the drummer for "real band" the Swellers. Follow him on Twitter - @jonodiener