Cover bands can be a lucrative side gig for musicians today. Many corporate events, weddings, or private parties book them for a flat rate, i.e., no door percentage, nothing contingent on merch or drink sales, which equals more take-home pay in most cases.
Like any musical venture, though, there are many things to consider before committing to a cover band; use this list to think it through.
1. Decide what you want to cover
If you’ve ever seen any type of cover band, you know there’s a range of methods to the madness. At the most basic level, you need to decide if your band will cover a specific band/artist, a genre, or a time period. Before making your final decision, do some research on your area, and see what’s already out there. If you want to start a Guns N’ Roses tribute act, but there’s already one that’s prominent in your local scene, maybe rethink your idea.
2. Figure out how far you want to take it
In some cases, the music is the easiest thing to figure out when starting a cover band. After that, think about everything that goes along with your live show, particularly if you’re tributing a specific band or period of music: costumes, hair, matching instruments, and gear, etc. Take into account not only the likelihood of pulling it all together but also how much it’ll cost. Particularly if you’re a ‘60s cover band, say, acquiring vintage guitars and amps that aren’t cheap.
On the other hand, sometimes the investment is worth it. If there is another band in your area, your authentic look and sound could set you apart. Growing up, I cut my musical chops working for a Beatles tribute band, and what separated the greats was their attention to suits and how well they replicated the Beatles’ style, sound, and stage act (bowing together, making sure “Paul” was left-handed, etc.). If you know you could assemble a more elevated form of a local cover band, go for it. You’ll likely make up your initial costs in bookings (and may even be able to charge more).
3. Build the perfect set list
Cover bands have to be able to walk the line between playing to everyone and surprising those who are tired of the same old cover songs. Certainly, you want to include tracks that will get everyone out of their seats and singing along, but feel free to toss in some favorite deep tracks; you may introduce listeners to tunes they’ve never heard before.
At weddings, sometimes couples will have a list of songs that must be played, and these will probably include the usual suspects: line dances, lovey-dovey ballads, regional favorites. Make sure you’re prepared to pull these out of your hat by creating special playlists just for weddings. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to assemble playlists for a few different performing scenarios: street fairs, private birthday parties, opening acts, and more.
4. Learn the music to near perfection
The only places people like to listen to bad covers is on YouTube – so they can chuckle at them. When you start a cover band, you need to learn the songs you’re playing front to back, side to side. If even a note sounds out of place, trust me, people will notice. That’s the downside of playing songs your audience has heard hundreds of times: they know what to expect and can immediately tell if something is amiss. Don’t take a gig until you feel confident in your abilities to recreate the music you’re playing.
5. Pull together promotional materials
Of course, no matter what type of cover band you’re starting, you’ll need some type of promotional materials. You’re probably already familiar with these as an artist: an EPK, sound bites, photos, press clips, etc. But when you’re dedicating your cover band to a particular decade or especially to a certain act, you need to provide high-quality photos, videos, and song snippets (if available). Like it or not, you’ll be judged on your look against the originals, so be prepared.
6. Book your first gig!
The most important thing to keep in mind when booking your cover band’s first show is that, no matter what level you’re at as an artist, you’re back to square one with a new band. Trying shooting low to start with; think about the places you played when you were still green. Also, try to work the connections you’ve made along with way in your own career. Even if those promoters and bookers aren’t interested in hiring your cover band, they probably know venues and people who are.
Sure, cover bands aren’t the most creatively stimulating operations, but you could find them fulfilling in many other ways. If you’re playing music you love, it’ll be a nice break from creating and sharing your own songs. You might also discover a whole other community out there who, after getting to know you through your cover band, wants to hear your solo stuff, which could lead to bigger audiences at your own gigs. As with anything, cover bands become what you put into them, so give it a shot, and, most of all, have fun!
Allison Johnelle Boron is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Goldmine magazine, Paste, and more. She is the founder of REBEAT, a “blogazine” focused on mid-century music, culture, and lifestyle.