Tips for Cover Bands!
Invaluable tips and insight for working cover bands
There are many types of bands out there. You have original bands, cover bands, tribute bands, etc. Within those categories are subcategories like hobbyists, working musicians, etc. I’ve met plenty of different players. Some are young guys just trying to gain experience and have fun. Some are over-the-hill guys that just like to get out and play once in a while. There are even those folks who make a hefty living in a career they’ve maintained for 20-30 years, and they just like to get out and play once in a while, even if it’s just for a few bucks at the door or tips.
When it comes to performing in the local music scene, I find many musicians don’t exercise details that could certainly better their experience as performing musicians. While I am targeting my fellow cover-band performers, I hope these tips are helpful to anyone no matter what your goals are for your live music project.
I’ve always joked that when it comes to performances, I’m a jack of all trades and a master of none. I’ve had horrible gigs, fantastic large shows, and everything in between. My band was featured on a big sports news station once, too! Sure, it was about 10 seconds of coverage, and I was on the show for about 2 seconds, but that counts, right? All joking aside, I’ve learned to take every experience and learn from each one. They all have some value, whether you’re playing a theatre for a near 1000 in attendance or a local burger joint for 50 hungry munchers. You’re there, you’re playing, and at the end of the night, many of us start to reflect on the pros and cons of the evening. My philosophy is this; there are no cons. (Not entirely true, but it’s a good mindset most of the time!) Take the good with the bad, but the bad is there just to show you what didn’t work. We can all learn from this and know what to avoid the next time. The scientific method applies here. If it doesn’t work, that’s one more thing that doesn’t work. You’re now closer to the best way possible. We call this improvement. As a teacher, I’ve always said, “Practice makes progress.” I don’t believe in perfection, we’re always growing, and we never stop.
Let’s approach the cover band gig together from start to finish, shall we? We’ve all been there. We have to get to the venue, load in, setup, sound check, play for a few hours, break everything down at the end of the night, then put it all back in the car and head home. If you live in an area with a bit of a crime issue or extreme temperatures, you likely have to empty your vehicle at the end of that very long night, too. I feel for those with stairs at home; I’ve suffered through that experience as well!
Step 1, BE READY before you leave.
There’s no worse feeling for me personally than leaving and realizing I’ve forgotten something at home. I also hate that feeling of rushing anywhere. When I was younger, I was tested a few times in my overall academic performance skills. Once for an IQ test, once to see if I had any learning issues. What all tests always showed me was that no matter how savvy I was in regards to any subject or skill, I failed when the clock was involved. I don’t like rushing, I never have. Always consider the time you need to get ready before leaving the house. You have to get dressed, maybe fix up your hair or whatever you do extra. You have to pack up your gear and put it in the car. Maybe you need gas or want to fuel yourself up with a meal before you go.
My routine is well thought out, and I use a little checklist on my phone for myself to make sure I don’t drop the ball and throw myself into an unprepared-panic. When the day starts, I’ll lay out the clothes I want to wear to the gig/show. These words, gig/show, are often interchanged, which is fine, but I find that one illustrates a more serious job than the other. I wouldn’t say, “I’m putting on a show at the local coffee house.” That just sounds silly. I’ve got a gig. Simple. For that gig, I just throw on my jeans and a nice shirt and off I go. For a big show? Lights? Stage? Well, maybe I need to choose my attire more carefully. So I resolve my clothing dilemma and lay my clothes out to put them on later. I always check my gas and make sure I squeeze in a meal before a gig. I refuse to eat food at any venue I go to because of negative past experiences. I have a sensitive stomach, and on more than one occasion I’ve wound up with food poisoning or just a severe adverse reaction to the food resulting in my being nearly unable to perform. I perform, but it’s a terrible experience for both me and the audience as I play nearly doubled over or having to rush off stage to the bathroom. So I eat at home. Some musicians like to grab a beer at the venue. I don’t drink, and I have an almost religious approach to what I drink at shows, so I pack and bring my own. In most cases, that means stopping at a local store on the way to the show to refill my sports bottle. Then there’s that; I can’t forget my sports bottle. I bought a black one, so it doesn’t stand out on stage. Why a sports bottle? Because I don’t feel it’s proper to leave drink bottles and cans lying around the place, do you? It looks sloppy on stage, and it’s also disrespectful tot he venue. Would you tell the owner, “I don’t like your drinks, I’m bringing my own?” No one thinks negatively of any musician if he happens to bring an unlabeled bottle to drink out of, but there’s something not right about packing your own labeled beverages in a place that serves nearly the same drinks. So I conceal mine in a discreet black bottle. Are you still wondering what I drink? It’s not that valuable or extravagant, honestly. I’m a health nut, so I fill my bottle with organic coconut water. You may now laugh.
Are you like me? Do you like to run through your songs or double check a few things in your gear the day of the show? Do you need that at-home warm up? If so, you know that you will not be able to pack up until close to the time that you have to leave. So again, budget your time wisely. I give myself enough time for food, filling up that coconut water bottle, getting dressed, brushing my hair (I’m in the long-haired hippy club), and packing up my gear to load it into the car. As a guitarist, I do have a lot of gear, so my trips to and from the car average about four or five. Another two things I have to factor in my arrival time are traffic and parking. Some places are out in the middle of nowhere with ample parking and not a car in sight. Other areas land us in rush-hour traffic with no street parking and parking decks in the city that are quite far from the venue’s location. All of this has to be accounted for when traveling to the show.
NEVER BE LATE.
I’ve mentioned my above routine because there’s nothing more detrimental to a band than being late. You can be the best band in the area, but if you show the venue that you’re not good at starting on time, the venue won’t hire you back. You don’t want just to book that one gig, you want future gigs. You want to be on that venue’s calendar for the whole year. You want to fill your schedule with shows everywhere. Be responsible. Be on time.
Many times for my downtown/city shows I find myself dealing with parking garages and street parking (which is quite sparse!) In those cases, first come, first serve is my philosophy. However, let’s think about those venues which have their parking lots. I consider it good form to reflect on the patrons first. If you have five people in your band, that’s five parking spaces you will be taking up. A little walking is good for you, whenever possible leave the closer areas open to the public. They may not consciously think about thank you, but in the end, they make a mental note that “parking doesn’t suck” at that venue. This little detail is yet one more reason for people to want to come back to that place. Remember, most of your patrons are local to the evnue. Your followers are coming, too, but those local folks are just as necessary. The locals will come more often if parking is accommodating. So will your loyal fans. There are plenty of people who look at the parking and start reconsidering if they wish to park or drive up the road to another venue and check out the parking situation and band playing there instead. A little bit of consideration goes a long way sometimes. Always think about the long term effect.
Whether you have a light weight load or a whole lot of gear, consider the patrons and the establishment. I’ve seen some pretty horrendous things over the years. Play nicely! A few of the dos and don’ts for loading in:
• Whenever possible, ask for and use a door other than the main entrance. In some cases, this isn’t an option. In other situations it’s mandatory. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask. In fact, asking where to load in when you’re at a new venue is polite. Sure, the main door may be okay with the venue owners, but check anyway. This gesture shows the venue owners that you care about their establishment and have arrived as a guest.
• Try not to load in loudly. Shouting, clanking, banging, and loud thuds are unprofessional. Not only do you come off like a gorilla, but you may also disturb a patron who will likely walk out. Some of the folks that are there before you even arrive may very well consider staying to hear them play. Give them no reason to dislike you. Imagine, you show up at a place that is serving meals. Those diners are enjoying themselves as they eat and drink, but then you arrive – bam, boom, crash! How rude.
• Always ask a new venue where you’d like to setup. It’s true, at times venues aren’t even prepared, and you can wind up waiting for them to space. Always ask if it’s a new place for your band. You don’t own the place.
• Smile. People will very much look at you as you come in carrying gear, gear, and even more equipment. Don’t forget to smile. You want them to like you. Sure, you’ve had a long day at work, and now you have to lug all of this heavy stuff in the door just to have a few hours of fun. Smile about it! The FUN is the factor you want to advertise, not the labor. Don’t groan, don’t grunt. Just do it.
Every band has a different setup. Do you have a banner or two that you hang up? Are you in the modest wire category or do you have 50 cables to drop and plug in? How many people are in your band? Which instruments?
There’s a proper order to doing things. Have you ever been in that situation where you felt you were always bumping into your bandmates while setting up? It gets worse in a small space! To avoid this, setup in the proper sequence, the background to the foreground:
• Setup your back line first. If you have a banner, get that setup back there behind the band. My band has a ten-foot wide banner that’s about 4-5 feet deep. Passing it over an already setup stage to set it up in the back is a pain in the butt.
• Lights. Are you using lights? If you have lights that go in the back, set them up back there, too. You don’t have to plug them in yet, but get them up on their racks and trees and have them ready.
• PA and wires. Get these setup next. Place your speakers and mixer. Drop your cables and plug in what’s necessary. Run initially by the board (or snake), then AROUND the stage, and leave wires that will be needed by the band members dropped in their respective locations. More on this in a moment…
• Drums. Here’s a guy that will have a lot of gear and will take up some space. Don’t get in his way. Does your drummer use a pretty hefty kit? Is he using a drum riser? Let him set these things up before everyone else starts tripping on things.
• Guitars, keys, etc. Get those amps and instruments setup next.
• The frontline: Mic stands, (monitor speakers should be setup along with the PA), and floor units.
HIDE THOSE WIRES!
When it does come down to wires, don’t let them lay around. Tangled bunches look horrible and unprofessional. This place isn’t your garage. You don’t want clutter on the stage. Keep things neat. You’ll appreciate these meticulous details more when you have 50 wires to contend with, and suddenly something isn’t working correctly. Don’t leave yourself struggling to troubleshoot a sound issue. Locating a dead wire can be a chore, and you don’t want to waste time. Remember? Starting late is bad news! Drop all cables around the stage and lay them flat and neatly in a straight line. Leave the extra slack looped neatly at the open end of the wires. You can even do what I do and keep the excess tied with a velcro loop. This method will look neater and prevent tangles. Those velcro wraps aren’t just for putting away your cables. Use them during setup if you need to do so.
As a guitarist, I try to run wirelessly, but because of my personal rig’s complexity, I find I have to run some wires down the middle of the stage directly from front to back. I understand that sometimes, we just don’t have wires that are long enough to go around the stage area. When this happens, we have our best buddy at hand – stage tape! Also called, gaffers tape, this is a valuable asset. Many people, myself included, think this proprietary one-of-a-kind tape is far too expensive. Well, it is overpriced. I wish it were cheaper, but you’ll be thankful in the end when you accept that it’s a necessary part of your inventory. Some folks will avoid spending the $15-$20 (or more) per roll and just not tape things down at all. Or, they’ll grab the old reliable roll of duct tape. Here’s why you want real stage tape:
• No residue. This tape is the only tape as strong as duct tape that won’t leave sticky glue all over your wires. It’s a good, strong fabric tape that will hold great, but doesn’t have that gluey mess.
• Black. Sure, duct tape is also black, but most duct tape (or any tape, really) comes in a high gloss. The fabric used for stage tape doesn’t shine. So it doesn’t draw attention to itself on stage. You want to use it for both anchoring wires down, so you don’t trip on them, and concealing them, so the audience pays no mind to their existence. You want the audience to notice your band members, instruments, and other gear. They don’t need to see your many messy wires.
This tape can also be useful for some low-maintenance temporary solutions to typical stage dilemmas.
• Is one of your stands drooping or not holding up correctly? Try wrapping the thinner part of the stand at the extension point in tape. It’ll come off easily later, and the tape will create a blockage to keep the stand upright.
• Need a place to store picks? Most of us as guitarists keep them in our pockets, on a pick strip, etc. However, if you are in one of those last-minute moments where you want to put them somewhere accessible, tear a thin piece of gaffers tape and double-side it to a stand, or your amp, or something similar. You can stick a few picks to it for use later. Just remember… don’t press the picks in too hard! You don’t want to remove the tape when you grab a pick. Just let them rest there, it’ll hold.
• Worried about spilled beverages ruining your floor board? No worries. Most processing units are black, and again so is our wonderful tape. Cover all open ports with tape. No worries! You can even put some thin pieces around any seams that may be exposed. For example, around an LCD screen. It’s easy to wipe off your now water-resistant board at the end of the night, and then just remove the tape with ease. A few seconds and that “overpriced tape” just saved you a pretty hefty repair or replacement fee.
NOW IT’S TIME TO PLAY! BUT FIRST, YOU DID AGREE ON A PRICE BEFORE BOOKING THE SHOW, YES?
Wow! All of that was just to get ready? That’s a lot of work, which is why it’s important to keep a valid price for your time. Door fees are unpredictable and at times costly. Someone can easily pocket a few dollars at the door and not tell the band. You could ask a friend to watch the door. However, all night? That friend deserves a little money for his or her time. That’s going to cost you, too. Agree on a flat rate. Don’t bend too much. On average, a band should be charging no less than $100 per band member. Groups that have four members and *settled* on a mere $250 are destroying the market. If a venue is relying on groups to make them money, they likely won’t be in business for too long. Venues should already have it within the budget to afford a weekend band or two. So tell them what you charge and stick to your guns. The other bands out there will appreciate you, too. Keeping the market up is beneficial to every group in your area, not just yours. Sure, we want to help the venue out, too, but you WILL if you keep the patrons on the dance floor and visiting the bar for drinks. That’s your job. You’re not just a musician; you’re a very dignified beer merchant. And as a beer dealer, you should be paid for your time and hard work.
Well, we assume you did a little social media publicity and hung some posters up around town, but there’s more. You need to advertise while you’re working, too. How do you ask? Have business cards handy. Give them out when you can. I have custom printed guitar picks with the band’s web address on them. I give those out every show. Also, don’t just advertise yourself, announce the venue! “Please visit the bar” and “remember to tip your waiter/waitress/bartender” are essential phrases. You want people to spend money. If the place makes money, you make money. Tip jar? Sure, that’s up to you, but why not?
Let’s assume you picked out some nice attire for the night. Whew! That’s settled. Now let’s talk about stage presence, sound, etc.
We’re all tired, we all get tired. Don’t stand around looking like a bored lump on a log. Sure, you’re tired. Sure, the place is having a dead night, and you’re a bored. Yes, you HATE that one song. Don’t mope. Smile. Have fun. Believe it or not, your attitude is contagious. I say it all the time, but musicians underestimate their influence and power on stage. Take the singer that gracefully dismisses a rude heckler. That only worked because he’s holding a mic and has the status of “front man.” He’s just a jerk looking for a knuckle sandwich if he’s standing in the crowd telling off the other jerk. Musicians have some power and influence. Be positive, and keep everyone having fun based on the observation that you are having a good time. Mad at someone? Your boss? Your spouse? Your irresponsible teenager? Your … fellow bandmate? Let HIM choose to mope. YOU smile. Have fun. Be nice. Enjoy yourself. You’ll feel great at the end of the night, if not at least better than you did when you walked in the door.
Stage presence is important. Smiling is part of that. So is moving around. You can choose to take full advantage of your wireless rig and parade around the room and climb on the furniture, but that’s not mandatory. Move a little. Interact with your bandmates. Eye contact with them is necessary and meaningful. Approach someone else in the band, don’t stay in one spot all night. Move a bit to the music. You don’t have to be Michael Jackson up there, but don’t be an old oak tree, either! How you appear is transmittable to your fans, too.
Your songs. So you’re a cover band? Well, great! Now, which songs have you selected to play? I hope you haven’t picked them based on:
• How easy they are to play.
• One of your personal favorites.
• A song that you deem “better” or “cooler” than other songs.
• Technical difficulty.
Your listeners aren’t musicians. They don’t care what you like. They care what THEY like. Are you playing a biker bar? Play some hard rock and metal. Are you playing a posh little preppy crowd or middle-aged working-class folks? Play something from their generation, something danceable and fun. Are you playing for the college crowd? Choose some newer music. Always remember that your listeners want to dance, interact, and have fun. Sure, it is nice to pick a few of those songs that spotlight everyone’s talents. Pick one that has a little drum solo or killer guitar solo. Just… not too many. That’s not how we choose our songs. Think about the INTERACTIVE songs. Sing-along songs are great! Which songs will people truly know all the words to and want to sing along with while you play the songs? Get the crowd worked up before the song begins. As a guy that lives in “the south” in America, I see some patriotism down here. When we play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthemic Sweet Home Alabama we know people will be happy. So we milk it. Before the song gets going, we run a little impromptu contest. We ask our southern born audience members to make a little noise. Then we ask the northern ones. We compare the noise factor and give them each another chance to compete for whoever is the loudest. In the end, the south almost always wins, and we interrupt their screams with the introduction of the song. Now, of course, you’ve brought their screams up louder for a moment. We as musicians feed off this sound. They are excited. We’re now excited. We play harder and enjoy ourselves. If nothing more, the next four or five minutes are going to be great!
A little anticipation goes a long way. Sometimes we need those introductions to songs. Something to get everyone thinking a moment. Are you playing Footloose? Ask them to get up on the dance floor. Tell them the next song is from a movie that they know well. Are you playing 867-5309? Tell them that the next song they are about to hear banned a phone number across America until the end of time. Make them think, wonder, and get giddy as they solve your simple little quizzes.
One of my all-time favorite frontmen is Joe Elliott of Def Leppard. He’s a great guy, and it shows in his stage presence. He’s fun and very likable. Like Hulk Hogan holding his hand up to his ear (a gesture he borrowed from his pal, Paul Orndorff), Elliott will say, “Are you guys ready?” This one simple phrase can cause an eruption. Sometimes not. Does that phase Joe? No. He’ll ask again… louder. The following response will be, inevitably, stronger than the initial reaction.
Don’t try too hard. No one likes a show-off, and in many cases, you’ll either come off like a pompous jerk or a downright silly lunatic. There’s no need to overdo anything. If you’re playing to a quaint house of 80 people in a large bar, don’t crawl on your back. No one thinks you’re funny; you look rather silly. Save that for the big stages. If you desire a little spotlight, just wait for that moment in the song that suits what you’re playing and maybe just subtly resting your foot on a floor monitor. Let’s say you’re wireless tonight. During the show, you’ve spotted a table of people who are having a great time. They are smiling, they have been attentively watching the band, but they aren’t leaving their table. Casually walk over and play near them. Maybe put your foot up on an empty chair, perhaps not. Eye contact. See if they are happy about you being there, first. Before you leave, distribute a few handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, or even just a friendly smile. Let them know you’re thankful for them and return to the stage.
You’re not off duty yet. Go ahead, refill your beverage, stop at the bathroom, etc. Break time is also an important marketing and P.R. time for the band. Walk around if you’d like, or if the place is packed stay near the stage, that’s fine, too. The important thing is to make sure you mingle! Ask people how they are, if they are having fun, etc. Ask someone their name. They aren’t a stranger; they are your fan (for at least one night, anyway!) Many people will ask if you take song requests. Of course, you do… if you know the song. It’s not likely that your band will know every song that’s sought by the fans. Be prepared to let down the fan gently. Don’t reply, “Naaaaah!” Whether you like the song, hate the song, it doesn’t matter. If you honestly cannot play the song for them, just tell them politely, “I love that song” or, “that’s a great song” and follow it up with, “Unfortunately we don’t know that one, I’m sorry.” Sometimes you’ll get requests right in the middle of your set! You’re between songs, and someone has been begging you to play that old song that you sort of know, but don’t know. It’s fun sometimes to treat them to a small snippet of the song and then interrupt with a well-planned, “I’m sorry, we don’t play that song. I hope you enjoyed that much, though!” Suppose they request a song by an artist that you do cover, but you don’t cover THAT song. Let them know! “I’m sorry, we don’t do that song… but you know what? We do play this one.” They will be happy.
NEVER SHARE YOUR SET LIST SHEETS!
These are not posters or menus to be passed around. Time and again I’ve seen band members hand a sheet outright to someone who asks, “What kind of music do you play?” None of your business which songs, buddy. Stick around and find out! (Don’t tell them that, of course.) Tell them which genres, maybe a few bands and artists that you cover. Don’t tell them specific songs unless it’s one they prompted with a request. Leave a little surprise in the show for them. If they view your whole list and decide they don’t like something, even one song can turn a judgmental fan off enough to make them leave before you even get started! Hide that list unless show time. During your break, hide it again!
THE SHOW IS OVER!
Thank everyone. Your singer should thank everyone for coming, and give special thanks to the venue. They were kind enough to hire you as entertainment for the evening. You appreciate it. Let them know. If the venue hasn’t vacated everyone out the door as soon as you’ve done playing, then repeat what you did during the break and personally speak to people. Thank them individually. Take every compliment and give thanks. Keep them liking you and wanting to see you again.
TIME TO PACK UP ALL OF THAT GEAR!
Well, now the night is over. Feel free to work a little more haphazardly and pay no mind to be a bit loud. The night is over. Everyone is happy. Be sure to break down in a timely fashion, however. There’s nothing worse than keeping all of the employees waiting to lock up to place! That’s as bad as starting your first set late! These folks have been working all night, too. They finished cleaning the whole place up – sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, doing dishes, etc. Some of them had to pick up some broken glass and clean up some unsightly messes. Don’t make them wait for YOU now! They want to go home. Pack up quickly. Also, pack up in an organized fashion. Sure, you’re in a rush, but don’t throw your wires and such in a bag and run. You could do that if you don’t mind reorganizing them when you are home. However, it’s a big time saver if you just pack them neatly, so they are ready to go for the next show.
Thank you for reading, this has been a long entry (about 5000+ words, I’m seeing) but that wordy little guy in my head is telling me even if I have forgotten something (which MIGHT be possible) I think I’m done for now. Any questions?
Check out the Guitar Tips category for much more