The Problem with Cover Bands

Recently, I've had private conversations and discussions regarding the issue(s) with cover bands. Everyone enjoys hearing & singing Hold On Loosely when it gets played, dancing and smiling away. It seems the entertainment factor of cover bands makes the issue as a whole generally get swept under the rug. This doesn't include the personal nature of the subject matter either because we all as musicians know other musicians whose intent is to play in a band and make a buck doing it. But delving down into the true nature of the argument seems to always result in two opposing forces standing at the end: Originals vs. Covers.

Traditional school of thought presents the opposing forces to definition in simplistic terms. An 'original' song is simply like a cover song, a composition but something also that hasn't received any notification of any sort at the time of it's arrangement and performance. Cover songs simply refer to popular music that has been published, received notification by way of air play and album sales; that are of public domain and knowledge. Often various stances have been taken on original vs. cover matter. Original artists that only play songs they write usually refer to cover song musicians as “Weekend Warriors.” The term is used in a derogatory sense as to assume the only matter in mind of the musicians playing covers is financially-driven. Even Wikipedia describes in the last sentence of their cover band definition as being a financially-driven matter... “The music industry is considered by many musicians as a relatively difficult industry to make an income in, and cover bands can be a good source of income for professional musicians alongside other work.”

But notice the last three words alongside other work. Is it a requirement to “justify” the income from playing in a cover band that you are working on other things at the same time? Does only being a cover musician make one 'not eligible' for the pass-key at an income? And the good source of income was for 'professional musicians' not fly-by-night, unrehearsed part-time musicians that call themselves professionals. However, the first THREE Rolling Stones' albums were made up of nothing but cover songs. Not until their fourth album did they introduce original material, which their body of original work incidentally is now considered 'cover tunes' due to the popularity of their originals over several decades of recording and performing. Would we have called the Stones a fly-by-night, unrehearsed group of part timers? Where is the line drawn? What actual definition is suiting to both camps to attempt to make a case for or against the argument that all parties can agree upon?

Let's go ahead and look a little deeper into the financial side of the industry on a smaller level. We all know the huge contracts that bands have received in the past and gone from our local markets to huge national successes. We've had a number of artists from our very own Tulsa, OK market that have gone on and enjoyed considerable national prominence. But for most of us smaller fish in the big pond, you're given literally 3 choices at the most to make any money playing music.

First, we have the original artists. The fraternity of the band of brothers and sisters that write their material, compose it and struggle to find the money to record it. They design and make their own merchandise. They fund 100% of their efforts to get their name out there in the local market. An unholy number of these efforts generally fail and never glean any national prominence, never get to sign the big contract or go on tour. All of those aspirations replaced by marriage and children and mortgages, or worse addiction, incarceration and the like. These original bands when they do play are often the victims, no matter the location of their market, to crooked venue and bar owners and promoters resulting all too often in playing for free or very limited money. The $50 a night split between 4 or 5 people in a band can get very old and become discouraging to the participants. Not that their isn't any light at the end of the tunnel for these artists; many, many national acts started in this very position only to acknowledge perseverance and determination as factors for their success. But those are the lucky ones. And the fact is the majority of us are not that lucky, life just gets in the way. However, back to the point... these original bands don't make much money. If they do, it's because they have graduated to the next level of income generation in the local music market.

The second being, original cover combination bands. Bands do generally in their beginnings, like the Rolling Stones, hone their already God-given talent on cover material and then introduce their original material at a later date in their careers, which can make or break a good band. “Songs that no one has ever heard had better make butts move in the seats or you're not getting outta there alive,” I once heard a musician say. Sometimes the opposite can occur as well. Bands that started out playing original music eventually transformed their set lists into cover material strictly to maintain a steady income in the local market. Either way, this income level can glean as much as $300-$500 per performance, depending on the length of set lists. The band itself can make a proper pay for playing a gig, significant to the part-time or minimum wage earning lower-middle class American and a very welcomed additional income for those middle-class parenting musicians as the price of living continues to increase for the basic of needs like utilities and food.

The upper echelon of musicians as far as the income scale goes are those certain talents that can play a vast 3 and 4 hour filled set list of great cover songs, sometimes mimicking the very band they are covering, to the great enjoyment of bar patrons and event participants. Their payouts in gigs can range from $1000 to $5000 per performance, depending on the venue. For the little fish in the pond it seems like an extremely filthy payout for playing other people's material as one struggles to write good material that other people appreciate and want to listen to. But for most musicians, it's a head turning notion to walk away with that much money at the end of a show. So much so that some cover musicians flaunt their band's income in the face of others like a badge of honor. And an honor it is to be able to actually make a living playing music and not having to work. This seems it would be every musician's dream. But it actually isn't. A lot of cover only musicians do not “get” the line of thinking from an original artist, passing up an income for the 'love of the music.' But the fact remains that there are those musicians that are able to make this type of living, despite their talent levels. And a desirable income it is.

We've examined the income levels of local musicians. But yet to determine any line in the sand or balance among the income levels. So, let's get to the core of the issue in my opinion. Cover songs were at one point original compositions. For years the music industry has struggled to police the misuse of original music for the financial benefit of others. Court cases regarding riff duplication and theft in the 70's. Sampling in the 80's and 90's. The onslaught of the internet starting with rise and fall of Napster. ASCAP, BMI and the like are organizations solely centered around the protection of artist's copyrights and rights of publication. Now we are at a point where any individual can produce and monetize a YouTube video of themselves playing a cover tune and make money doing it until the owner(s) of the composition are notified and financial compensation sought. We have bands that play word-for-word, mirror images of popular artists' material only to defend their actions by saying that they are playing a 'tribute' to that particular band and receive no financial compensation other than being payed to play gigs. Often, these bands are not performing alongside other work and the use of popular material is their sole source. We also have bands that don't necessarily emulate the artist themselves but still play their material, maybe change it a little and still gain enormous sums from sets. Still, no matter, the fact remains that these bands are deriving their literal incomes from playing other people's material and OFTEN without permission. Music company executives can't have representatives at every show in every city across the nation looking for the misuse of other artist's material. Fact is, this will NEVER change. Someone, somewhere is always going to find a way to make money from playing other artist's compositions.

The exploration of this article is not to jail those that break these rules. Yet, the purpose is shine light and start a discussion among artists and musicians in local communities to take a step back and examine their current situations. To give good cause and reason for a discussion to be had to see what can be done to remedy the vast difference of income levels for bands. The gap is beginning to become so wide that it is mirroring the income gap of Americans lower/middle-class vs. the rich. The majority vs. the few. A situation that has led to revolution in many, many countries over thousands of years.

Are we due a revolution coming in the music industry? Because like all revolutions, the revolt begins on a grass-roots level in local music communities across the nation. At one point, these local revolts will be banded together in a common, defined cause. And when that happens, a voice will be given to the movement. Until then, things will remain the same as they are. So book your $50, $500 or $5000 gig and be thankful you can play music, for now.

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