Last updated on August 24th, 2022
There’s a timeless conundrum that aspiring musicians have always faced as they’ve scaled the harrowing slopes of uncertain success: “should you or should you not join a cover band?” For some people, playing cover music is lucrative and fun. Others see it as nothing more than selling out. By and large, it’s better to avoid empirical statements about things in the music industry until you know for certain whether or not they’re something you should consider. Joining a cover band is one of those things.
As you find musicians on Muze, you’re going to encounter many musicians who have lavish visions for their futures and who will probably be ready to start writing fresh material with you as soon as possible (assuming the mutual creative chemistry is there). But there will also be people out there who are well versed at playing other artists’ music. It begs the question of whether you should consider being one of those people or not.
Okay, so let’s boil it down to basics. A cover band is a conglomeration of musicians who define their band by playing renditions of other artists’ music before a decent sized crowd. When I first moved to Nashville, I hopped on the Broadway circuit as soon as I could, and I was grateful for the gigs. I can tell you first hand that playing before a packed honky-tonk in Music City while making a pretty penny in the process is a little slice of the music dream come true. Really, I loved it.
Having said that, there was a rule of thumb that circulated amongst those who frequented the stages downtown: don’t get too comfortable. Cover gigs are fun, and you can pay your rent if you play enough of them, but bear in mind that it’s going to take some more entrepreneurial energy independent of the cover band circuit if you want to garner success with your original material.
Still, there’s a place for it. For this piece, I spoke to my good friend, Spencer Woodley (if that name sounds familiar, it’s because I interviewed him for the “How Often Should You Practice?” piece some time ago). Spencer tours across the country as a guitarist for various up and coming country/pop artists, but while he’s here in Nashville, he’s a Broadway warrior who commands honky-tonk stages as the lead guitarist for a number of cover bands. I asked him to weigh in on making the decision to “go cover band” with his own first-hand expertise.
How do you maintain independence in a cover band?
“Independence in a cover band is a funny thing. Most people think it means selling out, which isn’t completely wrong. But is going to music school selling out? What about taking lessons? My musical aspirations are to learn songs written by the greats and find out what makes them tick; which is exactly what a good cover band does when the players learn the tunes correctly and perform them accurately.”
That really is an interesting way to frame it. Shouldn’t you consider doing a little bit of reconnaissance into the work of the most successful bands of all time if you want to follow in their massive footsteps? Before you attach the damning label of “sell out” or “corporate hack” to a certain person or project, gnaw on some advice from those who are on the other side of the aisle as you. You might just find out that you’re actually both in the same aisle.
Do you make a decent living playing cover music?
“Cover bands can run the gamut between successful business venture or weekend get-togethers for hobbyists. Most responses you get from this are, varied but I do make a full-time wage playing in several cover bands.”
Again, this is something I can indeed confirm. True, Nashville’s downtown music scene is more animated and alive than most places, so the money is most always good. All the same, I’ve performed in cover bands back in Michigan and made just as much. It’s all about where you’re playing and who you’re playing with/for.
How do you know which songs to cover?
“Which songs we pick to cover depends on the venue, the crowd, and the band. If a venue wants country but the crowd wants rock, we’ll perform classic country songs with a rock feel and vice versa. This may sound contradictory to my last response but you need to be flexible in this game if you’re going to eat.”
Spencer is one guy who knows more songs off the top of his head than most anyone else I know, and it’s massively impressive. He’s like a jukebox with a pulse. I still play the occasional cover gig from time to time myself, and my way of keeping track of the new songs I learn is to list them out on my iPad so I can collect them as I go.
What are the pros and cons?
“Pros: hundred dollar bills y’all. I can pay off my student loan debt while practicing my guitar for hours a day.
Cons: Some find it soul-sucking and want to express themselves without the confines of the current song that’s requested. That’s valid and I have no opposition. But for those of us that choose to stay in the game, we make it work by being flexible and HAVING FUN.”
Did you catch that? Have fun. ALWAYS remember to have fun, no matter what you’re doing. Otherwise, what’s the point?
To sum it up: joining a cover band is sensible and pragmatic both in a financial sense and in regards to honing your craft. Having said that, it’s important not to get too engaged in cover gigs and the lifestyle that can accompany them. You can easily get caught up in the partying (people are constantly offering to buy you drinks) and element of earning money. If that’s what you want, great. However, if you’re looking to do something bigger, keep those cover gigs compartmentalized as a different part of your musical journey – one that can fund your more autonomous projects and aspirations in original material.