Local Cover Bands
Why we are set up for failure at almost every gig. But all is not lost…

It would be an extreme understatement to say that local cover bands are not paid near as much as they should be. There are many reasons why bands do not make the money that they should be, such as the bands not being worth the money or that their song selection is mediocre. But no decent venue will hire a band that they have not previewed (throwing the song selection concept out the window). That being said, I have done a lot of research and discussed with many people (musicians and non-musicians) to get different views on the matter. Even my wife had used the exact words “it’s like they set your band up to fail.” Here’s how.

The 4 hour gig – Possibly the biggest killer of local cover bands

This is one of the biggest problems that musicians have, yet do not even realize. But let’s break it down like this: the longer your band plays, the higher the bounce rate. This is a huge problem because the person hiring you is going to say “your band can’t seem to hold an audience.” From there, you can expect to never get a raise and that venue has a reason to drop your band at any time and move on to the next one.

It’s extremely difficult to get even your closest friends and family to come out for 4 hours
Regardless of where you are playing, if you invite 500 people to your gig you will rarely see more than 5% of them at your gig. The reason why is simple, there are multiple negative thoughts that run through the minds of your potential crowd. Especially when your audience consists of friends and family.

Some examples:

  • If they go to your gig and do not want to feel like they are being rude, they have to sit there for 4 hours. That’s insane to ask someone to sit and watch you play for 4 hours.
  • If they go to your gig and get up and walk out when they want to, it most likely will not be during your break. This makes people feel rude and awkward, and so they are more inclined to simply decline the offer to watch your band play.
  • You cannot advertise that your band is playing a concert, since you are playing so long you are actually just a house band for the night. How many times does Billy Joel put on a concert lasting 4 hours?
  • You are promoting the business where you are playing more-so than your band with these gigs. People will stay if they like the place you are playing at, since they are forced to stand or eat or drink.
  • If a group of people come in and do not like your music, this will count against you more than it should
  • If regulars of the venue or simply people who were checking out the place for the first time show up and do not like your band, they will most likely first ask how long you are playing for. I hate to make this such a negative statement against your band, but this is a moment where a negative statement towards management could be avoided.
  • If they find out that you are only playing for another 30 minutes that group of people might stay instead of drive around looking for another place to go. This will work in your bands favor. If they leave because you still have 2 and a half more hours to go, they will leave. This will be held against you, guaranteed.

99% of venues are going to pay the same amount no matter how long you are playing
Very rarely does a venue have multiple bands or artists performing. Their budget is set to pay a band a certain amount of money, and it’s typically non-negotiable. So whether your band plays for 3 hours or 6 hours, the place hiring you is only prepared to pay you so much money. So of course they are going to expect you to play for 4 hours. That’s what has been going on for decades, and they want to get their money’s worth regardless of if you are getting your money’s worth. Keep this in mind the next time you plan a gig and don’t want to be there for 4 hours.

4 hour gigs also make it extremely difficult for a local cover band to avoid becoming a bar band
Many bands start out with covers to get their feet wet, but actually aspire to become bigger than a local cover band. Your band writes music and would like to eventually get their name out there, maybe go on tour, and possibly even get signed by a record label. But you have to play gigs to get some local following and develop a small fan base and to make a couple of extra bucks. If your band is just starting out, the odds of you having 4 hours worth of quality original material are very bad.

This leads to putting together a set list consisting of mostly cover songs. From there, your local cover band will find themselves practicing a lot more to get more material and running into the problem where people want to hear certain cover songs as opposed to your own songs. If your gig was only 2 hours, you could do one set of covers and one set of original music, or blend the two to guarantee people’s attention.

The sound check – That extra hour or two that you have to spend at the gig
Let’s say you have a gig where someone else is playing for only an hour before you. If your band is supposed to start at 7, they are probably going on at 6. This means that you now have two people who have to get sound checks, and means that each of you has to get there earlier. Most likely you will be expected to be there 2 hours before hand since as I mentioned you will have to set up before the opening act and you don’t want to leave all of your equipment unattended. Well now your 4 hour gig has turned into 8 hours once driving and set up and sound check and tear down are considered. But you love what you do, right?

The more music you are expected to play leads to higher chances of playing a song that people do not want to hear. Sadly, it’s not feasible to play many of the songs out there today. Especially if you are attempting to do Top 40. If you are playing music that is popular today you will have to do a lot of converting to play these songs with real instruments. This takes a lot of time already, and you run the risk of people not liking your version. But if you didn’t have a ton of time to fill for your gigs, you wouldn’t have to do this. It’s very unlikely that by your third set you are still pumping out killer songs that everyone loves.

For the people that you bring to your gig: If the venue sucks, you suck
When you bring a following out to see your performance, you think that a message is sent to the owner that you can bring a crowd and in turn this makes your band more valuable. But if you have a restaurant / bar / whatever it is that serves garbage food (which a lot of them do) or they have horrible wait staff (which a lot of them do), those people may not come see you ever again. They may also choose to leave early due to poor treatment from the staff. You can’t blame them, but it sadly only works against you, not the venue. The reason why is unfortunately very simple: When your band is playing at, say, a restaurant and you convince all your friends and family to come out, that restaurant is part of your performance. Just like going to a dinner theater. If the food sucks, those who paid to see the show will probably never return. 4 hours is a show, not a concert, and people always want their money’s worth.

The cover charge: Your success turned around on a dime
One of the commonly assumed situations is that if you bring a crowd, you can ask for more money. Well many venue owners will take this as an opportunity to put a cover charge on the event. This idea is okay in some cases such as if the venue does not sell food, or if you are putting on an actual concert. But if people come to see a show and stay longer than 2 hours but aren’t buying any food or drinks, why would it be the band’s fault? It’s not, but I guarantee that the person who runs the place will suggest that it is. So the idea is to charge at the door, usually starting around $5 or $10, and then expect each person to come in and spend more money on food and/or drinks. This concept is fantastic if you live in a rich area or where people don’t mind spending all of their money, but there’s a huge loss to be expected. Here’s why.

Charging a cover at the door of a small show can destroy any opportunity of gaining new fans
If you have a family of 4 and want to go to a restaurant that you have not been to before, but you do not know the band that is playing, you probably won’t pay the door charge to get in. Because once you get in, your family still has to eat and you don’t even know if you will like the band performing. Even if they only charge $5 to get in, you have spent $20 for your family to get in. Two people can eat at Chili’s for $20. Now you have this concept that is actually a hybrid (concert and dinner show combined) that is analytically a poorly billed concert (very poorly). If you sell tickets to a show, you are certain that your profits will be met immediately. If you are taking a risk, it is instantly not worth it. Local cover bands, unless guaranteeing a huge following, are a risk. Therefore charging a cover hurts both the business and the band, but mostly the band.

How do we fix this? Can we fix this?
Yes, we most certain can fix these problems and all of the others. But it takes some work. All of the following are simply my suggestions from a business stand point and a musician’s stand point. But we have all watched the live band scene die slowly over the years. Few of the major concerts that come to town even feature musicians anymore, as people are allowing their entertainment to get away with bringing a DJ booth with them and simply performing the songs via pre-recorded tracks. So here is what we have to do:

1. Create a show worth seeing
This is an example of how more effort leads to better results. But if you and your band mates can put on a show instead of simply playing a bunch of songs, you increase the chance of success ten-fold. Here are some examples:

  • Don’t pick your songs on the fly, professionals use set-lists and stick to them
  • Plan on starting and ending each set with your best songs, this keeps your crowd wanting more
  • If possible, create a guideline for the look of each member. For instance: everyone wearing a black shirt and jeans, or each member wears white except the singer.
  • Bring some colored lights and/or a fog machine with you. Small effects for a small show can create a big impact.
  • Talk to your crowd the way your favorite band(s) talk to their crowds. Interaction is a great way to keep your crowd involved.

2. Do not sell yourself short
When you are making arrangements for your performance, be stern that while you are willing to accept a smaller fee to play the first time, the cost will go up. Otherwise, the owner of your selected venue may not take you seriously if you do not take yourself seriously. And of course they are going to pay you as little as they possibly can, why wouldn’t they? Nobody wants to give their money away.

3. Make the venues need you, as opposed to you needing them
Everyone has Facebook, Twitter, and a million other Social Media accounts. Use them to your advantage. Promote your event weeks out, and remind people daily (even multiple times a day sometimes). Remember that after your post goes up, everyone else’s posts start to bury it. If you put enough work into even just your very first show and bring out enough people to pack your venue, you can forever say that you are able to pack a house. And if your crowd truly loves your performance (which you are going to make them love) you can count on most of them coming to your next shows.

4. Take pictures and videos of your crowds
You did all kinds of work to get your first show to be a success, and it was. Make sure that you have pictures from your view as well as other views throughout the place. This way, you can show the next place that you are looking to play at how your shows go as far as crowds are concerned. This leads to being able to ask for more money from the get go, as you are able to assure the owner that your shows are worth their money.

5. Most importantly – Have fun at your shows
You love to play music, and showing this during your shows will prove to be the greatest advice that anyone can give and receive. If you are having fun, your crowd will have fun. And they have fun, they will give you great reviews and not only make you love what you do even more but help show to your employers (the venues) just how worth it your band is.

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